Blue Marble - April 2011

Radioactive Fish and Birds: Dangers from Japan?

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 5:49 PM EDT

Over the weekend the Japanese Science Ministry released data from midweek showing large amounts of radioactive iodine had been discovered in seawater off the coast. According to NHK, "the detected level of iodine-131 was 79.4 becquerels per liter, twice the legal standard for water discharged from nuclear plants."

This information follows news that has been coming out in dribs and drabs about a supposed crack in the plant and radioactive water leaking into the ground beneath the plant. While the danger of radioactivity in Japan and elsewhere has generally been played down, these discoveries raise several potentially significant questions for Japan, the central and northern Pacific, and in the United States, primarily for Alaska, Washington, and Oregon.

The first involves fish. The Pacific currents running along the  Japanese coast go north up the Asian coast before turning towards the Bering Sea, and on down through the Gulf of Alaska to the U.S. northwest coast. These currents mainly move from west to east. Fish are influenced by these currents, and in particular the great stocks of tuna along the warmer waters on, above, and below the equator and in the central Pacific.

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"Safety" Bonuses for Deepwater Horizon Rig Owner?

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 2:35 PM EDT

Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in April 2010, killing 11 crew members and unleashing nearly 5 million barrels of oil on the Gulf of Mexico, is back in the news today amid public outrage that the company awarded massive bonuses to its staffers last year for the company's "safety."

Citing 2010 as the "best year in safety performance in our company's history," Transocean awarded five top executives $898,282 in bonuses for the year, according its proxy statement. Colin Barr summed it up pretty well over at Fortune: "It seems like it should be hard to qualify for a safety-related bonus in a year in which one of your rigs blows up, causing deaths and dozens of injuries." You don't say!

After getting some well-deserved criticism for this, the company admitted that it "may have been insensitive" and acknowledged that the company "continues to mourn" those lost on the Deepwater Horizon. The incident is a good reminder of the fact that, while BP got much of the scorn in the wake of the Gulf disaster, Transocean was also deeply involved—and in the days after the explosion, sought to evade responsibility.

Following the latest news on Transocean, a pair of House Democrats asked investigators to look into whether the company's decisions about shifts and schedules for workers may have contributed to the disaster. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Diana DeGette (D-Calif.) sent letters on Monday to the Chemical Safety Board and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) noting that, according to the Energy and Commerce Committee's investigation of last year's accident, Transocean extended the shifts of workers on the rig just months before:

Documents provided to the Committee indicate that the schedule shifted from a 14-day-on-the-rig/14-day-off-the-rig to a 21-day-on-the-rig/21-day-off-the-rig pattern. According to Transocean’s lawyers, this was partially a cost-saving measure. Lloyd’s Register, an independent assessor, conducted a survey of workers aboard the rig and found that this change was having a negative impact on the workers.

According to the papers filed with the committee, the move saved Transocean approximately $200,000 per rig each year, or nearly $2.5 million total annually. But the independent assessor found that the extended shifts had a negative impact on workers, with some complaining of "fatigue issues." The letter also notes that six of the eleven employees who died that day were on day 20 of the 21-day shift, while a seventh was on day 19.

All of this, of course, raises questions about just how safe Transocean really was—and how much they may have been at fault in the accident.

Are Humans Giving Animals Cancer?

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 2:01 AM EDT

"Tasmanian Devils are not the friendliest of animals," explains Kathy Belov as she tries to punch a skin sample from the ear of one of the famously ferocious marsupials. (This one is, fortunately, stuffed inside a burlap sack.) Belov, a geneticist at the University of Sydney, studies Devil Facial Tumor Disease, which has killed almost three quarters Tasmania's devil population. The unusual affliction, which rots the animals' faces off and causes them to starve to death, is the unintentional result of contact with humans: Early colonists' efforts to exterminate the creatures worked so well that they are now seriously inbred, making them vulnerable to this contagious cancer, which is spread by biting. Though the Tasmanian Devils' case is unique, conservationists are becoming increasingly concerned about other cancer outbreaks in disparate kinds of wildlife—and what role people played in causing them. Some more examples:

What's So Special About the White Whale?

