Blue Marble - May 2011

Does a Monster Flood Have to Fuel a Monster Dead Zone Too?

| Fri May. 13, 2011 2:24 PM PDT


Sediment-laden water pours into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers. Credit: Norman Kuring, Ocean Color Team.Sediment-laden water pours into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers. Credit: Norman Kuring, Ocean Color Team.

 
As you can see from the image above, a lot more than water comes down a river. The Mississippi and its distributary, the Atchafalaya River, carry an average of 230 million tons of soil into the Gulf of Mexico every year. On flood years, the total runs a lot higher.

That's going to cause downstream problems this year... all the way downstream to the ocean. But before we go there, let's take a quick look at how the system works.

 

Credit: USGS.Credit: USGS.

 

 

The graphic above shows sediment concentration and sediment discharge for major US rivers. The giant half-circle in the Gulf represents the Mississippi/Atchafalaya discharge. Why are the two rivers bundled together? Because they're really the same river: the parentheses bracketing a 100-mile-wide delta.

 

Mississippi River Delta switching during the past 4,600 years. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Mississippi delta switching during the past 4,600 years. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Before 1927's epic flood, the Mississippi was free to wander the delta, whiplashing between courses whenever a huge flood year like this one pushed it over its banks—a process known as delta switching. In the above image you can see some of its historical courses and when it ran them.

For much of the 20th century the Mississippi has been trying to leave its current course and flow back through its old Atchafalaya course. In his always-excellent WunderBlog, Jeff Masters explains:

 

There is a better way to the Gulf—150 miles shorter, and more than twice as steep. This path lies down the Atchafalaya River... Each year, the path down the Atchafalaya grows more inviting. As the massive amounts of sediments the Mississippi carries—scoured from fully 41% of the U.S. land area—reach the Gulf of Mexico, the river's path grows longer. This forces it to dump large amounts of sediment hundreds of miles upstream, in order to build its bed higher and maintain the flow rates needed to flush such huge amounts of sediment to the sea. Thus the difference in elevation between the bed of the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya—currently 17-19 feet at typical flow rates of the rivers—grows ever steeper, and the path to the Gulf down the Atchafalaya more inviting. Floods like this year's great flood further increase the slope, as flood waters scour out the bed of the Atchafalaya.

 


Mississippi River watershed. Credit: Shannon via Wikimedia Commons.Mississippi River watershed. Credit: Shannon via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Of course it makes no difference to the Gulf of Mexico whether the floodwaters come down the Mississippi or the Atchafalaya. What matters to the ocean is what's in the river water. The Mississippi drains the entirety of America's breadbasket... therefore its fertilizerbasket, pesticidebasket, fungicidebasket, and manurebasket.

River water, with its organic nutrient loads, naturally acts as a fertilizer on ocean chemistry. Add in the runoff from farms and feedlots—with nitrogen and phosphorous loads from chemical fertilizers and manure—and you get a Miracle-Gro on steroids. Which, paradoxically, fuels an oceanic dead zone.

 

Phytoplankton. Credit: NOAA MESA Project.Phytoplankton. Credit: NOAA MESA Project.

 

I wrote extensively about this problem in my Mother Jones cover, The Fate of the Ocean, a few years back.

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone forms every summer when spring floods wash the nutrients downriver into the Gulf to fertilize massive oceanic plant blooms. The marine plants are mostly single-celled phytoplankton.

The problem is the phytoplankton bloom so fast and furiously that their primary consumers, the zooplankton, can't bloom fast enough to keep up and eat them all. Many phytoplankton die uneaten and are then consumed by detritivores—the microorganisms like bacteria that feed on (that is, decompose) dead things. The Gulf's spring and summer phytoplankton blooms also fuel detritivore blooms.

