Blue Marble - June 2011

Sea Levels Rising at Fastest Rate in 2000 Years

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

The science behind a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal is complicated, but the evidence is more precise than it has ever been: Sea levels are now rising at a faster rate than they were at any time in the past 2,000 years. For much of the two millenia measured in the study, sea levels were either stabilized or rising at .25 millimeters per year. But right around the end of the 19th century, sea levels started rising at a comparatively drastic 2.1 millimeters per year, and the trend has continued today.

The study marks a huge advancement in the science of measuring sea level changes because for the first time, scientists have recorded a precise and continuous record of sea level changes dating back over two millenia. This record, which the study based on salt marsh microfossil records from North Carolina's coast, shows that sea level changes for the past millenium have correspended to global temperatures. When the world started warming up, sea levels rose. When it cooled, they stabilized.

I talked with Ben Horton, one of the study's authors and an environmental scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, to put some of the science behind these findings into layman's terms:

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Dirty Water: It's a State's Right!

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 2:22 PM EDT

From the Department of Orwellian bill titles, today we have the "Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011." Cooperation! What a nice word. But in the case of the bill being considered today in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, what that actually means is taking away federal oversight when it comes to the Clean Water Act, one of the nation's landmark environmental laws.

The bill's text is here. The committee described the bill like this in a press release:

The bill amends the Clean Water Act (CWA) to restore the long-standing balance between federal and state partners in regulating the nation’s waters, and to preserve the system of cooperative federalism established under the CWA in which the primary responsibilities for water pollution control are allocated to the states. The bill restricts EPA’s ability to second-guess or delay a state's permitting and water quality certification decisions under the CWA after the federal agency has already approved a state's program.

Translated, that means that the bill would give states, not the federal government, the ultimate control over upholding the Clean Water Act on a number of permitting issues. In practice this would mean each individual state gets oversight over water policy, taking us back to the days of the Cuyahoga River fire and Love Canal, before Congress passed a federal law in 1972.

The bill is bipartisan, sponsored by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), and 32 others. Mica is hot and bothered about the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to address nutrient pollution in Florida's waterways. Rahall is mad that the EPA rejected an application to dump strip mining waste from a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. At least we can get representatives from both sides of the aisle to agree  on undermining the nation's foundational environmental laws!

Fewer Mountaintops, More Birth Defects

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 1:31 PM EDT

A new study linking Appalachian mountaintop removal mining to birth defects offers compelling new evidence of the practice's impact on human health. The data could spell bad news for coal companies that have resisted efforts by President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency and others to curtail the controversial mining method.

In mountaintop removal mining, companies like Massey Energy (now owned by Alpha Natural Resources) blast apart peaks to get to the coal inside without the need for much manpower. Before demolition, the mountains are stripped of their forests. (A 2003 EPA report (PDF) projected a loss of 1.4 million acres of trees if the mining continued unabated.) Then, dynamite-powered explosions produce waste that's dumped in valley streams and poisons drinking water in nearby communities.

So it's no surprise that the practice has long been criticized for its environmental impacts. But the new study "offers one of the first indications that health problems are disproportionately concentrated" in mining areas, West Virginia University associate professor and report coauthor Michael Hendryx said in a statement.

Researchers at Washington State University and WVU pored over nearly 2 million central Appalachia birth records from 1996 to 2003. Their findings are disturbing: Kids born near mountaintop mining operations suffered higher rates of a bevy of birth defects, including central nervous system, musculoskeletal, urogenital and circulatory and respiratory problems.

Still, many politicians in DC and central Appalachia won't let mountaintop removal mining die without a fight. In West Virginia, where coal brings billions of dollars to the state's economy, Democratic acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has defended the industry against environmentalists while lashing out at the EPA. And in Kentucky, whose economy also benefits greatly from coal mining, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear humored anti-mining activists who staged a sit-in at his office but remains a supporter of mountaintop removal. Both politicians continue to take heat for their stance, most recently during efforts to defend West Virginia's Blair Mountain. The results of the birth defects study could increase that pressure.

Gore vs. Obama on Climate

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 12:14 PM EDT

Al Gore has a lengthy piece in the forthcoming issue of Rolling Stone on—what else?—climate change. He starts out with some harsh (and deserved) words about the media's overall coverage of the issue. But his toughest criticism is reserved for President Obama, whom he says "has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change."

