Blue Marble - July 2011

Story of the Week: The Amazing, Regenerating Dolphin

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 5:05 PM PDT

Next week is "Shark Week" on Discovery Channel. While I do enjoy watching sharks on TV, I find their sometime-prey, dolphins, more interesting. This week, there was a thought-provoking letter in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology that explored how dolphins heal from shark bites that would be fatal to many other species, including humans. Author Michael Zasloff, a professor of immunology at Georgetown University, wondered how dolphins survive huge shark bites without bleeding to death or falling victim to infection from the many bacteria in sharks' mouths. Not only do dolphins recover from "basketball-sized" bites, they regenerate the missing flesh and heal over with no scarring or sign of injury. "That's impossible," Zasloff told ABC, "truly impossible."

Zasloff theorizes that dolphins can produce stem cells that regenerate the bitten-off tissue, or any other kind of tissue that's needed. "The repair of a gaping wound to an appearance that is near normal requires the ability of the injured animal to knit newly formed tissues with the existing fabric of adipocytes, collagen and elastic fibers," Zasloff explained. "The dolphin's healing is similar to how mammalian fetuses are able to heal in the womb."

But what about infection? Even if the dolphin didn't fall prey to the shark's bacteria, swimming around in the ocean with an open wound invites infection. Zasloff thinks that dolphins may have their own little supply of antibiotics, siphoned off from other ocean creatures like plankton or algae when the dolphin eats them, and then stored in fat for later use.

Another mystery Zasloff has been pondering for the past nine years is why dolphins with these large wounds don't appear to be in pain. Zasloff notes that not showing weakness or pain is an evolutionary response (so that predators can't tell which animals are weak), but he thinks dolphins may make their own version of morphine. "I propose that the wound itself is releasing a pain-relieving substance, and it must be unbelievably powerful."

The dolphin's amazing ability to recover from wounds that would be catastrophic to humans could be a boon to researchers... if, that is, they can scientifically verify how exactly dolphins are doing it in the first place. "My hope is this work will stimulate research that will benefit humans," says Zasloff. "I feel reasonably certain that within this animal's healing wounds we will find novel antimicrobial agents as well as potent analgesic compounds." Zasloff's only lament is that this research isn't happening fast enough, and that his own work is hampered by his limited "access to dolphins."

Pain relief, antibiotics... what else can dolphins give us lowly landlubbers? Oh, that's right, the ability to sense electricity from living beings and restrict blood-flow to injured areas. Here's hoping some enterprising cable channel will launch a week devoted to these intelligent, playful, and biologically blessed animals to compete with "Shark Week." "Dolphin Days," anyone?

 

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Friday Leftovers: Obama's Car Deal, Beware of Big Bag, and Bill Nye on Fox News

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 2:18 PM PDT

Given the never-ending debt talks, it went nearly unnoticed that the Obama administration announced a fairly significant new deal on fuel economy standards for automobiles on Friday. By 2025, the makers of cars and light trucks will be required to have a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon of gasoline. That averages to a 5 percent gain in efficiency for each model year, starting in 2016.

The new standard represents a deal forged between the Obama administration, car makers, and the state of California, which has traditionally set higher standards for cars than the federal requirement. The EPA estimated on Friday that this would save US drivers $1.7 trillion by 2025, or an average of $8,000 per for each new vehicle. It would also save 2.2 million barrels of oil per day by 2025, the administration said.

Enviros had been pushing for a 60 mile-per-gallon standard, but seemed to be pleased with the announcement on Friday. The Center for Progressive Reform, however, criticized the administration for working out the deal with automakers behind closed doors, rather than through the traditional regulatory process of determining the "maximum feasible" level that automakers should be able to attain.

In related news, Green Tech Media took a look at ten technologies that will help meet that standard.

Here's other news worth noting this week:

The US Coast Guard captain currently in charge of the response to last year's BP oil spill criticized Alabama officials for their handling of the clean up, reports the Press-Register.

An Associated Press investigation found that "about 1 of every 5 employees" working for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation in the Gulf had to recuse themselves from some of their duties because of conflict of interest. The new ethics policy was adopted last year in the wake of the Gulf spill.

Scientists say that climate change is forcing toxic chemicals trapped in the earth back into the atmosphere, Solve Climate reports.

Rolling Stone has a great piece on the plastic bag wars, highlighting how Big Bag is hell-bent on keeping us hooked.