 

Video frame of dead zone of the Baltic Sea, showing the seafloor covered with dead or dying crabs, fish, and clams killed by low oxygen levels. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Video frame of dead zone of the Baltic Sea, showing the seafloor covered with dead or dying crabs, fish, and clams killed by low oxygen levels. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Unfortunately, growing populations of detritivores use up much of the dissolved oxygen in the water. Marine life that can't swim away or otherwise flee these increasingly hypoxic zones, suffocate and die. You can see the results in the image above.

 

Black skimmers on the nest, Mississippi. Photo © Julia Whitty.Black skimmers on the nest, Mississippi. Photo © Julia Whitty.


Researchers are expecting a mighty dead zone will form from this year's mighty floods. The Gulf, staggering back from last year's oily assaults on its ecosystems, will likely pay a heavy price... again, smack in the middle of the most breeding season for everything from seabirds to tuna... and smack in the middle of important seasons for commercial fisheries, sports fisheries, and tourism.

So is there anything we can do about the problem? The Microbial Life Education Center at Minnesota's Carleton College—in the heart of Mississippi farmland—suggests these fixes:

  • Using fewer fertilizers and adjusting the timing of fertilizer applications to limit runoff of excess nutrients from farmland

  • Control of animal wastes so that they are not allowed to enter into waterways

  • Monitoring of septic systems and sewage treatment facilities to reduce discharge of nutrients to surface water and groundwater

  • Careful industrial practices such as limiting the discharge of nutrients, organic matter, and chemicals from manufacturing facilities

 

The solutions are relatively simple and highly effective. A similar course change has already been used to remediate the effects of overly nutrient-rich waters in the Great Lakes.

 

The Atchafalaya River enters the Gulf of Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.The Atchafalaya River enters the Gulf of Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

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Fantastic Foxes

| Fri May. 13, 2011 10:47 AM PDT

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

In myth, the fox is better known for its cunning rather than its courage. It has become a symbol of trickery, deceit, and even had its name attributed to false prophets in the Bible.

Yet the bad press received is counter to the fox's natural strengths and abilities. An examples of this animal's ability to adapt, and above all, survive, include living on a diet of scavenged scraps while always remaining one step ahead of its many predators.

A member of the canine family, the fox has understandably been able to colonize many parts of the world. As a relation of dogs, wolves, and coyotes, this animal naturally sits on the boundaries of civilization. However this closeness to domestication has meant that while some species have thrived in the urban jungle, others have not.

This species success story is therefore best seen outside of cities, in the remote habitats where the variations in fox's biology can really be seen and appreciated. Though you may have to look hard to see them, as these "true foxes" of the deserts, mountains, tundras, and frozen worlds are kings of being coy.

 

Of the 37 species referred to as foxes, only 12 actually belong to the Vulpes genus of true foxes. One that fits into this category (but also that of its own genus) is the Arctic fox. Surviving in a subzero temperatures, this compact fox has evolved to have short ears, short legs, and incredibly dense fur. This canine’s unique physical development does not stop there. Footpads covered with thick hair enable this small creature to hunt all year round by protecting it from the severe cold and even providing traction on ice.

 

Moving further along the evolutionary scale, the compact body and dense fur can be seen again, but in a very different environment. The Tibetan Fox is characterized by its soft, thick, red fur and long bushy tail with white tip. The tail is essential for battling the fierce Tibetan winds that come from both the barren grasslands and rocky mountainous areas, an area that sees temperatures drop to -30C! A fox's life is not an easy life, even outside of the Arctic.

We then arrive at the opposite end of the scale from where we began—from freezing ice worlds to hot deserts—with the most intriguing of them all, the Fennec fox. The smallest canid in the world, this animal's entire body has adapted to cope with the extreme nature of its environment. The Fennec's coat deflects heat during the day and keeps it warm at night, helping the fox deal with the desert's high temperatures and low levels of available water. Its ears have grown in size and evolved blood vessels extremely close to the skin in order to dissipate even more heat. And we needn't mention the greatly increased hearing ability that is provided by such large ears.

