Blue Marble - May 2011

An Excellent Year in the Gulf of California

| Mon May 9, 2011 6:16 PM EDT

Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo ©Julia Whitty Rasa Island, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty

I'm finally back from Mexico's remote Isla Rasa, a tiny outpost in the Gulf of California and one of the most important seabird breeding islands in the world. The island covers a bare 138 acres/56 hectares. Yet it's home to half a million birds—many more if it's a good enough year for the birds to produce eggs, incubate them, and hatch their chicks.

Heermann's gulls and a cardón cactus, both endemic to the Gulf of California and the Baja Peninsula. Photo © Julia Whitty.Heermann's gulls and a cardón cactus, both endemic to the Gulf of California and the Baja Peninsula. Photo © Julia Whitty.

Some 95 percent of all Heermann's gulls (Larus heermanni) nest on Isla Rasa. These are small, pretty, polite gulls—compared to their much larger Larid relatives.

Heermann's gull:

  • length 19 inches/48 centimeters

  • wingspan 51 inches/129 centimeters

Great black-backed gull:

  • length 30 inches/76 centimeters

  • wingspan: 65 inches/165 centimeters

Grand Central Station Valley, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia WhittyGrand Central Station Valley, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

In the photo above, you can see the nesting territories of the gulls dotting the island's valleys. Gulls also nest throughout the rocky hillsides and ridgelines.

Heermann's gull. Photo © Julia Whitty.Heermann's gull. Photo © Julia Whitty.

In fact Heermann's gulls nest on every square inch of this sunbaked, windswept island—except where thickets of cholla cactus have taken hold... and where colonies of terns have usurped them.

Elegant tern colony in the midst of Heermann's gulls, Isa Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.Elegant tern colony in the midst of Heermann's gulls, Isa Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

In the photo above you can see how elegant terns (Thalasseus elegans) have successfully muscled into the territories of gulls in one of the island's eleven valleys.

Elegant terns, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.Elegant terns, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

The terns nest closer together than the gulls. This, and the fact that they move into gull territories en masse and often under cover of night, means they generally get what ground they want—even though they're smaller birds.

Heermann's gull:

  • length 19 inches/48 centimeters

  • wingspan 51 inches/129 centimeters

Elegant tern:

  • length 17 inches/43 centimeters

  • wingspan 34 inches/86 centimeters

Heermann's gulls and elegant terns, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo ©Julia Whitty.Heermann's gulls and elegant terns, Isla Rasa, Mexico. Photo © Julia Whitty.

Here's what the two species look like nesting side-by-side.

You can probably already tell from the numbers of birds in the photos that's it's been a very good year so far on the island.

Heermann's gull chick and eggs. Photo ©Julia Whitty.Heermann's gull chick and eggs. Photo © Julia Whitty.

By the time I left, chicks were hatching everywhere and the whole island was transformed from the calm (in comparison) business of incubating to the furious business of feeding tiny insatiable stomachs.

In a forthcoming Mother Jones article I'll be writing more about why this year may be the best for the Gulf's seabirds since the mid-19th century.

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The Mississippi River Flooding, Explained

| Mon May 9, 2011 9:45 AM EDT
Several homes sit in a neighborhood flooded by rivers that lead off of the Mississippi river in north Memphis. The river is expected to reach record levels tonight in the Memphis area as over one thousand across the area have left their homes due to fear of flooding.

The Midwest and the South are once again in the middle of record floods. The mighty Mississippi River is now six times its normal size and police have evacuated parts of Memphis as the river crested overnight just shy of 48 feet.

It neared, but didn't reach, the record of 48.7 feet set there in 1937. The water levels are expected to break records in other parts of the region set in two major floods of the past century, in 1927 and 1937. While Memphis is experiencing the brunt of it right now, the flood crest is expected to "move slowly downstream towards New Orleans during the next three weeks," according to the National Weather Service, and will likely also impact southern tributaries like the White River, the Arkansas River, and Big Black River, among others.

Here are answers to a few common questions about the flood:

What caused the flooding?

The 2,320-mile-long Mississippi drains approximately 41 percent of the continental US. A lot of snow in the upper Midwest this winter and an extremely wet April—where up to four times the normal amount of rain fell in some parts of the region—compounded to overflow the banks of the river.

How many people are affected?