In the congressional debates on the subject, allies "felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return"—like his plan to dramatically increase offshore drilling. Moreover, though, Obama has not used his position to advocate for dealing with the problem, Gore writes:

Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is "the power to persuade." Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.
Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant or abstract threat; it is happening now. The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States.

Of course, the administration would argue that it's been quite vocal about the kind of policies that would address the climate crisis—fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, a national clean energy standard, and investments in green jobs. Not a week goes by that I don't get a press release from the administration about Obama or another administration official touring a clean tech manufacturing facility or something similarly photo-opportune. But you never hear about how the status quo is dangerous when it comes to climate change, and the implications are catastrophic and irreversible.

I realize that a fleet of pollsters and messaging gurus have decided that the American public wants to hear positive messages about jobs and economic opportunity, not scary warnings about how we're destroying the planet. But like Gore, I've always thought that there is a missed opportunity in not presenting the counterargument to the contention that truly addressing climate change will be economically catastrophic. It's not just that there are also opportunities in investing in alternatives (and I think there are). It's that not doing so has very, very bad consequences—ones that most Americans don't fully appreciate yet. It's here that Obama's message has been lacking.

Up Close and Personal with the Korowai

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 5:30 PM EDT

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

When encountering persons of the same sex, you often wonder what natural similarities you may find. And it's no different when you meet members of a remote tribe living in the dense vegetation of the jungle. BBC Earth researcher Rachael Kinley shares her intimate and humorous tale of what happened when the women of the Korowai Tribe in Papua invited her into their tree house.
 
By Rachael Kinley, Researcher, Jungles/Oceans team
Before filming begins, it's important to spend time with the contributors without big cameras in their faces. It helps to strike up a friendly rapport and make the future weeks more productive and enjoyable for all. So, our first day in Papua with the Korowai is spent in their home, a tree house.

Making friends in the treehouse Korowai houses are communal and split into male and female sides, to avoid furtive touching in the evenings. So, as the rest of the crew, including the translator are men, I sit down with the women, while the crew all head outside to take in the view from the male balcony.
Friendship-forming begins inside the house. In the UK, we’d receive cups of tea and cake; here, it's fire-charred lumps of sago palm, fresh from the flames. We start making net bags together, rolling lengths of rattan along our thighs, entwining the fibres to form a string which is then plaited together to create a bag that is strong enough to hold up to 70kg.


Whilst we are winding, I try to spark up a conversation. But with Jim, our translator, out of sight this gets to be a bit tricky. I only know one word in their language, and they know none in mine. I begin by pointing at items around us and learning the words for their shell necklaces, pet pig, and net bags. After we've exhausted everything on their person, the tables are turned and they start pointing and teaching me words for parts of my body: hair is "habianto" and breast, "am". They seem to be extremely intrigued by my breasts.

A couple of children reach over and prod them. The older women giggle, encouraging the girls on. The next thing I know, they start to unbutton my shirt. The Korowai are amazed at the lifting properties of my Gossard Superboost bra. They begin to imitate its effect by cupping their own breasts in their hands with curious looks. It feels slightly surreal to be sitting, meters up in a jungle tree house, being communally undressed by several women and children. I help them to unfasten the clasp and the women stroke my breasts, smiling, giggling, repeating "am am am".

It's lovely, it's touching, we laugh together and are definitely bonding. But amidst all this, my mind is thinking why couldn't this be at the end of the four weeks in the jungle when I’d definitely be much thinner? I guess that you can take your clothes off in the jungle, but it's harder to get your head out of the UK.
 

New in Natural Gas Hype: A Fracking Coloring Book

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 4:50 PM EDT

With government agencies, documentaries, and even celebrities taking aim, fracking has been getting a bad rap these days. So it's no wonder that oil and gas companies are working hard to change the tone of the debate surrounding the controversial method of reaping natural gas.

The latest in their PR efforts? A children's coloring book. Published by oil and gas producer Talisman Energy and distributed for free, the 24-page text follows the adventures of a "Friendly Fracosaurus" named Talisman Terry. Throughout the book, he leads his readers through a natural gas extraction saga—explaining the benefits of the substance, and how it's found, drilled, and delivered.

tk

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Where are the White House's Solar Panels?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 12:41 PM EDT

Last fall, after a persistent campaign by enviros, the Obama administration agreed to install solar panels on the roof of the White House. In response to the request from 350.org, Energy Secretary Steven Chu promised that solar panels and a solar hot water heater would grace the roof of the First Family's residence "by the end of this spring." But today's the first day of summer, and there's still no solar.

