Blue Marble - October 2011

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Slave-Labor Candy, Union-Busting Costumes, and Lead-Laden Fake Bling: Happy Halloween!

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

Let me start by confessing that I have become a Halloween curmudgeon. Almost every year I dress up in some sort of costume, plaster on make up, and devour more than my fair share of a candy bar variety pack. There isn't a holiday that tempts me as much to buy, eat, and wear as many things I don't need as I do on Halloween. So what better time to consider where those Halloween goodies came from and who made them? They do, after all, make up a $6.2 billion industry. And even in the midst of a troubling economy, Americans will spend an average of $72.31 on Halloween this year, the highest amount recorded in the last nine years, according to the National Retail Federation. Herewith, the full scoop on pumpkins, candy, costumes, make-up, and fake bling:

Pumpkins: You've likely already touched, seen, or carved a pumpkin of your own. For the most part, these probably were grown on a pumpkin patch not far from your home or within your state. But if you're also planning on eating a pumpkin, in a pie or other such baked form, you're probably buying it canned. The United States produced no less than 1.1 billion pounds of pumpkin in 2010, the lion share of which is sealed in cans and shipped off to grocery aisles. Most canned pumpkins come from central Illinois, around the town of Morton, the self-proclaimed Pumpkin Capital of the World. It is also where Nestle, owner of the pumpkin subsidiary Libby's, operates a pumpkin processing plant, mostly staffed with migrant laborers traveling up from Mexico.

Although there are few labor rights violations reported on pumpkin patches or at the processing plants, Miguel Keberlein, an attorney with the Chicago-based Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project, explains that the fact that migrant labor is used at all raises a flag. "That itself tells you that it's not fantastic work," he says.

Pumpkin cultivation does have some harmful impact on environment. The watchdog group What's On My Food?, which aggregates Department of Agriculture data to monitor pesticide use, lists endosulfan sulfate as a main chemical found on winter squash, which includes pumpkins. Endosulfan sulfates have been known to have toxic and sometimes fatal effects on birds, freshwater fish, insects, and snakes.

If you are willing to shell out some extra cash, you could buy organic pumpkins at a nearby natural foods store or farmers market. Daring gardeners out there might try growing one on their own turf.

In the Ivory Coast and Ghana, a total of 532,030 children worked in cocoa farms or cocoa processing, with some 113,000 reporting that they were working against their will.

Candy: When it comes to chocolate, there's much bad news that we already know. The buckets full of Reese's cups and Hershey's Kisses we'll pass out to trick-or-treaters this week is largely sourced from West Africa. (Some 70 percent of the world's cocoa comes from that region.) Earlier this year, Tulane University published a report (commissioned by the Department of Labor) detailing child labor on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, finding that a total of 532,030 children worked in cocoa farms or cocoa processing in the two countries, with some 113,000 reporting that they were working against their will. In the last year, major candy companies, including Nestlé, Mars, and Kraft, have pledged to purchase certified fair-trade cocoa, according to a September 2011 report by Global Exchange, Green America, and the International Labor Rights Forum. Hershey's has lagged behind in commitments compared with its competitors. Progress has been slow, though, since these companies had already made similar pledges to reduce child labor back in 2001.

You don't have to look too hard to find ethical sweets. GOOD has a bunch of organic and fair-trade recommendations, from chocolates to lollipops. And if you're a die-hard Hershey's fan, good luck with that. Nestlé does sell fair-trade Kit-Kat bars—but only in Europe.

A World Of Sonic Wonder

| Sat Oct. 29, 2011 12:33 AM PDT

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

From a mighty clap of thunder to the subtle rustling of leaves, everywhere we go it feels as though we are immersed in sound. We decided to hunt down some of the planet’s lesser known sonic wonders.

Speaking sands

For nearly a century, man has been baffled by the sound of singing sand dunes. The songs they emit are almost as diverse as the countless theories about how they occur.

The sound is produced when the sand on the surface of dunes avalanches. It was once thought that these sounds were produced by the friction between the grains. More recent studies have revealed that the sound continues after the sand has stopped moving and the song that the dunes sing varies depending on the time of year. Some researchers now theorise that the sound is caused by the reverberation between dry sand at the surface and a band of wet sand within the dune, hence it changes seasonally.

