Blue Marble - August 2011

Story of the Week: The Cost of Healthy Eating

| Fri Aug. 12, 2011 4:49 PM EDT

A study published in Health Affairs this week showed that Americans were not meeting the federal nutritional guidelines, and to do so they'd have to spend more money. This had headlines across the country crying out that it cost additional hundreds of dollars a year to eat healthy. "High Cost of Healthy Eating Out of Reach for Many," wrote USA Today; "A New Study Finds That Healthy Eating is a Privilege of the Rich," said another outlet. But hold on: was the study really about the impossibility of affordable healthy food, or the incredible cheapness of unhealthy food? A writer at Grist found it to be the former. From Grist: 

The authors [of the study] looked at four basic nutrients that the USDA recommends Americans get more of: potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and fiber. Then they looked at the buying habits of a group of residents from King County, Wash. (an area that includes Seattle) and calculated the increase in cost for them to do just that. The eye-opening finding that got most of the press coverage was that increasing consumption of potassium to meet USDA recommendations "would add $380 per year to the average consumer’s food costs."

But even the study authors admit that there's a wrinkle here worth noting: They didn't search out the cheapest source of potassium (bananas, for the record) to come up with that figure. They performed statistical analysis to model a diet higher in those nutrients based on what the study participants were already buying. That's very different from trying to shop on a budget!

As Grist also mentioned, healthy eating is possible on a budget, but not easily: two writers were able to eat healthily for $2.38 per person, per meal, but it involved a lot of planning and research. High-fat, high-sugar foods are much easier to obtain, and cheaper: the study's authors noted how re-allocating 1% of a person's daily caloric intake from nutritious foods to fat or sugar would reduce food costs by $125 per person yearly. And this wasn't even counting food eaten outside the home, like fast food, which wasn't included in the study. Another limitation of the study: it was a small-scale study involving 2,000 people from one county. So while it does seem clear from the study that Americans could benefit from nutritional education, as well as subsidies for healthy foods, sometimes studies should be taken with a grain of salt.

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Rick Perry to Run for President; Climate Deniers Cheer

| Fri Aug. 12, 2011 1:47 PM EDT

The climate skeptics can finally get excited about the 2012 election: Rick Perry, their candidate of choice, is about to officially throw his hat in the ring.

Perry calls global warming "all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight." Unlike many of the other GOP presidential candidates, he hasn't expressed concern about climate change in the past, so he won't have to do any back-pedaling. Notorious climate denier Marc Morano is a big fan: "Based on climate views alone, anyone who is holding their nose voting for Mitt Romney because there's no other viable candidate will now rejoice to have an option with Rick Perry."

The Texas governor will announce his intentions in the early primary state of South Carolina on Saturday, then head to New Hampshire and Iowa to rub elbows with all of the other aspiring commanders-in-chief. As a social and fiscal conservative, governor of a state that's been adding jobs (even if they're low-wage), and owner of a full head of lustrous hair, Perry is expected to swagger to the front of the pack in the contest for the Republican nomination.

Latest Malaria-Fighter: Spermless Mosquitoes

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 1:28 PM EDT
This week, another solution takes the stage.

By 1951, the US had eradicated malaria stateside with the help of a few smart doctors and a healthy smattering of good, old-fashioned DDT. But today, many parts of the world are still fighting vigorously against a disease that kills nearly a million people every year—most of them children in Africa—and the mosquito species that carries it. The weapons at their disposal include nets, a sticky insecticide sprayed onto the interior walls of homes, and even lasers.

This week, scientists in the UK might have hit on another, surprisingly simple eradication technique: reduce the size of the mosquito population. I know what you're thinking: "Well, obviously." But the new research suggests that, rather than trying to kill mosquitoes themselves, we should prevent them from ever coming into being in the first place. To do that, the scientists injected a batch of mosquito eggs with a compound that turned off the gene behind sperm production; when males were hatched, they produced no sperm. No sperm, no larvae, fewer mosquitoes. The added bonus is that female mosquitoes typically mate only once in their lives, and the study found that the absence of sperm did not seem to change that behavior.

