Blue Marble - February 2011

Record Low Sea Ice

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 9:11 PM EST
Credit: NASA.Credit: NASA.
 
Despite record cold in the US and Europe this winter, the Arctic has experienced unusual warmth. Sea ice has been slow to grow.
 
The red line in the image above shows the average January sea ice extent from 1979 through 2000. The white marks the average Arctic sea ice concentration for January 2011—the lowest measured extent since satellite record keeping began.
 
Photo by Pink floyd88 a, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Pink floyd88 a, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 
From the Earth Observatory page:
The National Snow and Ice Data Center [NSIDC] offered two possible explanations. One reason is the Arctic Oscillation (AO), a seesaw pattern of differences in atmospheric pressure. In "positive" mode, the AO includes high pressure over the mid-latitudes and low pressure over the Arctic, setting up wind patterns that trap cold air in the far North. In "negative" mode, air pressure isn’t quite as low over the Arctic and isn’t quite as high over the mid-latitudes. This enables cold air to creep south and relatively warm air to move north.

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Corporate America's Public Enemy No. 1: The EPA

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 3:02 PM EST

On Monday, House oversight committee chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released more than 100 letters he has received from corporations, trade groups, and associations outlining the regulations they'd like to see changed. The letters make clear that the Environmental Protection Agency is corporate America's top target.

Issa solicited solicited lists of burdensome regs from the business community last month, and the early responses focused largely on environmental rules businesses would like to see axed. The Wall Street Journal got an early look a the letters, with includes dozens of gripes about the EPA's current and proposed rules from 30 different organizations:

Groups complained about dozens of other proposed and existing EPA regulations in letters viewed by the Journal, including the agency's plans to tighten limits on emissions of some pollutants from industrial boilers, ground-level ozone, mountain-top mining, cooling water intake structures, the level of nutrients in Florida waters, and pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay.

In all, Issa's office released 1,947 pages of letters. Here's a sample from William Kovacs, vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, critiquing the overall impact of environmental regulation, not just individual rules it takes issue with:

In recent years, EPA seems to have increased both the breadth and the burden of its regulation of the business community. For whatever reason, it has largely spent the last 24 months attempting to modify, re-issue, or re-interpret virtually every controversial environmental regulatory decision of the past decade.

"Whatever reason" happens to be that the Obama administration has been actually trying to set rules based on science and public health, unlike the previous administration. On the question of limits on ozone pollution, which the Chamber takes issue with, the administration has indicated that it intends to take the advice of its scientists, which was ignored under Bush. And on greenhouse gas emissions, another Chamber target, the EPA has simply moved forward under the direction of the Supreme Court, after the Bush administration chose to ignore its obligation on that front.

Kochs Spent Big on EPA Foes

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 1:11 PM EST

If you really want to influence politics, it's not enough to fund think-tankers and build a network of media buddies. You also need some friends in high places. The brothers Koch know that better than anyone, and they've spent big on the members of Congress who will craft energy policy for the next two years.

The Los Angeles Times has a piece today looking at the election expenditures that the Kochs' Kansas-based oil and gas conglomerate and its Political Action Committee have made in recent years. As it turns out, much of the money has gone to Republican candidates (and a few Democrats) who now hold prime seats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This election cycle, Koch passed Exxon and Valero as the largest oil and gas sector donor to current members of the committee. The Kochs and their employees gave $279,500 to 22 Republicans and $32,000 to five Democrats on the committee during the 2010 election cycle. Of the five Democrats that Koch PAC supported in 2010, three voted against the cap and trade bill in 2009—John Barrow of Georgia, Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike Ross of Arkansas. From the article:

Nine of the 12 new Republicans on the panel signed a pledge distributed by a Koch-founded advocacy group — Americans for Prosperity—to oppose the Obama administration's proposal to regulate greenhouse gases. Of the six GOP freshman lawmakers on the panel, five benefited from the group's separate advertising and grass-roots activity during the 2010 campaign.

Many of the committee-members the Kochs have supported are leading the efforts to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the new chairman of the panel, was one of the biggest recipients of donations from Koch employees, at $20,000. Upton used to be a moderate on climate and energy, and once even supported the principle of cutting emissions, but took a giant leap back on the issue amidst a contentious race for the top spot on the panel. In late December, Upton coauthored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with AFP head Tim Phillips stating that they are "not convinced" that greenhouse gas emissions are a problem that needs to be dealt with. Last week, Upton released a bill that he wrote with the Senate's biggest climate skeptic, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), that would permanently bar the EPA from regulating planet-warming emissions.