As this fox species shows us, there is a lot more to these carnivores that can be seen on the streets of our cities. Some even prefer fruit and berries to live prey! Yet as ever-evolving survivors, they are living proof that even if you've seen one, you definitely haven't seen them all.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday May 13

| Fri May. 13, 2011 4:57 AM PDT
An endangered San Joaquin kit fox

News on the environment, health, health care, energy, and other Blue Marble-ish topics from our other awesome blogs.

Big Govern-Mitt: Mitt Romney's Obama-esque health care law is coming back to haunt him.

Green Scare: Environmental activists are under fire, as terrorists.

Dazed and Confused: Nursing home patients are being over-prescribed anti-psychotics.

Bench Warmers: Judicial appointees matter, as seen with challenges to Obama's health care bill.

Powerful Point: A PowerPoint slide illustrates why the health reform law is legal.

What the Frack: Danger from fracking is becoming more than anecdotal.

 

 

 

Is Scholastic Selling Elementary School Kids on Coal?

| Fri May. 13, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Environmental groups are going after the world's largest publisher of children's books for teaming up with the American Coal Foundation to produce "The United States of Energy," a lesson plan designed for fourth-graders. The foundation, online at Teachcoal.org, is devoted to creating "coal-related educational materials and programs designed for teachers and students."

"We hope that you and your students enjoy this energizing program!" proclaims the teaching guide. The materials use coal, oil, natural gas, and renewables as a starting point for lessons on geography, science, and math, and promise to teach students "that different types of energy (e.g., solar, fossil fuels) have different advantages and disadvantages." But the materials are decidedly lacking on that latter front. The worksheets ask kids to explore the question, "What are the benefits of this kind of energy?" without ever entertaining the possibility that there might be problems to consider as well.

Chimps Hunting Monkeys Closer to Extinction

| Thu May. 12, 2011 3:20 PM PDT

Humans are behind a number of species extinctions, but in Uganda it's chimps that are hunting monkeys into oblivion. Chimps in Uganda have been hunting red colobus monkeys, so much so that the monkey's population has dropped 89% from 1975 to 2007. The findings were reported in the American Journal of Primatology this week.

According to the IUCN's Red List of endangered species (both the chimps and their prey are endangered), the red colobus monkey population is around 20,000 animals. Most of them live in Uganda's Kibale National Park, which also hosts the nation's largest chimp population. The decline in red colobus monkeys in the past 30 years has been accompanied with a 53% increase in chimp sightings, which researchers say suggests the two are related. The study's authors report that between the 1990s and 2002, chimps killed 15-53% of the monkey population every year. Although chimps are often solitary, during hunting raids they coordinate to kill the smaller, vegetarian colobus monkeys. The chimps preyed especially on young or juvenile monkeys, which created an additional reproductive toll on the species. A single chimp outweighs a single monkey by about 50 pounds (around 20 lbs vs. 70 lbs), so one can imagine that when they band together, the monkeys don't have much of a chance.

But why do chimps hunt in the first place? Some have theorized that males will hunt more during mating season to swap meat for sex with females, and some say that chimps hunt more during the dry season where the supply of fruit and leaves runs thin. At least one scientist has said both those theories are false, and that chimps actually hunt as a form of male bonding (sound familiar, humans?). We may never know exactly why chimps hunt, but a Yale professor interviewed by New Scientist says all is not lost for the red colobus monkeys of Uganda. Professor David Watts said that chimps are hunting less often than previously, meaning that young chimps may not be able to hunt as effectively as their elders.

33 Anti-Abortion Laws Enacted in April

| Wed May. 11, 2011 2:44 PM PDT

April 2011 saw a remarkable amount of anti-choice legislation. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 33 laws in 9 states restricted abortion or made it more difficult for women to obtain them. The states that made new restrictions on abortion in April were all located in the middle of the country, except for Virginia, which passed a bill restricting abortion coverage under insurance exchanges.