There are approximately thirty locations around the world where these booming dunes can be heard; the earliest records seem to date to Marco Polo’s time in the Gobi Desert. However you don’t need to adventure among the dunes to hear them sing; the strange sound, said to be like the drone of a low flying propeller plane, has reportedly been heard up to ten kilometres away from its source.

Stirring ice

The ferocious noise made by popping or cracking ice maybe a worrying sound to the lay ear—particularly if you are stood on top of it at the time. However to researchers working in the field of climate science the groaning of the polar landscapes is music to their ears.

Scientists have started to record the sound that the ice makes as it recedes, using hydrophones to measure the amount of glacial melting. Mapping the sea floor using sonar is not a new phenomenon but in this new application instead of sending pulses of sound to the sea floor and timing their return, glaciologists just simply listen. Looking at the interface between ice, ocean, and bedrock it may be possible to use acoustics to measure the glacial melt.

You can almost hear the glaciers heave a sigh of relief.

Mysterious seas

The familiar sounds of the sea are captured in the incredible soundtracks of natural history documentaries as well as inside seashells when they are held up to our ears. The sound transports us to the blue planet that covers over 70 percent of the Earth's surface.

In the summer of 1997, a number of hydrophones in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean picked up a bizarre new sound phenomenon. The underwater microphones picked up a signal that rose rapidly in frequency for about a minute before disappearing. The sound was picked up repeatedly by US government microphones for the duration of that summer but has not been heard since. It became known as 'The Bloop' and was detected by sensors over a range of 5,000 kilometers.

Initial tracking suggested that the sound profile of 'The Bloop' was comparable to that of a living animal. However it was far louder than any whale song ever recorded.

The mystery remains just a drop in the ocean of the hundreds of mysterious sounds that make our planet a sonic wonder.

The Case of the Missing Red Snapper

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 3:48 PM PDT

I call myself a pescatarian, though when I do choose to layer lox on my bagel or slurp the occasional oyster, I prefer responsibly sourced seafood, or at least to know exactly what I'm eating. And sometimes when sitting down to a sushi dinner, that's not exactly clear. To everyone but the most discerning epicure, pink fish can be pretty easily mistaken for other types of pink fish. So it came as no comfort to read Consumer Reports' new investigation, "Mystery Fish," which found that more than 20 percent of seafood purchased at restaurants and stores in three US states was improperly labeled or identified. Among the most mysterious meats was red snapper, which, after going through DNA matching during this particular investigation, could never be positively identified as such.

Consumer Reports sent 22 samples of "red snapper" to an outside lab for DNA testing, where along with other seafood samples, their genetic sequences were compared with standardized gene fragments. Eight red snappers were deemed as possible DNA matches, but the rest were unidentifiable or simply mislabeled.

Image-of-the-Week: Seaweed Exodus

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 10:17 AM PDT

Kelp.: Credit:Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons.Kelp in Tasmania, Australia. Credit:Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons.Our knowledge of global-warming changes in the ocean is paltry compared to changes on land. Now a new paper in Current Biology reports on alarming shifts in distribution of 52 species of seaweed in Australia during two periods: 1940-1960 and 1990-2009. In the interval between those periods, waters warmed by about 2°C/3.6°F on Australia's Pacific coast and by about 1°C/1.8°F on the Indian Ocean coast. The authors drew upon more than 20,000 records in Australia's Virtual Herbarium (a very cool online database), and found that marine algae migrated south towards cooler waters as the ocean warmed—shifting south on the east coast by about 200km/124mi and on the west coast by about 50km/31mi. There's only so far algae—and all the species dependent on them—can shift before they run of of landmass to anchor to. In an interview with Australian news, lead author Thomas Wernberg says a "back of the envelope type calculation" suggests that 25 percent of Australia's temperate marine species could be at risk of extinction by 2070. 

Congressmen Cite "Many Serious Concerns" About Keystone XL

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 3:34 PM PDT

A few developments of note on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. On Wednesday, three Senators and 11 members of Congress asked the State Department's Inspector General to look into the review of the pipeline.

The group also wrote to President Obama informing him that they have requested an investigation. They cited the "many serious concerns" that have been raised regarding conflicts of interest—which we've covered here, here, here, and here.

Obama faced some anti-Keystone hecklers at a public speech on Wednesday. "We’re looking at it right now, all right?" he responded. "No decision has been made. And I know your deep concern about it. So we will address it."

