Blue Marble - February 2011

Kentucky Anti-MTR Protester: "I'm About to Pull an Egypt"

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 3:10 PM EST

A group of activists, former coal miners, and legendary environmentalist and author Wendell Berry are staging a sit-in in the office of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear (D) today, demanding a meeting on the future of mountain-top removal coal mining in the state.

The fight over MTR has been heating up at the national level since last month, when the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed a permit for the controversial Spruce Mine in West Virginia. Both enviros and the coal industry have interpreted that move as evidence that the agency is serious about enforcing existing laws when it comes to MTR.

For coal field residents who have long been outspoken opponents of MTR, it's a moment of opportunity. "I'm about to pull an Egypt," Mickey McCoy, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and former teacher from Inez, Kentucky, told me by phone last night ahead of this morning's action. "I'm just tired of lobbying, begging."

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and other state-level groups filed suit against Kentucky last fall for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act. Kentucky, however, has undertaken quite the opposite crusade: around the same time that the enviros filed their suit, it joined the Kentucky Coal Association in suing the US EPA for attempting to enforce the Clean Water Act.

Jeff Biggers is following today's sit-in, and highlights what is at stake in the state:

While national media attention on mountaintop removal mining has largely been focused on West Virginia, organizers are reminding the nation that more than 290 mountains—58 percent of the devastation in Appalachia—have been blown to bits in eastern Kentucky. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council last year found that while more than 574,000 acres of hardwood forests in eastern Kentucky have been irreversibly destroyed by mountaintop removal strip mining, less than four percent yielded any verifiable post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture.

The protesters have three demands—outside of a chance to actually meet with the governor, that is:

  • Accept a long-standing invitation to view the devastation in eastern Kentucky caused by mountaintop removal mining
  • Foster a sincere, public discussion about the urgent need for a sustainable economic transition for coal workers and mountain communities
  • Withdraw from the October 2010 lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, in which the Beshear administration partnered with the coal industry to oppose the EPA’s efforts to protect the health and water of coalfield residents

Follow @kftc and @jasonkylehoward on Twitter for updates.

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Albatross: Life in the Air

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 1:40 PM EST

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

A bird that lives as long in legends as it does life: The albatross remains one of most majestic of all of the Antarctic birds. This rather stunning bird can be traced as far back as the time of the first modern mammals, over 50 million years. And with an average life span of 50 years that's a lot of birds.

Though as a species they aren't so lucky, endangered the world over mostly as a result of human practices. These birds have come to be greatly respected, and have even become symbols of luck. Whether it is harboring the sacred soul of a dead sailor or filling a ship's sails with wind to aid its progress; you do not have to look far to realize why it is so special.

As one of the largest flying birds, the albatross has one of the largest wingspans of any bird still alive today at an incredible 11 feet.

 The number of albatross species is hotly debated, ranging between 13 and 24 species groups, the classification process involving their size, legs and arrangement of the nasal tubes all come into play when defining what really constitutes an albatross. One thing is for certain; their life in the air is quite unique.

Some birds struggle to overcome high winds during rough weather, but the albatross thrives on it. With an impressive wingspan of 11ft and skills such as ‘dynamic’ and ‘slope’ soaring, these birds are able to retain a heart rate close to resting when taking on the rugged seascapes, in fact they are so well suited to this not only do they sleep while flying they only come to land to breed.

This video shows you just how the adult albatross use their flying skills for a very valuable purpose. Gathering enough food for their newborns, no matter how long or far it takes them.

It may only take the young albatross within three to ten months to be brave enough to take on life in the air, but once it is there it may leave land for up to ten years before returning themselves to begin their mature lives.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday February 11

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 8:37 AM EST

Stories on Blue Marble-ish topics from our other blogs. 

Suing for Life: Death row inmates sue for getting non-FDA approved, overseas, lethal injection drugs.

Pink War: House GOP declares war, tries to defund Planned Parenthood.

Life Support: NARAL chief is worried about Congressional support needed to fight anti-abortion bills.

Doctor, Heal Thyself: Sponsor of a bill limiting malpractice lawsuits had many filed against him.

Senate Showdown: A Senate bill would cut Medicaid abortion funding and up insurance costs for abortion coverage.