Bloomberg reports that 3,075 buildings, 949 homes and 12 apartment complexes are affected in just Shelby County, Tenn., home to Memphis. As Jeff Master's writes over on WunderBlog, these are the highest water levels on record for the 70-mile stretch between Missouri and Tennessee. As the crest moves south, many more towns may be affected, including New Orleans. Here's what the Mississippi looks like now, as it has expanded to up to 3 miles wide at some points:

Images of the Mississippi River, before and after the flooding.: NASA Earth ObservatoryImages of the Mississippi River, before and after the flooding: NASA Earth Observatory

What are they doing to protect towns and cities?

The Army Corps already breached levees to protect Cairo, Ill. They have also opened floodgates on the Bonnet Carre spillway near New Orleans to try to divert some of the water and may open others. The Army Corps released a map on Monday showing the estimated inundation areas for Louisiana.

Does climate change have anything to do with this?

Most scientists will urge caution in saying that any particular weather event is directly "caused" by climate change. However, increases in both snow and rain are tied to climate change. The melting snow from the winter and torrential downpours this spring have overwhelmed the river. Scientists say that we can expect more floods in the US and around the world as the planet gets warmer. The US Global Change Research Program has warned of more extreme events like heavy downpours in Midwest in the future as the climate changes. Treehugger has more on this subject.

Is this as bad as the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927?

The 1927 flood is often referred to as the worst in US history. It impacted seven states in an area of 27,000 square miles and destroyed 130,000 homes, as a local paper recently recalled. It also killed 246 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The damage would have totaled $1.5 billion at today's prices, according to the Corps. Infrastructure and transportation have improved substantially since then, as have the early-warning systems that allow people to evacuate, which makes helps limit the damage for this latest flood. Reuters has more historic floods in the region.

What is a "100-year flood," anyway?

This term is used colloquially to refer to major floods, but most people don't really know what it means. The US Geological Survey explains:

The term "100-year flood" is misleading because it leads people to believe that it happens only once every 100 years. The truth is that an uncommonly big flood can happen any year. The term "100-year flood" is really a statistical designation, and there is a 1-in-100 chance that a flood this size will happen during any year. Perhaps a better term would be the "1-in-100 chance flood."

So that means these floods can happen more than once in a 100-year period—or more than once in a single year, really.

Study Links Bottle Use and Child Obesity

| Fri May 6, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

The Journal of Pediatrics published a study yesterday that finds that toddlers (24 months) who drink from bottles regularly are more likely to become obese later in childhood. The study, which included 6,750 children, reported that toddlers who were using bottles at 2 years were more likely to be obese at age 5 (24%) than those who did not use bottles (16%). This was even after factors such as socioeconomic status, breastfeeding, and race had been controlled for. Toddlers who only used bottles at bedtime, or who only used bottles at other times, were not as likely to become obese as children who drank from bottles during the day and at night.

"Prolonged bottle use may lead to the child consuming excess calories, particularly when parents are using the bottle to comfort the child rather than address the child's hunger or nutritional needs," the study's authors wrote. They point out that an 8 oz. bottle of whole milk contains 150 calories, about 12% of the daily calories for a 2-year-old.

The study did not look at whether bottles were usually filled with breast milk, cow milk, juice, or other beverages, which is something that would have been interesting to know. Water or diluted juice certainly has fewer calories than, say, chocolate milk or soda. The study also did not measure children's physical activity. However, the researchers suggested pediatricians advise parents to limit or eliminate bottle use after the first year, noting that the measure is "unlikely to cause harm and may prevent obesity along with other health problems."

 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday May 6

| Fri May 6, 2011 5:24 PM EDT

News from our other blogs on the environment, health, and health care.

So Sorry: Tim Pawlenty is sorry he ever cared (or pretended to) about the environment.

Audit to Come: Bill allowing IRS to ask women questions about rape passes House.

Defining Rape: Tricky wording in Republican bill seeks to reduce abortion funding for rape victims.

Non-Negotiable: Why we will never have an energy sector free from oil.

Hindsight: Why did Republicans pursue Medicare privatization in the first place?

Going National: Kevin Drum suggests federalizing Medicaid.

Outraged: Republicans are outraged by moral outrage at cutting Medicaid.

 

 

 

 

If I Could Be Like Bike

| Fri May 6, 2011 3:24 PM EDT

Offshore drilling won't do much to ease the pain at the pump that a lot of Americans are experiencing today, despite what the debate in Washington might lead you to believe. But what could make it easier is giving people alternatives to driving that are economically appealing—like financial incentives for carpooling, public transit, and biking.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the resident bike guru of the House, introduced legislation this week that would level the playing field on transit benefits. The "Commuter Relief Act" would set a uniform cap of $200 per month for transportation fringe benefits, which can be used however the commuter prefers, rather than offering a bigger tax break for drivers than for bus riders. I also makes the transportation benefits more flexible in other ways, letting people pick how they want to get to work without forfeiting the cash savings. It's the only real way, says Blumenauer, of liberating Americans from high gas prices.

