Blue Marble - June 2011

What NC's Abortion Bill Says, And Doesn't

| Fri Jun. 10, 2011 6:11 PM EDT

This has become an all-too-familiar refrain: state with strong Republican representation passes bill that restricts abortion without totally outlawing it. In the most recent case, North Carolina's House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday that would make women wait 24 hours for an abortion, as well as be provided with an ultrasound and/or fetal heart beat tone 4 hours before the procedure. The bill has been passed onto the state Senate, but as written, the bill says doctors must have to provide the woman (or girl) with a detailed oral description of the fetus, as well as provide lots of information on public assistance, alternatives to abortion, child support, and medical assistance benefits for pre and post-natal care that "may be available."

The insistance on providing women with lots of information, most of it geared toward giving birth, is something other states have embraced as well. What's more interesting is what North Carolina's bill doesn't say. For example, it doesn't make any distinctions for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest. So a 16-year-old girl who's been impregnated by her stepfather would have to go through the same waiting period, and hear the same information about adoption, as any other woman. (Note: the bill defines "woman" as "a female human, whether or not she is an adult") Likewise the bill as passed by the House does not differentiate between causes for abortion. A woman who needs an abortion because the fetus has a congential defect that makes it incompatible with life outside the womb would be provided with a chance to hear its heart beat, and to see a sonogram, which sounds cruel, especially if it was a wanted pregnancy. The bill also will not consider an abortion a "medical emergency" if it only affects the woman's psychological or emotional conditions, even if she is so distraught says she will kill herself (or try to get a back-alley procedure) if she cannot procure an legal abortion.

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New Mexico Ends Support For Wolves

| Fri Jun. 10, 2011 4:38 PM EDT

The New Mexico State Game Commission voted yesterday to end cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in its effort to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf, according to a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity.  The decision might mark a major victory for ranchers and other groups who have strongly opposed the reintroduction program, but wolf proponents argue that the move will damage efforts to facilitate co-existence between wolves and people.

In 1998, 11 captive-bred wolves were released by USFWS on federal land in New Mexico near the Arizona border, in the hope that they would help stabalize an imbalanced ecosystem and revitalize an endangered species. Similar reintroductions had been shown to work elsewhere, but in New Mexico the wolves have fared poorly and, with so many ranches nearby, wolves became a menace to livestock. The battle has raged ever since.

A June 6 letter from wolf advocates to New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez countered that ranchers' concerns were overblown and warned that the endangered wolf could face extinction without the continued support of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.

Gem of the Week: Understanding Jellyfish

| Fri Jun. 10, 2011 7:40 AM EDT

Each week I highlight one Blue Marble-ish story I think covers an underreported issue, or reveals a new side of an old one. Here's this week's.

For many years jellyfish have been thought of as dumb, reflex-based creatures with no hunting strategy who simply drifted where the waves took them. This absorbing piece in the New York Times shows otherwise. Author Natalie Angier culls together new scientific reports with interviews and in-person experiences to explore the jellyfish's true nature. Especially when paired with a beautifully-shot photo essay, it's one of those articles that makes you feel like an awestruck kid at the science museum.

And it couldn't have come at a better time. Jellyfish are one of the species that have survived mass extinctions, and they show no sign of slowing. Already adaptive and resourceful by nature, global warming has increased their spread. Jellies haven't thrived as passive predators though: as Angier's article details, jellies are actually quite complex. Example: the box jellyfish has 24 eyes, of 4 different types. Jellies have "salinity meters" and go out of their way to avoid fresher waters that come in the spring from melted snow. 

Jellyfish are pretty and elegant, so it's nice to know there's some brain behind that beauty, or at least a few "neuronal condensations" where nerves act as brain-like structures.

 

Scientists: We Know Why Smoking Keeps Your Weight Down

| Thu Jun. 9, 2011 8:00 PM EDT

If you're one of the many smokers who cites "weight gain" as a reason not to quit (publically, or to yourself when no one can hear you), this one's for you. Researchers at Yale are publishing a study in the June 10, 2011 issue of Science journal that outlines a new discovery they made through trial by mouse: the dirty details on how smoking suppresses appetite. Their findings may pave the way to development of a drug that will prevent the notorious cigarette-free gain (about ten pounds on average). Here's a breakdown of the research:

Why smoking makes you eat less: Our devilish friend nicotine travels to the brain and hooks up with neurons in the hypothalamus, which houses the brain function that controls feeding. The message it sends to receptors there reduces food intake, and voila, smokers are skinnier. Meanwhile, nicotine has a dark downside—it latches onto other cerebral receptors, making you crave tobacco. But that we knew.

