Voting Block: GOP's successful bid for seniors to oppose Medicare reform.

Fins for the Win: Finland has remarkably low health care costs, but great care quality.

Second Wind: Murkowski's campaign gets a last-minute surge from energy companies.

Outside Parties: European oil and gas companies are funding US anti-climate legislators.

Sick in Haiti: A cholera outbreak in Haiti has killed hundreds.


An idiosyncratic sampling of the latest science papers. Forthwith: The tiny foodwebs between ants, plants, and fungi; How smoking shrinks brains; How conservation saved 20 percent of threatened vertebrate species. Plus a bonus image from space of this week's monster extratropical storm.

  • German reasearchers have found that a specific region of the cerebral cortex of active smokers is thinner than in lifelong nonsmokers. They used brain MRI images to measure the thickness of the orbitofrontal cortex in both groups and found signigicant thinning in smokers, the exact amount related to their daily cigarette consumption and to the duration of their smoking habit. They'll be conducting further research on the brains of ex-smokers. The human orbitofrontal cortex is poorly understood, but seems to be involved in decision-making and expectation associated with reward and punishment. The paper: S. Kühn, F. Schubert, J. Gallinat. Reduced thickness in medial orbitofrontal cortex in smokers. Biological Psychiatry. DOI:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.08.004.

Approximate location of the OFC shown on a sagittal MRI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Approximate location of the OFC shown on a sagittal MRI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • A new paper in Science finds that 20 percent of vertebrates reviewed on the IUCN Red List are now considered threatened or worse, and that an average of 52 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians move one category closer to extinction each year. Lead author Michael Hoffman says the alarming findings should not obscure the benefits of conservation action, without which, species losses would now be 20 percent higher. "Nonetheless," write the authors, "current conservation efforts remain insufficient to offset the main drivers of biodiversity loss in these groups: agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation, and invasive alien species." The paper: M. Hoffmann, et al. The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World’s Vertebrates. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1194442.

American Bison skull heap. There were as few as 750 bison in 1890 from economic-driven overhunting. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.American Bison skull heap. There were as few as 750 bison in 1890, the survivors of overhunting. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • Some plants provide symbiotic ants with food and a specialized nesting cavity, known as a domatium. In many of these  ant–plant symbioses a fungal patch also grows within each domatium. Experimental research from France and Cameroon shows just how deeply involved the three species (plant, ant, fungus) really are. The researchers provided carbon and nitrogen to the arborial African ants and tracked the nutrient distribution between plant, ant, and fungus over the course of nearly two years, uncovering a surprisingly complex micro-foodweb. From the abstract:

The symbiotic nature of the fungal association has been shown in the ant-plant Leonardoxa africana and its protective mutualist ant Petalomyrmex phylax. To decipher trophic fluxes among the three partners, food enriched in 13C and 15N was given to the ants and tracked in the different parts of the symbiosis up to 660 days later. The plant received a small, but significant, amount of nitrogen from the ants. However, the ants fed more intensively the fungus. The pattern of isotope enrichment in the system indicated an ant behaviour that functions specifically to feed the fungus. After 660 days, the introduced nitrogen was still present in the system and homogeneously distributed among ant, plant and fungal compartments, indicating efficient recycling within the symbiosis. Another experiment showed that the plant surface absorbed nutrients (in the form of simple molecules) whether or not it is coated by fungus. Our study provides arguments for a mutualistic status of the fungal associate and a framework for investigating the previously unsuspected complexity of food webs in ant–plant mutualisms.

Head view of ant Petalomyrmex phylax. Credit:, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Head view of ant Petalomyrmex phylax. Credit:, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • The monster storm that fouled many a travel plan this week (including mine), possessed unusually strong winds, rain, hail, and widespread tornadoes. It set a record for the lowest pressure not associated with a hurricane measured over land in the continental US. At 5:13 p.m. CDT, the weather station in Bigfork, Minnesota recorded 955.2 millibars (28.21 inches of pressure)a low pressure corresponding to a Category 3 hurricane. Thanks to the Earth Observatory.

Strong extratropical cyclone over the US Midwest, 26-27 October 2010. NASA Earth Observatory imagery created by Jesse Allen, imagery provided courtesy of the NASA GOES Project Science Office.Strong extratropical cyclone over the US Midwest, 26-27 October 2010. NASA Earth Observatory imagery created by Jesse Allen, imagery provided courtesy of the NASA GOES Project Science Office.

Halliburton, the oil field services giant that provided the cement for BP's Macondo well, knew months before the explosion and spill that the cement mixture used on the well was not stable, according to new findings the National Oil Spill Commission released Thursday. Despite multiple failed tests on the mixture, Halliburton and BP used the cement on the well.

