Blue Marble - October 2011

Team Obama Hires TransCanada Lobbyist

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 1:44 PM PDT

Critics of TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline are crying foul over yet another example of the revolving door ties between the company and the Obama adminstration. On Monday, the Obama team announced that Broderick Johnson had been hired as a senior adviser to the president's reelection campaign. Johnson, a lobbyist at Bryan Cave LLP, had lobbied on behalf of TransCanada.

According to public disclosure forms, Johnson lobbied Congress, agencies, and the White House in support of the pipeline in 2010. Bryan Cave reported $120,000 in lobbying income and six registered lobbyists for the fourth quarter of 2010 alone; it is among several firms that TransCanada has hired to lobby the US government on its behalf. Johnson, who is the husband of NPR's Michele Norris, has also lobbied on behalf of Anheuser Busch Companies, Comcast, FedEx, and Microsoft.

The Obama campaign doesn't seem too excited to highlight his lobbying work, as Politico's Mike Allen wrote earlier today:

The Obama campaign’s press release did not mention his lobbying experience. But a campaign official said later that Broderick "is no longer a lobbyist — he deregistered in April — and he will not discuss any matters related to his former firm’s clients with the campaign."

Pipeline critics have already raised concerns about the close ties between TransCanada and the Obama administration. Paul Elliot, the company's top lobbyist, was once a national deputy director for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign; according to internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Request, he has proved to be well-connected in her office. The former US special envoy on energy also left the State Department earlier this year for a consulting job and has since advocated for the approval of the pipeline in that role. DeSmogBlog, which first coverd Johnson, has more on the Keystone lobbying connection.

The latest hire in the Obama campaign has provided more fodder for critics in the environmental community. "President Obama ran for office in 2008 promising that the days of lobbyists setting the agenda in Washington were over, yet now he's hired a top oil pipeline lobbyist into his campaign," said Kim Huynh, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, in a statement. "This is a deeply troubling development. A lobbyist who has taken corporate cash to shill for this dirty and dangerous pipeline now has even more opportunity to whisper into the president's ear."

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Awesome Animal-Inspired Inventions

| Sat Oct. 22, 2011 12:00 PM PDT

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

Passive Cooling—An office building inspired by termite mounds

The humble termite may still pose a threat to wooden buildings, but in Africa their home has inspired a new, green, and efficient form of building.

Termites live in termitaria—towering nests commonly called 'anthills'. The ability of termites to control the temperature in these mounds has led to the building of one of the most green examples of architecture in the world.

The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe has no conventional air conditioning or heating but temperature is controlled year round using techniques from the termites.

Inside the mounds termites farm a fungus, which is their primary source of food, and it must be kept at 87 degrees Farenheit while the temperature outside can range from 35 degrees at night to 105 during the day.

Amazingly, the termites manage to do this by constantly opening and closing heating and cooling vents in the mound over the course of a day. The termites do this constantly to keep their temperature regulated.

The mainly concrete Eastgate Centre works in a similar way. Outside air that is drawn in is either warmed or cooled by the building mass. It is then vented into the building's floors and offices before exiting via chimneys at the top.

Eastgate uses less than 10 per cent of the energy of a normal building of its size, and the owners have saved $3.5 million just because they didn't have to install air conditioning. It also means the tenants pay rent that's 20 per cent lower than in neighboring buildings. All thanks to the termite.

Humpback whale-inspired hydroelectric turbines

Report: Countries Catch Way More Bluefin Tuna Than They're Supposed To

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 1:48 PM PDT
Bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji Market, Japan.

Countries around the world are selling more than twice as much Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna than international standards allow, according to a new report from the Pew Environment Group. The report, released earlier this week, compares the recorded volume of Atlantic bluefin tuna caught and traded in the Mediterranean Sea and northeastern Atlantic Ocean with catch quotas set by the intergovernmental body responsible for regulating the fish's trade.

Pew looked at bluefin tuna trade data recorded over the last 13 years by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), Eurostat, Japanese customs, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Croatian Chamber of Economy, plotted in the graph below. The data tells us that while the overall recorded catch and international quota declined over time, in recent years the difference between the quota and actual trade volume has increased significantly:

Pew Environment GroupPew Environment GroupIn 2008 the amount of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna traded on the global market was 31 percent larger than ICCAT's quota that year. In 2010, the gap expanded to 141 percent.

We've long known that national fishing fleets regularly break ICCAT's catch quotas. But the extent to which the nearly extinct bluefin tuna is being overfished is concerning, particularly since the report doesn't account for bluefin tuna traded on the black market. On this point: In February 2009 a team of British researchers wrote in the journal Public Library of Science that between 2000 and 2003, an average of 30 percent of all bluefin tuna caught around the world were caught illegally:

John Pearce et al/www.illegal-fishing.infoJohn Pearce et al/www.illegal-fishing.infoReliable and comprehensive data is important, not least because it informs major decisions about species protection. As I reported here in May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—the US agency that oversees the Atlantic bluefin tuna—declared that the fish did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA reached its decision at the time on the assumption that fishing fleets abided by ICCAT quotas. Whether Pew's findings will prompt NOAA to revisit its decision remains to be seen.

