Blue Marble - November 2010

Science Shots: Snake Oil, Corn Oil, Partying Elk

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 7:16 PM EST

An idiosyncratic sampling of the latest science papers: Oil and corn don't mix (at least for the Gulf of Mexico); How snakes climb ropes (and why they climb ropes); Energy not housing crashed the economy. Plus a bonus video of elk partying in Yellowstone.

  • One hundrd seventy million gallons of oil was bad for the Gulf of Mexico. But so are biofuels. A new study by the USGS finds that converting fields from cotton to corn increased the nitrogen load in parts of the Gulf watershed by 7 percent, adding to the Gulf's seasonal hypoxia woes. The problem stems from the USDA Biofuels Initiative, which promotes corn over cotton and has reduced cotton acreage by 47 percent, while increasing corn acreage by 288 percent, between 2006 to 2007. Furthermore, cultivated corn uses 80 percent more water than cotton and is acclerating the depletion of the Mississippi River Valley aquifer, which is currently being drawn down faster than rain can replenish it.

 

Credit: Pratheepps, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Pratheepps, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology reveals the secrets of rope climbing by snakes. The researchers enticed the snakes to climb by placing a dark refuge at the top, then filmed the ascents, while measuring the rope tension as the animals coiled and uncoiled their grip on thin (3 millimeter/0.11 inch) and thick (6 millimter/0.23 inch) rope. All ascents were extremely slow, ranging from 0.5 to 1 cm s–1, and the snakes only reached their top speeds on the thickest, tensest ropes. Check out the video:
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  • Declining energy quality could be root cause of the current recession, according to a new paper in Environmental Research Letters. Yes, the real estate bubble burst, but that's because everyone paid more for electricity, gasoline, and heating oil, leaving less  for mortgages. The paper outlines a new way to measure energy quality—the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR), which calculates how much profit is obtained by energy consumers relative to energy producers. The higher the EIR, the more economic value consumers get from their energy. Analysis of past recessions showed the longest and deepest downturns since World War II were preceded by sustained declines in EIR for all fossil fuels. The author suggests that to grow the economy again, Americans need to produce and use energy more efficiently—as happened after the last energy crisis, when fuel efficiency standards were raised, more natural gas was used for electricity, and new technologies coaxed more oil from the ground.

 

The worst recessions of the last 65 years were preceded by declines in energy quality for oil, natural gas and coal. Energy quality is plotted using the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR) for each fuel. Recessions are indicated by gray bars.The worst recessions of the last 65 years were preceded by declines in energy quality for oil, natural gas and coal. Energy quality is plotted using the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR) for each fuel. Recessions are indicated by gray bars.

 

 

 

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Where to Start on Climate? How About Subsidies for Dirty Energy

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 6:08 PM EST

The agreement reached in Copenhagen last December left much unsettled. It established a target of keeping global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), but it left the specific goals and actions they would take to meet those goals up to individual countries.

Arguably, one of the most specific points of agreement among nations last year was that they would phase out fossil fuel subsidies, a deal reached by G20 nations ahead of last year's UN climate summit. Countries agreed to "rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption." But now, more than a year later, countries have done very little to make good on that promise.

Oil Change International, a group that encourages policies to cut reliance on oil and other fossil fuels, and Earth Track, a group that focuses on environmentally harmful subsides, recently took stock of the efforts taken so far to meet that commitment. Their conclusion: "No country has initiated a subsidy reform specifically in response to the G20." Half of the G20 countries have reported efforts to cut some subsidies, but everything they've put forward was already in the works before last year's G20 agreement.

There hasn't even been very much progress on identifying and disclosing those subsidies. Most members of the G20 have been reluctant to offer up subsidies they are willing to cut. The report states:

G20 reporting of fossil fuel subsidies remains spotty. Of the 20 member countries, eight stated that they have no fossil-fuel subsidies at all subject to phase out, of which two (United Kingdom and Japan) provided no information at all. Only one of the twelve countries (the United States) reported more than ten subsidies subject to reform. Three countries discussed energy subsidies in a general sense without listing any specific subsidy policies (Indonesia, Russia, and Mexico).