"Targeting fertility is a good way to proceed and it's a good alternative to what's already there," study co-author Flaminia Catteruccia of Imperial College London said.

Flash Drought

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 11:44 AM EDT

Drought monitor for 9 August 2011. Credit: Laura Edwards, Western Regional Climate Center, NOAA. Drought monitor for 9 August 2011. Credit: Laura Edwards, Western Regional Climate Center, NOAA.

 

This week's US Drought Monitor reports the sudden emergence of drought in the Corn Belt states of South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. Extreme heat combined with below average rainfall have stressed corn plants—often in areas where planting was already behind schedule due to an extremely wet spring.

From flash flood to flash drought.

 

Stream flow conditions on 11 August 2011.Stream flow conditions on 11 August 2011.

Another way of looking at this is through stream flow. The above image is for today 11 August 2011 and is computed from stream gauges with at least 30 years of data history behind them. As you can see, the Corn Belt waterways are dwindling.

Meanwhile drought is intensifying in the South. Texas is now parched beyond all historical records, having entered its driest 10-month period ever. And that's with more than a century of data behind it. As the US Drought Monitor reports:

This is unprecedented territory, as the precipitation deficits mount, and triple digit temperatures continue to increase water demand. Significant, ongoing impacts related to agriculture, water supply, and natural vegetation conditions have been reported.

 

Crop moisture index for week ending 6 August 2011. Credit: NOAA. Crop moisture index for week ending 6 August 2011. Credit: NOAA.

Another way of looking at that is through the crop moisture index. The image above shows a compilation for the week ending 6 August. Abnormally, excessively, and severely dry conditions now beset most of the South. The Corn Belt and the Eastern Seaboard are playing dessication catch-up.

 

Texas drought impacts by county, for the past month. Credit: National Drought Mitigation Center. Texas drought impacts by county, for the past month. Credit: National Drought Mitigation Center.  

In Texas, every county is reporting extreme drought impacts—to crops, water supplies, the environment, even social impacts, like fishing and other forms of recreation.

The Boston Globe reports that wildlife in Texas is suffering too, with deer nibbling "junk food" plants and wild turkeys scrabbling after ants. As reservoirs empty and some of the state's bodies of water are at their lowest points ever recorded, fish are dying in droves.

Sadly, the long term forecast is not good. The Climate Prediction Center predicts the drought to last through at least the end of October, while some parts of the South need more than 20 inches of rain in a month to end it.

 

Sea surface temperature anomalies for 27 July 2011. Credit: NOAA Climate Prediction center.Sea surface temperature anomalies for 27 July 2011. Credit: NOAA Climate Prediction center. 

Meanwhile the La Niña conditions fueling the drought—and all the other weird weather of the last 12 months—are looking oddly durable. While the current La Niña is winding down, some models now suggest that another may wind back up again in the autumn... a rare double Niña.

That's because while ocean temperatures are trending away from another La Niña (above), atmospheric conditions are not letting go (below).

 

Atmospheric convection anomalies. Credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.Atmospheric convection anomalies 2-27 July 2011. Credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

 

That's led to NOAA releasing a new La Niña watch:

During July 2011, ENSO-neutral was reflected in the overall pattern of small sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies across the equatorial Pacific Ocean [above: SST anomalies]. All of the latest weekly Niño index values were generally near average, ranging from –0.2oC to 0.5o. However, the subsurface oceanic heat content anomaly (average temperature anomalies in the upper 300m of the ocean) continued to weaken and is currently near zero, which reflects the strengthening of the below-average temperatures at depth in the east-central Pacific Ocean. The atmospheric circulation anomalies were more variable during the past month, but the monthly means still reflect aspects of La Niña. For example, convection continued to be enhanced over eastern Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and generally suppressed over the central equatorial Pacific, mainly south of the equator [above: OLR anomalies]. Also, anomalous low-level easterly and upper-level westerly winds persisted over the central tropical Pacific. Thus, while tropical Pacific oceanic anomalies indicate ENSO-neutral, the atmospheric patterns continue to reflect La Niña-like conditions.