It's also worth noting that the network of Koch associates is also influential when it comes to funding candidates. The forthcoming Greenpeace report I noted last week also found that the members of the guest list for last year's Koch strategy confab have contributed more than $61 million to federal campaigns since 1990.

The LAT piece has more on the ties between the Kochs and the candidates they have supported. It is worth checking out.

Chevron Accuses Amazon Plaintiffs of Extortion

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 10:32 AM EST

I reported recently that Chevron has been trying some interesting tactics in what appear to be the final weeks of the court case over contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The company has alleged that the signatures of some of the plaintiffs in the case were forged, thereby making the case illegitimate. Last week the company filed a suit against the plaintiffs in New York accusing them of racketeering—and in it named the very individual Ecuadorian plaintiffs that they previously claimed weren't legit.

Here's a copy of the complaint that Chevron filed in the Southern District of New York on Feb. 1, which names the lawyers as well as 47 plaintiffs in the case as defendants in the counter suit. The plaintiffs have accused the company of failing to address the toxic pollution left behind in the Amazon after decades of oil drilling there by Texaco, a company that Chevron later acquired. The court case is drawing to a close in Ecuador, and Chevron could be on the hook for billions in damages if the judge rules in against the company.

Chevron's new suit seeks to prosecute the plaintiffs under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which is  intended to deal with organized crime—you know, like the Mafia. It accuses the plaintiffs (who are mostly indigenous Ecuadorians living in the Amazon) their lawyers, environmental consultants involved in the case, and environmental groups that have advocated for the plaintiffs of trying to "extort, defraud, and otherwise tortiously injure" Chevron.

The legal dispute over the Amazon case has dragged on for almost two decades now. It began in US courts but was moved to Ecuador at the behest of Chevron. But since then, the company has sought to have it dismissed there as well. In addition to this latest suit, Chevron has also sought the raw footage of a documentary filmmaker that the argue will prove malfeasance on the plaintiffs' part.

The plaintiffs are seeking $113 billion in compensation in the case. In response to the RICO suit, they have accused Chevron of trying to both intimidate the plaintiffs and avoid the question at hand in the case, which is whether the company is responsible for the contamination in the Amazon. "Irrefutable scientific truth will triumph over Chevron's intimidation tactics and desperation," said Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney in Ecuador handling the case for the plaintiffs, in a statement this week. "We will not be frightened by corporate bullying … Chevron is trying to turn the victims of its own unlawful misconduct into criminals."

It appears Chevron may be gearing up for a loss in Ecuadoran courts in this case. Because the company does not have assets in Ecuador at this point, any judgment against them would have to be enforced in a country where the company does have assets, like the US. They appear to be building a legal case here to prevent that from happening should the judge in Ecuador rule against them.

More Smart Meter Questions Answered

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 6:30 AM EST

When I posted on smart meters a few weeks back I expected some amount of hoopla in the comments section, and gosh was I right! The triple whammy of radiation, privacy, and utility shenanigans really got everyone going. While some extra eager folks chose to address me in all caps on my personal email and Facebook accounts, most readers kept the comments civil and raised some interesting questions, a few of which I'll attempt to answer (or at least shed some light on) here. 

1. Will smart meters result in the laying off of meter readers?

Possibly, though the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) says that California's utilities have largely been able to avoid layoffs. About 80 percent of PG&E's former meter readers are now working in other positions at the utility, and most of the remaining 20 percent either chose to retire or took the buyouts that the company offered, says PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno.

2. Won't smart meters make it easier for utilities to turn off poor people's electricity? And without a meter reader, how will the utilities know about extenuating circumstances, such as an elderly person on oxygen?