Skeptics' Last, BEST Hope?

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 11:30 AM PDT

On Thursday, University of California-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller put out his much-anticipated Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST). Muller had been a skeptic of human-caused global warming, was highly critical of climate scientists, and was beloved by climate deniers who thought he would finally prove them right.

Unfortunately for them (and the Koch brothers, who spent $150,000 on the project), Muller's alternative analysis of global climate data found the same rise in temperatures. It became clear a few months ago that Muller's report was probably going to be a let down for deniers—he previewed Thursday's results in testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology in March. "Global warming in my evaluation is real and much of it, if not most of it, is caused by humans," Muller said in a recent speech. Here's what his team's analysis of 1.6 billion temperature reports from 15 data archives looks like:

See Kevin Drum for more on the report and the skeptics' reaction.

Whale, Dolphin Deaths Twice Normal Rate in Gulf

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Stranded spinner dolphin.: Credit: qnr via Flickr.Stranded spinner dolphin.: Credit: qnr via Flickr. The latest NOAA report on unusual strandings of whales and dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico finds they're still dying at twice the normal rate 18 months after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

 

Map of strandings in relation to Deepwater Horizon well.: Predicted heat index for Friday, 22 July, 2011. Credit: NOAA.Map of strandings in relation to Deepwater Horizon well Credit: NOAA.

As you can see in the map above, the most heavily oiled shoreline still corresponds with the most dead whales and dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are shown as circles and other species as squares. Premature, stillborn, or neonatal bottlenose dolphins (with actual or estimated lengths of less than 115 cm/45 inches) are shown as a circle with a black dot inside. Pink points mark the most recent week of data. Green points mark are all other cases since January 1.

 All stranded cetaceans (dolphins and whales) from Franklin County, FL to the Texas/ Louisiana border.: Credit: NOAA.All stranded cetaceans (dolphins and whales) from Franklin County, Florida, to the Texas/Louisiana border Credit: NOAA.

Here you can see how the numbers of strandings have not yet stabilized or even begun to decline. In some cases they're still growing. The magenta-colored bars mark strandings per month in the year 2010. The ivory-colored bars mark strandings per month so far this year.

In my Mother Jones article "The BP Cover-Up" last year, I wrote about the kind of long-term problems the Gulf might face not just from oil but from extreme quantities of oil in very deep water, as well as from chemical dispersant, including dispersant injected into very deep water.

Sadly, it seems that cetaceans—past, present, and future—may be bearing some of those burdens.

Population 7 Billion: Time to Talk

| Thu Oct. 20, 2011 2:42 PM PDT

Yesterday I joined a lively webchat called Population 7 Billion: It's Time to Talk, along with Bill Ryerson and Bob Walker, and moderated by Asher Miller of the Post Carbon Institute (their creds here). You can see the archive here.

This issue, which doesn't get enough attention (notable exception: my epic, for me, MoJo article last year, The Last Taboo) is creeping towards the front pages now as we approach the 7th billion person on Earth. The UN predicts he or she will be born sometime this month.

I'll be writing more on population, consumption, and global change next week—including the controversy over whether we really have hit 7 billion, plus the UN's latest prediction that population growth might continue through the 21st century and beyond (no plateau in sight). I'll follow-up on the hopeful convergence between science, environmentalism, human rights, and womens' rights—an alliance unimaginable in the 20th century, now a hallmark of 21st-century sustainability thinking.

So check back. And join in. It's time to talk.

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BP's Oil Most Deadly to Canadian Birds

| Wed Oct. 19, 2011 2:27 PM PDT

Northern gannet. : Credit: Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.Northern gannet. Credit: Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.A new paper in early view in Biology Letters—a journal of the Royal Society—finds that Canadian migrant seabirds suffered disproportionately the lethal effects of BP's oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Northern gannets (Morus bassanus) suffered the highest oiling among beach-wrecked birds recovered last year.

These are the largest seabirds in the Atlantic, who migrate from their Canadian breeding colonies to overwinter in the Gulf of Mexico. Adults return to the breeding colonies by about March—earlier than immature birds.

Winter positions of northern gannets from 4 of 6 North American colonies, where adults and chicks were banded and adults and juveniles tracked. Mean winter (Jan–Feb) positions from adults carrying GLS (2004–2010) and final positions from 18 juveniles with: Credit: William Montevecchi, et al. Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0880.Winter positions of northern gannets from 4 of 6 North American colonies, where adults and chicks were banded and adults and juveniles tracked. Credit: William Montevecchi, et al. Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0880.

