Blue Marble - September 2011

This Is What Global Warming Looks Like

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 8:31 AM PDT

Dr. Alun Hubbard, a researcher at Aberystwyth University's Centre for Glaciology in Wales, recently returned from Greenland's Petermann Glacier. Polar scientists last photographed the glacier, located in the northwest corner of the country, in the summer of 2009. They went back this summer to see how much ice it has lost in just the last two years, and the results were dramatic.

"Although I knew what to expect in terms of ice loss from satellite imagery, I was still completely unprepared for the gob-smacking scale of the breakup, which rendered me speechless," Hubbard said in response to the images. Below, you can see the original shots from 2009 beside those taken this summer:

(h/t Wales Online)

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Shmeat: It's What's for Dinner

| Wed Sep. 7, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Would you eat a hamburger that was grown in a test tube? How about a chicken nugget from a petri dish? Sometimes called "shmeat" (as in, a sheet of lab-grown meat), in vitro meat might someday be an option for people with carnivorous inclinations who aren't wild about the idea of killing and eating real animals.

Although scientists have been kicking around the idea of synthetic meat for about a decade, they haven't yet been able to bring it to market, much less mass-produce it. But they're getting closer: Last week, Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the European Science Foundation held a workshop to discuss the future of test-tube meat and to develop an "action plan" to get fake meat to market. The conference brought together tissue engineers, as well as environmental scientists, ethicists, social scientists, and economists.

So far, the largest group of meat cells that scientists have been able to grow is only about 2.5 centimeters long and 0.7 centimeters wide, though some scientists are predicting that we could have lab-grown sausage in as little as six months, as TreeHugger reported recently. To make the stuff, tissue engineers take stem cells from an animal and place them in a nutrient-rich culture, where they can multiply into something resembling muscle tissue. It used to be that they had to use animal products to create that nutrient mixture (like animal blood), but now researchers have discovered a viable non-animal option that uses sunlight and carbon dioxide, much like photosynthesis, to grow the tissue. (The meat-substitute advocacy group New Harvest has a handy FAQ, if you're interested in learning more.)

But the researchers note that mass-marketed test-tube meat is still a ways off. The biggest challenge is a lack of funding for research. And despite the recent scientific progress, it's still very expensive to produce the fake meat, and it can't be done in large quantities, which means it's nowhere near cost-competitive with meat that comes from actual animals. A recent report estimated that the first in vitro burger could cost nearly half a million dollars.

NPR offered a good explanation of the challenges facing in vitro meat earlier this year, noting that you have to give the muscle cells a workout in order for this to be feasible—sort of like taking your fake meat to the gym:

Muscles require stimulation and exercise or they will atrophy and die. Scientists currently use electrical impulses to stimulate the muscle cells grown in the laboratory, but haven't yet figured out how to do it on a mass-factory scale.

"If you're growing it in a factory, [there's a mass] quantity of meat," Specter says. "It's difficult to see our way to zapping tons of electricity into muscle cells, because it will just be, if nothing else, extremely costly. So while that works in a lab and it works well, they are looking at other ways of doing it."

Plus it will require rigorous testing before it can be fed it to humans; it's still such a new idea that we don't really know yet what, if any, health concerns it might yield. Right now there are no regulatory guidelines for in vitro meats.

Still, the workshop participants outline a number of good arguments in favor of shmeat. As the world population increases, so does per capita meat consumption, especially in places like China, where people are rapidly becoming more affluent. If the current rate of increase in meat consumption continues, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that it will double between 2000 and 2050. That's a whole lot of meat.

Fake meat could also help address a whole host of environmental concerns. We wouldn't need to use as much land for agriculture (both for raising livestock and for growing their feed). We wouldn't have to use all the water that meat production requires, or the pesticides, hormones, or other problematic additives so common in industrial agriculture.

Indeed, a recent study from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam found that, when compared to regular beef, synthetic meat would:

  • Use 45 percent less energy overall
  • Create 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions
  • Require 99 percent less land
  • Use 96 percent less water

And we could reduce the threat of animal-to-human diseases, like bird flu, E. coli, and salmonella. It would also be possible to control things like the fat, cholesterol, or calorie content of a synthetic-meat product.

