Blue Marble - November 2011

Should You Go to the Circus? How About the Rodeo?

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 4:30 AM EST

After reading Deborah Nelson's incredibly depressing piece on circus elephant abuse, I'm pretty sure I'll never enter the Ringling Bros. big top again. But it did get me wondering about other forms of animal entertainment.

Just a few weeks ago, some friends and I went to the Grand National Rodeo. Protesters outside the arena warned us that "rodeos are not fun for the animals." Yet inside, the announcer assured us that the horses and cows were well cared for and healthy, and that they even enjoyed the "exercise" of shaking off hapless cowboys. And after watching one guy limp out of the ring after getting dragged by a bucking bronc, I had to admit that it did seem like the riders took more abuse than the animals. So are all animal shows really as cruel as Ringling Bros.? Or is there such thing as good old-fashioned performing-critter fun?

The law subjects tigers to the same confinement rules as monkeys or dogs.

Unsurprisingly, circuses that they adhere to rigorous standards of animal welfare. Ringling Bros. says that its approach to animal training is "built on respect, trust, affection and uncompromising care." Yet by law, circuses are really only required to follow one piece of legislation: the Animal Welfare Act. Enacted in 1966, the law is meant to regulate "the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers." But Delcianna Winders, PETA's director of captive animal law enforcement, told me that the AWA has been criticized for its lack of species-specific rules—under the law, an elephant or a tiger is subject to the same confinement rules as, say, a monkey or a dog. And even when USDA inspectors find evidence of abuse, as Nelson shows in her piece, the animal keepers often get away scot-free.

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Race to the South Pole: Looking Back 100 Years

| Sat Nov. 5, 2011 8:00 AM EDT
Members of the Terra Nova expedition at the South Pole: Robert F. Scott, Lawrence Oates, Henry R. Bowers, Edward A. Wilson, and Edgar Evans.

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

One hundred years ago two teams set off on an epic race across the Antarctic wilderness. Led by Roald Amundsen from Norway and Captain Robert Scott from Great Britain, the men set out to conquer this vast icy continent and to become the first to reach the South Pole. For one group the adventure would end in triumph, for the other it would end in tragedy.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Scott and Amundsen's separate attempts to be the first to the South Pole. In this series we will explore how these men found themselves racing across one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.

We will look at how their different approaches, from the equipment they carried to the polar travel techniques they employed, led to wildly contrasting outcomes. The adventure began more than 10 years earlier, in 1897, when a great, global effort to uncover the mysteries of Antarctica began.

People knew that a huge, frozen continent lay beyond the wild seas at the southern end of the earth, but it wasn't until 1820 that explorers first laid eyes on Antarctica. Before then ships had failed to penetrate far enough through the frozen ocean to carry their passengers within sight of land.

During the winter of 1897, a Belgian ship carrying a crew of explorers, called the Belgica, was trapped in the ice off the coast of the continent. The crew became the first people to endure an Antarctic winter and sparked a period of exploration that would last for 25 years.

During that time scientists, geographers, and adventurers would compete to become the first to explore uncharted territories and claim the credit for their respective nations. But it was the parallel journeys of Scott and Amundsen that would capture the imaginations of people across the world.

Scott had been planning his Terra Nova Expedition for years. His aim was to be the first to the South Pole after Ernst Shackleton had narrowly failed during an earlier expedition. Scientific research was also an important part of Scott's expedition to Antarctica.

But when the American adventurers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary laid claim that achievement, Amundsen turned his attention towards the other end of the earth. Only his brother Leon and second-in-command Thorvald Nilsen knew of Amundsen's plan until after his ship, the Fram, had set sail.

Scott only learnt of this change of direction months later when his ship, the Terra Nova, docked in Melbourne, Australia. There he was handed a telegram from the Norwegian. It read:

'Beg to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic—Amundsen.'

Even though Scott publicly insisted that this news would change nothing, the reality was that he was now locked in a race to the South Pole.