"Petroleum is going to become increasingly expensive. It's going to be increasingly scarce," he tells Mother Jones. "What we really need to do is give American consumers choices so they are not tethered to the gas pump quite as tightly."

For years, federal policies have created incentives to drive to work alone. We subsidize driving by letting commuters use up to $230 of their pre-tax earnings for parking; only in the past two years, since the passage of the Recovery Act, have policies equalized the federal tax credits for mass transit and parking. Right now, the cap on transportation benefits is $230 for both cars and transit, but when the tax deal expires at the end of 2011, the public transit subsidy drops back down to $130. That extra $100 a month is certainly a perverse incentive to drive to work. Blumenauer's bill would at least ensure that they remain equal.

Blumenauer's bill would also require employers who provide free parking for employees to let anyone who doesn't drive get the cash equivalent instead. That means employers would essentially end up paying you not to drive to work. His bill would also allow commuters to combine benefits, using some of that $200 to cover costs associated with biking (like maintence) and some for mass transit, as needed. This would be ideal for people who bike to a transit stop, or who bike most days and take public transit in inclement weather. The bill also creates a credit for people who use van-pools, and allows people who are self-employed to use the transportation benefit program, too.

"You ought to be able to pick and choose what makes sense for you," says the lawmaker, now in his eighth term representing Portland. He's biked to work every day on the Hill since coming to Washington, and is often found sporting a bright plastic bicycle button. "In 15 years in Congress, I've never been stuck in traffic. I've never been unable to find a parking space," he says. "And I've burned hundreds of thousands of calories instead of gallons of fossil fuels."

When Congress resumes fighting over offshore drilling again next week, it would be nice to hear more about programs that really could help Americans deal with soaring gas prices.

The Gas Wars Are Back On

| Thu May 5, 2011 3:52 PM EDT

If you drive, you don't need me to tell you that gas prices are going up. And with that recurrent phenomenon, the congressional debate about what to do is revived. In 2008, the Democratically-controlled Congress let the moratorium on drilling in the outer-continental shelf expire amid hysteria about $4 gasoline. This year, the drilling debate is back in action as House Republican leadership calls votes this week on a set of bills that would expand offshore drilling while at the same time lowering environmental standards.

The House passed the first of the bills, H.R. 1230, or the "Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act," on Thursday afternoon. This measure reopens lease sales for the areas of the outer-continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia that were canceled after the BP spill last summer. It does so without requiring any further environmental analysis, despite the fact that the Gulf disaster last year raised some pretty real questions about impacts of a potential spill. The other two bills, which are also expected to pass, would open new areas for drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans; speed up the process of approving drilling permits; and offer economic incentives for oil companies to use seismic technology to survey for oil reserves.

I guess it's worth repeating that drilling in every orifice of the United States isn't going to do a damn thing to lower gas prices anytime soon, even if you wouldn't know that from listening to spin on these bills.

The question is whether these bills will go anywhere. Given the Senate's inability to pass much of anything, I would guess no. The White House also issued a statement of administrative policy on Thursday opposing two of the bills and saying that the proposed changes would "undercut" reforms made since last year's spill.

But as E2Wire points out, the White House didn't actually say the president would veto the bills, and the administration maintains that it does want "safe and responsible" offshore drilling expansion. So yes, just a year after the Gulf disaster, we are again debating offshore drilling as if it were not only safe but also a miracle cure for high gas prices.

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Power of Communication

| Thu May 5, 2011 2:37 PM EDT

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

A human's need to communicate can be observed from the first moments of life. A newborn's instinct to cry lays the stepping-stone for a process which will enable every human to successfully communicate their experience of being alive.

It has been said that words are man's greatest achievement. The first utterances of symbolic language emerged 2.5 million years ago, setting solid foundations for modern articulation. Yet many would argue that speech and language was developed not out of want, but out of need. Therefore in what ways do humans communicate without using words?

Music has long been a way of communicating for necessity as well as pleasure. For example, using a lullaby to sooth, a folk song to warn, and a chant to call to arms. But in what ways do we use rhythm and melody to communicate with nature itself? In the case of the people of the Banks islands in the South Pacific, they can only communicate their message of thanks to the sea by literally playing the water. Waist deep in water, women and young girls alike will stand side by side and begin to play a complex set of rhythmic patterns, each one as unique as the female player herself.