Yikes! Amazon Drought Causing More Carbon Emissions Than US

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 7:20 PM EST

A new study in Science predicts that last year's drought in the Amazon rainforest, its worst on record, will lead to carbon emissions of about 8 billion metric tons by the end of this year, or 2.6 billion metric tons more than what the United States emitted in 2009. The drought, the study says, created a water deficit that increased tree mortality in three epicenters, hindering the forest's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. (To visualize the scale of the drought, think of rainfall shortages over an area more than seven times that of California.) What's most alarming about the Amazon's droughts, though, is that they're causing carbon-emission levels high enough to probably cancel out the amount of carbon the forest absorbed over the past decade.

As Reuters reports, the study's lead author Simon Lewis, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, warns:

If events like this happen more often, the Amazon rain forest would reach a point where it shifts from being a valuable carbon sink slowing climate change to a major source of greenhouse gases that could speed it up.

Deforestation has already diminished forests' capacity to absorb carbon worldwide; it's responsible for as much as 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. The study's findings mean that now droughts are pushing down forest coverage and quality even further. Translation: Not only are forests getting worse at slowing climate change, they may actually be accelerating it.

Lewis notes that more research is needed to determine whether the Amazon drought was the result of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or if it was simply a climate anomaly. But even if we're not causing the decline of the Amazon through emitting greenhouse gases, humans have already made a broad and profound physical impact on land quality. The NASA graphic from 2003 (below) depicts the intensity of human environmental footprint around the world, based on population density, land transformation, human access, and power infrastructure, measured on a scale from 1 (least influence/dark green) to 100 (most influence/purple):

Center for International Earth Science Information Network/NASACenter for International Earth Science Information Network/NASA

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Science Shots: Smart Farms, Warm Nests, the Perils of an Ugly Mate

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 3:49 PM EST

A new paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that female Gouldian finches get seriously stressed out if they end up with mates they find unattractive. Experiments were conducted with the two color morphs of this species—the red-headed variant (below) and a black-headed version. Females who were forced by limited availability to partner with the color morph other than their own suffered. The authors note:

In socially monogamous animals, mate choice is constrained by the availability of unpaired individuals in the local population. Here, we experimentally investigate the physiological stress endured by a female (the choosy sex) when pairing with a non-preferred social partner. In two experimental contexts, female Gouldian finches (Erythrura gouldiae) socially paired with poor-quality mates had levels of circulating corticosterone that were three to four times higher than those observed in females that were paired with preferred mates. The elevated level of this stress hormone in response to partner quality was observed within 12 h[ours] of the experimental introduction and maintained over a period of several weeks.

Females paired with "ugly" males were also slower to reproduce, laying eggs a month later than females who paired with preferred males.

 

Male Gouldian finch. Credit: Martybugs, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Male Gouldian finch. Credit: Martybugs, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

An interesting paper in PNAS assesses the global phosphorus (P) cycle. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plants and animals, is used heavily in agricultural fertilizers, and is also a bycatch, so to speak, of livestock production (manure). And it's a limiting nutrient for aquatic organisms. Which means that fertilizer and manure runoff can overfertilize waterways, leading to hypoxic conditions known as dead zones and dwindling fish catches. In a perfect world, we'd use only enough of it and no more.

The new study examined the P cycle for 123 crops around the world. Highlights:

  • On a global scale we put more phosphorus into the global cycle than croplands removed (overfertilized)
  • Yet there's strong regional variation, with 30 percent of croplands phosphorus deficient, often in areas producing forage crops used as livestock feed
  • Croplands with P surpluses were fertilized, so to speak, more by fertilizer use than by manure production

Obviously, balancing the global phosphorus imbalance will improve both economies and ecologies—a worthy task as we navigate a world of ever higher food prices.

 Satellite image of Kansas crop fields. Credit: NASA.Satellite image of Kansas crop fields. Credit: NASA.

 

A new study in Environmental Biology of Fishes finds that warming water temperatures bode poorly for some cold-blooded species—notably for three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus)—anadromous fish that can spawn in freshwater and migrate to saltwater. They're found in all the circumpolar waters of the world.

Sticklebacks invest heavily in parental care. The males are nest guarders and spend much time fanning their clutches of eggs with their fins. When their waters get warmer, they fan a whole lot more, with poor results. The authors note:

In two separate experiments with temperatures raised by 2°C [3.6°F] to 6°C [11°F] above 16–17°C [61-63°F] ambient over a whole breeding season, we quantified changes to parental-care behaviour and the resultant reproductive success of G. aculeatus. As temperature increased, male parental-care behaviour was altered, particularly the fanning of the fertilised eggs... [A]ll egg incubating fish consistently fanned at a faster rate in higher temperatures... The consequence was that these fish had a higher rate of incubation failure and an increased likelihood of mortality. The pattern of alteration to parental care behaviour and decreased reproductive success with higher temperature was remarkably consistent across the individual fish, which suggests consequences at the population level of increased ambient temperatures.

