Blue Marble - November 2011

Infographics: How Arctic Sea Ice is Changing

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 7:15 AM PST

This post courtesy BBC Earth's Race to the South Pole series. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

In early 2010, BBC Earth took a behind-the-lens look at some of the scientific information used to help make the BBC's Frozen Planet series. Producers at the network's Natural History Unit in Bristol led us to the findings of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, where sea ice scientists have been carefully analyzing the conditions of the Arctic's frozen wilderness. We collaborated with designer Rupert Burton to bring this data to life. The two infographics below illustrate how the sea ice's age and extent have fluctuated over the past 20 years, influenced by changes in weather, winds, and currents.

The Age of Arctic Sea Ice (1984-2011): Data source: NSIDCThe Age of Arctic Sea Ice (1984-2011): Data source: NSIDC 2011

Average of Arctic Sea Ice Extent (1979-2011): Data source: NSIDC 2011Average of Arctic Sea Ice Extent (1979-2011): Data source: NSIDC 2011

To learn more, visit the Icelights website, where you can read what sea ice scientists are currently talking about and ask them your own questions.

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Climategate…Again?

| Tue Nov. 22, 2011 12:01 PM PST

Here we go again. Once more on the eve of a major United Nations negotiating session on climate change, an anonymous commenter has posted thousands of emails between scientists online. Climate change critics have already latched onto the emails as "Climategate 2.0." Much like the first iteration of the manufactured controversy, the commenter released the emails with a selection of short, out-of-context quotes designed to make scientists look nefarious.

The latest release includes 5,000 additional emails, and the poster claims to have another 220,000 on a private site that he or she does not intend to release. The poster again goes by the handle "FOIA," as was used when the first round of emails was released in November 2009.

Several of the scientists who wrote the emails have confirmed that the latest batch is legitimate. Officials at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom has already posted a statement, indicating that what they have read so far appear to be actual emails, and that they believe these are additional emails acquired at the same time as the initial theft.

Many are speculating that the release was intended to derail the upcoming climate talks in Durban, South Africa—which would be true, if anyone were paying attention to them in the first place. (I'll have more on Durban in a few days.) And as with the first round, a lot of what is portrayed as sinister plotting or subterfuge among scientists is really just how science works—people disagree, they criticize each other's work, and they sometimes aren't very nice. And, just like in the last round, some of them show scientists discussing how to avoid turning over their emails to skeptics that would use them to bash the science. I'm hoping the irony of that isn't lost on anyone.

Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who has probably been the subject of more skeptic hatred than any of the other scientists involved in the emails, told me in an email that this latest round seems like a weak attempt to reignite controversy. "I guess they had very little left to work with, having culled in the first round the emails that could most easily be taken out of context to try to make me look bad," said Mann. "Just another shameless effort to manufacture a false controversy, once again, on the eve of a key international climate change summit."

I'd hesitate to call attention to a bunch of stolen, out-of-context emails at all, except for the fact that part of the reason that Climategate 1.0 was blown so far out of proportion is that most people ignored it for so long and let the denial crowd frame the conversation. By the time reasonable people caught up, it was already out of control. Journalists basically ran with the skeptic's talking points, and despite numerous investigations and exonerations, the incident remained a stalking horse for the global warming denial crowd. For a more detailed, and lengthy, examination, see my piece on the incident from April.

Oiled Penguins Go Free

| Tue Nov. 22, 2011 4:00 AM PST

Little blue penguin.: Credit: Noodle snacks via Wikimedia Commons.Little blue penguin Noodle snacks via Wikimedia Commons.

Forty-nine of 343 little blue penguins rescued from the oil spill off the New Zealand coast were released back into the ocean yesterday—with more to come in the next few weeks, says Maritime New Zealand.

At least 2,008 birds died.

When Rena grounded on October 5, it contained 1,712 tons of oil. About 360 tons spilled into the ocean. The 1,319 tons remaining were removed under really tough conditions by November 13. Kudos to the salvors.