Kansas seemed to be one of the more extreme states: it passed laws banning abortion after 20 weeks, requiring written parental consent for abortions on minors, and revising its "partial birth" abortion ban. It also passed a law requiring pre-abortion counseling, mandating that medical staff tell women that abortion ends the life of a "whole, separate, unique, living human being" and provide information on the father's liability for child support and copious lists of adoption and parenting resources.

April victories aren't slowing down pro-life Kansans, they're trucking along with a proposal to stop private insurance companies from offering standard abortion coverage along with other medical service. And as we've reported previously, the first practitioner to offer abortions in Wichita since the murder of Dr. George Tiller has been stopped by her landlord for creating a "nuisance."

For more anti-abortion coverage, check out excellent reporting by Nick Baumann and Kate Sheppard. For state-by-state updates, check out the Guttmacher Institute's rather exhaustive index here.

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Forget Earthquakes: Fires Are the Biggest Threat to US Nuclear Plants

| Wed May. 11, 2011 1:54 PM PDT

Fires occur at US nuclear plants a total of ten times a year on average, but most sites are underprepared for the event of a disaster, according to two reports published today by ProPublica and iWatch News. The independent reviews highlight how over the last three decades, industry neglect and gaps in regulatory enforcement have contributed to the risk of fire-induced nuclear accidents at the 104 existing plants across the country. The reports come in the wake of the March earthquake that triggered a leak at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi reactor, which has resulted in the country freezing its own nuclear power expansion plans. Here are some of the reports' most alarming findings:

  • Fires are often triggered by accidents as likely as a short circuit in an electric cable or a spark igniting oil in a pump.
  • Most existing safety plans focus on containing and putting out fires rather than preventing them, and rely on time-consuming manual actions like sending in a worker to activate a pump that will ensure a reactor is shut down.
  • At two dozen of the nation's reactors, spent fuel are stored in unsecured, above-ground pools with potential lethal waste exceeding those stored in Japan. (If a cooler at one of the reactors were to break down, spent fuel could overheat or catch on fire, releasing radiation that could kill people living within 50 miles of the plant.)
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the main nuclear safety enforcement body, has in the past resisted issuing citations to violators, and when it does often exempts them from paying penalties, numbering more than 900 exemptions as of 2001. The NRC does not keep its own list of fire safety gaps, but instead relies on plants to provide them during inspections.
  • Most plants are ill equipped to stamp out large-scale fires; reactor owners get away with using electrical cables wrapped in fire-proof materials that have previously failed safety tests.

Nuclear plant fires have not killed any Americans to date, which might explain why the hazard has been downplayed. But shortcomings like fire protection violations make disasters more likely, the Union of Concerned Scientists' David Lochbaum told ProPublica. And as the map below shows, nuclear reactors are clustered in some of the most dense areas of the US, meaning the risk of fire is simply too dangerous to go unaddressed. "The NRC is to nuclear power today what the SEC was to Wall Street three years ago," Richard Brodsky, a former Westchester, NY assemblyman told iWatch. 

Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory CommissionSource: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Will Latest Leak Kill TransCanada's Pipe Dream?

| Wed May. 11, 2011 11:04 AM PDT

TransCanada, the company that is petitioning the US government to build a massive pipeline from Alberta's tar sands down to refineries in Texas, may have hit a bit of a snag this week as the massive pipeline they already operate in the US dumped 21,000 gallons (500 barrels) of crude in North Dakota. The oil the pipeline was carrying, diluted bitumen, is fresh from the tar sands.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The spill occurred early Saturday morning, resulting from a valve failure at a pump station about 40 miles southwest of Milner, N.D. The spill was contained on TransCanada's property, and two dozen workers have been able to clean up 300 barrels so far, company spokesman Terry Cunha said on Monday.