In the video below from the BBC Series "South Pacific," this syncopated drumming can be seen in excellent HD quality.


The history of humans on these volcanic islands indicates precisely why these rituals still take place. Archeologists have found evidence that this region of the Pacific has been inhabited since at least 2000BC, yet with only 1% land to 99% water, and in a climate of volatile cyclone-prone seas, life in the South Pacific is far from idyllic. But Vanuatu's listing as the happiest nation on the planet by the Happy Planet Index couldn’t have hurt!

Social Security's Paperless Transition

| Wed May 4, 2011 8:44 PM EDT

As of May 1, new applicants for Social Security benefits will not be able to receive paper checks. The move is part of Social Security's gradual transition from paper checks to electronic banking, which will save the government about $1 billion over 10 years. The transition, which will be completed by March 2013, will also save 12 million pounds of paper in the first five years. But some people, like the commenters at Consumerist, have raised questions about whether the switch to direct deposit (or Visa-branded debit cards) will actually cost users.

It seems these concerns have some merit to them. Just a quick look at the Social Security site reveals that SS debit card users can be charged fees for things like ATM cash withdrawals. Users only get one free ATM withdrawal each month. After that, each withdrawal is $.90, and that's assuming the user has easy access to one of SS's in-network ATMs. Users can, however, get cash-back-with-purchase for free, as well as cash from a bank. Theoretically, the card should debit funds so quickly that users cannot overdraw their funds, but it's unclear whether this would hold true in practice.

For those SS users that opt for direct deposit instead of a debit card, there's the possible cost of opening a checking account: Consumer Reports says only about 64% of financial institutions offer free checking accounts (down from 76% in 2009). Big banks in particular are creating more hurdles, and potentially more fees, for low-balance customers. According to a Social Security spokesman's statement, there are about 4 million current users of Social Security who do not have bank accounts, and it's uncertain how many users will fall into that category by the March 2013 deadline. For those who do have bank accounts with big banks like Chase or Bank of America, there are the usual fees and restrictions: minimum balances, overdraft fees, money transfer fees, bill pay fees, and various other penalties. Credit unions usually offer somewhat reduced versions of these fees, or may eliminate them altogether.

And of course, a direct deposit or debit card are both virtual monies unless you convert them into cash. There have been many studies showing that paying with cash makes people behave more fiscally conservatively than paying with credit cards, debit cards, or even gift vouchers. Our brains, it seems, just don't grasp what exactly an item will cost us unless we're handling physical money.

In discussing all of this, it's important to note that about 80% of people currently receiving Social Security benefits already get funds electronically. For the remaining 20% (around 550,000 people), there might be some growing pains coming on. But it's hard to argue too much with a move that saves taxpayers $130 million a year, and almost all of the savings in the Social Security Trust Fund.

The GOP's Planet-Warming Task Force

| Wed May 4, 2011 5:34 PM EDT

Over at E2Wire, Andrew Restuccia reports that House Republicans have formed a new coalition—the House Energy Action Team, or "HEAT."

The coalition will "promote Republican energy policies that will address rising energy prices, create thousands of good jobs and enhance our national security by promoting energy independence for America." In GOP-speak, that generally translates to "more oil and gas drilling."

Given their platform of enhancing fossil-fuel production and the party's almost uniform denial of climate change, the moniker is maybe just a little ironic. Something tells me they probably didn't think about that too hard though.

(h/t to Steve Kretzmann at Oil Change International for flagging this.)

If Only We Could Shoot Climate Change in the Face

| Wed May 4, 2011 3:42 PM EDT

Might the death of Osama bin Laden give President Obama a chance to revive a climate and energy bill? That's what former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson thinks. Via Politico:

"My hope is that from this success in the foreign policy arena two days ago, that he will be emboldened to take once again to the Congress legislation — not just to increase a renewable energy standard — but climate change legislation that this country and the world need," Richardson said Tuesday at a Climate Leadership Gala hosted by the Earth Day Network in Washington.

It certainly is the case that the bin Laden's death has put some wind in Obama's sails. But I don't think it's enough wind to change the minds of a House majority that doesn't even think that the climate is changing, let alone get them to support a bill to deal with it. Unfortunately, passing climate legislation isn't an issue that American politicians are as unified on as they are about hunting down a terrorist mastermind.

But hey, at least Richardson's realistic about the perils of waiting to do something until after 2012:

“We can sit back and say, 'Well we'll wait until the next election, wait until the political climate is better.' You know if we do that, we’re doomed — if we don’t take action right away," he said.