Blue Marble - September 2011

The Daily Caller Quadruples-Down on Its Wrongness

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 6:05 AM EDT

Earlier this week, I published a post pointing out that the Daily Caller's claim that the EPA plans to hire 230,000 employees to enforce new climate regulations is false. Since then the Daily Caller has quadrupled-down on the claim, despite a number of other outlets—first Politico, then Greg Sargent's Washington Post blog—also pointing out that it was flat-out wrong. Now the Caller has published an editor's note that, rather than reasserting the claim, attempts to reframe their entire argument.

In the note, David Martosko, the Daily Caller's executive editor, claims that the EPA "might hire as many as 230,000." This is a different argument than the Caller was making earlier this week, which was that the EPA actually planned to do this. (It's also different from the argument the Caller made to Politico, which is that its claim was true simply because massive bureaucratic overreach is what EPA is wont to do.) But the argument still misclassifies the entire context of the figure, which is that it came from a legal brief in which EPA was defending an attempt to avoid taking that action.

Despite what Martosko claims, Greg Sargent didn't vindicate the Daily Caller's story—he merely offered the publication another opportunity to once again defend its (false) claim. The Washington Examiner story, which Martosko also suggests vindicates the original piece, actually points out that the Caller was wrong in its claim that the EPA is asking taxpayers to shoulder the cost of the regulations, and reiterates the fact that this is exactly what the agency is trying to avoid.

As a side note, dismissing Mother Jones as a "fringe" publication doesn't make the Daily Caller's original story any less false. See David Corn's piece for more on that front.

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Mexico's Happy, Russia's Sad: Using Twitter to Gauge the World's Mood

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 5:00 PM EDT

Twitter is great for staying up-to-date on, well, pretty much everything: the news, celebrity gossip, your roommate's best-friend's breakfast. But a new paper out today in the journal Science suggests that Twitter can also be used to track peoples' moods. The researchers found that, across the globe, tweets are predictably upbeat or cranky based on the local time of day.

Cornell University sociologists Scott Golder and Michael Macy spent two years collecting 509 million tweets from 2.4 million users in 84 different countries (albeit with a notable dearth of representation from Africa). Using a well-established text analysis tool, they scored tweets based on their use of hundreds of positive words (like "happy" or "enthusiastic") or negative words (like "sad" or "anxious"). When Macy and Golder plotted these scores against the tweet's time stamp, they found what should come as no surprise to anyone who works a nine-to-five: peoples' moods are best early in the morning, slowly deteriorate as the day wears on, then finally pick up in the evening (read: after happy hour). And, cultural differences be damned, the same was true worldwide, suggesting mood is hard-wired in the human psyche.

"Twitter is a goldmine for being able to observe human behavior," Macy said. "We all have basically the same biology, and the pattern we found was very robust."

Piranha Attacks: Not Like The Movies

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 10:14 AM EDT
Warning: Piranhas have been known to occasionally nibble humans in a non-lethal way.

Sometimes, a headline comes along that reads like it was taken straight out of a Roger Corman flick: Over the weekend, schools of ravenous piranhas attacked scores of swimmers who were relaxing at a lake resort in northeast Brazil. AFP, the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post, and even late night talk show host Craig Ferguson giddily reported on the attacks. But the piranhas are getting a bad rap.

For all the hysterical coverage, the piranhas produced scant little carnage. There were no sexy teens perishing terribly in the water, and there was absolutely no feline-stroking Bond villain chuckling on the sidelines watching the water boil with flesh-eating fish. The worst of the reported injuries? "Bitten heels and toes after the predators attacked," according to the Daily Mail. The area has seen a recent spike in piranha-related wounds, supposedly due to both a food shortage and overpopulation caused by the fishing of species like the peacock bass, which naturally feed on piranhas. (There's an alternate theory that the piranhas were simply protecting their nests located in the resort's shallow waters).

Because of everything bad horror films, urban legends, and Teddy Roosevelt have told the American public about piranhas, the species has earned the reputation of being a bloodthirsty breed of water creature that would probably jump at the opportunity to eat your family. In reality, the freshwater fish typically avoids preying on people, and statistically you have a far greater chance of getting executed by Rick Perry than being torn apart by piranhas. But that hasn't stopped people from believing that a run-of-the-mill onslaught of starving piranhas would play out something like this:

The piranha has been the victim of a baseless prejudice for decades now. Below is some sensible debunking courtesy of Discovery Channel, in which the fish are described as timid "vultures of the Amazon" with no recorded history of claiming human lives. So if you're planning a trip to Brazil, go ahead and pack your bikini and swim trunks.