In the months since the spill, it's become clear that something went wrong with the cement job on the Macondo well, which should have prevented oil and gas from entering the well and causing the April 20 explosion. BP used a nitrogen foam cement that Halliburton recommended and supplied on the well. In a letter to the commission, the panel's lead investigator, Fred H. Bartlit Jr., cites documents obtained from Halliburton and tests conducted by cement experts at Chevron that suggest that there were plenty of warnings about this cement mixture before the explosion.

The documents from Halliburton show that the company conducted two tests on the cement mixture in February 2010, and both indicated that it was not stable. The company provided the results of one of those two tests to BP in March, but Bartlit states that "There is no indication that Halliburton highlighted to BP the significance of the foam stability data or that BP personnel raised any questions about it."

It appears that a third test conducted on April 13, seven days before the explosion, again demonstrated that the mix was unstable, but Halliburton did not provide that data to BP. Only a fourth test, performed after Halliburton's lab modified the testing procedure, produced results that found the mixture to be stable—but that data was not available until after the explosion, which indicates that the mixture was used with no lab results that suggested it would be stable.

Further, the letter includes data from testing that Chevron conducted on a indentical mixture for the spill commission, released on October 26, which also found that the slurry was not stable:

Chevron’s report states, among other things, that its lab personnel were unable to generate stable foam cement in the laboratory using the materials provided by Halliburton and available design information regarding the slurry used at the Macondo well. Although laboratory foam stability tests cannot replicate field conditions perfectly, these data strongly suggest that the foam cement used at Macondo was unstable. This may have contributed to the blowout.

The report concludes that while there are tests designed to ensure that a cement job is stable and methods to remedy it if they are found to be faulty, "BP and/or Transocean personnel misinterpreted or chose not to conduct such tests at the Macondo well."

Last Saturday, an engineering malfunction at F. E. Warren Air Force base in Wyoming caused 50 US intercontinental ballistic missiles to go offline for 45 minutes. The ICBMs—one ninth of the US nuclear arsenal—were temporarily disconnected from the launch control centers at the base. Officials were quick to point out that it would still have been possible to launch the ICBMs from a command plane in a high alert scenario. But even if the reality of the failure wasn't that bad, it's implications for US nuclear policy might be.

Currently awaiting the Senate's consent is the new START treaty, which would reduce US and Russian nuclear arsenals by 30 percent. Signed by Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev last April, the treaty has received widespread backing: "The support for new START by our entire military leadership, our intelligence community, six former secretaries of state, five former secretaries of defense, three former national security advisers, and seven former commanders of U.S. Strategic Command is an extraordinary endorsement of why this treaty needs to be passed," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters earlier this month. Ratifying the treaty would be a significant step toward nuclear disarmament. But a central argument for the new START treaty has been that because US nuclear stockpiles and launch systems are so well-maintained and reliable, the country could still pursue an effective deterrence strategy with fewer weapons. The mishap at Warren, along with several others in recent history, undermines this assumption.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on World News with Diane Sawyer Wednesday night, talking about the ballot initiative that could thwart his state's landmark climate law. He also had some pointed words for the politicians in Washington who have shown "no guts" when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the federal level. I wish he'd just come out and called them "girly men," but he was pretty direct:

We need to go to Washington and say, "Look what happened. You, because oil companies have spent money against you, they have threatened you, you backed off the energy policy and the environmental policy in Washington."
What wimps. No guts. I mean, here, you idolize and always celebrate the great warriors. Our soldiers, our men and women who go to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’re risking their lives to defend this country and you’re not even willing to stand up against the oil companies. I said, that’s disgusting. You promised the people you’d represent them. You didn’t promise the people you’d represent the oil companies and the special interests.

Here's the video:

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Twelve leading scientists, including the former head of Kew Gardens and the biodiversity adviser to the president of the World Bank, have written an open letter accusing two international think tanks of "distortions, misrepresentations, or misinterpretations of fact" in their analysis and writings about rainforests and logging.

The unprecedented attack on the tactics and objectivity of the two groups who claim to be independent is contained in an open letter sent to the Guardian. It accuses the Washington-based World Growth International (WGI) and Melbourne-based International Trade Strategies Global (ITS) of having close associations with politically conservative US think tanks and advancing "biased or distorted arguments" on palm oil plantations and logging.

The scientists claim that ITS Global is "closely allied with" and "frequently funded by" multinational logging, wood pulp, and palm oil corporations and lobbies for one of the world's largest industrial logging corporations, which has has been repeatedly criticized for its environmental and human rights records.