The report notes that countries have been reticent to list subsidies that could be eliminated, as leaders believe the subsidies support job creation or rural development, or don't artificially deflate the prices enough so as to matter. The report also points out that there are a number of problems with the fossil fuel agreement that G20 leaders outlined. For one, there's been no agreement on what they mean by phasing them out in the "medium term." Nor do they define the terms "subsidy," "inefficient subsidy," or "wasteful consumption"–each country has basically been allowed to make its own definition so far.

The subsidies are pertinent to the climate negotiations underway in Cancun right now. If the Copenhagen Accord pledges were fully implemented, the world would be 70 percent of the way to its goal of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees by 2020, according to a report from the International Energy Association released earlier this year. Phasing out those subsides alone could account for almost a 7 percent reduction in emissions by 2020, however.

The IEA report found that 37 countries are responsible for the bulk of these subsides—representing more than 95 percent of subsidized fossil-fuel consumption in the world. In 2008, nations provided $557 billion in subsidies for fossil fuel consumption—up fro $342 billion in 2007. (Iran, which is not one of the G20, leads the world in subsides, at $101 billion.)

Another way to think about it: Phasing out those subsides, the IEA found, could cut global demand for energy by 5.8 percent—equal to the energy used by Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand combined. It would also cut demand for oil by 6.5 million barrels per day by 2020. "Phasing out such subsidies would send a price signal to create incentive for more efficient use," the report concludes.

Yes We Cancun?

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 7:00 AM EST

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting began in Cancun on Monday, providing another chance for world leaders to huddle on solutions to the problems posed by rising global greenhouse gas emissions. This year's Conference of the Parties—or COP, as it's known—is certainly kicking off to much less hype than last year's meeting in Copenhagen, when delegates were expecting a major breakthrough on negotiations. Expectations are much lower this year, but there's hope that progress might yet be possible.

You can check out my run down of what to expect over the next two weeks at Mother Jones HQ. I'll be reporting live from Mexico for the next two weeks, which you can catch on Blue Marble and Twitter. In the meantime, here are some headlines from the first day of the event:

EU warns that U.N. climate talks "risk losing relevance"

Time for compromise, troubled UN climate talks told

US sees progress easing climate rifts with China

Frustrations show as climate talks resume

Cancún climate talks: In search of the holy grail of climate change policy

 

Also, take a look at the massive art project 350.org pulled off on the eve of the Cancun talks. And here's a video of the opening ceremony on Monday.

Seabirds Hopped Up on Summer

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 7:53 PM EST

Streaked shearwater. Photo by Marj Kibby, at Flickr.

Streaked shearwater. Photo by Marj Kibby, at Flickr. 

Shearwaters are long-winged, strong-flying seabirds of the open ocean who come ashore only to breed. The rest of their lives—including the time between fledging and sexual maturity, up to 12 years in some species, maybe more—are spent entirely at sea. They're long-lived birds, with reports of one 55-year-old Manx shearwater still breeding in Ireland as of 2003. The more we learn, the more we see how these oceanic travellers follow vast systems of winds and waves across hemispheres and even oceans.
 
First up, there's an interesting paper out in the current issue of The Auk about a presumed foraging association between streaked shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) and skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis). Foraging associations—as the term implies—are the result of a follower species (the shearwater) commonly following a nuclear species (the tuna) to capture prey flushed in the course of the nuclear's feeding or travels. The deep blue home is full of foraging associations... including the way savvy human fishers follow seabirds to find fish.
 
 
Streaked shearwater at breeding colony on Mikura Island, Japan. Photo by Kanachoro, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Streaked shearwater at breeding colony on Mikura Island, Japan. Photo by Kanachoro, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A little background: Streaked shearwaters make impressive migrations of ≤5,400 kilometers /3,300miles between Northern Hemisphere breeding grounds (Japan, China, and Korea) during the boreal summer and Southern Hemisphere "wintering" grounds (New Guinea, the Philippines, and Australia, plus Vietnam in the north) during the austral summer. Those results are reported in a 2008 paper in Ornithological Science by some of the same members of the shearwater-skipjack team during an earlier phase of study.
 