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 4:19 PM EDT

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

As two of the most unique and legendary members of the monodontidae family, the narwhal and beluga whales are as precious to our understanding of natural history as they are to our grasp of our planet's present condition. You could be mistaken for thinking that these white whales were not something to shout about with their medium length bodies (in comparison to their much greater kin!), short snouts, and absence of a true dorsal fin. However these oceanic stars have shining lights of their very own.

If you haven't come across the beluga whale before, you are in for treat... and not just a visual one. Refreshingly nicknamed the "Sea Canary" by early Arctic sailors, this sociable marine mammal uses a wide range of high pitched whistles, screeches, clicks, and squeaks to communicate. According to one Japanese researcher, it's not just to each other. It was claimed that it was possible to "talk" to the beluga by attributing three distinct sounds to three objects and then playing games in identifying which went with which. This not only exercised the whales' intelligence, but also gave hope that one day humans and sea mammals might be able to exchange more valuable information.

However, we must also remember that these unmistakable all-white whales (who can be heard through the hulls of ships) do just make noise for the fun of it, as this video of a beluga back scrubbing party quite notably shows.

However weird and wonderful this sea creature may be, it definitely is a contender for being better known in fiction rather than fact. Appearing alongside the beluga is another very vocal, cold water loving, deep sea diver: the narwhal. However with this sea mammal, it is definitely all about looks.

Most commonly accepted as having a feature similar in purpose to a lion's mane or a peacock's tail feather, the narwhal have a tusk which can be up to 10 feet long! And when compared with a body length similar to the belugas' at a medium-sized 16 feet, that’s quite a tooth!

Living year-round in the Arctic, but migrating seasonally to be closer to the coasts, the narwhal are unique in their ability to hunt more successfully in the deep-waters during the winter, than the shallows during the summer. Which begs the question: why do these mammals migrate at all? The answer. To mate and give birth. It's while in these coastal bays that the white whales will not only enjoy the open water, and a sea bottom of scratchy gravel and crushed stone (as seen in the moulting video above)... they'll also take advantage of the safer and gentler climate of the bays to give birth to their young.

After mating in the deep waters during the winter migration approximately 14 to 15 months prior, the beluga and the narwhal mothers will both split into their respective nursing pods and give birth usually around the summer months of June and July. Luckily (especially for the narwhal!) these marine mammals give birth to their young tail first, however neither will be born in the immediate likeness to their parents. The beluga calf takes on a greyish brown color, and the narwhal males don't develop any form of tusk until the first few years of life.

The calves will commonly return to these same estuaries when they are fully-grown, sometimes even meeting their mothers again. And the cycle of life continues.

Should Foodies Be Fasting?

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 3:40 PM EDT

When fasting is in the news these days, it's usually accompanied by words like "cleanse" and "detox." You give up microwave burritos for a while, maybe hit a few yoga classes, and emerge on the other side simultaneously skinnier and more grounded. Or something.

But this week, some people are practicing a different kind of fast: They're hungerstriking to protest the cuts proposed in the house budget bill H.R.1, a brutal piece of legislation that would take food, medicine, and services away from the people who need it most—in order to provide tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations. For a side-by-side comparison of cuts to aid programs and tax breaks for rich people, check out this cool chart over at the Center for American Progress. 

The growing list of fasters includes leaders of religious organizations, NGOS, activists groups, and others. On Tuesday, Mark Bittman devoted his column to the topic. The whole thing is worth reading, but his basic point is this:

...we need to gather and insist that our collective resources be used for our collective welfare, not for the wealthiest thousand or even million Americans but for a vast majority of us in the United States and, indeed, for citizens of the world who have difficulty making ends meet. Or feeding their kids.

Bittman's stirring words led me to wonder what might happen if a critical mass of foodies all joined the fasting movement. Now, this is not a group known for its self-restraint. In fact, recently, foodies have been accused of not just gluttony, but devious gluttony: In a recent Atlantic article B.R. Myers lambasted them for using a facade of politically correct causes (the struggling farmers! The beakless chickens!) to dress up what is really just a desire to eat lots and lots of delicious fancy food.