Mad scientists aren't the only ones stoked about the potential for fake meat. PETA is offering a $1 million reward to whomever can produce in vitro chicken meat and make it commercially viable by June 30, 2012 (a contest that apparently almost started a civil war within the organization). That contest has been running for nearly three years, though, and it doesn't look anyone is poised to claim the prize yet.

Therein seems to lie the problem, both for the scientists who organized last week's shmeat summit and the PETA folks: While you can come up with a million good reasons for it, you'd still have to convince people to eat it. There seems to be a considerable "ick" factor when it comes to test-tube meat. I mean, don't get me wrong—eating real meat also grosses me out if I think about it too much. After nearly a decade as a vegetarian, I now eat meat occasionally, even though I still realize I shouldn't. (Did you see the New York Times piece over the weekend about the stuff they've found in hot dogs? Maggots, worms, metal, plastic, a razor…) But eating test-tube meat somehow manages to freak me out even more. It might be irrational, but I can't find anything remotely appealing about eating a meat-like substance grown in a test tube.

Then again, I know plenty of carnivores who feel guilty about eating meat but don't know how to stop. They like the way it tastes; they don't feel full without eating it; it's too hard to eat a balanced diet without it; etc. So maybe this could be the solution for them. What say you, Blue Marble readers? Is shmeat neat, or not so much?

Obama to Breathers: Sorry, Wait Until 2013

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 10:00 AM PDT

On Friday, in a move that shocked enviros and public-health advocates, President Obama asked the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw its proposal to tighten a key air-quality standard. The request, Obama said, is part of the administration's efforts to reduce "regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty."

The EPA has been at work on new rules on ozone pollution, better known as smog, since September 2009. The agency rolled out new, tougher draft standards in January 2010, only to have the release of the final rules repeatedly delayed. In a statement, Obama said he has asked the agency to wait until 2013—you know, after the next election—to improve the standard.

The decision to single out this rule is significant. Back in 2008, the Bush administration EPA issued smog rules that called for limits of 75 parts per billion, which were weaker than those that the agency's own scientists said was necessary to protect human health. Improving the standard has been a top priority for environmental and public-health experts, so when the EPA said in January 2010 that it was considering lowering the limit to between 60 and 70 parts per billion, those groups were cheering.

According to the American Lung Association, the weaker standard means that as many as 186 million Americans are currently breathing in unhealthy levels of smog. The EPA's own figures are even more shocking. If the Obama administration set the lower standard of 60 parts per billion, it would prevent 4,000 to 12,000 premature deaths a year by 2020. Even the higher standard of 70 parts per billion would save between 1,500 and 4,300 lives per year. Improved air quality would bring down the number of deaths and hospitalizations every year due to asthma, bronchitis, and other heart and lung conditions.

The EPA also noted that while compliance with the new rule would cost polluters between $19 billion and $90 billion a year by 2020, the benefits to human health will be worth between $13 billion and $100 billion every year.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson issued a terse statement on Friday morning, citing other major improvements that the administration has made on clean air and promising to "revisit the ozone standard." And the White House circulated a blog post from Deputy Assistant for Energy and Climate Change Heather Zichal touting all the other things it has done on air quality.

But environmental and public-health groups are, as you might guess, flabbergasted at Obama's announcement. "This is a huge win for corporate polluters and huge loss for public health," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, in a statement. The statements from pretty much every other group have expressed similar outrage.

The American Lung Association filed suit against the EPA following the weak Bush standards but dropped it after the Obama administration said it was going to reconsider. The group issued a statement on Friday signaling that it will revive the suit now that the Obama administration has signaled that it is not going to improve the standard, which is a violation of the Clean Air Act, the group says.

My two cents: I don't think it's a coincidence that the announcement came on day when the Labor Department released the worst jobs report in 11 months. The move certainly plays right into the "jobs vs. the environment" frame that the opponents of any and all regulations have constructed. Worse, though, is that it feeds the idea that it's perfectly okay for the administration to ignore the advice of agency scientists.

It's also not clear whom Obama thinks he's going to win over with this. I'm pretty sure this won't send the American Petroleum Institute or the Chamber of Commerce rushing to donate to his reelection bid, or make Republicans start saying nice things about him.