350 wonders what exactly the hold-up is. "This was a no-brainer—the Republicans couldn't filibuster it, the oil companies weren't fighting it, and it still didn't get done when they said it would," said 350 founder Bill McKibben in a statement.

The administration responded Monday night, promising that the solar panels are still coming. Ramamoorthy Ramesh, director of solar energy technologies at the Department of Energy, wrote in a long blog post:

The Energy Department remains on the path to complete the White House solar demonstration project, in keeping with our commitment, and we look forward to sharing more information—including additional details on the timing of this project—after the competitive procurement process is completed.

In short: the fate of the White House's solar panels is still cloudy.

Whither NY's Retrofit Plan?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 11:36 AM EDT

Gay marriage is getting all the attention in the waning hours of the New York legislature this week. But a revolutionary program to subsidize home energy improvements is also hanging in the lurch right now (along with rent regulations and a mixed martial arts bill, apparently).

The bill's description isn't exactly helpful, but basically, the state would front homeowners the money to retrofit their homes, to be repaid over the next 15 years or so using the money saved on utility bills. The Syracuse Post-Standard explains:

First, the state would establish a reservoir of funds to make small loans to property owners for retrofit projects. Where would the money come from? From commercial lenders. Economists point to a mountain of untapped investment capital looking for promising places to land. Utility bills typically have low default rates, and the likely returns on this type of investment are at least competitive with bond markets. Experts predict up to $5 billion in private capital could be attracted by this.
Here's the payback strategy: Each property owner's utility would add a small monthly surcharge to the customer’s bill — sufficient to repay the retrofit loan within a reasonable period of time, but no bigger than the monthly value of energy saved by the improvements. The utility customer’s monthly energy bill would stay the same — the money saved on energy costs would go toward repaying the loan. When the loan is repaid, the property owner would start banking all the energy savings.

The paper called it "ingenious" in an op-ed. The Buffalo News was similarly effusive. It's also a bipartisan effort; the Assembly version came from Democrat Kevin Cahill and Republican George D. Maziarz championed it in the Senate. But unless it somehow gets traction here in the final hours of the assembly, it too will die.

Secretary Salazar: Leave the Grand Canyon's Uranium Alone

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 7:07 PM EDT

The uranium-rich land around the Grand Canyon has been given another stay of execution by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. On Monday, Salazar extended a two-year moratorium on mining in the area for another six months, buying time for the Bureau of Land Management to work through the final stages of evaluating a plan for long-term withdrawal (which, when approved, will put the kibosh on new mining activity in the region for the next twenty years).

In romantic, grandiose language, Salazar implored his opponents on this issue to think of our natural resources in a greater historical context. Speaking from an amphitheater on the Canyon's south rim, Salazar invoked Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell and Teddy Roosevelt in making his case to let the land be:

To be here—for John Wesley Powell or for any of us—is to be overwhelmed and humbled by the scale of geologic time.  The minutes, hours, and days by which we measure our lives are hardly an instant in the life of these canyons. Yet, all of us—by the decisions we make in our short time here—can alter the grandeur of this place...As Teddy Roosevelt famously implored from this very place: "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

A Midwife Crisis

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 3:07 PM EDT

Increased access to and training for midwives in developing countries could save millions of lives every year, according to a new report that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued Monday. Improved access to professional midwives could save 3.6 million lives in 58 developing countries by 2015, the report concludes.

Some shocking figures from the report:

Each year, 358,000 women die while pregnant or giving birth, some two million newborns die within the first 24 hours of life and there are 2.6 million stillbirths, all because of inadequate or insufficient health care.

At least 350,000 additional trained midwives are needed around the world. Without more skilled midwives, 38 of the 58 countries surveyed are likely to fall short of the Millennium Development Goal of having 95 percent of births attended by skilled midwives by 2015. UNFPA also estimates that up to 90 percent of maternal deaths could be avoided if midwives were available to refer women with complications to doctors as needed. Among the countries most in need: Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Haiti, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

More on the UNFPA report here.