 

The freed penguins were released into the Bay of Plenty with hopes they'll make their way back to their breeding rookery on Rabbit Island.

Bonne chance, little dudes. 

How Bad Is Pepper Spray?

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 4:23 PM PST

This horrifying video of UC Davis police indiscriminately pepper-spraying peaceful student protesters has gone viral. Two officers have been placed on leave. But for anyone who's never been pepper sprayed, it's hard to imagine exactly what it feels like. Over at Scientific American, Deborah Blum makes a valiant attempt to explain.

Using a scale of intensity developed 100 years ago by Wilbur Scoville, Blum notes that commercial-grade pepper spray is 1,000 times "hotter" than a jalapeño pepper. Most sprays are between 2 million and 5.3 million Scoville units—and the higher-end figure is the type police use. Here's the chart:

As Blum notes, getting sprayed in the face isn't at all like putting too much hot sauce on your burrito:

The reason pepper-spray ends up on the Scoville chart is that – you probably guessed this - it’s literally derived from pepper chemistry, the compounds that make habaneros so much more formidable than the comparatively wimpy bells. Those compounds are called capsaicins and – in fact – pepper spray is more formally called Oleoresin Capsicum or OC Spray.

But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.

Until you look it up on the Scoville scale and remember, as toxicologists love to point out, that the dose makes the poison. That we’re not talking about cookery but a potent blast of chemistry.

Blum looks at research linking pepper spray to cardiac, respiratory, and neurological problems and even sudden death. It's scary stuff.

Ominous Chevron Oil Spill Off Brazil

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 3:01 PM PST

 

The Brazilian environmental agency announced it will fine Chevron nearly $28 million—the most allowable under Brazilian law—for the spill underway off the Brazilian coast since 7 November.

Chevron accepts responsibility for the leak, which it says was caused by an underestimation of the pressure in the oil reservoir, plus an overestimation of the strength of the rock containing the reservoir. Chevron's drill operator is Transocean, Ltd, the same driller for BP's Deepwater Horizon rig. Chevron's version of how the problem unfolded, via AP:

The drilling fluid that is pumped down the center of the drill as it works, lubricating and stabilizing the pressure of the bore hole, was not heavy enough to counter the pressure coming from the oil reservoir... That caused crude to rush upward and eventually escape through a breach in the bore hole and leak into the surrounding seabed. The oil then made its way to the ocean floor and has since leaked through at least seven narrow fissures, all within 160 feet (50 meters) of the well head on the ocean floor.

Reuters reports the leak occurred so far from the drilling platform that Chevron originally thought the spill was from a platform or pipeline owned by Brazil's state-controlled oil company, Petrobras. Chevron was eventually informed of its own leak by Petrobras.

The deep reservoir that Chevron and others are working may hold 100 billion barrels of oil or more, enough to supply the whole US, the world's largest oil consumer, for 14 or more years. However the reservoir is buried under waters 2 miles deep and under (weak?) rock another 2.5 miles below that—in Chevron's case, at least, too deep for safe engineering.

The combination of the high-pressure reservoir, weak rock, and a leaking seabed sounds ominous for any hope of quick containment.

How Green Is Your Thanksgiving Menu?

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 3:30 AM PST

So you've got your free-range turkey. Your potatoes are strictly heirloom varieties. The cranberries for your sauce come from the local organic bog. Feeling pretty good about your Thanksgiving dinner, are you? Not so fast: The environmental footprint of food isn't always what you'd expect. Last Thanksgiving, PBS Need to Know took a hard look at the subject, from a diverse range of perspectives. In its podcast, which is definitely worth another listen, we hear from geophysicist Gidon Eshel, NASA agronomist Cynthia Rosenzweig, best-selling author Anna Lappé, agricultural analyst Philip Thornton, and animal rights activist Tara Oresick.