The Daily Caller Really Should Be Embarrassed By This

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 3:45 PM EDT

This would be kind of funny, if it weren't terrible. The Daily Caller claimed on Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency is going to have to hire 230,000 new employees just to put new climate rules in place. And then others, including Fox News, repeated it, as Media Matters highlights today.

The problem is not only the fact that the number is, uh, inconceivable, given that the EPA currently only employs 17,000 people. But the story actually managed to pull that number from a court filing about what the EPA is trying to avoid. In the court filing, the EPA is defending its rule that would only limit emissions from the largest sources of greenhouse gases. The so-called "tailoring rule" is designed to reduce the regulatory burden that setting rules for all emission sources could create, the EPA argues. As the EPA explained in its brief, without that rule:

Sources needing operating permits would jump from 14,700 to 6.1 million as a result of application of Title V to greenhouse gases, a 400-fold increase. … Hiring the 230,000 full-time employees necessary to produce the 1.4 billion work hours required to address the actual increase in permitting functions would result in an increase in the Title V administration costs of $21 billion per year.

The sick twist, of course, is that the EPA is filing this brief because a bunch of polluters have sued the agency to stop the tailoring rule. The polluters and allies claim that the EPA doesn't have the authority to adjust the Clean Air Act in this way—which is somewhat ironic, given that the change would have the effect of weakening the global warming regulations that these same companies dislike so much. (Some enviros have sued as well, though they argue that the EPA should be going farther in its regulations.)

If the challengers are successful in getting the court to throw out the tailoring rule, the EPA would have to start going after all sources of emissions—creating exactly the kind of unmanageable regulatory burden that the EPA's brief warns of. Only then would the Daily Caller and Fox News have the crazy bureaucratic nightmare that they're currently (and falsely) ginning up fears about.

BP's Back, Baby!

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 2:11 PM EDT

Last Friday, BP filed its first plan for new exploratory drilling in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. It's only been a year and a half since the company dumped several million barrels of oil into the Gulf, but it already feels ready to hunt for more, this time in the Keathley Canyon area.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a good piece on BP's new proposal for exploration in the Gulf. As the Times-Pic notes, it's not like BP hasn't been out there since the spill. The company has continued work on its old wells, and its ventures with Chevron, BHP Billiton, and Noble Energy have all moved forward. But the Keathley Canyon exploration is the first new solo project for the company since the spill. A piece from Reuters includes this tidbit:

After calling a full-stop on new offshore drilling after the spill, U.S. regulators have approved new drilling plans for many other companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron , but not for BP.
"I think it will be interesting to see whether BP is treated any differently. The word is they won't, but we'll see," said Phil Weiss of Argus Research in New York.
"It's significant in that, assuming it's approved, it gives BP the ability to get back to work on a project they're in charge of," Weiss said.
"All operators are held to the same enhanced safety and environmental standards put in place following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill," a BOEM spokeswoman said.

The last part is what's interesting to me. One would hope that all offshore drilling proposals are subject to rigorous consideration before they are approved, of course. But it's a little alarming that a company like BP can dump 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf and, a year and a half later, not be subject to any more scrutiny than other drillers. Not even a little.

It's also worth noting that the oil spill response bill the House passed last year would have at least barred oil companies with bad records from obtaining new leases in the Gulf. But that bill didn't go anywhere in the Senate, and therefore is not a law today. What BP is applying for now is approval of an exploration plan, not a new lease, but it is a good reminder that despite last year's disaster, there are no new restrictions on what BP can do in the Gulf.

Gulf Fish Hammered by BP Oil

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:33 PM EDT

Deepwater Horizon oil coming ashore at Chandeleur Islands, LA.: Credit: Jeffrey Warren, Grass Roots Mapping project, via Wikimedia Commons.Deepwater Horizon oil coming ashore at Chandeleur Islands, LA. Credit: Jeffrey Warren, Grass Roots Mapping project, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even minuscule amounts of BP's crude oil has affected fish in profound ways in the Gulf of Mexico—even when oil in the water was nondetectable. This according to a paper in early view in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).

The problems showed up as genetic responses in liver tissue and as aberrant protein expression in gill tissues—and they lived on in fish even after their environment looked and tested clean.

Gulf killifish, Fundulus grandis.: Credit: USGS.Gulf killifish, Fundulus grandis. Credit: USGS.

Researchers from Louisiana State University, Texas State University, and Clemson University studied the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe on Gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis).

They collected water and tissue samples from six sites—though only one, Louisiana's Barataria Bay was heavily oiled. They collected at three times:

  • Once in early May before oil had reached shore
  • Once in late June when the marshes were fouled
  • Once in late August when oil was no longer visible

You can see the sites and a graph of the results at my blog, Deep Blue Home.