Due to these migration timetables, most of the northern gannets killed in the Gulf last year were likely immature birds. Which means the real impact of their deaths will not show up until those birds would have reached sexual maturity—at about 5 or 6 years of age—or between now and far beyond, since gannets can live at least 21 years. From the paper:

Most adult gannets had returned to Canadian colonies by 20 April 2010, although more than 50,000 immature gannets were in the Gulf at the time and suffered oil-related mortality. Hence, two probable outcomes are (i) a lagged (likely difficult to detect) population decrease or (ii) mortality will be buffered by age-related life-history processes.  

 

A bonded pair of northern gannets.: Credit: Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.A bonded pair of northern gannets. Credit: Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

The authors found the story grew even more ominous when they compared numbers on how many gannets were overwintering in the Gulf of Mexico—numbers that differed hugely depending on the technology used:

  • Old-fashioned technology: recovery of banded birds
  • Modern technology: bird-borne global location sensors (GLS) and satellite tags (Platform Terminal Transmitters, PTTs)

The newer technologies revealed more than twice as many gannets overwintering in the Gulf. From the paper:

Extrapolation from band recoveries indicates that 13,318 adult gannets winter in the Gulf of Mexico, much less than the 66,124 estimate based on GLS data... PTT positions suggest an estimated population of 52,509 immature gannets in the Gulf compared with 41,587 extrapolated from banding recoveries. Extrapolating tracking data for all gannet age classes more than doubles the estimated number of birds using the Gulf, from 54,905 to 118,633 birds. 

Add to that the fact that dead or oiled birds found ashore represent only a fraction of the birds dead or dying at sea. From the paper:

Seabirds are among the most obvious and immediate indicators of wildlife and environmental damage during marine pollution events. In these circumstances, seabird mortality has been assessed by counting dead and dying animals along coasts. These assessments are biased towards animals that die near accessible well-populated coastlines, and as offshore winds and currents can reduce coastal-deposition of carcasses that sink after a few days, mortality is inevitably underestimated.

The authors note that gannets may be shifting their winter range to the Gulf in response to overfishing of menhaden—their primary winter prey—in Atlantic waters.

 Northern gannet in flight. : Credit: Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons.Northern gannet in flight. : Credit: Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons.

They also found possible signs of oil fouling on birds returning to the breeding colonies:

In April 2011, at their southernmost colony, Cape St. Mary's Newfoundland, gannets on inaccessible cliff-sites were observed and photographed with dark soiled plumage that looked like oil, but this could not be verified by chemical analysis. Tracking, survival and physiological measurements at gannet colonies during 2011 are evaluating other potential repercussions and informing management about conservation concerns.

 



The paper:

  • William Montevecchi, David Fifield, Chantelle Burke, Stefan Garthe, April Hedd, Jean-François Rail, Gregory Robertson. Tracking long-distance migration to assess marine pollution impact. Biology Letters. 2011. DOI

Cross-posted from Deep Blue Home.

 

A Texas-Sized Scientific Revolt

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 11:50 AM PDT

Last week, I explained how environmental officials under Texas Gov. Rick Perry edited a sea level rise study to remove references to climate change. The author of the report elected to have his paper left out of the multichapter volume on the state of Galveston Bay rather than publish something scientifically inaccurate. Now the Guardian reports that all of the scientists involved in the report are distancing themselves from the project in protest of the Perry administration's censorship:

By academic standards, the protest amounts to the beginnings of a rebellion: every single scientist associated with the 200-page report has demanded their names be struck from the document. "None of us can be party to scientific censorship so we would all have our names removed," said Jim Lester, a co-author of the report and vice-president of the Houston Advanced Research Centre.

"To me it is simply a question of maintaining scientific credibility. This is simply antithetical to what a scientist does," Lester said. "We can't be censored." Scientists see Texas as at high risk because of climate change, from the increased exposure to hurricanes and extreme weather on its long coastline to this summer's season of wildfires and drought.

No wonder Perry has such a hard time naming a scientist that he likes.

The Incredible Shrinking Human

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 11:23 AM PDT

In the past few weeks, we've heard about how climate change is threatening:

Now it's apparently also threatening the global height balance—and in turn the power dynamics of the World Cup and professional basketball. Steve LeVine explains in Foreign Policy:

According to a report in Nature Climate Change, two researchers at the National University of Singapore have found that species are shrinking with the march of climate change -- including humans. "Reduced food supplies are likely to mean that animals at the top of their food chains -- including humans -- will grow to smaller sizes, have fewer offspring, and be more vulnerable to disease," writes the Daily Telegraph, reporting on the study.

Studies have shown that global warming will affect regions of the Earth differently -- some countries will see stark affects, and others won't. Applying that concept, one over time could find soccer or basketball players who grow up in drought-stricken regions -- say, the state of Texas (the Dallas Mavericks's current crop is pictured above) -- outclassed by athletes from currently underrated, rain-drenched locales such as the Indian state of Assam. Scouts pay attention.