In their latest investigations, the researchers attached small global location sensors to 48 breeding birds in 2006, 38 of whom returned the following year with their geolocators intact. Their findings, from the abstract:
Most Streaked Shearwaters wintered off northern New Guinea, an area of low primary productivity but high Skipjack Tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) abundance. Streaked Shearwaters flew for longer periods and landed on the water more frequently around dawn and dusk during the wintering period. This pattern of activity is similar to that of subsurface predators such as tuna, and to that of tropical seabirds that are known to feed with subsurface predators. We suggest that Streaked Shearwaters probably forage in association with subsurface predators in the tropical oceans during the wintering period. Foraging in association with subsurface predators and morphological adaptations for gliding may allow Streaked Shearwaters to forage efficiently in both temperate and tropical environments.
 
 

This Blue Planet video shows the dynamics of shearwaters (not sure which species) working schools of mackerel herded up to the surface, initially by dolphins, then by skipjacks.

 

Sooty shearwaters. Photo by Marlin Harms, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Sooty shearwaters. Photo by Marlin Harms, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

(Sooty shearwaters. Photo by marlin harms, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.) In an incredible piece of scientific detective work a few years back, a different team of researchers found that another species, sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus), embarked on remarkable 64,000-kilometer/40,000-mile annual migrations through the entire basin of the Pacific Ocean from Antarctica to the Bering Sea—the longest migration of any animal tracked to that point.

 

 
 
From PNAS.

 

The map shows the geolocation tracks of 19 of their tagged sooty shearwaters at New Zealand breeding colonies (light blue); their migration pathways north (yellow); and their wintering grounds and southward transits (orange). Figures bd represent the figure-eight movement patterns of individual shearwaters travelling to one of three "winter" destinations in the North Pacific. The authors suggest the figure-eight  pattern is facilitated by prevailing wind patterns and by the Coriolis effect—which influence the long-range trajectories of the birds as they rocket between hemispheres at rates of up to 910 kilometers/565 miles a day, and as they chase the waves of summer from one hemisphere to the other.

 

Credit: NASA/Seasat.Credit: NASA/SeasatYou can correlate something of the travels of the sooty shearwaters to this map of prevailing winds over the Pacific. The 2006 sooty shearwater paper appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From the abstract:

Electronic tracking tags have revolutionized our understanding of broad-scale movements and habitat use of highly mobile marine animals, but a large gap in our knowledge still remains for a wide range of small species. Here, we report the extraordinary transequatorial postbreeding migrations of a small seabird, the sooty shearwater, obtained with miniature archival tags that log data for estimating position, dive depth, and ambient temperature. Tracks (262 ± 23 days) reveal that shearwaters fly across the entire Pacific Ocean in a figure-eight pattern while traveling 64,037 ± 9,779 km roundtrip, the longest animal migration ever recorded electronically. Each shearwater made a prolonged stopover in one of three discrete regions off Japan, Alaska, or California before returning to New Zealand through a relatively narrow corridor in the central Pacific Ocean. Transit rates as high as 910 ± 186 km·day−1 were recorded, and shearwaters accessed prey resources in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere’s most productive waters from the surface to 68.2 m depth.

But now the flying record of the sooty shearwaters been topped by a diminutive seabird, the Arctic tern, who not only crosses hemispheres but ocean basins as well. The February paper in PNAS for the first time revealed complete migrations for individual Arctic terns of more than 80,000 kilometers/48,000 miles a year.

 Arctic tern. Photo by Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Arctic tern. Photo by Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Such globe-trotting transits keep these butterflies-of-the-sea hopped up on the endless summers of the high-latitudes. They barely know night.

The papers:

  • Takashi Yamamoto, et al. At-Sea Distribution and Behavior of Streaked Shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) During the Nonbreeding Period. The Auk. 2010. 127 (4) 871–881. DOI: 10.1525/auk.2010.1002
  • Akinori Takahashi. Post-breeding movement and activities of two Streaked Shearwaters in the north-western Pacific. Ornithological Science. 2008. 7 (1) 29-35. DOI: 10.2326/osj.7.29.
  • Scott A. Shaffer, et al. Migratory shearwaters integrate oceanic resources across the Pacific Ocean in an endless summer. PNAS. 2006. 103 ( 34) 12799-1280. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0603715103.
  • Carsten Egevang, et al. Tracking of Arctic terns Sterna paradisaea reveals longest animal migration. PNAS. 2010. 107 (5) 2078-2081. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909493107.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Liberia: Monkeys, Pets or Meat?

