Blue Marble - October 2011

Can Piranhas Eat a Human Being Alive? [Video]

| Sat Oct. 8, 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.

Legend has it that piranhas gather in predatory shoals and can strip human beings to the bone and eat them alive. The yellow-bellied piranha has a horrific appearance, with a mouth packed full of canines 4 millimeters long, which, like sharks, are constantly replaced when lost or worn down.

Piranhas can also detect a drop of blood in 200 liters of water and shoals can clean off meat from a carcass with alarming effectiveness. Steve went in search of this notorious killer fish when he travelled to the Amazon river. Getting in the water to lure them in with a piece of steak had some frightening results:

Scary! But could they eat a human alive? Probably not.

Piranhas are neither carnivorous nor aggressive man-eaters. According to research in the UK piranhas are thought to be mainly scavengers, feeding on fish, plants, and insects, sometimes stripping meat from mammal carcasses that have ended up in the river. They also appear to be quite fearful, gathering in large shoals not to hunt down prey but rather to defend themselves against predators.

We're pretty sure that no one has ever been eaten alive by piranhas, even if a few attacks have been reported. In fact, if they have eaten any humans it's more likely because they have eaten the remains of a corpse lying on the river bed.

The myth of the aggressive piranha might be traced back to Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Brazil in 1914 and saw a piranha shoal rapidly strip the flesh from a dead cow. However, the show had been set up to entertain tourists; the captive fish had been kept hungry for days so they would go into a feeding frenzy.

We're not suggesting you bathe in piranha-infested water with wild abandon. But we do think it's safe to say most piranhas are peace-loving vegetable eaters, unlikely to devour you alive.

For more stories from Steve and the Deadly 60 team, check out the Deadly Diaries.

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Penguins Threatened by New Zealand Oil Spill

| Fri Oct. 7, 2011 5:59 PM EDT

A family of little blue penguins, Eudyptula minor, exit their nest burrow.: Credit: Noodle snacks via Wikimedia Commons.A family of little blue penguins, Eudyptula minor, exit their nest burrow.: Credit: Noodle snacks via Wikimedia CommonThe New Zealand Herald reports the country is facing one of its worst ecological disasters as the stricken tanker Rena is now in danger of breaking apart. The ship grounded 20 kilometers/12 miles off Tauranga Harbour on the North Island after striking a reef on Wednesday.

The Rena is carrying 1,700 cubic meters/450,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil. The race is onto siphon off—or at least contain—the oil before the ship sinks. From the New Zealand Herald:

More resources and special equipment [are] likely to be needed during the operation. An offshore boom barrier device to ring-fence the oil—measuring about 1250m [three-quarters of a mile]—was being transported from Australia along with three heavy skimmers to scoop it from the water. A salvage architect was due to arrive from Holland, with further expert help from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority also on their way.

 

Site of the grounding of the MV Rena, off the North Island of New Zealand. : Satellite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/NGA.Site of the grounding of the MV Rena, off the North Island of New Zealand. : Satellite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/NGA.

Meanwhile, heavier weather is bearing down on New Zealand, including a forecast for rain and strengthening northeasterly winds on Monday—when the pumping operation is slated to begin.

Most worrisome, it's spring in the southern hemisphere, and many seabirds along New Zealand's coast are breeding. This is prime egg-laying/chick-hatching season for little blue penguins (called fairy penguins in Australia), who come ashore en masse each dusk to exchange incubation duties or feed their chick, before departing again en masse before dawn to hunt.
 

 (The sound of little blue penguins calling at dusk in New Zealand. Credit: Benchill (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

So far, seven oiled birds—five little blue penguins and two cormorants—have been taken to a wildlife center at Tauranga Harbour. The New Zealand Herald reports:

"It's a very difficult situation and the reality is that we are going to see a significant oil spill," [Transport Minister Steven] Joyce said. "So far it's been reasonably small, so I think everybody's preparing for the worst. We are dealing with a very serious situation ... and I don't think anybody is under any illusions."


 

Cookie, the ticklish little blue/fairy penguin at the Cincinnati Zoo, is a great ambassador for his kind—who may not be so well known on distant shores. 

The Final Decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline is Coming Soon

| Fri Oct. 7, 2011 5:21 PM EDT

Friday's public listening session on the Keystone XL pipeline was an unusual scene, a packed room of environmentalists and union members who were, in an unusual twist, mostly on opposite sides of the dispute. Several hundred union members showed up in bright orange and lime green T-shirts, in a show of support for the proposed 1,661-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas. Environmentalists were also out in force to urge the State Department to stop Transcanada, a Canadian energy company, from moving forward with the project.

For most of the unions represented there, it's a question of jobs and how to make more of them. "People are struggling for jobs," said Sean Moody, 29, a flagger with the Washington, DC Department of Transportation and a member of the Laborers' International Union of North America, (LiUNA). "You have to survive, pay our bills and things like that." There were probably more LiUNA members at the hearing than any other individual constituency—or at least their bright shirts helped them stand out from the crowd.

