Blue Marble - November 2010

Low Expectations for Climate Talks

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 11:10 AM EST

This year's round of negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) kicks off next Monday in Cancun. I'll have more on what to expect there in a piece tomorrow and will be reporting from Cancun. Last year, world leaders headed to talks in Copenhagen with the hope of producing a new global treaty. That didn't happen, though they did emerge with a non-binding political accord whose fate is still unclear. Now negotiators will decide what comes next.

US climate envoy Todd Stern briefed the foreign press on what to expect on Monday. "It is now widely understood that a legal treaty this year is not in the cards," said Stern. He emphasized a need to reach agreement on some key components of a deal, rather than on forcing a decision on the total package. "None of this would preclude or prejudge an eventual legal treaty when the time is right, but our view is that we should be making concrete progress now."

His full remarks are here. An excerpt:

The challenge, I think, before us in Cancun and the one that we have been, frankly, focused on all year is to find a way to build on the progress made last year in the Copenhagen Accord through the direct intervention of many of the world’s leaders, including President Obama. Even though it fell short of what many had hoped for, the accord took an important step forward in addressing climate change. Progress was made on all the key elements of the negotiations, and much of it in direct, face-to-face discussions among our leaders.

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Evolution Timelapse

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 6:51 PM EST

Some very cool research coming out of Binghamton University from researchers who've revived bacteria trapped for thousands of years in water droplets embedded in salt crystals. The video explains the scope of their work:

 

 

Tim Lowenstein, prof of geological sciences and environmental studies, and J. Koji Lum, prof of anthropology and biological sciences, are investigating the remains of life in fluid inclusions inside minerals—some dating back a million years. So far they've found every form of unicellular life—archaea, bacteria, algae, fungi, and viruses—embedded in these time capsules. They're also encountering entire ecosystems of tiny lifeforms, for instance the algae likely eaten by the bacteria living together in a pocket of water.

 

Binghamton University researchers recently revived ancient bacteria trapped for thousands of years in water droplets embedded in salt crystals. Photo: Dave Tuttle.Binghamton University researchers recently revived ancient bacteria trapped for thousands of years in water droplets embedded in salt crystals. Photo: Dave Tuttle.

 

The samples are drawn from California's Death Valley and Saline Valley and from sites in Michigan, Kansas, and Italy—places where temperatures may have reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit/54 degrees Celsius in the past, and where the intrusions of water trapped in the rocks might be extremely saline. Nevertheless, extremophile life forms thrive in such conditions.

Some of the microbes are still alive after deacades or more of inclusion. The dead ones are yielding their DNA. But that's only the beginning. By analyzing changes in the salinity of these water pockets over time, Lowenstsein hopes to reconstruct ancient climates. Coupled with changes in the DNA, the team hopes to observe organisms and ecosystems evolving over geologic time in response to changing climate. Sort of like an evolutionary timelapse.

 

Michael Garfield - Live DNA Painting Timelapse from Michael Garfield on Vimeo.

 

Here's an interesting video from within the timelapse of a live art installation. The artist is creating a visual work exploring how it is that so much DNA fits into so little space inside the nuceli of cells. Along the way, he ruminates on his struggles to represent all that information in his own very small space on a canvas destined for the 800-pixel-wide visual "inclusion" of a web page.

Is Kombucha Really Good for You?

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 6:30 AM EST

As an occasional kombucha drinker, I enjoy the strange, sour aftertaste of the trendy fermented beverage. But after spending as much as five bucks for a 16-ounce bottle of the stuff, I decided to see if I could successfully—and safely—brew my own batch. I also wondered whether the claims about kombucha's health-enhancing properties had any merit.

Often mistaken for a mushroom, the culture used to make kombucha is actually a collection of yeast and bacteria. After 10 days of natural fermentation, the amalgam forms a thin pancake-looking colony referred to as a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) surrounded by a fizzy, vinegar-like tonic—the stuff you drink. Remnants of the living mass make their way into bottled kombucha, which creeps some people out. "But really, it's no more frightful than when yogurt first reared its head in health stores across America in the 1970s," states one Whole Foods website. Kombucha has been consumed for thousands of years—some say it originated in Manchuria in 220 B.C.; others trace its roots to Russia—and enthusiasts prize the drink for its beneficial probiotics, organic acids, vitamins and antioxidants.

Because the fermentation happens naturally, I needed no special equipment besides a one-gallon mason jar to get the project bubbling. Brad Koester, a local kombucha brewer who also sells pickled beans and onions to San Francisco restaurants, presented me with my very own "mother" SCOBY; a gelatinous mass that resembled a small jellyfish asleep in amniotic fluid. I brewed about a gallon of green tea, added eight tablespoons of sugar, and poured all the liquid that would fit into the gallon jar with the SCOBY, making sure to cover the top of the mason jar with a thin cloth to prevent fruit fly infestation.

Maybe because kombucha brewers refer to this mass as the "mother," I couldn't help feeling like I was caring for a pet. Would I kill my SCOBY if I shook it? Would my SCOBY wither and die in my chilly Victorian house? I voiced my anxieties to Brad, who shot me back a text that said: "Patience grasshopper." I could do nothing but wait and see if the "mother" would work her magic, and I'd have little control over the results.