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to offer additional comments on the pipeline soon, The Hill's E2 Wire reports. The EPA gave the initial environmental impact statement a failing grade, so their comments on the final version will be much anticipated.

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Let's Not Mine Uranium in the Grand Canyon

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 6:42 AM PDT

The Bureau of Land Management issued a determination on Wednesday that turning the Grand Canyon into a giant uranium mine would be a bad idea.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said earlier this year that he thought there should be a 20-year moratorium on mining in the iconic canyon, so the decision isn't really a surprise. The Final Environmental Impact Statement called for extending the moratorium on mining on the 1 million acres land under the management of the US Forest Service and BLM. Here's what BLM had to say in a statement:

"The Grand Canyon is an iconic place for all Americans and visitors from around the world," said BLM Director Bob Abbey. "Uranium remains an important part of our nation’s comprehensive energy resources, but it is appropriate to pause, identify what the predicted level of mining and its impacts on the Grand Canyon would be, and decide what level of risk is acceptable to take with this national treasure. The preferred alternative would allow for cautious, continued development with strong oversight that could help us fill critical gaps in our knowledge about water quality and environmental impacts of uranium mining in the area."

But it's sure to annoy the Republicans in the House and Senate who have been gunning to open it up. For now they'll have to wait. At least until the Perry/Bachmann administration reverses the decision in a few years.

Secret Tsunami Stowaways

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Tsunami debris afloat in the Pacific after the 11 Mar 2011 earthquake and tsunami off Japan.: Credit: US Navy/ Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd.Tsunami debris afloat in the Pacific after the 11 Mar 2011 earthquake and tsunami off Japan. Credit: US Navy/ Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd.The International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) in Hawaii reports that somewhere between 5 and 20 million tons of tsunami debris from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan is migrating quickly across the Pacific Ocean.

Crew from the Russian tall ship STS Pallada spotted furniture, appliances, and a fishing boat with the home port 'Fukushima' painted on it after passing the Midway islands, part of the Hawaiian Island Archipelago, last month. That's 2,000 miles from the epicenter of the quake. 

This is the first confirmed sighting since shortly after the disaster, when the massive floating remnants of coastal Japanese towns—more than 200,000 buildings—simply disappeared from view. 

Credit: IPRC.Credit: IPRC.

The image above shows the likely path of tsunami debris as of 25 Oct 2011. The IPRC research suggests this path based on 678,305 tracers released from the northeast coast of Japan beginning 11 March 2011, the same day as the quake.

You can watch an animation of the full dispersal here. The fluid dynamics are beautiful.

 

 


This video shows the IPRC prediction of the long-term—5-year-plus—travels of the tsunami debris. The original animation for the statistical model is here.

 

As you can see from the video, the debris, after bouncing off the west coast of North America, is likely to get trapped in the North Pacific Gyre along with all the other garbage collecting there. The plastics will last close to forever.

As an interesting aside, monstrously huge rafts of tsunami debris may well be one of the mechanisms by which life originally dispersed to the Hawaiian Islands. 

Pallus' rosefinch, Carpodacus roseus, native to China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia.: Credit: M. Nishimura via Wikimedia Commons.Pallus' rosefinch, Carpodacus roseus, native to China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia. Credit: M. Nishimura via Wikimedia Commons.

A new analysis of the genome of Hawaiian honeycreepers reveals they're not descended, as thought, from the honeycreepers of the Americas, but are instead a sister taxon to the Eurasian rosefinches of the genus Carpodacus.

Based on a genetic analysis, the precursors of Hawaiian honeycreepers probably arrived on Kauai and Niihau about 5.7 million years ago and continued to diverge into different species after Oahu emerged from the sea.

ʻIʻiwi, or scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea.: Credit: Paul Banko, NPS.ʻIʻiwi, or scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea. Credit: Paul Banko, NPS.It's possible that huge floating mats of tsunami debris—perhaps from Japan—brought the ancestors of Hawaii's present-day honeycreepers to the islands.

Those of you who've spent time at sea know how land birds get blown off course and will rest on any platform at sea—ship, boat, raft, the backs of sleeping whales—as they fight to stay alive.

Maybe the current tsunami debris will transport some newcomers to the Hawaiian Islands.

 Townsend's warbler rests on boat.: Credit: Andrew Revkin via Flickr.Townsend's warbler rests on boat. Credit: Andrew Revkin via Flickr.