LiUNA and the United Association of Steamfitters and Plumbers have made a big show of support for the pipeline; along with the Teamsters, they've been the most important union support for approving the project. But other unions—like Transport Workers Union of America and the Amalgamated Transit Union—have come out against Keystone XL.

For many of the activists who showed up for the hearing on Friday, it was weird to be clashing with people who are allies on a number of other issues. "I've never been at a rally where I wasn't standing on the same side as the union people," said Molly Haigh, the communications coordinator with the group 350.org. "A lot of our long-term goals are the same, but corporations pit us against one another."

Coming Soon: The Great Armadillo Invasion of DC

| Fri Oct. 7, 2011 5:13 PM EDT
If you're a DC resident, this roving armadillo is probably coming for your entire family.

Picture, if you will, the world's strangest horror movie premise: It's a crisp autumn in Washington, DC, Barack Obama is president, and the city's 600,000 unsuspecting residents are going about their daily business. Suddenly, out of nowhere, hordes of hungry, rugged armadillos from the deep South start taking over the metropolitan area, savaging private property in search of nourishment and generally wreaking havoc on the nation's capital.

The horror flick would have a strong environmentalist message to boot, because armadillo-mageddon is yet another side effect of anthropogenic climate change, which has forced the creatures to colonize northward.

And here's the scariest part: this B-movie scenario is actually about to go down in the real world. So, yeah ... brace yourselves.

DailyClimate.org reported in June that the armadillos, which have been "moving northward since [they] arrived in Texas in the 1880s and Florida in the 1920s," have taken the rising temperatures as a cue to migrate to previously uninhabited places like Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and other areas that are "totally unexpected," according to Colleen McDonough, a biology professor at Valdosta State University. Miles Grant at The Green Miles noted the story in a recent blog post, which the Washington Post then followed up on this week, noting that the armadillos are headed our way:

Biologists speculate that if the trend continues, the armadillo may soon be turning up in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, and even as far north as New Jersey. ...

[The armadillos] "can be fairly destructive to areas in their search to dig up delicious crawly treats," the Museum of Life and Science reported.

"Basically all we can do is ... sit back and measure the change as it happens," the University of Michigan's Philip Myers [said], "whether we like it or not."

The biggest threat the roving armadillos seem to pose is lawn damage (despite the mildly alarmist tone of the WaPo blog post). In fact, most people would probably get a kick out of watching packs of armadillos waddling down K Street. But there is a level of seriousness to the issue, as one-way animal migration caused by global warming presents real and persistent problems for ecosystems and local communities.

Still, sad as it it may be for Roland Emmerich, the DC armadillo invasion is probably not going to lead to an epic showdown between man and throngs of armored, placental critters.

Ethics Complaint Over Coal Lawyers' Inbreeding Claim

| Fri Oct. 7, 2011 3:57 PM EDT

Last summer, four coal-industry attorneys from the DC firm Crowell & Moring made headlines when they suggested that a study linking mountaintop removal mining to birth defects in Appalachia failed to consider the (inconsequential) effects of inbreeding in the region. Then they went on to advertise their services to companies looking to "counter unfounded claims of injury or disease." This week, former West Virginia lawyer Jason Huber filed an ethics complaint (PDF), alleging that the firm violated the DC Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct, which state that a "lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services."

The attorneys' advertisement "perpetuates and exploits the empirically debunked notion that inbreeding is regularly practiced by the Appalachian People," Huber wrote.

When Charleston Gazette blogger Ken Ward Jr. first pointed out the inbreeding statement that the law firm posted on its website in June, the firm quickly removed it and issued an apology. This week, a spokeswoman told Ward that Crowell & Moring "again express[es] our regret for any offense that might have been taken with the client alert, as it was meant only to relay a possible flaw with a scientific study." But, she added, Huber's "complaint is without merit."

Ward has the full story here.

 

Occupy Wall Street: The Video

| Fri Oct. 7, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

An evocative documentary on the micro community forming from the macro protest: Occupy Wall Street. Six minutes well cut.

 

 

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Image-of-the-Week: Scary Arctic Ozone Hole

| Fri Oct. 7, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Unprecedented Arctic ozone hole of 2011.: NASA image by Eric Nash and Robert Simmon with data from the Aura Microwave Limb Sounder team.Unprecedented Arctic ozone hole of 2011. NASA image by Eric Nash and Robert Simmon with data from the Aura Microwave Limb Sounder team.