Millions Are Starving in the Horn of Africa, but Nobody's Talking About It

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 9:32 AM PDT

The United Nations has called the ongoing drought and famine in Somalia the "worst humanitarian disaster" in the world. It's going to get worse in the coming months. Yet a new Pew Research Center study released on Thursday shows that news outlets have barely noticed: "In July and August the food crisis has accounted for just 0.7 percent of the newshole. Year-to-date the crisis registers at just 0.2 percent."

Aid workers say the current famine, which has affected Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, "is worse" than the one that hit Somalia in 1992—making it perhaps the most serious food crisis since the famine that devastated Ethiopia in 1985.

The statistics are shocking: In Somalia, at least 29,000 children died of starvation in 90 days. Some 2 million children are malnourished, and another 500,000 children are at great risk of starving to death. Some 12 million people in the region need emergency assistance. The crisis has been exacerbated by the al-Shabaab Islamist insurgent group, which has played a hand in causing the famine by forcing out aid groups and preventing starving Somalis from fleeing the country.

As you read this, you might be thinking, "Huh? There's a famine in Somalia right now?" If you haven't heard about the crisis before, it's because US news coverage has been focusing on other topics—a tabloid scandal, Congress' budget deficit battle, the economy, Middle East revolutions, and, most recently, Hurricane Irene. Some of these are important, attention-worthy stories, but they've drowned out almost any coverage of the famine. That matters: Relief organizations say their fundraising efforts have stalled because the media isn't talking about the famine. The United Nations recently announced that it needs $1.1 billion to adequately respond to the crisis.

Even a little media coverage can have a big impact on relief fundraising. When ABC News reported from famine refugee camps in Somalia, Doctors Without Borders received $100,000 in donations just hours after the coverage aired.

Here's a Google trends graph comparing searches for Somalia, Hurricane Irene, Kim Kardashian, and Libya: 

Maybe Kim should mention the famine in Africa. If that's what it takes to get the public to start paying attention and donating to relief organizations, so be it.

Five Deadliest States in the USA

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 3:19 AM PDT

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

Taking a risk by going on an adventure and exploring a new environment is an essential part of understanding the natural world we live in. But sometimes accidents occur. Usually completely unaware, humans put themselves at risk of being attacked or even worse—being eaten.

But how do you ascertain what is a potential threat and what is not?

This fantastic rough guide to the nature you do not want to come face-to-face with (without an experienced leader of course) aims to provide you with some inside knowledge.

Know your enemy

The United States's huge size and vast biodiversity, make it one of a few countries that are megadiverse.

Harboring more than 91,000 insect, 500 reptile and amphibian, 750 bird, and 400 mammal species, it is no surprise that the third largest country on the planet is the site of some less than pleasant human-animal encounters.

Let's take a look at some of the toughest specimens the United States's animal kingdom has to offer.

1. Texas: Rattlesnake

By both population and landmass, Texas is the second largest state in the US. It is because of this immense size of 261,797 square miles and wide-ranging terrain that this particular territory has grown an infamous reputation as the toughest, wildest, and most dangerous of all 50 states—whether that's because of cowboys or rattlesnakes remains uncertain.

With a range of different climate types, from the sub-tropical swamps of the east to the desert-like conditions of the west. It is easy to understand how Texas has become such a challenge when it comes to regional classification, and why its population of potentially dangerous creatures it so vast.

One of the most feared creatures of Texas is the rattlesnake. In particular the Western Diamondback whose bark is definitely as bad as its bite. The snake's advanced venom delivery system allows it to control the amount of venom discharged. Once the prey has been killed venom also plays a role in its digestion.

This western outlaw is definitely one to run rather than just hide from.

2. Florida: Alligator

Boasting the longest coastline in the continental United States, stretching approximately 2,276 miles, Florida is home to one of the most famous national parks in the world—the Everglades. Florida's omnipresence of water has given the state its lifeblood as well as its greatest foe.

In the past decade southern Florida in particular has sadly become a feral orphanage for exotic pets such as the African rock and Burmese pythons. It is a native reptile, with over a million populace, that intimidates its human counterparts the most.

Notorious for its 75-toothed bone-breaking bites, this incredible creature has remained virtually unchanged in appearance for over 200 million years.