Dueling States: Ohio and Texas battle for the title of most restrictive abortion law passed.

Headache: Apparently many adults don't know Bayer can be used for headaches.

Womb Tax: Republicans propose disallowing using health savings account funds for abortion.

What's in a Name: Jon Cohn defends the term Obamacare. 

Cause and Effect: Autism rates in California schools have tripled, but it's not clear why.

 

The Technological Brain Grows

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 6:36 PM EST

An interesting new paper in Science today estimating the insanely fast growth in our technological capacity for storing and communicating information. Below is the abstract in full. Followed by a science-class documentary from the 1960s and beyond niftily explaining those pesky powers of ten.

 

We estimate the world's technological capacity to store, communicate, and compute information, tracking 60 analog and digital technologies during the period from 1986 to 2007. In 2007, humankind was able to store 2.9 × 1020 optimally compressed bytes, communicate almost 2× 1021 bytes, and carry out 6.4 × 1018 instructions per second on general-purpose computers. General-purpose computing capacity grew at an annual rate of 58%. The world's capacity for bidirectional telecommunication grew at 28% per year, closely followed by the increase in globally stored information (23%). Humankind's capacity for unidirectional information diffusion through broadcasting channels has experienced comparatively modest annual growth (6%). Telecommunication has been dominated by digital technologies since 1990 (99.9% in digital format in 2007), and the majority of our technological memory has been in digital format since the early 2000s (94% digital in 2007).

 

 

The authors of the Science paper close with these words:


To put our findings in perspective, the 6.4*1018 instructions per second that human kind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second (1017) (36). The 2.4*1021 bits stored by humanity in all of its technological devices in 2007 is approaching order of magnitude of the roughly 1023 bits stored in the DNA of a human adult (37), but it is still minuscule compared to the 1090 bits stored in the observable universe (38). However, in contrast to natural information processing, the world’s technological information processing capacities are quickly growing at clearly exponential rates.

 

The paper:

  • Martin Hilbert and Priscila López. The World's Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information. 2011. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.120097

 

GOP Spending Plan Targets EPA

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 11:55 AM EST

House Republicans want to pass a bill that would permanently bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas pollution. That bill isn't going to go to the floor immediately, but in the meantime, GOPers are looking to make major funding cuts to the agency components that are crafting those regulations. The plan GOP appropriators are releasing today would chop $1.6 billion from the EPA's budget.

The list of cuts in the continuing resolution (a "CR" in Washington-speak), a seven-month spending package, includes trimming $9 million from the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Registry, $5 million from Cap and Trade Technical Assistance, and $25 million from State and Local Air Quality Management. There's also the very real possibility that House members will tack on an amendment that would formally bar the EPA from using any resources authorized by the CR to develop greenhouse gas regulations. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chair of the powerful energy and commerce committee and the author of a bill that would permanently bar the EPA from issuing greenhouse gas regulations, said yesterday that he anticipates his colleagues will include some language on the EPA in the CR. "I expect that to be part of that bill, assuming we can do that within the rules of the House," Upton told CNBC's Larry Kudlow in an interview yesterday.

Also on the chopping block at EPA: $48 million for the brownfields program, which cleans up polluted land, and $7.4 million for Energy Star, the appliance efficiency program. Also atop the list of target for cuts are a number of clean energy programs, scientific research and development, and public transportation. Behold:

  • Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy -$899M
  • Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability -$49M
  • Nuclear Energy -$169M
  • Fossil Energy Research -$31M
  • Clean Coal Technology -$18M
  • Strategic Petroleum Reserve -$15M
  • Energy Information Administration -$34M
  • Office of Science -$1.1B
  • Land and Water Conservation Fund -$348M
  • NOAA -$336M
  • High Speed Rail -$1B
  • Amtrak -$224M
  • Natural Resource Conservation Service -$46M
  • DOE Loan Guarantee Authority -$1.4B

The list of budget cuts that the Republican Study Committee unveiled last month also included a number of cuts for energy and environmental programs.

