Blue Marble - March 2011

In Arctic, Warmer Climate Means More "Beavers Defecating" And Disease

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 5:00 AM PST
Kivalina, Alaska.

Two new studies by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium report that warmer climates are threatening the Northwest Arctic's food-cooling and water-treatment systems, and posing various food- and waterborne health risks to nearby communities.

According to the studies, two small communities in the region, Kivalina and Point Hope, are experiencing longer warm seasons that cause sanitary water systems to flood, damage "washaterias" (places where people can get clean water to bathe or wash clothes), and worsen algae blooms. In 2004, Kivalina had to close its washateria after the belated freeze-up damaged its leach field system for the winter; during the shut down, the village reported a rise in respiratory and skin diseases. In Point Hope, algae blooms between 2007 and 2008 became so frequent and large in the nearby lake that the village's water that technicians had to clean filters more than a dozen times daily.

Worse, warmer temperatures have meant longer growing seasons, triggering a spike in the number of wood-chewing beavers, which are suspected of contaminating local riverways with solid waste and elevating the risk of giardia, a stomach infection commonly known as "beaver feaver."

"In general, people could drink from [the creeks and rivers] freely," Michael Brubaker, director of the health consortium's Center for Climate and Health, told the Arctic Sounder. "Now they have beavers defecating into the river."

Longer warm seasons also mean shorter periods in which villagers can dry caribou, fish, and seal meat before rotting, the studies say, along with melting ice cellars that usually store raw meat. That can lead to more stomach infections from botulism, salmonella, and E. coli, not to mention the more immediate threat of attracting polar bears close to town as milder temperatures expose the odor of raw meat.

The Arctic's problems are not entirely isolated: Warmer temperatures have resulted in some 10,000 cases of food poisoning in the United Kingdom (PDF) as warmer weather breeds bacteria and other pathogens in meats. And both food regulators and scientists in the US are increasingly concerned about food contamination caused by germs that like heat. In the remote corners of the Arctic, however, where temperature swings can be more dramatic than other regions, the research is only getting started, and funding for adaptation projects has been slow to come. "We can't wait around for 15 or 20 years to make sure people have adequate water and sanitation," Brubaker said.

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Life in the Sea Ice

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 4:15 PM PST

Seal tracks on sea ice. Photo by Jason Auch, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Seal tracks on sea ice. Photo by Jason Auch, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

There's a fascinating paper in PNAS examining the relationship between Arctic sea ice and the single-celled algae that live in sea ice. These tiny players account for 57 percent of the primary productivity—that is, the business of making life from nonlife via photosynthesis—in springtime Arctic waters.

The authors turned the predictable question—How will dwindling Arctic sea ice affect ice-dwelling algae?—inside-out:
Here we ... ask instead whether organisms—in particular sea-ice algae—have evolved means to alter ice physical properties to their benefit, mitigating impacts of climate change.

 

Frazil or grease ice, an early stage in the formation of sea ice. Photo by Mila Zinkova, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Frazil or grease ice, an early stage in the formation of sea ice. Photo by Mila Zinkova, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Some background: Although sea ice forms from seawater, it's composed largely of freshwater. That's because in the course of freezing most brine is expelled from the ice crystals—though some remains trapped in microscopic channels and pockets known as brine inclusions.

Amazingly, brine inclusions support tiny but rich ecosystems of  bacteria, viruses, unicellular algae, diatom chains, worms, and crustaceans—a near-frozen ecosystem inside a frozen world known as a sympagic environment (Greek syn: with; pagos: frost). 

We know a lot of lifeforms inhabit Arctic sea ice—and we hear a fair amount about the big guys, like seals, walruses, and polar bears.

Republicans Recycle an Old Idea: the Foam Plastic Coffee Cup

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 1:52 PM PST

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

A bit like the Republican party, they are white, seemingly indestructible and bad for the environment. But after an absence of four years, foam plastic coffee cups have made a comeback in the basement coffee shop of the United States Congress building after Republicans began reversing a series of in-house green initiatives undertaken by Democrats.

The about-turn was announced by a press aide to John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, who tweeted on Monday morning: "The new majority—plasticware is back".

When the Democrats held the house, the former speaker Nancy Pelosi put the cafeterias at the center of a plan to hugely reduce the carbon footprint of Congress.

A Climate Activist Goes On Trial

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 8:55 AM PST
Image courtesy Cliff Lyon.

In December 2008, climate activist Tim DeChristopher successfully disrupted a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction of thousands of acres of public land in Utah by posing as a bidder. Auctioning off the land, which bordered national parks and monuments, was one of the last actions of the Bush administration and a farewell handout to the oil and gas industry. DeChristopher, a 27-year-old student at the University of Utah at the time, bid $1.79 million on more than 22,000 acres of land.

DeChristopher—or Bidder No. 70, as he was known that day—didn't have the money to actually buy the plots, of course, but he did succeed in disrupting their sale before BLM figured out what he was up to and had him arrested. And when Ken Salazar took over as Secretary of the Interior in 2009, he invalidated the lease sale, based on the conclusion that the previous administration had not adequately evaluated the environmental impact of the sales. Even though DeChristopher's position on the sale was essentially validated, federal prosecutors are seeking criminal charges against him. His trial in federal court in Salt Lake City began this week, and he faces two felony charges for disrupting the auction. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

The trial began on Monday with the jury selection and continues on Tuesday. The judge has already thrown out the defense that his actions were necessary to prevent environmental damage on this land and, more broadly, the exacerbataion of climate change. (See our 2009 interview with DeChristopher, as well as a more recent interview in Yes! on the question of whether his actions should constitute a crime.) But the case that DeChristopher and his supporters will attempt to make in court is that this was an act of civil disobedience to prevent environmental harm rather than a criminal act.

The Salt Lake City Weekly is covering the trial and the actions around the city in support of DeChristopher. How the case plays out will certainly be worth watching in the coming days.

Massey Energy Official Busted for Lying and Destroying Evidence

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 5:01 AM PST

The chief of security at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners were killed last year, was arrested on Monday and accused of lying to the FBI and trying to dispose of key documents—the first criminal charges stemming from the worst mining accident in 40 years. 

The security chief, Hughie Elbert Stover, instructed security guards to notify mine personnel whenever inspectors arrived at the mine, according to the federal indictment. Last month, Stover told federal agents that he would have fired any guard who tipped off workers about inspections. Stover is also charged with instructing an unnamed individual to dispose of mine security documents by placing them in a trash compactor.

It remains unclear whether Stover was acting on his own or at the behest of other managers at Massey, which has racked up more health and safety violations in the past decade than any coal outfit in America. A statement released by Massey yesterday claims that the company notified the US Attorney's office "within hours of learning that documents had been disposed of and took immediate steps to recover documents and turn them over." Still, Stover provided personal security for Don Blankenship and was in frequent contact with the recently-retired CEO, according to the Washington Post:

"He was very, very close to Blankenship," said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing. "He would drive Blankenship places. He called him 'Mr. B.'"

It's likely that federal agents will offer Stover a plea deal if he testifies against Blankenship, who, along with 14 other Massey workers, including the head of safety and the foreman at the Upper Big Branch mine, have refused to cooperate with the investigation.

That so many Massey employees have kept their mouths shut in the wake of the disaster shouldn't come as a surprise. As Josh reported yesterday in his feature on the coal town of Twilight, Massey exerts a near-feudal grasp in large parts of Appalachia. Many locals are convinced that they must support Massey even as they privately worry that it's ripping their communities apart. As the wife of a deceased coal miner put it, "There ain't no way to go up against them big companies."