Attacks on humans are rare, perhaps because alligators do not associate humans with food. Due to increased contact with people, however, they are becoming habituated and this may lead to increased conflict. With increased human encroachment on the natural environment, the southeastern United States will have to keep on their toes.

3. Arizona: Black Widow

Known for its desert climate, with lush pine forests and mountain ranges, Arizona's abundance of venomous creatures places it high on the list of the US' deadliest states.

However few of the species who call this state home have venom strong enough to be life threatening to humans. One exception is the Black Widow spider—so called because the female has a reputation for eating the male after mating—in fact this is rare in nature.

Like the alligators of Florida, they are rarely aggressive unless provoked or mishandled. The venom is classed as neuro-toxic because it affects the nervous system and can cause respiratory distress and chest pains. Bites are particularly dangerous in children due to their small size and to pregnant women who can be induced to go into premature labor.

4. Alaska: Bear or moose?

As the largest state in the US with a land area over twice the size of Texas, Alaska has more than three million lakes and some 28,000 square miles of glacial ice cover. The perfect habitat for an animal that by tradition, takes first place as most feared—the bear.

It's not just the top predators humans should fear, but in some cases their prey, too. The moose, a favored prey of the bear, poses a big threat to humans. With males weighing in at around 1,600 pounds, these heavyweights (although not aggressive unless provoked or startled), injure more people every year in Alaska than bears do. Due to their vast population, moose-human interactions are frequent. Increased urbanized areas with high-speed carriageways mean that vehicle-moose collisions are the now the most frequent cause of moose-related injury. They most commonly bluff charge as opposed to actually charging. But in general, it's better not to wait around to check if it was a mock one or not—retreat behind something solid.

5. California: Mountain Lion

This has always been an incredibly prosperous region for agriculture, and since the famous gold rush of the 1800's, it's been known as the Golden State, so called for its financial prosperity. California is by far the most populous state in the US with over 12 percent of the population living there. But the idyllic region is not without its problems.

Located within the Pacific Ring of Fire, California is subjected to a phenomenal amount of earthquakes, with the south of the state averaging 10,000 per year. This causes some freak meteorological effects, including tsunamis. Still, California contains more forestland than any other continental state and can lay claim to having some of the tallest, largest and oldest trees in the world—making it a perfect habitat for the mountain lion, one of the oldest predators in the country.

Once used to roaming almost the whole of the United States, today these remarkably adaptable cats are still found across most of California. Also known as cougar, panther, or puma, these large solitary predators still have the biggest range of any large terrestrial mammal in the western hemisphere.

Although incredibly shy and preferably remaining out of sight, recent reports have shown an increase in the number of human encounters with mountain lions. This is due to an increase in the large-cat population and because more and more humans are encroaching on their territory.

If you do come face-to-face with a cougar, give it room to get away. It would rather avoid you than confront you—and surely the feeling is mutual.

Irene was the US's 10th Billion-Dollar Disaster This Year

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 2:15 PM PDT

While many along the East Coast have complained that Hurricane Irene was overhyped, the storm caused billions of dollars in damage—and has still left many communities dealing with its impacts. The storm ranks as the tenth billion-dollar disaster in the US in 2011, a new record.

Irene is projected to cost the US up to $13 billion, and comes at the end of a summer filled with heat waves, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires. Previous weather events had already racked up $32 billion in costs. In short, it's been a disastrous year when it comes to disasters.

Earlier this week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) upset quite a few people with the statement that increased spending on disaster aid should be contingent on other spending cuts. But the fact remains that this exceptionally expensive year is going to require Congress to give more money to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to keep it running. FEMA was already short on cash before Irene, and the year's not over.

Over at the Daily Beast, Heidi Cullen, the senior research scientist with Climate Central, puts Irene and this year's other disasters into the broader context. Weather events are getting more extreme, and much more expensive, thanks to global warming:

Our weather is getting worse, and not saying it won’t make it go away. According to Munich Reinsurance America, one of the top providers of property and casualty reinsurance in the U.S., the number of natural disasters has tripled over the past 20 years. Average thunderstorm losses have increased five-fold since 1980. For the first half of 2011 there have been $20 billion in thunderstorm losses, up from the previous three-year average of $10 billion. The reinsurance company has also gone on the record saying, "It would seem that the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change."

Just don't expect hear anything about it from the budget hawks in Congress.