And last but not least, Bill Nye—you know, the Science Guy—attempts to explain science to a Fox News anchor:

Tea Party Congressman Protects US From Manatee Overlords

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 11:00 AM PDT

At least we have Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.) to protect us from the manatees.

Nugent, a first-term congressman representing Citrus County, has filed an amendment to a Department of the Interior appropriations bill that would bar the agency from protecting the manatees of Kings Bay in Florida. As I reported several weeks ago, local tea party activists, who propelled Nugent to victory last fall, are incensed about proposed protections that would make the entire bay a sanctuary for the for the giant sea mammals. Some have gone so far as to allege that the manatee protections are part of a greater, more insidious plan to instate a One World Order of sustainability.

Nugent's proposed amendment, highlighted by Brad Johnson of Think Progress, joins a long list of other measures Republicans are proposing to block government action on a variety of environmental issues. Some others that he notes:

Scott (R-Ga.): None of the funds for climate change research.
Fahrenthold (R-Texas): None of the funds to interfere with States' efforts to regulate hydraulic fracturing.
Blackburn (R-Tenn.): Prohibits the appropriated agencies from buying compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Blackburn (R-Tenn.): Bar funding for the SunWise Program, an EPA program to teach parents, teachers, and children about what they should do to protect kids from overexposure to the sun.
Fleming (R-La.): Eliminate funding for the Energy Star program.
Flores (R-Texas): None of the funds to enforce section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to prohibit federal purchases of high-carbon fuels.
Lankford (R-Okla.): None of the funds for the President's Council on Environmental Quality.
King (R-Iowa): None of the funds to enforce the Oil Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Program.
Stivers (R-Ohio): None of the funds to regulate stationary source greenhouse gases for two years.

These are in addition to dozens of anti-environmental riders already included in the appropriations bill, like one that would open up the Grand Canyon for uranium mining.

Cancer Rates Higher Near Mountaintop Removal Sites

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 4:00 AM PDT

Communities near surface mining sites suffer much higher rates of cancer than other parts of West Virginia, according to a new study published this week in the Journal of Community Health. The researchers conclude that there are likely thousands of additional cases of cancer in communities near mountaintop removal sites.

West Virginia University researcher Dr. Michael Hendryx conducted the study in several West Virginia counties earlier this year, comparing rates in a county without mountaintop removal coal mining to two where the practice is taking place.

Jeff Biggers sums up the study over on Alternet:

"A door to door survey of 769 adults found that the cancer rate was twice as high in a community exposed to mountaintop removal mining compared to a non-mining control community," said Hendryx, Associate Professor at the Department of Community Medicine and Director of West Virginia Rural Health Research Center at West Virginia University. "This significantly higher risk was found after control for age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure and family cancer history. The study adds to the growing evidence that mountaintop mining environments are harmful to human health."

Nationally, 3.9 percent of Americans are cancer survivors, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but the rate in West Virginia is as high as 9.4 percent. This door-to-door survey found that the rate in the parts of the state affected by surface mining is actually 14.4 percent—a full 5 percent higher than the rest of the state. If the rates were projected across the 1.2 million people living in the region, that would mean as many as 60,000 additional cancer cases.

This report follows a study released last month from researchers at West Virginia University and Washington State University that also found higher rates of birth defects in communities near mountaintop removal sites. The ever-classy coal industry attempted to blame this on inbreeding rather than toxic mining pollution. I wonder what kind of defense they'll offer for this latest study.

Climate Change With a Side of Plague

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 12:56 PM PDT

There have been several studies tying climate change to increases in the plague. The latest of them came out just a little while ago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and stated that "plague outbreaks, both among rodents and humans, have been linked to climate variability." The study focused on outbreaks of pneumonic plague, a deadly respiratory disease caused by the same bacteria as bubonic plague. Pneumonic plague, in the words of the authors, "is transmitted through inhalation of aerosolized, infection-laden droplets from human to human and is less common but more virulent than bubonic plague."

Unfortunately, the study's authors didn't seem sure of exactly how climate change would foster further outbreaks in the US. Using historical outbreaks in China as a model, they found that sometimes increased rain flooded rodent burrows, reducing plague by killing rodents along with their plague-carrying fleas. Other times, increased rain helped rodent populations by making more crops grow. More rain could drive shelter-seeking rats into human-populated areas, but then again, many rats already live near humans.

Overall, it seemed like a mixed bag. The study's authors say plague outbreaks have been tied to the El Nino effect in the US, but openly state that "the relationship between human plague and climate variation is still not fully understood." They assert that climate change definitely does have an effect on plague outbreaks, but that effect is currently "non-linear."