One thing BP's oil spill laid bare both how little data the government has on dispersants, which were used in unprecedented volumes in the Gulf, how poorly regulated these chemicals are. Since the disaster, several bills have been floated to tighten rules on the use of the chemicals, and the Environmental Protection Agency has signaled that it plans to take a closer look at how dispersants would be used in future spills. It's probably little surprise, then, that the company that manufactured BP's brand of choice, Corexit, has been beefing up its lobbying presence in Washington.

Nalco, the Illinois-based chemical company that produces Corexit, spent $90,000 on federal lobbying in the third quarter of 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, bring its 2010 total so far up to $350,000. That brings the company's total since the BP spill to $290,000—far more than the company has spent in the past decade. Nalco's 2009 lobbying tab was just $90,000. The company spent no money on lobbying in 2008.

Of course, there's more attention being paid this year to the dispersant products Nalco sells. A draft report from the National Oil Spill Commission found that the government's lack of planning for dispersant use "handicapped" the response effort. I recently wrote about the much-needed overhaul of chemical policy, and both EPA and Congress have signaled that policy changes are coming. There have been multiple lawsuits over dispersants, most recently one from shrimpers and environmental groups calling for the EPA to stop further use of the chemicals until evaluation is completed.

The government's lax oversight of dispersants facilitated BP's unprecedented use of the chemicals in the Gulf. Over the course of the spill, 1.84 million gallons of Corexit was sprayed on the surface and injected at the spill site—despite the fact that the short—and long-term effects of the chemicals are poorly understood.

A few months back, I blogged about a pro-life group's weird environmental campaign. The American Life League basically said women should feel guilty about taking birth control because it ends up in rivers and "is making male fish, frogs and river otters less masculine."

Turns out that campaign is not only annoying, it's also based on faulty information. A new study from UC-San Francisco found that only a very small fraction of estrogen in waterways comes from oral contraceptives. Other sources include landfills, non-contraceptive pharmaceuticals, soymilk and biodiesel factories, but quite a bit comes from big farms. From Chemical & Engineering News:

The UC San Francisco researchers also found that runoff from large animal farms could contribute to waterway contamination, in part because – unlike household waste – livestock effluents are untreated. A study conducted in the United Kingdom estimated that even if only 1% of the estrogens produced by farm animals reached waterways, they would make up 15% of the estrogens in the water. The data suggest that animal farm runoff should be treated before being released into the environment, Wise says.

And considering the heavy antibiotic use on most factory farms, I'm guessing estrogen isn't the only thing going from farms into waterways.

President Barack Obama will make a visit to Charlottesville, Va. on Friday to rally for Tom Perriello, the vulnerable freshman Democrat who has championed a number of White House causes in the past two years (see David Corn's recent profile of him). House races don't usually draw this much attention. Nor do they draw as much spending as Perriello's has—outside groups have already poured $4 million into the race.

Environmental groups have been among the biggest spenders for Perriello, whose unabashed support of the House climate and energy bill last year won him quite a bit of cred in green circles. The Sierra Club has spent $450,000 on the race, while the League of Conservation Voters has spent another $525,000 on TV and radio ads, phones calls, mailers and canvassing. Some of the ads talk up Perriello, while others bash his Republican opponent, state Sen. Robert Hurt.

Two environmental groups have also been among his top five contributors—LCV has directed $32,522 to his campaign committee, while Environmental Defense Fund has given him another $13,955. But those direct contributions are tiny compared to the independent expenditures in this race.

Recent polls show Perriello cutting into Hurt's early lead, with the Republican now averaging a four-point advantage.

Here's the latest ad from Sierra Club, which began running on Tuesday:

Once upon a time, Google was a simple white web page with a little search bar.

Now, the company has its own Google Price Index, Google Television, a Google phone — even a "driverless" Google car.

So what's next for the search giant? Apparently, green energy.

Google announced last week that it was investing at least $200 million in an unprecedented plan to build a transmission network for wind energy across the Atlantic Seabord. Called the Atlantic Wind Connection, the 350-mile spine would allow off-shore wind farms in the waters off Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey to power as many as 2 million homes, once the project gets off the ground in 2016.

As a company, Google has drawn its fair share of criticism, from privacy advocates for example. But the wind farm project seems to have achieved a surprising amount of consensus. Both the Republican governors of New Jersey and Virginia are for it, as is the Obama administration.

To learn more about the plan, Need to Know's Alison Stewart spoke with Rick Needham, the director of green business operations for Google and a former nuclear submarine officer. According to Needham, Google's investment not only makes good sense, it makes good business as well.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.