 

What It'll Take to Make Seattle Carbon Neutral

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Just over a year after Seattle announced plans to go carbon neutral, a government-commissioned study outlines just how the city might reach its goal. The report, penned primarily by the international research group Stockholm Environment Institute and introduced to the City Council in May, lays out a detailed scenario in which Seattle cuts back its greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent in 2050 (compared to the amount it emitted in 2008).

The plan is likely the most ambitious any US city has seen thus far. While carbon neutrality in its strictest form means emitting net zero carbon emissions, the term has also been used describe city efforts to offset greenhouse gas emissions from specific industries (like utilities or construction), as Phoenix, Austin, and Vancouver are doing. Seattle's goal stands out because it would be first in the US and third in the world (after Copenhagen and Melbourne) to consider nearly zeroing out emissions across the board.

Seattle is particularly well-positioned to meet its goal, the study's authors say, because much of its electricity is already sourced from renewable hydropower rather than fossil fuels. The city could further cut back on emissions by making its buildings (old and new) more energy efficient, public transportation more efficient and widespread, charging higher tolls, reducing landfill, and establishing an alternative fuel-based auto fleet. The city could completely offset its emissions by the same year, the study adds, if it sequestered greenhouse gases through urban forests or invested in emissions reductions projects elsewhere. But even for a city with a relatively small carbon footprint like Seattle, there are many steps to take before achieving carbon neutrality. Here are some highlighted in the report:

  • Make 80 percent of Seattle's transportation system consist of electric vehicles by 2050. (The city has already decided to invest $20 million on electric car charging infrastructure and is revising its electric code to require residential buildings to make room for private charging stations.)
  • Increase tolls, parking fees, and replace traditional auto insurance policies with pay-per-mile ones—assuming that the more you drive, the more likely you'll get into an accident, and thus the more you should pay for insurance.
  • Replace gas-based home heating systems with a more efficient network of electric heat pumps, which extract heat from the outside and underground to warm or cool a household.
  • Create more jobs within the city proper to reduce the need to commute by car and build denser neighborhoods to avoid urban sprawl.
  • Ramp up recycling programs so that by 2050 75 percent of the city's waste averts the landfill, which is a major emitter of methane gas. Currently, the study calculates, 49 percent of Seattle's waste is either recycled or composted.

The study's authors concede that they do not include an analysis of the economic impact such strategies would have, nor do they account for the funding or political challenges that could slow down the city's adoption and implementation of the plan. They also notes that some strategies could lead to a rebound in emissions. If more efficient home energy systems lowered bills, for example, consumers would have more money to spend on businesses, which in turn could elevate commercial energy use.

Still, with broader climate legislation out of reach in Washington and a global climate agreement locked in a political stalemate, efforts like Seattle's set an important example of how cities can significantly reduce their emissions without further ado.

Is Your Cheese Killing the Planet?

| Wed Aug. 10, 2011 3:57 PM EDT

We all know that meat is terrible for the climate. A new report from the Environmental Working Group tells you which meats are the worst in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, as Tom Laskawy reported last month.

But one finding in the report surprised (and alarmed) me: Cheese is quite hard on the climate too.

EWG worked with CleanMetrics, an environmental analysis firm, to rank different protein sources in terms of their life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions per four-ounce serving. Beef, as you'd expect, is bad—No. 2 on the list in terms of climate impact, surpassed only by lamb. But the No. 3 offender is cheese, ranking worse than pork and chicken ounce for ounce, and substantially worse than other dairy products like milk and yogurt.