 Three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). Credit: Piet Spaans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). Credit: Piet Spaans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Finally, for those of you who've been snowed in or iced under or flooded out this week, here's a blissfully dry desert meditation: Demoiselle cranes (Grus virgo) overwintering in Rajasthan, India.

 

CRANES OF KHICHAN from warmeye on Vimeo.

 

 The papers:

  • Graham K. MacDonaldElena M. BennettPhilip A. Potter, and Navin Ramankutty. Agronomic phosphorus imbalances across the world's croplands. PNAS. 2011. 
  • Kathryn Hopkins, Brian R. Moss and Andrew B. Gill. Increased ambient temperature alters the parental care behaviour and reproductive success of the three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus).Environmental Biology of Fishes. 2011. DOI: 10.1007/s10641-010-9724-8.

  • Simon C. Griffith, Sarah R. Pryke, and William A. Buttemer. Constrained mate choice in social monogamy and the stress of having an unattractive partner.

 

Scenes from Yellowstone

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 3:37 PM EST

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

Once hailed as "America's best idea," Yellowstone was the world's first national park. Changing the way we interact with nature, the Pulitzer prize-winning author Wallace Stegner put it best when he said national parks "reflect us at our best, not our worst."

In the gigantic 3.5million square miles of land, Yellowstone is host to a large number of interesting animal species, including bison, cougars, lynx, bobcats and coyotes.

The whole park actually sits on a caldera, often referred to as a "supervolcano," and has at its heart the same conditions that brought about the start of life on Earth. This means it holds one of the world's natural wonders, as you can see in this video.

The volcano means Yellowstone remains geologically very active. Recent changes in the volcanic springs have killed these pines by cooking their roots, as the branches freeze in winter.

 

It's safe to say that Yellowstone is a place of natural beauty that's inspired conservation and preserved countless areas of outstanding natural interest around the world.

Obama and Canadian PM Expected to Discuss Pipeline

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 3:01 PM EST

President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are meeting in Washington, and on the slate of topics for discussion is energy policy—which is likely to include the massive pipeline that a Canadian company wants to build to transport oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in Texas.

Environmental groups are using the visit to urge the administration to reject the proposed 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline project. In a letter sent to Obama on Friday, 86 national and regional environmental groups described imports from the tar sands as the "world's dirtiest form of oil," and urged his administration to deny TransCanada's request to build the pipeline across the plains:

The pipeline would drive further destruction of Canada’s boreal forest, bring the threat of dangerous oil spills through America’s heartland, exacerbate air quality problems in communities surrounding the refineries that the pipeline would service, and significantly increase the carbon intensity of U.S. transportation fuel, which would undercut the emissions reductions achieved by increasing U.S. automobile efficiency.

"America does not need this dangerous and expensive pipeline," the groups, which include the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and Friends of the Earth, conclude.

Ahead of the visit, the oil industry also sent a letter to Obama urging the administration to approve the project. Obama and Harper are holding a joint press conference at 3 p.m. It will be interesting to see if the pipeline comes up.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday February 4

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 8:00 AM EST

Posts on health and the environment from our other blogs

Waiting Room: If health reform is repealed, next big change likely won't be until 2024.

Death and Taxes: Industrial-size pot farms face taxation and severe crackdowns simultaneously.

Weekday Update: The most recent news on tear-gassed crowds and beaten protesters in Egypt is here.

Backing Down: GOP abandons a bill discriminating between "rape" and "forcible rape."

Clearing the Air: Newt Gingrich's verbal assault on the EPA isn't so popular.

Word War: Florida judge's striking of health care reform used White House rhetoric.

Worry Warts?: Should we worry that a Fla. judge has ruled health reform unconstitutional?

Big Shot: A House Republican shuts down gun safety hearings due to possible juror prejudice in the Tucson case.

Gas Law Passed: Malawi just made farting in public illegal.