Science Shots: Bird, More Birds, then Hitchcock

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 6:28 PM EST

It's spring in northern California. In the past week, birdsong has appeared after a couple of months of near silence. That's earlier than I've heard it before. Meanwhile new record high temperatures are being set. Scanning the science journals, I find these interesting papers on bird populations, climate change, and speciation:

  • In the current issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a paper assessing how the earlier onset of spring has affected 117 European migratory bird species during the past past five decades. There's concern in the world of conservation biology that the ever earlier arrival of spring may be costing migrants their traditional livelihoods because they're arriving too late on their breeding grounds. This phenomenon is called ecological mismatch. It occurs, say, when migrants arrive after the insects they need to feed their young have already hatched and dispersed. Or after the flowers they feed on have already bloomed and wilted. The authors used accumulated winter and spring temperatures (degree-days) as a proxy for the timing of spring biological events. They found that migrants, particularly those wintering in sub-Saharan Africa, now arrive at higher degree-days, accumulating a 'thermal delay.' Species with greater thermal delays have suffered larger population declines. From the paper:

[T]his evidence was not confounded by concomitant ecological factors or by phylogenetic effects. These findings provide general support to the largely untested hypotheses that migratory birds are becoming ecologically mismatched and that failure to respond to climate change can have severe negative impacts on their populations.

Aquatic warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola). Photo by S. Seyfert, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Aquatic warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola). Photo by S. Seyfert, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

  • A new paper in Polar Biology summarizes what we currently know about the numbers of emperor penguins—those March of the Penguins birds—who breed in the dead of winter in Antarctica. There's a lot we don't know. We're still discovering where all their colonies are located. The total number of breeding pairs is unknown, as is the total population. Yet the IUCN Red List categorizes the species as 'least concern,' claiming the global population appears to be stable. The author notes the fail:

[This paper] examines what is known about the state of various colonies and demonstrates that currently available data are inadequate for a trend assessment of the global population.

 Life cycle of emperor penguins. Image: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation.Life cycle of emperor penguins. Image: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation.

 

  • In another paper in the current Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the authors examine differences in the genes and the appearances of magnificent frigatebirds—those huge sailors of the tropical seas. In particular the researchers investigated whether the frigatebirds of the Galapagos Islands have become genetically isolated from others of their kind, or if ocean highways have kept them connected. The data showed plenty of genetic mixing among magnificent frigatebirds of Central and South America, "even across the Isthmus of Panama, which is a major barrier to gene flow in other tropical seabirds:"

In contrast, individuals from the Galapagos were strongly differentiated from all conspecifics, and have probably been isolated for several hundred thousand years. Our finding is a powerful testimony to the evolutionary uniqueness of the taxa inhabiting the Galapagos archipelago and its associated marine ecosystems. 

 Magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens). Photo by  John Picken, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens). Photo by John Picken, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Finally, in The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock never really told us what was pissing off the gulls and crows of Bodega Bay. He based the film on a 1952 novella by Daphne du Maurier, in which she implied the birds were riled by the East Wind, a metaphor for communism. Here's a 100-second recut of The Birds. Judge for yourself what's annoying them. I think it's the whistling.

 

The papers:

  • Nicola Saino, et al. Climate warming, ecological mismatch at arrival and population decline in migratory birds. 2011. Proc. R. Soc. B.
  • Frank Hailer, et al. Long-term isolation of a highly mobile seabird on the Galapagos. 2011. Proc. R. Soc. B.  DOI:

 

 

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Feral Pig Diaries Day 2: Do Hogs Like Supermarket Danishes?

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 10:15 AM EST

This week, I'm reporting from outside Savannah, Georgia, on my first-ever hunting trip. We're after invasive feral pigs, which have proliferated over the last decade in much of the southeastern US, competing with native species for food and wreaking havoc on land with their rooting. I'm hanging out with Jackson Landers, who aims to whet American appetites for invasive species like hogs, lionfish, geese, deer, and even spiny iguanas by working with wholesalers, chefs, and restaurateurs to promote these aliens as menu items. Read "Feral Pig Diaries Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine" here, and my post from Day 3, "OK, but How Does Wild Hog Taste?" here. My introductory post (wherein MoJo takes a field trip to the shooting range) is here.