How the researchers figured this out: In the study, mice were given a nicotine-like drug called cytisine—it made them eat less and cut down their body fat. Then, when the mice took a drug that prevented the cytisine from binding to its hypothalamic receptors, the reduction in food intake was reversed.

Hips Don't Lie (About Age), Weight Gain Not Pill's Fault

| Thu Jun. 9, 2011 4:25 PM EDT

Well, this is some intriguing news. One recent study finds that your hip bones naturally widen with age, and another says weight gain can't be blamed on the Pill. So I guess the only culprit left behind my mysteriously shrinking jeans is an overzealous dryer or plain denial, hopefully neither of which will be promptly disproven by yet another study.

The hip-related report, published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research (PDF), found that between age 20 and age 80, most of us can expect to gain close to 1" in our hip bones. Study co-author Laurence Dahners from the University of North Carolina told ABC that that 1" expansion in hips correlates to a 3" increase in waist size and a 1 lb/year weight gain. While it's been long-known that people tend to gain weight as they age, it's now apparent that expanding hips may play a part. The researchers were surprised by the finding, and aren't sure exactly what's causing the hip expansion, or how much it affects weight gain. As Dahners diplomatically put it, "We can't say you're not getting fat, because you might be getting fat too."

Speaking of getting fat, another recent study found that despite many anecdotal accounts, contraceptive pills do not make women gain weight. The long-term study out of Sweden found no weight differences between women who had taken combination oestrogen-progesterone birth control pills and women who had never been on the pill. Personally, I've heard of (and experienced) rapid weight gain when going on the combination pill, and some women say they experienced weight gain when going off the pill. Scientists say the pill may cause temporary water retention, and possible expansion of fat cells, which can make women feel fatter, but it shouldn't affect long-term weight. As a woman of childbearing age, what strikes me about this issue is that one of the main effects of going off hormonal birth control is an increased chance of getting pregnant. Which is a really good way to gain weight. And, you know, a baby.

Happy World Ocean Day

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 6:41 PM EDT


Weedy sea dragon, Phyllopteryx taeniolatus. Credit: Richard Ling, Rling via Wikimedia Commons.Weedy sea dragon, Phyllopteryx taeniolatus. Credit: Richard Ling, Rling via Wikimedia Commons.

 

In case in the middle of an ordinary dry Wednesday you've forgotten how extraordinary is our ocean planet, here are a few watery reminders.

 

The Blue Ocean in RED from Howard Hall on Vimeo.

  

Squid, possibly the bigfin reef squid, Sepioteuthis lessoniana. Credit: Nhobgood at Wikimedia Commons.Squid, possibly the bigfin reef squid, Sepioteuthis lessoniana. Credit: Nhobgood at Wikimedia Commons.

 


MAYO / MAY from Rafa Herrero Massieu on Vimeo.

  Giant anemone, Condylactis gigantea. Credit: Nhobgood via Wikimedia Commons.Giant anemone, Condylactis gigantea. Credit: Nhobgood via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Antarctica from Darek Sepiolo on Vimeo.

  Kelp. Credit: FASTILY via Wikimedia Commons.Kelp. Credit: FASTILY via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

This new product released by Google Earth and developed by oceanographers at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory promises a dynamic look through darkness to the seafloor. I confess, the extinct filmmaker in me wants to get my hands on this video and edit in some heft. But you can see how cool the perspectives are—how the new layers make Google Earth more oceanlike.

 

Great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias. Credit: Pterantula via Wikimedia Commons.Great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias. Credit: Pterantula via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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When Will Obama's EPA Crack Down on Smog?