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 3:43 PM EST

Editors' Note: Laura McClure traveled to Liberia this month on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP).

I asked this University of Liberia student (see photo) what Christmas present I should bring back to America for my 4-year-old.

"Maybe a monkey?" he suggested.

Me: "As a pet?"

Student: "Yes, as a pet."

Me: "But don't Liberians also eat monkeys?"

Student: "Yes, but first you can play with them. Families do that sometimes, raise monkeys and then eat them."

Me: "What about dogs, do you eat them too after they're pets?"

Student: "Yes, dogs too."

Me: "Cats?"

Student: "Yes."

Me: "Birds?"

Student: "Yes."

Me: "Lizards?"

Student: "Yes."

Me: "Chameleons?"

Student: "No." (Makes a disgusted face.)

Maybe he was putting me on, but I kind of doubt it. Bushmeat is a big, unapologetic family cottage industry in Liberia, hence Sapo National Park signs and bumper stickers with "please don't eat the wildlife" messaging, like this one:

"Please don't feed the wildlife" stickers might be a ways off."Please don't feed the wildlife" stickers might be a ways off.

Stay tuned for more Africa dispatches.

Podcast: Turkey Can Be Climate Friendly

Thu Nov. 25, 2010 7:00 AM EST

This Thanksgiving, the Climate Desk is taking a hard look at how our food system is affecting the climate—and how climate change might impact the future of food. Is spinach really better for the planet than beef? Could global warming actually be good for agriculture? What happens to the birds after the annual adopt-a-turkey drive every Thanksgiving?

In this week's edition of the Climate Desk podcast, Need to Know talks about food and climate issues with a cornucopia of speakers, including geophysicist Gidon Eshel, NASA agronomist Cynthia Rosenzweig, bestselling author Anna Lappé, agricultural analyst Philip Thorton, and animal rights activist Tara Oresick.

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Closing the Gigaton Gap

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 7:00 AM EST

If countries follow through on the pledges they made in Copenhagen last year, the world could achieve 60 percent of the emissions cuts that scientists say are needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. At last year's climate negotiations in Copenhagen, world leaders pledged to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). A new report from the United Nations Environment Program and the World Resources Institute released Tuesday indicates that while the pledges don't go far enough, following through on them would at least put the world on the right path.

Over the past year, 138 countries have either formally signed on to the Copenhagen Accord or signaled that they would—and combined they are responsible for more than 86 percent of global emissions. The nations of the world released a combined 48 gigatons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in 2009. If countries follow through on their pledges, total global emissions would be reduced by six gigatons by 2020 (as compared to what we'd release if countries took no action to cut emissions).

If countries decide to go with their least-ambitious pledges, emissions would continue to climb to 53 gigatons per year. However, if the most-ambitious targets are met, they would grow to 49 gigatons. The report notes that even the more-ambitious route is still about five gigatons short of the meeting the goal of keeping warming to under 2 degrees. But it's much better than the alternative, which would mean allowing emissions to continue to shoot up to 56 gigatons, the path we're on if no one takes action.

The report authors hope the findings serve as a reality check for negotiators meeting in Mexico next week. "We need to heed and respond to these findings in Cancun, and countries need to make commitments that reflect them," said Janet Ranganathan, vice president of science and research for WRI.

Amy Fraenkel, director of UNEP's North America office, noted that closing that gap is achievable if existing clean energy technologies are implemented, efficiency is improved, further steps are taken to reduce deforestation, and steps to reduce emissions from the transportation sector are taking.

At last year's summit, world leaders also said they would consider lowring their goal for temperature rise to 1.5 degrees in future talks—which is what the countries most affected by climate change have said is needed to protect them. That, of course, would require countries to significantly improve their targets.

August Oil Report Was Right, Says NOAA

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 4:17 PM EST

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday released new documentation that largely affirmed the much-criticized oil budget report the agency released in August. The oil spill budget from August 4, which offered estimates on where the 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from BP's Gulf well had gone, was largely accurate in its assessment, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told reporters.