From Reykjavik with Love

| Sat Nov. 20, 2010 9:01 AM EST

On the afternoon of October 11, 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland, nuclear weapons negotiations between Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev over the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) reached an impasse. Reagan insisted on being able to develop and test SDI, his space-based missile defense system commonly referred to as Star Wars. But Gorbachev refused to give in. He couldn’t return to Moscow saying he agreed to let the Americans pursue such a weapons project. Reagan countered that SDI was strictly for defense and that the US would share its technology with the Soviets. At this point, as Reagan adviser Jack Matlock recalled to historian Richard Rhodes, Gorbachev "exploded":

"'Excuse me Mr. President," he said, "but I cannot take your idea of sharing SDI seriously. You are not willing to share with us oil well equipment, digitally guided machine tools, or even milking machines. Sharing SDI would provoke a second American revolution! Let’s be realistic and pragmatic."

As it turns out, Star Wars was anything but realistic. The $44 billion project was effectively abandoned in the 90s with its feasibility never firmly established. Russia probably assumed that if the US had Reykjavik to do over again, it would jump on the chance to push a treaty through. But as the current debate drags on in Washington over ratification of New START—a treaty that would reduce Russian and US deployed strategic warheads by 30 percent—the situation is beginning feel eerily similar to Reykjavik.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday November 19

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 1:54 PM EST

Stories on health, the environment, and other Blue Marble topics from other Mother Jones blogs

Lady Power: Empowering women increases health and development in all countries.

Renegade: Republican Sen. Scott Brown is breaking with the GOP pack on health care reform.

All Mine: Pranksters advertise an iPhone free of "conflict minerals."

Unkindest Cut: San Francisco anti-circumcision activist working for next year's ballot.

Green State: Arizona joins 14 other states in legalizing medical marijuana.

Time of Cholera: UN peacekeepers are at the center of the Haiti cholera outbreak.

Baby Fat: Photo proof that not all African babies are starving waifs.

 

Hold the Doom and Gloom on Climate

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 11:08 AM EST

Is all the mounting evidence that humans are warming the planet only making us less likely to take action? That's the conclusion of a new study by two University of California-Berkeley researchers, "Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just World Views."

While the majority of Americans understand that the planet is warming, and about half believe that this is caused by human activity, that number has actually declined in the past few years. The researchers posit:

One possible explanation for this pattern is that information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, ultimately resulting in decreased willingness to counteract climate change.

Basically, Americans really, really believe that the world is a generally good, fair place; therefore, bad things like climate change don't happen to good people. Many people, they write, believe "that future rewards await those who judiciously strive for them, and punishments are meted out to those who deserve them"—and this doesn't jive with the looming threat of climate change in their mind, which causes them to reject it as a reality. They suggest that this could be more of a problem in the US than in other countries, as we tend to reflect these just world beliefs more strongly.

The researchers, Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, suggest that because most appeals for action on climate emphasize the potentially catastrophic consequences, this could only be making the problem worse. They conclude that "less dire messaging could be more effective for promoting public understanding of climate change research." Discussion of the positive outcomes—things like new energy technologies—goes further toward making folks less skeptical of climate change.

Read the whole study here.

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Freudian Eels

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 6:58 PM EST

Two closely-related species of shapeshifting fish inhabit the North Atlantic: the American eel, Anguilla rostrata; and the European eel, Anguilla anguilla. They share a catadromous lifestyle, that is, they live in freshwater but breed in saltwater. That's the opposite of the better-known anadromous fish, like salmon.European eel. Photo by Ron Offermans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.European eel. Photo by Ron Offermans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What's Next for Climate Policy?

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 11:51 AM EST

In case you've missed it over the past few days, we have an exciting set of stories coming at you as part of the Climate Desk's Climate Next series. Today, panelists debate their proposals about what should come next now that cap and trade legislation isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

While you're at it, don't miss these pieces posted on Wednesday:

Sharing in the Animal World

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 8:33 AM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Life is full of stories, from small moments to big feats and for the next two months at BBC Earth, life is all about sharing. We heard about narwhals helping humans to track temperatures in the arctic oceans last week. It is helping scientists better measure climate change and it got us thinking, what other beneficial relationships do humans and animals share? We would love it if you could tell us any of your ideas over on our Facebook page. If not, you can always come and look at our exclusive videos, images and stories there. You can even show us your nature photography that we may feature on our "Life Is" website. After all, this month is all about sharing.

Anyway, we thought of this incredible video of eels and humans helping each other out in the Solomon Islands…

Clearing the Air on Climate Science

| Wed Nov. 17, 2010 10:36 AM EST

Over on the main site this morning, I have a piece looking at one of the efforts to improve communication about climate science and encourage more scientist to engage with the press. In a similar vein, the House Committee on Science and Technology is today holding its final hearing on climate science for 2010—and likely the last hearing before a number of GOP climate change deniers take over the majority.

The hearing, "A Rational Discussion of Climate Change: the Science, the Evidence, the Response," starts at 10:30 a.m. It features three panels, and the panelists include:

  • Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone
  • Dr. Heidi M. Cullen
  • Dr. Gerald A. Meehl
  • Dr. Richard Lindzen
  • Dr. Benjamin D. Santer
  • Dr. Richard B. Alley
  • Dr. Richard A. Feely
  • Dr. Patrick J. Michaels
  • Rear Admiral David W. Titley
  • Mr. James Lopez
  • Mr. William Geer
  • Dr. Judith Curry