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 5:52 PM EDT

Fewer states this year are violating national smog standards, according to a survey by the non-profit Clean Air Watch. But that comes with a major caveat, the group says: Those standards were previously strengthened by the Bush administration in 2008, but stopped short of what Environmental Protection Agency scientists recommended. Now, Obama's EPA says those recommendations should be embraced in order to protect against serious health risks. But, due to pressure from industry groups, the EPA has repeatedly delayed releasing the stricter rules since writing them up in January 2010.

Clean Air Watch found that this year 22 states—including New York and Pennsylvania (plus DC), where a heat wave is further compromising air quality right now—have experienced smog levels exceeding the current standard of 75 parts per billion. That's down from 38 states last year. But states should actually aim for smog levels between 60 and 70 parts per billion to reduce health problems "ranging from aggravation of asthma to increased risk of premature death in people with heart or lung disease," the EPA says.

The American Petroleum Institute—the chief lobbying group for oil companies—argues that the Bush-era change went far enough. States that exceed the smog limit risk fines and federal highway funding, so some lawmakers are concerned that a rule change would cost their states money and jobs. And it's true: The EPA estimates that beefing up its standards would eventually cost states as much as $90 billion a year. However, the EPA contends, stengthened standards would produce health benefits worth a commensurate amount and save up to 12,000 people from premature death by 2020.

Late next month, the agency is scheduled to decide whether to go forward with the new rules. If the EPA does enact stricter smog controls, it has said it would give states until the end of 2013 to submit proposals detailing how they would bring problem areas into compliance. Those rules would then be phased in from 2014 to 2031 with extra time given to the dirtiest regions of the country, which include the Northeast, Southern and Central California, Chicago, and Houston.

When Medical Journals Are Big Pharma Infomercials

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 4:00 PM EDT

The days when Big Pharma showered doctors with branded coffee mugs, pens, notepads, and other freebies ended in 2008, when many pharmaceutical companies voluntarily agreed to stop doling out drug tchotchkes in an attempt to curry favor. Now, the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry's influence is more subtle.

A new article in the American Scholar notes that Big Pharma is quietly manipulating the contents of trusted medical journals. As the former editor of the British Medical Journal, Richard Smith, told writer Harriet Washington, "All journals are bought—or at least cleverly used—by the pharmaceutical industry."

Below, a look at the American Scholar's findings:

Death Threats for Australian Climate Scientists

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 3:25 PM EDT
Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe

Australian climate scientists are paying a steep price for their work, as opponents of Australia's proposed tax on carbon emissions have embraced an attack the messenger strategy. More than 30 researchers told the Canberra Times that they have received emails "threatening violence, sexual assault, public smear campaigns and attacks on family members." In response, several universities are reported to have moved targeted researchers into more secure buildings.

American scientists are all too familiar with this type of intimidation. As Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard noted in April, leading climate change experts have been subjected to a constant barrage of threats and abuse. Michael Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, has been labeled a "terrorist" and "killer," among other epithets. The vitriol climaxed in the months after the so-called "Climategate" scandal broke in late 2009. Emails to scientists, later obtained by the Guardian, suggested that they "go gargle razor blades" and repeatedly referred to them as Nazis.

Why Bolivia Still Won't Sign a Global Climate Agreement

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 1:31 PM EDT

Pablo Solon, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations, might be the world's most ambitious climate negotiator. But his reputation is more notorious than renowned. In 2009, when Bolivia (with one other country) boycotted the Copenhagen Accord, Solon said his country would not support a proposal based on voluntary carbon emission reductions rather than legally binding targets. A few months later, the US denied climate aid to nations that did not support the accord, including the $3 million Bolivia requested. By the time negotiators reconvened in Cancun last December, Bolivia was the only country to oppose the proposed global deal.

While the Cancun Agreements have since been applauded as pragmatic (if modest) for focusing on country-specific targets and zeroing in on tangible mitigation efforts like combating deforestation, Bolivia has continued its unlikely campaign for stringent and binding targets. The next round of talks in Durban, South Africa is just six months away, and some pundits are arguing that mandatory targets are not only unrealistic but also akin to climate diplomacy suicide. With the existing Kyoto Protocol set to expire next year, there is no comprehensive replacement in sight. "In Durban it’s almost impossible to see a legally binding agreement," Japanese delegate Akira Yamada told Reuters last week. (Read MoJo reporter Kate Sheppard's analysis for more on the international negotiations.)