The researchers found that exposure to BP's crude oil caused the same kind of changes in gene expression in adult killifish from the marshes as in killifish embryos exposed to contaminated water samples in the lab. These types of changes are known to:

  • cause developmental abnormalities
  • to diminish embryo survival
  • to lower reproductive success

Gill tissues important for maintaining critical body functions were also damaged by altered protein expression correlated to oil exposure. Worse, these effects persisted long after the visible oil disappeared from the marshes. Exposures in the lab to developing embryos induced similar cellular responses.

"This is of concern, because early life-stages of many organisms are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of oil, and because marsh contamination occurred during the spawning season of many important species," says lead author Andrew Whitehead
Oiled marshes, Barataria Bay, June 2010.: The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.Oiled marshes, Barataria Bay, June 2010. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.

The research echoes ongoing studies from the Exxon-Valdez catastrophe showing that sub-lethal biological effects of oil continue to impact herring and salmon populations long after the disaster. The new paper indicates Gulf killifish are suffering similar early sub-lethal effects in the Gulf.

And as with the Exxon Valdez, the fish are proving far more sensitive indicators of exposure and contamination than the environmental chemistry.

"Though the fish may be 'safe to eat' based on low chemical burdens in their tissues, that doesn’t mean that the fish are healthy or that the fish are capable of reproducing normally," says Andrew Whitehead.

BP's oil in Barataria Bay, June 2010.: Credit: ©Julia Whitty.BP's oil in Barataria Bay, June 2010. Credit: ©Julia Whitty.The paper:

  • Whitehead, A., B. Dubansky, C. Bodinier, T. Garcia, S. Miles, C. Pilley, V. Raghunathan, J. Roach, N. Walker, R. Walter, C.D. Rice, and F. Galvez. Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI:

 

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Deadly Jobs: Working With Water

| Sat Sep. 24, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

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

When we are at work, doing the same thing day in day out, it is easy to grow complacent about the risks that are involved. But when the daily grind involves diving to the depths of the ocean with very basic equipment, complacency could prove fatal.

The Philippines ranks as the 11th highest of the world’s top seafood producers, with some coastal communities deriving up to 70 percent of their income from fishing. It is no wonder that with such high stakes risky practices are commonplace.

Pa’aling divers of Palawan, Philippines.Pa’aling divers of Palawan, Philippines.

Some of the most dangerous techniques are adopted by the Pa'aling divers who inhabit the Palawan province. Diving down to 40 meters, these 100 strong crews take their lives in their hands on every trip. Supplied only with thin makeshift tubes of compressed air fed from a rusty generator on the surface, there is the potential for air supplies to become tangled and to become trapped. Not only this, but also decompression sickness, commonly known as 'the bends', a serious condition caused by the men ascending to the surface too quickly is also a serious concern. Sadly the benefits do not outweigh the risks with each fisherman reportedly earning an average of $25 for a week's work.

Another occupation that risks life and limb is that of the goose barnacle collectors of northern Spain. Traditionally a female profession, today the job is mostly carried out by men. These fearless collectors of this strange looking shellfish, battle with ferocious crashing waves (also known as Atlantic Rollers) and jagged rocks to gather their prize. At up to 200 Euros per kilo it is easy to see what the attraction to this lifestyle is.

Collectors battle huge waves on the Galician cliffs, Northern Spain.Collectors battle huge waves on the Galician cliffs, Northern Spain.

Located on the cliffs and rugged boulders of the Atlantic coastline, these barnacles, known locally as percebes, are only accessible when the tide goes out. So cautiously, collectors navigate their way to the most inaccessible areas armed with only a modified crowbar and a few trusty ropes, if they choose to use them. With an average of five deaths every year, it is hardly a surprise that it is considered one of the most dangerous occupations in Spain. 

Finally, a job that many would agree can be as terrifying as it is rewarding: fatherhood. In some communities such as those from the Zanskar region of the Tibetan Plateau the terrors are more than emotional, they are physical too. Especially here, where the school run is an epic six-day trek along the semi-frozen river Zanskar.

Children and parents travel down a Himalayan ice river, Zankar, India.Children and parents travel down a Himalayan ice river, Zankar, India.

Each year after the winter holidays, fathers and their children begin their journey. They travel along what the locals call the Chadar, a frozen winter highway that provides a passageway through mountainous gorges when the roads are closed by snow. In the spring the smooth firm ice can start to give way, rapidly turning the trip from a habitual pilgrimage to a perilous expedition.

These three communities are testament to man's ability to adapt to and conquer even the most extreme environments. While they may be dangerous, let's hope these incredibly diverse cultures that have developed continue to thrive.