What makes cheese so bad? "Cheese has a high carbon footprint because it takes a lot of milk to produce a pound of cheese—10 pounds of milk, on average, go into producing a pound of hard cheese," says report author Kari Hamerschlag, senior analyst at EWG. "You're producing the milk from a dairy cow that is emitting large quantities of methane, which has a global-warming impact 25 times higher than carbon. And then you have the methane and nitrous oxide that are also generated from the cow's manure. And then all of the grains that go into feeding the cows, which range from corn to alfalfa and other forage, and there's a footprint associated with that."

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Blood Tests Detect Fetus's Sex at 7 Weeks

| Wed Aug. 10, 2011 3:26 PM EDT

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that blood-based tests can accurately verify the gender of a fetus as early as 7 weeks. The tests look for fetal proteins circulating in the mother's blood: if there are Y chromosomes present, it's a boy. If they're absent, it's a girl. The tests were found to be 95% to 99% accurate on fetuses from 7 to 12 weeks old, and nearly 100% accurate at 20 weeks gestation. Ultrasounds can also verify gender around 20 weeks, and sometimes as early as 13 weeks. Amniocentesis, in which amniotic fluid is sampled, is another way of verifying gender, but it can't be used until about 15 weeks and carries a 1/200 risk of miscarriage.

In Europe, blood tests for gender have been used for some time to anticipate any sex-related genetic disorders, like hemophilia which primarily affects males. In the US, the tests are not as widely used, and one main concern raised by the tests seems to be the ability for women to sex select for abortions. A California company called Consumer Genetics makes a gender test called "Pink or Blue" that reliably confirms fetal sex as early as 8 weeks, but says that it doesn't want its test used for sex-selection. According to the AP, Consumer Genetics sells about 1000 "Pink or Blue" tests online every year, but won't do the labwork to test the blood samples women send in unless they "sign a consent form agreeing not to use the results for gender selection." The executive vice-president of the company also says Consumer Genetics won't sell "Pink or Blue" to potential consumers living in China or India due to fears of sex selection.

Certainly, there is a chance that if the test were available to countries that already perform sex selection via ultrasound, it would worsen gender imbalances. Mara Hvistendahl wrote about the consequences of sex selective abortions, which in some places skew gender ratios from the normal 105 males/100 females to 126 males/100 females. When there aren't enough women to go around, bride-buying and sex trafficking increase. Already, there are 163 million "missing" girls and women due to abortion of female fetuses or infanticide, and even if they were to stop instantly tomorrow, it would take until 2050 for the global gender ratios to balance out.

The Cheetah: Nature's Need for Speed

| Wed Aug. 10, 2011 11:57 AM EDT

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

It is well documented who the speed demons of the animal kingdom are. We all know that a cheetah can reach speeds of up to 60 mph in a mere three seconds and that the Atlantic sailfish leaps to the top of the podium as the fastest creature in the ocean.

Yet it is rarely asked why. What parts of their body have evolved to make them so fast, and for what purpose? In this series, we peel back the fur and the scales of these incredible creatures to reveal what it is that makes them so fast.

First up, the land champions: Cheetahs

As the world's fastest land mammal, the cheetah's ability for acceleration starts on the inside. The spotted cat mobilizes glycogen molecules that are stored in its large liver to provide huge bursts of energy. However these surges are short lived because they produce an unwelcome by-product, lactic acid, which builds up and causes painful cramps. Which means that cheetahs can only run at full speed for up to 30 seconds.

Cheetahs are not just one trick cats, they have other adaptations up their sleeves, or rather within its hair. Their distinctive spotted coat makes them almost invisible when creeping slowly through the African grasslands. The longer that they can stay camouflaged and the closer they get to their target, the more likely they are to catch their prey before they run out of steam.