By now, most of us are aware of the outsized environmental footprint of meat. As Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, points out, the production of one pound of beef can require as much as 16 pounds of livestock feed. And that's to say nothing of all the waste associated with raising livestock, the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by the cattle, and the carbon dioxide created by trucks and tractors that transport feed and animals.

Of course, not all meat is as resource intensive as beef. Similarly, not all vegetables are as innocent as you might think. Eshel, whom I interviewed for my piece on whether or not vegetarianism is always greener than eating meat, says that in order to lessen the environmental impact of our diets, we should look at the efficiency of foods: How much energy is required to produce them, and how many calories do we gain? From this perspective, labels like "organic" and "local" aren't always the most planet-friendly choices. In colder climates, local spinach and mesclun, for example, are frighteningly inefficient because they have to be grown in greenhouses.

And the efficiency of foods can vary dramatically depending on where and how you live. Thornton, a livestock expert, argues that Americans use cattle very differently from people in other parts of the world. In Kenya, families often depend on one or two cows for income: The animals provide not only milk and/or meat, but also fertilizer, so their overall energy yield is much greater. In some climates, raising livestock can actually require fewer resources than growing crops.

So how efficient are the foods on your Thanksgiving plate? The answer may surprise you. (Hint: Turkey is not as bad as you might think. Phew!) For the answer (plus an inside look at an Adopt-a-Turkey program in upstate New York, and more) listen to the podcast:


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WATCH: How BBC Nature Videos Get Made

| Sat Nov. 19, 2011 5:00 AM PST

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

Our world may be very big, but sometimes it is the smallest stories that teach us the most about this planet. BBC Earth brings you three incredible videos where the innovative use of technology has helped our team capture nature's true magic.

For example: Did you know you can see colonies of grass cutter ants from space? Below, producer Rupert Barrington explains how he managed to get within unprecedented proximity of a nest of up to five million grass cutter ants:

This isn't the only example of innovation in natural history. In the following clip, executive producer Mike Gunton shares fascinating insight into the imagination of the male Vogelkop bowerbird:

Developing technology to capture the minuscule and the marvelous is one thing. But what happens when what you're trying to film is located underneath eight feet of solid ice? Below, producer Neil Lucas talks about the incredibly rewarding but painstaking task of filming in these challenging conditions:

Armed with a passion for the natural world and the desire to communicate its incredible stories, BBC Earth filmmakers will continue to surprise and delight us for years to come.

Image-of-the-Week: Forecast: Weird

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 2:52 PM PST

Credit: Scotto Bear via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Scotto Bear via Wikimedia Commons.If the weather's seemed bizarre lately, the future's likely to get really strange. This according to the latest IPCC summary report (pdf), released today, which predicts all kinds of additional weather weirdness in the years ahead: heavier rains, more extreme high temperatures, fewer low temperature extremes, longer-lasting heat waves, stronger hurricanes and typhoons, intensifying droughts, and extreme sea levels. The report summarizes trends in disaster costs in recent decades as: way more expensive in dollars for the developed world; way more expensive in lost lives in the developing world.

Today's report reflects more accurately the true level of scientific uncertainty ahead—more hurricanes or just stronger hurricanes? more rain plus more floods?—and notes that many ares of the globe are still data impoverished. Nature News points out the gap between today's release of the summary and the release of the full report due in February—it's: '"unfortunate," says Stefan Rahmstorf, an ocean and climate researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. "Governments have in the past considerably weakened the language of IPCC summaries for policymakers... As long as the full report is not available it is hard to say if, and to what extent, this may have happened again."'

Do You Live Near a Mercury Hotspot? (MAP)

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 12:11 PM PST

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for two-thirds of air-borne mercury pollution in the US—more than all the other sources combined. In a new report out this week, Environment America looks at where most of that pollution is coming from.