Even if changing climate does increase plague outbreaks, it's not a reason to panic. Every year there are about 15 cases of plague in the US, and antibiotics can help control the disease, reducing its death toll from 90% to 14%. However, in order to save those lives, people must be promptly diagnosed with the disease, since it has a short incubation period before becoming fatal. Pneumonic plague can kill just 24 hours after initial infection. A timely diagnosis might be hindered by the fact that plague symptoms are similar to those of more common illnesses like the flu: fever, chills, coughing, to name a few. After diagnosis, antibiotics must be administered quickly. Thankfully for those living in the US, there are plenty of antibiotics here and lots of doctors and hospitals. In developing nations, the effects of climate change are already being felt, including disease prevalence. WHO has been fighting plague outbreaks around the world, but developing nations shouldn't expect too much help from the US, one of the world's top greenhouse-gas producing nations. A recent GOP spending bill would slash funding to help poorer nations fight climate change, and would stop US contributions to the UN 's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

House GOP: Grand Canyon Should Be a Uranium Mine

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 4:00 AM PDT

Last month, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar cheered environmentalists and fans of the great outdoors with his extension of a moratorium on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon for another six months. But now House Republicans are aiming to use the Interior Department appropriations bill to try to reopen the areas around the park to mining interests.

Salazar announced in June that he was extending the prohibition on mining on roughly 1 million acres of land near the canyon through the end of the year, a moratorium he put in place in 2009. Salazar said he prefers to set a 20-year moratorium—the longest allowable under the current hard rock mining law—but will await the outcome of an environmental analysis to make a decision on that.

The appropriations measure, from Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, would reverse Salazar's decision and again make it possible to mine near the park. It's one of dozens of anti-environmental riders tacked onto the Environment and Interior appropriations bill that the House is debating this week.

In years before the moratorium, mining interests staked more than 10,000 claims near the park. Those would still be allowed to go forward, as the moratorium only applies to new claims.  But uranium mining in the region raises concerns not just about damage to an iconic national park, but risks to water resources and health in the region, too. It's also an economic concern. As Jessica Goad, manager of research and outreach with the public lands project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund recently pointed out, the Grand Canyon is an economically valuable resource:

The Grand Canyon provides an incredible place for recreation, and the Colorado River that runs through the national park provides drinking water to 25 million Americans. It is estimated by Headwaters Economics that in 2009, Grand Canyon National Park created $411 million and over 6,000 jobs in the region.

Democratic representatives from Arizona and environmental groups held a press conference on the Hill on Tuesday denouncing Flake's measure. "For a few jobs we would screw up the Grand Canyon, the natural wonder of the world that people travel from all over the world to come see," said Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.).

"The Grand Canyon, the crown jewel of the national park system, deserves a lot more than a rider being snuck in through the back door of an appropriations bill," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, also of Arizona. Pastor and Grijalva intend to introduce an amendment that would reinstate the protections in the course of debate this week.

Both the Pew Environment Group and Environment America joined the lawmakers in the press conference, criticizing Republicans for going after the park that President Teddy Roosevelt once called "a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world."

"If Congress isn't going to protect the Grand Canyon, then what on earth is it going to save?" asked Jane Danowitz, director of the public lands program at Pew.

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The New Normal: Billion-Dollar Disasters

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 4:15 PM PDT

Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011. : NOAAGroundhog Day Blizzard of 2011. NOAA

Furthermore to Kate Sheppard's excellent post last month... The National Climatic Data Center's (NCDC) latest Billion Dollar Disaster Report finds the US has racked up more mega-expensive natural disasters in 2011 than ever before. So far we've suffered more than five times the huge disasters typical at this time of year. Already d amage costs have reached nearly $32 billion . Compare that to the first half of the average year— prior to the onset of "big" hurricane season— between 1980 and 2010, where disaster costs typically run $6 billion.

Billion-dollar-plus natural disasters between 1980 and 2010,  using a GNP inflation index.Billion-dollar-plus natural disasters between 1980 and 2010, using a GNP inflation index.

All told the US has suffered 99 weather-related disasters over the past 31 years, where overall damages and economic costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The normalized losses (that is, the numbers adjusted for the GNP inflation index) add up to more than $725 billion for those 99 disasters .