The final figures are "quite close to those created in the heat of the response," said Lubchenco, which is "a compliment to those who worked under an immense amount of pressure." She said that the original report was intended to guide responders in clean-up efforts. The "sole purpose was to inform the responders," she said. "It does not tell us where the oil is today, or its final fate, or what the impact of the oil was."

The latest figures—which she said have been peer reviewed—updated some numbers from their August tally. The new report says that 16 percent of the oil had been chemically dispersed as of August. Another 13 percent had been dispersed naturally, 23 percent of it had evaporated or dissolved, and another 23 percent was unaccounted for—meaning it was at or near the surface of the water, washed up on beaches, or otherwise still somewhere out in the Gulf. Lubchenco noted that there is still a good deal of uncertainty with some of those figures. The report was compiled by scientists from NOAA, the US Geological Survey, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The update comes several months after the August report was strongly criticized for several reasons. One, senior White House officials erroneously touted it as evidence that the oil was "gone" when in fact it showed that nearly three-quarters of it was still in the environment. A draft report from the Oil Spill Commission also criticized the Obama administration for misrepresenting the oil spill budget in the press. NOAA was also criticized for releasing the August report without any of the documentation or mathematical calculations that went into creating it.

Lubchenco was criticized for wrongly claiming that the original document had undergone "peer-review" in a press conference. Lubchenco took the blame for that in the call Tuesday. "That report was not peer-reviewed, and I was in error," said Lubchenco.

But she said the latest report largely validates what the first budget found. It "pretty much says that the initial calculations were by and large correct," she said, which is "primarily a reflection of the quality of work that went into the original report."

It's important to note that today's updated figures are a more refined and peer-reviewed version of the report issued in August, not a statement on how much oil is left today and where it is currently. Lubchenco said additional studies on the fate of the oil and its impacts are forthcoming.

She said that "comprehensive and extensive monitoring" is underway to assess how much oil remains and where it is now, and 125 expeditions have taken samples to assess the state of the Gulf. Some independent studies have found oil in undersea plumes or on the floor of the Gulf.

Understanding the Smart Meter Backlash

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 3:44 PM EST

David's been writing lately about the intersection of technology and human habits and culture, arguing that energy is a behavioral challenge as much as a technological one. There's a prime of example of how these things collide—and why climate hawks should pay attention—in the backlash against smart meters in California.

The New York Times is the latest to cover the trend of residents responding in outrage when utilities install smart meters—home-energy computers that provide detailed information on what appliances you're using, and when. They're a necessary element in building a clean-energy grid that relies on wind and solar power, feeds electric cars, and supports greener dishwashers and other appliances (here's a good backgrounder).

California utility PG&E has been a national leader in rolling out the devices. It's also faced the strongest revolt.

Complaints about the meters have led to class-action lawsuits, calls to suspend the rollouts, and protests at farmer's markets. Some opponents even tried to link the meters to the San Bruno natural gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 35 houses, according to a utility executive's complaint. The protests tend to come in with jumble of reasons, but there are three kinds of objections: price, health, and privacy.

BP's Atlantis Still Operating, Despite Warnings

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:06 PM EST

Nine months after members of Congress requested a thorough investigation of BP's other major Gulf project, the Atlantis, lawmakers are still waiting for that report. The results of the investiation are now six months late, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement says they'll have to wait a little while longer. 

We've been covring the Atlantis for several months now. A whistle-blowing former contractor on the Atlantis first raised concerns that the platform is missing documents crucial to safe operation in 2009, and members of Congress asked the Department of Interior to investigate back in February, several months before the Gulf spill. But the Interior Department division charged with overseeing offshore drilling, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, has now pushed back the release of their report several times. It is now six months overdue. In the meantime, documents released in the recent months have provided still more evidence that the platform was not in compliance with federal laws. Today, The Hill reports that the investigation is still underway.

In a Nov. 3 letter to Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who has been dogging this issue, BOEMRE head Michael Bromwich said that while the agency has made "significant progress," the report has been delayed indefinitely as "new information came to light" while they were finalizing it. "It is critical that this investigation be thorough and comprehensive," Bromwich continued, without giving any specifics about what BOEMRE uncovered.

Despite the now multiple complaints an ongoing investigation, the platform continues to operate—and is doing so in deeper waters and producing more than triple the amount of oil that spilled from the Horizon site each day.