Foodies, (and especially food writers and bloggers), I invite you to put your morals where your mouth is, prove Myers wrong, and lay off the locally cured bacon and hand-gathered chanterelles for as long as you see fit. I'll be fasting today, which is kind of cheating, since Bittman and others started fasting way back on Monday. But since I've never fasted before, I'm starting small. We'll see how it goes. First order of business: Get someone to remove the chocolate taunting me from my desk drawer. Help!

Eco-News Roundup: Friday April 1

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 6:13 AM EDT

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Sideways: The new way to regulate abortion? Through taxes.

Unnamed: Democrat gets in trouble for saying "uterus" in the Florida House.

Slash and Burn: A Congressional rep has a plan to slash $1 trillion from Medicaid.

Smear Job: Planned Parenthood is still getting "exposed" by undercover videos.

Feel the Pain: Idaho and Kansas advance abortion restrictions based on fetal pain.

Looking for Trouble: Florida gov. wants to test all welfare recipients for drugs, but it may be unconstitutional.

$ vs. CO2: White House and EPA are working on a budgetary solution.

Baby Steps: A branded, super-expensive drug preventing premature births may get generic-ized.

Need for Energy: Obama's energy proposal was vague and a snoozefest.

Caps in the Ring: Every presidential candidate thus far has endorsed cap-and-trade once.

Beach Balls: There are still tarballs on Louisiana beaches, and BP is still fighting the press.

 

 

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House Skeptic Fest Kind of a Let Down for Deniers

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

The House Committee on Science and Technology spent three hours on Thursday debating climate science in the first hearing on the subject since Texas Republican Ralph Hall, a climate skeptic, took the helm of that panel. His first statement about the mission of the panel under his control talked about how they have to deal with "the global warming or global freezing," which gave a good sense of where things were heading this year.

It's worth noting that the majority of the witnesses they called on yesterday weren't actually climate scientists. The Republicans' witness list included a lawyer, an economist, and marketing professor. There was one actual climate scientist called by the Republicans, John Christy of the University of Alabama, though his beliefs on climate change are notably outside of the mainstream of climate science in that he contests the idea that greenhouse gases are the primary driver of warming. The panel also included Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Richard Muller, a physicist who is currently leading the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study, an attempt to reexamine global temperature records (more on that in a minute). MIT's Kerry Emanuel was the witness called by Democrats on the committee and charged with defending the mainstream climate science views.

For more on the meat of the hearing, see the great live-blog that Science ran that featured scientists and reporter Eli Kintisch, or the real-time commentary that the Project on Climate Science organized, also with actual climate scientists. There was a lot of repetition of the same old denier talking points from representatives in the hearing, backed up by the panelists that were largely selected to reinforce those views. At one point, J. Scott Armstrong, the University of Pennsylvania marketing professor, actually responded to a question on the science, "I actually try not to learn a lot about climate change."

The most interesting thing to me, though, is that when asked directly, not one of the actual scientists disputed the fact that the planet is warming and that greenhouse gases are a notable factor. Even Christy said in the hearing that yes, greenhouse gas emissions "do exert a warming influence on the planet." And then there was Muller, who has raised questions about climate data and whose project at Berkeley has drawn criticism for, among other things, its funding from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. The evaluation of global temperature records that his group is undertaking is still forthcoming, but in his testimony he made it clear that, despite what the critics of climate science have argued, their own evaluation has so far affirmed those from NASA, the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups," he stated in his written testimony. Over at Dot Earth, Andy Revkin has more on how his testimony must have been a let-down for those hoping to debunk the premise that the planet is warming. Here's the graphic Muller showed, which indicates that BEST's study, in black, is basically the same as the ones that skeptics have been attacking for years:

While he was vastly outnumbered in the hearing, Emanuel did a solid job of communicating the central tenents of climate science, why it's a cause for concern, and why the disinformers are wrong. Here's a segment from his testimony that was particularly adept:

In soliciting advice, we should be highly skeptical of any expert who claims to be certain of the outcome. I include especially those scientists who express great confidence that the outcome will be benign; the evidence before us simply does not warrant such confidence. Likewise, beware those who deride predictive science in its entirety, for they are also making a prediction: that we have nothing to worry about.

Chris Mooney has more on his testimony over at Discover, where he also reminds us that Emanuel is a Republican—which you would think might make the House majority pay at least a little bit of attention.