An unexpected ozone hole—the first of its kind—opened above the Arctic this past spring, with a whopping ozone loss of more than 80 percent 11 to 12 miles/18 to 20 kilometers above Earth. That thinning rivals the worst of Antarctica's ozone woes. We've become used to a persistent hole above Antarctica, which, despite our phase-out of CFCs, refuses to heal... thanks to a positive feedback loop between ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions and a paradoxical cooling in the stratosphere. (I first wrote about this in MoJo's The Thirteenth Tipping Point.) Only 9 years ago the World Meteorological Organization surmised the Arctic would never produce an ozone hole, since it lacked a polar vortex and really cold temperatures. But as the authors of a new paper in Nature report this week, the Arctic got the vortex this year, and: "Our results show that Arctic ozone holes are possible even with temperatures much milder than those in the Antarctic." We know that decreased ozone leads to increased UV-B radiation, skin cancers, and reduced yields of two-thirds of the 300 most important crop varietals. Europe's winter wheat crop likely took a noticeable hit from this year's Arctic ozone hole. As to why the stratosphere gets colder in a warming world, Jeff Masters at WunderBlog sums it up: "If the surface atmosphere warms, there must be compensating cooling elsewhere in the atmosphere in order to keep the amount of heat given off by the planet the same and balanced. As emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, their cooling effect on the stratosphere will increase. This will make recovery of the stratospheric ozone layer much slower." 

'Best American Science Writing 2011' Now Out

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 6:12 PM EDT

The Best American Science Writing 2011 (HarperCollins/Ecco Press) is out.

I'm honored to say that my Mother Jones article, BP's Deep Secrets, is one of ten pieces chosen for the volume. Of it, one reviewer wrote:

"'Deep Secrets' by Julia Whitty: An examination of the recent oil spill near Louisiana. This was my personal favorite. What we didn’t know about the gulf environment before the oil spill we may never know if the environment’s destroyed."

This year's edition is edited by Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), her father, the poet and essayist Floyd Skloot, and Jesse Cohen.

Support your local indie bookstore and a science writer or two and buy a copy. Or two. Thanks!

Global Warming Rocks Our World

| Thu Oct. 6, 2011 4:31 PM EDT

Can climate change cause or intensify earthquakes? Christopher Mims wrote about some of the science on this subject back in March, after the Japanese quake. This set the collective panties of climate skeptics a-bunching, chafed at the very notion that global warming might have some impact on plate tectonics.

This month, New Scientist takes a closer look at the subject. Their content is behind a pay wall, unfortunately, but the article concludes that there is strong evidence that melting ice and sea level rise will impact the earth's crust, potentially causing earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes. There's clear evidence that what happens at the surface of the earth can have a significant impact on even massive tectonic plates—the melting of ice after past ice ages; major erosion from monsoons over the course of millions of years; and (more recently) the construction of dams have all impacted plate movement.

The piece makes several things very clear: there has not been a significant increase in erupting volcanoes or earthquakes in the past century, and there are no scientists out there claiming that there's a connection between global warming and things like the Japanese quake. But that doesn't mean it won't have an impact in the future, as Bill McGuire, a volcanologist with the Benfield Hazard Centre of the University College London argues in the piece:

There is, however, evidence that warming has triggered major landslides. And there has been very little warming so far compared with what is to come: McGuire thinks we will we see a clear effect on volcanoes and earthquakes when climate change really gets going. "Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions over a hundred years would cluster. You need a certain amount of strain to accumulate and climate change may bring forward the time that takes," he suggests. This will mean more earthquakes and eruptions in a given period, rather than more in total, he says.
The main reason is melting ice. There is far less ice now, of course, than at the end of the last ice age. But the planet is warming much faster, so sea level may rise as fast as it ever did before. While sea level rose just 0.17 metres over the 20th century, most glaciologists expect sea level to rise around a metre by the end of the 21st century. This would add an extra tonne per cubic metre to undersea and coastal faults.
The good news is that it will probably weigh down and stabilise faults beneath the sea floor. The bad news is that it will create extra stress at the coast. Here there will be a kind of see-saw effect as the seabed is pushed down. That could add enough stress to trigger a quake on faults that straddle the coast, or run parallel to them, such as the San Andreas fault in California, the North Anatolian fault in northern Turkey, and the Alpine fault in New Zealand.

Anyway, it's a great article from reporter Caroline Williams.

The Science Behind Yellowstone's Supervolcano

| Wed Oct. 5, 2011 8:28 PM EDT

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

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world, is one of our planet's great natural wonders. Rarely has a site of such beauty been so volatile and so dangerous.

With a diameter of 300 feet, the hot spring has been feared and revered in equal measure since it was discovered and named in 1871—named for its striking coloration. But looks can be deceiving since beneath the surface lies a potentially deadly supervolcano.

 From above: the stunning scene of the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park.From above: the stunning scene of the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park.

Supervolcanoes are unique because of their sheer size: In one eruption they can spew out more than 240 cubic miles of magma—enough to reach every person on the planet. The volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park last erupted over 640,000 years ago but unlike most super-volcanoes on the planet it is not extinct. Yellowstone sits atop a magma chamber that is 50 miles long, 25 miles wide and 5 miles deep—large enough to fit New York City inside it three times over—and it is still alive and kicking.