It was still dark when we got to Baker's property yesterday morning, but we wasted no time, since many mammals are particularly active around dawn. Jackson and I hiked a muddy road to the bottomland around a tidal creek. Along the way, we kneeled to inspect pig scat and hoof prints:

In this print, the grass the pig had trod on hadn't sprung back up, so Jackson guessed it was less than a half-hour old. We climbed into the hunting stand and loaded the gun just as it was just getting light and sat in silence, listening to the wind shaking the loblolly pines. We scanned the ground. We cocked our ears. We shivered. After less than an hour, we were both freezing and itching to go do some stalking by foot, and besides, we could hear this kind of distant yelping noise. We decided to go follow it. Jackson thought it sounded canine—a coyote or (boring, boring, boring) someone's dog, but I convinced myself that I was hearing the squealing of piglets. After the jump: Watch a video where I make a fool of myself.

Bush EPA Recognized Global Warming Threat

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 7:20 PM EST

Pop quiz: Which administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency sent a missive to the president informing him that the agency is "compelled to act" under existing law in response to "the latest science of climate change"?

Hint: It wasn't the Obama administration's EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson (though, during her tenure, the agency would make that same determination). It was her predecessor, Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator under George W. Bush, who was certainly no big friend to environmentalists during his time at the agency.

In recent months, the EPA's power to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions has become a prime target for Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress who raise the specter of a government bureaucracy gone wild under the Obama administration. Foes of the regulations have gone so far as to propose throwing out the very scientific finding that greenhouse gases threaten human health. But a letter released Tuesday once again makes it clear that even the Bush administration knew it needed to act on global warming—it just chose not to.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) released a letter from Johnson to Bush dated January 31, 2008, in which Johnson informs the president that the agency has determined that "the latest science of climate change requires the Agency to propose a positive endangerment finding."

In the letter, Johnson outlined a plan that he argues is "prudent and cautious yet forward thinking," one that "creates a framework for responsible, cost-effective and practical actions." This is the first time this particular letter has been made public, though it was pretty well known that the EPA had made an endangerment determination but was blocked by the White House from following through on it. The White House reportedly went so far as to refuse to open an email that contained the endangerment finding and related materials so that it wouldn't have to act.

Johnson concluded in his letter to Bush:

After careful and sometime difficult deliberation, I have concluded that it is in the Administration's best interest to move forward with this plan in the next few weeks. I appreciate the senior-level discussions that have enabled me to develop this approach, and I look forward to working with other members of your team to discuss details and a rollout.

Of course, that rollout never happened. Instead, the Bush administration let the clock run down and left the final endangerment determination to the next administration. The Obama administration followed through with that finding in April 2009, an action that triggered the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases that began phasing in this year.

Waxman circulated Johnson's letter Tuesday evening, ahead of a hearing tomorrow on a bill by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House energy and commerce committee, that would overturn the EPA's finding and permanently bar the agency from taking action to regulate emissions. Waxman sent a letter to Upton as well, highlighting Johnson's letter:

As Administrator Johnson’s letter makes clear, both Republican and Democratic Administrations have had the same view of the science: carbon emissions are a serious threat to our nation’s welfare. I urge you to leave the science to scientists and drop your effort to use legislation to overturn EPA’s endangerment finding.

What Does Fred Upton Actually Think About Climate?

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 4:45 PM EST

Fred Upton really, really does not want to talk about climate change. Last week the new chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce introduced draft legislation that would permanently bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The measure has also been introduced in the Senate—Upton co-authored it with the Senate's biggest climate skeptic, James Inhofe (R-Okla.). But on Tuesday, Upton repeatedly dodged the question of whether he thinks the climate is warming and whether greenhouse gas emissions are causing it.

While the Michigan Republican has, in the past, stated that greenhouse gas emissions should be addressed, he's retreated from that position since taking over the helm of the powerful energy committee. (That shift came amidst criticism from some in Upton's party that he was too moderate.) On Tuesday, reporters at a National Journal forum repeatedly asked Upton what he actually thinks about climate change. After several attempts to avoid the question, the congressman finally settled on a response. "If you look at last year it was warmest year in last decade," Upton said. "I accept that. I do not say it is man made."

"Even if cap and trade had been enacted it would not change the temperature by even a tenth of a degree anywhere in the world," he continued.