Would we recognize them as naturally-delivered refugees? Or would we try to exterminate them as human-introduced aliens?

The papers:

  • Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner. Marine Debris. IPRC Climate, vol. 8, no. 2, 2008. pdf.

  • Heather R.L. Lerner, Matthias Meyer, Helen F. James, Michael Hofreiter, and Robert C. Fleischer. Multilocus Resolution of Phylogeny and Timescale in the Extant Adaptive Radiation of Hawaiian Honeycreepers. DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2011.09.039.

Sushi Plate Detects Radioactivity in Seafood

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 10:00 AM PDT

It sounds like a spoof, but this appears to be for reals: The Fukushima Plate—a sushi platter that comes with a built-in radiation detector:

Image by Nils FerberImage by Nils FerberThe plate's designer, Nils Ferber, explains how it works: Before using the plate, you set the level of radiation you're comfortable with. If the plate isn't glowing, your food has no detectable radiation. One glowing ring indicates a low level of radiation; two rings signals "significantly increased levels" of radiation. The dreaded red ring "tells you that the measured dose of radiation is beyond the limiting value you set before."

What I'm wondering: Are you supposed to trot this plate out to restaurants? And if you get the red ring, do you send your food back? Awk-ward.

Via the London Daily Mail.

BPA Makes Little Girls Anxious and Depressed

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

A new study shows that girls who were exposed to chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) as fetuses are more highly prone to hyperactive, anxious, aggressive, and depressed behavior than boys of similar age. BPA, an estrogen-mimicking chemical used to harden plastic, is found in consumer products ranging widely from canned soups to baby bottles and grocery receipts. (MoJo's Kiera Butler's got the full rundown on BPA's health risks.)

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, joins a mounting body of evidence linking BPA to various reproductive and developmental diseases. The study's authors tested urine samples of 244 mothers during pregnancy and at birth and of their children for the first three years. The urine tests showed BPA in 84 percent of the women's samples and in 96 percent of the children's, with indications that behavior problems in the girls rose with rising BPA levels. But while the study shows a strong correlation between behavioral change and BPA levels, its authors say more research is needed.

Meanwhile, other studies in recent years have linked BPA exposure to impaired thyroids, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, breast and prostate cancer, and infertility in both men and women. The Pediatrics study confirms two previous ones finding that prenatal exposure to BPA affects child behavior, and it's the first to demonstrate that BPA exposure prebirth may matter more than exposure postbirth, lead author Joe Braun told Bloomberg.

The growing case against BPA has motivated an increasing number of state legislators to ban the substance from certain consumer products. Earlier this month, California officially banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, joining 10 other states that have recently passed similar bills. Around the world, BPA is already outlawed in the European Union, Canada, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia.

The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees federal regulation over chemicals in the United States, does not support a ban on BPA. This, despite being heavily criticized by consumer advocacy groups and being sued for failing "to safeguard the food supply." In 2009 the Consumers Union warned of the health risks posed by BPA in food containers, basing its position on more than 200 different scientific studies. The FDA recognizes that the recent studies on BPA warrant reason for "some concern." But it ultimately argues that there are "substantial uncertainties" in the interpretation of the studies and says it is conducting its own research on the matter.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition, food, and public health professor at New York University, sums up the regulatory BPA debate neatly:

In the absence of compelling science, regulators have two choices: exercise the "precautionary principle" and ban [BPA] until it can be proven safe, or approve it until it can be shown to be harmful. The United States and European safety agencies—and the food industry, of course—prefer the latter approach.

It's not just about the science. Unsurprisingly, plastic and other industry lobbyists routinely call into question the methodology of studies condemning BPA use, as they did in this most recent case. The criticism makes sense given that industry groups have also been campaigning aggressively against state legislation banning BPA from certain consumer products. In California alone, the American Chemical Council (ACC) spent $9.4 million on lobbying since 2005, Greenwire reported earlier this month. And the money can be persuasive. Mother Jones reported last month that the Susan G. Komen foundation, a leading breast cancer research group, downplayed BPA's links to cancer around the time it was receiving funding from pro-BPA pharma companies.

Now that states are starting to move toward BPA bans despite industry opposition, groups like the ACC seem to be stepping up their game, making a new push for the FDA to have final say over BPA regulation. Of course, if federal jurisdiction were to override the emerging state-level bans, the FDA's inconclusive position on BPA as a public health threat would work well in the industry's favor.