So far, nine natural disasters, each totaling more than a billion dollars in losses, have befallen the US this year. Here's the NCDC list:

  • Groundhog Day Blizzard Jan 29-Feb 3: Insured losses were greater than $1.1 billion. Total losses (insurance, state and local snow removal, business interruption) were greater than $3.9 billion. Thirty-six deaths. A picture of the EF3 tornado that struck Tushka, Oklahoma, 14 April 2011. Credit: Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin via NOAA.: A picture of the EF3 tornado that struck Tushka, Oklahoma, 14 April 2011. Credit: Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin via NOAA.A picture of the EF3 tornado that struck Tushka, Oklahoma, 14 April 2011. Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin/NOAA

  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes April 4-5: An estimated 46 tornadoes caused more than $1.4 billion insured losses, total losses greater than $2 billion, 9 deaths.

  • Southeast/Midwest Tornadoes April 8-11: An estimated 59 tornadoes caused more than $1.5 billion insured losses, total losses greater than $2.2 billion, numerous injuries, no known deaths.

  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes April 14-16: An estimated 160 tornadoes caused more than $1.7 billion insured losses, total losses greater than $2 billion, 38 deaths .

  • Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest Tornadoes April 25-30: An estimated 305 tornadoes caused somewhere between $3.7 to $5.5 billion (the numbers are still being accounted), total losses approaching $10 billion, 320 deaths.

  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes May 22-27: An estimated 180 tornadoes caused between $4 and $7 billion insured losses (the numbers are still being accounted) , total losses may exceed $7.0 billion, 172 deaths— including the EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin, MO, killing 141, the deadliest single tornado in the US since record-keeping began.

Wildfires in Texas as of 30 April 2011. At this point more than two million acres/809,371 hectares had already burned. :  Jesse Allen/NASA Earth ObservatoryWildfires in Texas as of 30 April 2011. At this point more than two million acres/809,371 hectares had already burned. Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory

  • Texas Drought and Wildfires, Spring-Summer 2011: drought and wildfires across Texas, New Mexico, and western Oklahoma racked up fighting/suppression costs of about $1 million a day. Total losses to agriculture and cattle were estimated between $1.5 and $3 billion, as of 16 June. Expenses are likely to rise as the drought continues.

This map depicts rainfall for the Midwest from April 19 to 25, when rainfall totals ranged from 150 millimeters/5.9 inches to greater than 525 millimeters/20.7 inches, prompting, major flooding.: Jesse Allen/NASA Earth ObservatoryThis map depicts rainfall for the Midwest from April 19 to 25, when rainfall totals ranged from 150 millimeters/5.9 inches to greater than 525 millimeters/20.7 inches, prompting, major flooding. Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory

  • Mississippi River flooding Spring-Summer 2011: Estimated economic loss ranges from $2 to 4 billion. Below are more detailed preliminary stats—the floods are still unfolding—as of 16 June :
    1. $500 million loss to agriculture in Arkansas
    2. $320 million in damage to Memphis, Tennessee
    3. $800 million loss to agriculture in Mississippi
    4. $317 million loss to agriculture and property in Missouri's Birds Point-New Madrid Spillway
    5. $80 million loss for the first 30 days of flood-fighting efforts in Louisiana

The Missouri River floods have not made it onto this list, since their onset was near the end of the compilation period.

The technical report, A Climatology of 1980-2003 Extreme Weather and Climate Events, by Tom Ross and Neal Lott, is illuminating. Here are some highlights (bold emphasis is mine):

  • In twenty of the past twenty-four years, the U.S. has experienced at least one weather-related billion-dollar disaster.

  • The only years without at least one billion-dollar disaster were 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1987.

  • Since 1988, at least one disaster occurred each year, with only one such event in 1988 and 1990, and seven billion-dollar events in 1998. Two of the 1998 disasters were caused by hurricanes.

  • Overall, hurricanes and tropical storms account for 16 of the 58 events and 28% of the monetary losses (normalized to 2002).

  • The ten major droughts/heatwaves which have occurred since 1980 account for the largest percentage (42%) of weather- related monetary losses.

The technical report concludes:

Although some studies suggest that trends such as population increases, population shifts into higher risk areas, and increasing wealth have been the key factors in weather related disasters (as opposed to historical trends in the frequency or strength of such events), there is evidence that climate change may affect the frequency of certain extreme weather events. An increase in population and development in flood plains, along with an increase in heavy rain events in the U.S. during the past fifty years, have gradually increased the economic losses due to flooding. If the climate continues to warm, the increase in heavy rain events is likely to continue. While trends in extratropical cyclones are not clear, there are projections that the incidence of extreme droughts will increase if the climate warms throughout the 21st century.