Upton says his bill to block EPA regulations on the matter is just about giving the power back to elected officials, rather than a government agency. "Congress ought to have a role in looking at those regulations, not a bureaucracy," said Upton. He referred back to the climate and energy bill that the House passed in 2009, which the Senate never acted on, and accused EPA of ignoring the legislative process. "What EPA is now trying to do is act like it passed," said Upton.

Actually, EPA is acting because Congress didn't act. And in the absence of a new law, the agency is compelled to regulate carbon dioxide emissions because the Supreme Court directed it to do so. The Obama administration said repeatedly over the past two years that it preferred a new bill specifically dealing with climate change—and by all accounts the House bill was designed to be much, much more flexible and industry-friendly than regulations under the Clean Air Act. (In fact, cap and trade was a Republican idea created for that very reason). So no, the EPA isn't acting like the bill passed—quite the opposite, really.

So what's the point of Upton's bill then? "We want the Congress to do the job, not the EPA," he said. But asked whether a Republican-led House of Representatives would do anything on the subject, Upton admitted climate change legislation was "a non-starter."

On Wednesday, the Subcommittee on Energy and Power will hold its first hearing on Upton's "Energy Tax Prevention Act." EPA administrator Lisa Jackson is due to testify. It should make for quite a show.

Feral Pig Diaries Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 7:00 AM EST

This week, I'm reporting from outside Savannah, Georgia, on my first-ever hunting trip. We're after invasive feral pigs, which have proliferated over the last decade in much of the southeastern US, competing with native species for food and wreaking havoc on land with their rooting. I'm hanging out with Jackson Landers, who aims to whet American appetites for invasive species like hogs, lionfish, geese, deer, and even spiny iguanas by working with wholesalers, chefs, and restaurateurs to promote these aliens as menu items. Read my introductory post (wherein MoJo takes a field trip to the shooting range) here. Read my post from Day 2, "Do Hogs Like Supermarmet Danishes?" here, and my post from Day 3, "OK, but How Does Wild Hog Taste?" here. A word to the squeamish: The Feral Pig Diaries do contain a few graphic images.

The forecast called for rain all day in Savannah on Monday, but we weren't about to let a little precipitation come between us and the hogs. So we rose early and headed out on the hunt. I'll tell you all about what happened. But first I'd like to introduce my hosts:

This is Jackson Landers, a.k.a. the Locavore Hunter. Jackson quit his job in insurance a few years ago to write books about hunting and teach people how to do it at his home near Charlottesville, Virginia. Right now, he's really into hunting and eating invasive species. Jackson is a great teacher—I know because my temporary apprentice hunter license required me to basically stay glued to his side all day. He's also a genuine animal nut; his critter knowledge is vast. Some things I learned from Jackson today, in no particular order: why you have to lasso alligators instead of shooting them (like Rasputin, gators have a way of resisting death); where you're most likely to find armadillos that carry leprosy (near the Gulf coast); and how country music got its twang (imported by American cowboys returning from stints rounding up wild cows in Hawaii, where they enjoyed the sound of the local slack-key guitar. I don't really know if I buy this one.)

This is Jackson's father-in-law, Bob. He used to hunt a lot, though these days, he says, he pretty much sticks to shooting the pests around his property near Charlottesville, where he raises chickens and plans to buy a few pigs this spring. He makes planting and harvesting potatoes sound like a piece of cake, and would like to try his hand at shitake mushrooms. He's also an all-around nice guy and believes that no slice of pizza is complete without a meat topping.

This is Baker Leavitt, whose family owns the former horse farm where we're hunting, a thousand acres of dirt roads, fields, and woods strewn with Spanish moss. Baker says feral pigs have done a number on the land in the last few years, eating low vegetation, rooting, and wallowing. Baker grew up in Savannah, with plenty of hunting and riding horses (till he got thrown). He worked in local real estate till the market went south, and now he's in grad school in New York City. A few days before I came, Baker sent me an email from his Blackberry that said, "You ready to bust some hogs??" (Ready as I'll ever be.) And then, when he read my blog post about us hippies at the shooting range, he sent another: "No stinky patchouli!" Don't worry, Baker, I left that and my incense at home. After the jump: gory-ish images (but they're not too bad).