Using data from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory, the report finds that Texas was the biggest emitter of mercury in 2010, spewing 11,127 pounds into the atmosphere. (Six of the top nation's top 10 mercury emitters are in the Lone Star State. Fairfield, Texas is home to the Big Brown Steam Electric Station and Lignite Coal Mine, which together were responsible for 1,610 pounds of mercury pollution.) Texas dwarfed Ohio, the second-highest emitter, which emitted 4,218 pounds. Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Indiana round out the top five.

The report also found that five companies were responsible for more than a third of mercury emissions from power plants. American Electric Power was responsible for the most, at 6,200 pounds, followed by Luminant Generation Co., Southern Co., Ameren Corp., and NRG Energy.

Here's where most of that mercury pollution is concentrated:

Mercury pollution is bad for people—particularly little people. Kids who are exposed to mercury while their brains are developing can have diminished verbal and motor skills and lower IQs. It's also bad for women who are or are hoping to get pregnant. The March of Dimes notes that babies exposed to mercury in utero "can suffer severe damage to the nervous system and may die," or they "may have brain damage, learning disabilities and hearing loss." Studies have found that 8 percent of women of child-bearing age have dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies, and the EPA estimates that up to 300,000 babies born each year may be at risk of developmental problems because of in utero exposure.

Meanwhile, in Washington, congressional Republicans have tried to block the EPA from instituting new mercury rules.

Which Household Cleaners Contain Toxins?

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 10:19 AM PST

Next time you walk down the cleaning product aisle at your local grocery store, take a closer look at those pretty labels wrapped around your favorite surface disinfectant. A new study out today reveals that numerous popular cleaner brands, including Glade, Clorox, Pine Sol, and the ostensibly eco-friendly Simple Green, contain chemicals that are known to cause hormone disruption, pregnancy complications, birth defects, and cancer, and can aggravate allergies. Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE), which published the report, commissioned an independent laboratory to test 20 popular household cleaning products. Turns out, none of the toxic chemicals detected were disclosed on the product labels.

Here are six of the most egregious brands that WVE says you should watch out for:

Jinx!/FlickrJinx!/FlickrSimple Green Naturals Multi-Surface Care, it turns out, is a bit of a misnomer, since it's laden with phthalates, which even at low-dose exposure, can negatively affect reproductive and neurological development in pregnant women. Researchers also detected 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen. The Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner, meanwhile, contained toluene, which has been linked to pregnancy complications, birth defects, and developmental delays in children. The problem, WVE says, is that Simple Green committed to reformulate products containing phthalates in 2010.

txkimmers/Flickrtxkimmers/FlickrGlade's Tough Odor Solutions with Oust Air Sanitizer also tested positive for phthalates despite SC Johnson (its manufacturer) pledging to phase out the chemical from its product line last year. And lab researchers found a common fragrance ingredient called galaxolide, another hormone disruptor that's previously shown it can decrease a cell's defense mechanism against other toxic chemicals. The fact that galaxolide is used in the Glade aerosol deodorizer is particularly concerning, WVE says, because once sprayed the toxin can directly enter your system as you inhale.

marc_buehler/Flickrmarc_buehler/FlickrTide's Liquid Laundry Detergent (and its Free & Gentle version) also contains 1,4-dioxane. Although its maker Procter & Gamble reformulated its Herbal Essences hair care line to strip out the chemical in 2009, it has yet to do the same for the laundry detergent.

In Clorox Clean Up with Bleach, the WVE study found chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, both widely known cancer-causing chemicals. Scientific studies on animals have shown carbon tetrachloride exposure to cause breast cancer. Chloroform has been linked to nervous system effects including dizziness, nausea, and headaches.

aperture_lag/Flickraperture_lag/FlickrAs with the Simple Green cleaner, Pine Sol Original Formula also showed it contained toluene. Both brands have been marketed to women, WVE says.

rocknroll_guitar/Flickrrocknroll_guitar/FlickrGalaxolide was also detected in Febreze Air Effects, a much-favored household fragrance spray. The lesson? Next time you want to strip away the smell of garbage in your home, you just might want to go with some citrus rinds or vanilla extract.