National Weather Service's Climate Prediction CenterNational Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center

If you're wondering what disasters might be delivered in the next quarter, check out the maps and the legend, above, for forecasts of temperature and precipitation anomalies through the end of October 2011. Hurricanes not included.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Tony Hayward Gets His Life Back

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 1:46 PM PDT

Remember when Tony Hayward said he wanted his life back, shortly after BP unleashed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? Well, first the wayward CEO was relocated to Siberia. But then he was released, with a severance package worth at least $1.56 million salary. Now he appears to be getting his life back up in the wilds of northern Minnesota.

As MinnPost's Don Shelby reports today, Hayward has been hired as the head of environment and safety at Glencore, the multinational mining and commodities trading company. Glencore, perhaps best known because it was founded by Marc Rich, the wealthy Democratic donor indicted for violating federal law in making oil deals with Iran, who was pardoned by Bill Clinton on his last day in office.

As Shelby notes, Glencore recently became the principal investor in a hard rock mining operation in Hoyt Lakes, Minn. This is probably bad news for the Land of 10,000 Lakes—just like his reign at BP was for the Gulf of Mexico. From the piece:

Iron mining and northern Minnesota have gone hand in glove for a century. But the proposed PolyMet mine in Hoyt Lakes is a different animal. It is called hardrock sulfide mining. It will be going after copper and nickel and precious metals. It promises jobs in a job-starved part of our state. But there are two things you should know about hardrock sulfide mining. The first thing is that the Environmental Protection Agency says hardrock mining generates more toxic waste than any other sector of the U.S. economy. The second thing you should know is that the history of this sort of mining shows that when the metals run out, the companies decamp. The real pollution starts after they leave with the winnings, go broke, or sell out.

I'm sure all those nice folks in Minnesota will be happy to help Hayward get his life back.

The Value of a Human Life

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

What's your life worth, in dollars? That question routinely bedevils federal bean counters. Though calculating the "value of a statistical life" (VSL) may sound callous or morbid, it can lead to stronger safety and environmental regulations. For example, auto safety rules that would cost $100 million to implement but might protect $500 million worth of lives (say, 100 people at $5 million a pop) are seen as a good deal, cost-benefit-wise.

VSLs can vary widely, depending on the agency crunching the numbers and the administration in office. As this chart shows, the feds currently think each of us is worth somewhere between $5 million and $9.1 million.

How Climategate Got Its Name

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 2:40 PM PDT

When the uproar over a trove of stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University started back in November 2009, I resisted calling the incident "Climategate." Yet it appeared in almost every post we wrote about it at Mother Jones, because it very quickly became the shorthand that everyone seemed to be using to refer to theft and release of a number of emails between notable climate scientists. When I wrote a feature on the episode a few months ago, it was back in the headline because my editors and I agreed that this would be the name most readily identifiable to readers.

But there were always misgivings. Anything with the suffix "-gate" automatically implies scandal, of course, and the term is overused, to say the least. It seemed, however, we were stuck with it, and in rather short order after the emails were released. Our valiant fact-checker Jaeah Lee and I tried to figure out who exactly was responsible for coining it in this particular case. We didn't really figure it out conclusively, but now David Norton, recent graduate of American University's master's program in Public Communication, has devoted considerable time and attention to it. Norton put together a detailed timeline, via AU communication Professor Matt Nisbet writing over at Big Think.

Norton pretty much concludes that the term started in a comment thread on the  skeptic blog Watt's Up With That a few days after the emails were first posted online. Within hours, it spread to other blogs and Twitter. Interestingly, Norton notes that environmentally-minded folks who thought it was a non-scandal were also inadvertently instrumental in helping the term "Climategate" catch on:

Over the next several hours, the term "climategate" propagated through blogs and on Twitter, and began to supplant the proper noun “east anglia” as an indexical and referable moniker. With the early, near-ubiquitous adoption of such a straightforward snowclone, the incident became implicitly controversial and scandalous by its very name. Environmentalists challenging the nascent meme could do little to stop its spread, and in fact, may have inadvertently solidified its name as a framing device.

The paper is an interesting read. Of course, calling the incident "Climategate" was a lot more simple than calling it "that time when some unknown person procured and released a number of emails between climate scientists, potentially via illegal means." But it's a helpful reminder that what we call things matters, particularly when a meme can take on a life of its own online.