Image of the Week: Mapping the Salty Ocean

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 2:12 PM EDT

The first global map of the salinity of Earth’s ocean surface produced by NASA's new Aquarius instrument reveals a rich tapestry of global salinity patterns. : Credit: NASA/GSFC/JPL-Caltech.The first global map of the salinity of Earth’s ocean surface produced by NASA's new Aquarius observatory: red/yellow=high salinity; blue/purple=low salinity; black=no data. The Aquarius/SAC-D observatory is a collaboration between NASA and CONAE, the Argentine space agency Credit: NASA/GSFC/JPL-Caltech.The Aquarius Mission, launched in June, is making its first space observations of ocean saltiness—a key component of Earth's climate linked to the freshwater cycle and its influence on ocean circulation. The first map (above) is a composite of the first two and a half weeks of data since Aquarius became operational on August 25 and reveals well-known salinity features: higher salinity in the subtropics; higher average salinity in the Atlantic compared to Pacific and Indian Oceans; lower salinity in rainy belts near the equator and in the North Pacific. One obvious feature: the strong differential between the arid and salty Arabian Sea to the west of the Indian subcontinent and the fresher Bay of Bengal to the east, dominated by freshwater outflow from the monsoon-fed Ganges River. An important detail: the unexpectedly large area of low-salinity water around the outflow of the Amazon River. Aquarius is already providing higher-then-expected quality data this early in the mission and should soon greatly increase our understanding of the connections between global rainfall, ocean currents, and climate.

How to Run With Wolves

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 1:00 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth and the Deadly 60 Team. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous. 

Travelling to the frozen north, Steve and his Deadly 60 team met an animal whose ability to survive in sub-zero temperatures has made the creature one of many Norwegian success stories. But how close could they really get to this hardened predator?

Well, sorry, you can't. No matter what the Twilight movie says!

Wild wolves are extremely hard to get close to, and it's not sensible to try. They are top predators, the largest of the wild dog family living in complex social groups and in remote inhospitable places. They are incredibly hard to see and track in the wild, travelling over long distances and running at speeds of over 30 mph in pursuit of prey. They are ferocious hunters tackling prey many times their own size like elk, bison, and musk ox. Wild wolves are not to be messed with.

But on Deadly 60 Steve wanted a close encounter with this apex predator. So we found a place where a "socialised" group of grey wolves were kept. This doesn't mean the wolves are tame, but they are accustomed to humans. The team travelled to the most northern animal park in the world, a place called Polar Zoo. Located in the Salangsdalen Valley, Norway, the park is home to the Salangen wolf pack which is the first wolf pack in Norway that is socialized to people. In order to stay safe the team enlisted the help of expert Tess Erngren, a dog psychologist who has interacted with this pack since they were young.

So how do you behave around a (socialised) wolf pack?

  • Wolves can sense fear. Their recognition of fear is seen as a social non-starter and they won't want to interact. Steve had to remain relaxed, calm and confident.
  • Don't threaten them or invade their confinement. Never threaten a wild animal, even a socialised one.
  • Move slowly and don't make any sudden movements, this could startle them and they may react defensively.
  • Don't approach them, remain calm and they may approach you out of curiosity.
  • Take advice from the experts–Tess knew these wolves well and could guide Steve on how to behave around them.
  • Try to leave a positive impression–for example, if you step on a wolf's paw, try and divert their attention and don't react to it.

For more great tips and moving moments, check out the Deadly Diaries, direct from Steve and the Deadly 60 Team. 

Talk About a TRAIN Wreck

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 10:37 AM EDT

The House is poised to vote on yet another attempt to block Environmental Protection Agency regulations. This latest attempt is the "Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation"—or the "TRAIN Act"—which would create a committee to evaluate the economic impacts of a litany of environmental rules. The premise, of course, is that EPA rules are killing jobs rather than, you know, preventing polluters form killing people. The upshot is that this is a bill with a cute acronym that seeks to tell a regulatory agency not to do its job.

Given this, a bunch of environmental and public health groups were rather surprised to see their names listed in a press release last night as "supporters" of the TRAIN Act. The press release, from Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee, touted 108 supporters of the bill, including groups like Clean Air Watch, the Earth Day Coalition, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Over 100 Groups Voice Support for TRAIN Act," said the release headline.

Shortly after the release went out, Frank O'Donnell, head of Clean Air Watch, sent a note to reporters last night clarifying that the group did not in fact support "the mother of all dirty-air bills." An hour and 40 minutes later, the committee issued a correction, with a headline that now only claimed "strong" support for the act. The list had shrunk significantly—now down to just 53 groups. Opps.

Anyway, the TRAIN Act probably still merits some attention. It will probably pass in the House but go nowhere in the Senate, but it's a good reminder of what Congressional Republicans would like to do if they had full control of Congress and the White House right now.