The pipeline in question stretches from Alberta, Canada into Oklahoma and Illinois, carrying 591,000 barrels of crude a day. It opened in June of last year, but as the Michigan Messenger points out, this is already its 12th leak. Not a great start, to say the least. As Anthony Smith of the Natural Resources Defense Council writes:

Considering that Keystone has been in operation for less than a year and it was predicted to spill no more than once every seven years, this is yet another troubling indicator that U.S. safety regulations intended for pipelines moving conventional oil may not be sufficient for pipelines moving diluted bitumen. And the Keystone pipeline is not going to get any stronger or safer than it is now, as many of the risks associated with hot, high pressure diluted bitumen pipelines—including internal corrosion, abrasion and stress corrosion cracking—only weaken pipelines over time.

But TransCanada's spokesman insists this is not a big deal—the pipeline itself isn't leaking, only its stations. "The system is working as it should," Cunha told the WSJ. "We built the system to the best of our ability to ensure these things don't happen, but when they do we respond immediately, and we were able to shut down the system within minutes."

Of course, the company has every reason to downplay the problems. The State Department is currently deciding whether to allow the company to build a 1,661-mile extension for the pipeline, a $12 billion project. The plan has drawn criticism from property owners, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists and some local politicians for the impact a potential spill could have on land and water resources in the region. I'm guessing the latest incident doesn't help TransCanada's case very much.

Dems Look to Cash in on Oil Unrest

| Wed May. 11, 2011 8:30 AM PDT

Senate Democrats are ramping up their efforts to make oil subsidies a big issue—and an inconvenient one for Republicans. With the debate about the debt ceiling revving up, they want to make an issue of the $21 billion worth of tax breaks that they've proposed cutting.

Democrats on Tuesday released a bill that would slash those subsidies. Today, they're holding a press conference at an ExxonMobil station on Capitol Hill to drive home the point. Via The Hill:

All the savings would be steered toward deficit reduction, which Democrats made their top talking point as they baited GOP foes on nixing the incentives.
"If you are serious about deficit reduction and you say Big Oil's tax breaks are off limits, how serious can you be?" said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a key strategist for Senate Democrats.

Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jon Tester (Mont.), and Robert Menendez (N.J.) are also lead sponsors of the bill—and the former three are looking at difficult reelection bids in 2012. But that's sort of the point of this whole maneuver. Subsidy reform isn't likely to pass the Senate, let alone the House. But they are banking on Americans being annoyed at both the debt and high gas prices, and being able to use that as a campaign weapon.

Speaking of cashing in on populist revolt against Big Oil, the Center for American Progress took a look at how little ExxonMobil currently pays in taxes, thanks in large part to these loopholes. Here's what it looks like:

Online Creationist Textbook Proposed In Texas

| Wed May. 11, 2011 4:08 AM PDT

An online biology textbook up for approval by the Texas State Board of Education is drawing fire from scientific and education groups for tacitly pushing creationism. Created by the obscure, New Mexico-based International Databases LLC, the textbook seeks to justify the existence of a higher being while avoiding direct mention of God or the Bible. The Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the religious right in Texas, said in a press release that its adoption by the SBOE would be "a shocking leap backward."

The textbook's "Origin of Life" chapter details lab experiments that have failed to create life from inorganic materials, concluding that there is a huge gap between "life" and "non-life" (as crudely illustrated in the photo at right). But from there it makes the considerable leap that biological explanations for the origin of life are discredited. "[T]he legitimate scientific hypothesis," it argues, is that "life on Earth is the result of intelligent causes."

The notes to teachers accompanying the chapter leave little doubt that pushing a belief in God is the ultimate goal:

[A]t the end of the instructional unit on the Origin of Life students should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life's origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios. This new way of thinking is predicated on the hypothesis that intelligent input is necessary for life's origins.

Of course, this is far from the first attempt to insert creationism into Texas classrooms; the issue has often been a cause célèbre for right-wing members of the State Board of Education, as well as Republican state legislators. The SBOE will vote on adopting the new science curriculum materials in July.