They have evolved large adrenal glands, lungs, nasal passages and hearts to optimize oxygen uptake and maximize the duration of physical exertion. This "super-sizing" of vital anatomy comes at a price; they do not have room in their jaws for long roots to anchor large teeth. They depend on speed and a vice-like grip for suffocating prey, rather than the brawn of other big cats like the lion.

Being light and agile, and having an extra long tail for balance and steering are all of benefit in the heat of the chase, however when the gloves are off the cheetah stands little chance against its big cat cousins. It turns out a cheetah's bark is as weak as its bite, in fact the cheetah cannot bark—or roar at all, they chirp, hum and purr loudly to communicate.

At least when it comes to the sprint, the cheetah will always be first across the finishing line. However, while we do know they are the fastest mammal on earth we cannot yet accurately say how fast they are in the wild. It is hoped that with the aid of GPS and video motion analysis, scientists will be able to determine the top speed of these four-legged examples of biomechanics operating at its very best.

Join us for Part Two when we will be diving into the ocean to meet the fish that is said to be even faster than a sprinting cheetah.

This Mystery Chemical Could Cause You To Miscarry

| Wed Aug. 10, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Some printer ink contains glymes.

Did you print a piece of paper today? Or use a digital camera? If so, it could have exposed you to glymes, a clear liquid class of chemicals used as solvents in printer ink, carpet cleaners and other household products. For a decade, the EPA has known about studies that link glymes to health problems including miscarriages, developmental damage, and gene mutation. And yet only now is the agency beginning to regulate them. This July, the EPA announced that it plans to clamp down on glymes, which may join the ranks of the 360 chemicals subject to the EPA's "significant new use rule." This means that any time a company wants to use glymes, it would have to ask the EPA first. In contrast, the EPA plans to regulate BPA, the chemical once found in Nalgene bottles, by simply identifying it in a list of harmful chemicals.

In 1995, Marc B. Schenker, a UC Davis professor of medicine and chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences, led a study that found that glymes were linked to miscarriages in semiconductor workers. The study examined 6,000 women exposed to glymes through their manufacturing work, and researchers found a pattern of increased miscarriages among them.

But factory workers aren't the only ones who have to worry about glymes. The chemicals can also be found in lithium batteries, brake fluid, paints, prescription drugs, circuit boards, microchips, and many other products we come into contact with every day. Three glymes used in animal studies caused reproductive and developmental damage, and one showed potential for gene mutation. As if we needed more reproductive worries. In California, 276 reproductive toxins have been identified found in stuff we come into contact with every day by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment under Proposition 65.

"I'm glad to see attention to this," Schenker told Environmental Health News. "Because the agents are no less toxic than they were 10 years ago."

Smarter Birds Fared Better After Communism Collapsed

| Wed Aug. 10, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

It wasn't just politics that changed when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989—the collapse of communism in Europe altered the landscape, too. In many formerly communist areas, cities exploded as peasants moved out from the countryside, and farming declined. Now, researchers in Germany suspect that the end of the Cold War even might have had evolutionary consequences.

A study, published in the journal Conservation Biology, focused on 57 songbird species in Northwestern Germany, Eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. Researchers analyzed how their population sizes changed during the post-communist years, trying to figure out how birds adapted to their new environs, and what accounted for their success. Their finding:

Birds with bigger brains tended to show a slight uptick in populations sizes in East Germany, and even bigger gains in the Czech Republic. The “increases of species with large brains suggest that species with good cognitive abilities might have been better able to adapt to rapid socioeconomic change and make use of novel opportunities after the end of communism,” the authors write.

The study's authors also speculate that one major reason for this was that birds with bigger brains adapted better to living close to humans in the growing urban centers. But appealing though it may be to imagine flocks of savvy, street-smart birds crowding the streets of Eastern European cities, the researchers caution that the study was preliminary, and it'd be pretty hard to prove any kind of causative link with the information they have. Still, it's worth thinking about as the world's cities continue to grow and spread.