Three Recipes for Invasive Plants

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 4:19 PM EDT
A nopal, an invasive plant and delicious ingredient

After hunting for feral pigs with invasivore extraordinaire Jackson Landers, I decided it was time to experiment with weeds. Fellow MoJo staffers Maddie Oatman and Ian Gordon came over to my place to cook up three dishes, each based around a different invasive plant. Herewith, the recipes (and a few pictures from our culinary adventure): 

Purslane salad with roasted root vegetables: Image by Maddie OatmanPurslane salad with roasted root vegetables

 

 

Purslane Salad With Roasted Root Vegetables (serves four)

from Chef Sean Baker of Gather in Berkeley, California

Start with 3 cups of celery root and 3 cups of peeled sunchokes, chopped into 3/4" pieces. Toss with salt and olive oil and roast in a 325-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes until soft, rotating as needed. Cool to room temperature and dump into a big bowl with 3 cups of washed, chopped purslane*. Toss in 3 tablespoons of toasted pine nuts, 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh thyme, and 1/2 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley. Flavor with a mix of 3 tablespoons of lemon juice and 6 tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste, grate pecorino cheese on top, and serve.

*Purslane, sometimes called verdolagas, grows wild in many places in the US. If you can't find it in your yard, try a Mexican supermarket.

Energy Department: World CO2 Emissions Rising Faster Than Ever

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

New figures released by the Department of Energy show that the world is emitting carbon dioxide at a rate much faster than scientists had predicted. Global CO2 emissions reached 10 billion tons in 2010, the Oak Ridge National Lab reports, about 564 million tons or 6 percent more than emitted in 2009. It's the biggest annual jump ever recorded thus far:

Oak Ridge National Lab/APOak Ridge National Lab/AP

"It's a big jump," Tom Boden, director of the Oak Ridge's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, told The Associated Press. "From an emissions standpoint, the global financial crisis seems to be over."

The new figure also means CO2 is now being emitted at a rate higher than the figure the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used in 2007 to project its worst-case scenario for global temperature increase by the end of the century (depicted by the red line in the graph below):

NASA Earth ObservatoryNASA Earth Observatory

In light of the new DOE report, the question scientists are asking now is whether the world will experience the IPCC's worst case scenario "or something more extreme," Christopher Field, a Stanford University professor and head of one of the IPCC's working groups, said.

Image-of-the-Week: Fish Futures

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 1:21 PM EDT

Anemonefish protecting its eggs.: Credit: Silke Baron via Wikimedia Commons.Anemonefish protecting its eggs. Credit: Silke Baron via Wikimedia Commons.

Coral reef dwellers, like this anemonefish guarding its eggs, may be at greater risk from climate change than species on the land. A new paper in Science reports that while while the land has warmed faster than the ocean over the past 50 years, the rates of temperature shifts in the sea are greater than on land. Drawing on five decades of global temperature data from the UK's Hadley Centre, the authors tracked the velocity of oceanic climate change in two ways: 1) geographical shifts in temperature bands (isotherms) and, 2) seasonal changes in temperature. They found that geographic shifts in isotherms have outpaced changes on land. Which means marine life must adapt rapidly to keep pace with big habitat changes in the ocean. Recent changes along the California coast—increases in abundance of tropical Humboldt squid and decreases in abundance of salmon—are in keeping with their findings.

The paper:

Court Finds Biologist Guilty of Poisoning Cats

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 5:37 PM EDT

A few months back, I asked whether feral cats are bad for the environment. The answer that I got when I posed the question to the conservation biology community was a resounding "yes." Unsurprising, since cats, officially an invasive species in the US, take a major toll on birds and other small critters. This unfortunate fact of nature has resulted in en epic battle between two very able opponents: the cat people and the bird people. In the past, the cat people have really brought it:

Many of the biologists I spoke with say they've been harassed and even physically threatened when they've presented research about the effect cats have on wildlife. In 2005, research by Stan Temple, an emeritus professor of wildlife biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was cited by a panel that proposed studying cats' impact on birds in that state. In response, he received several death threats. "You cat-murdering bastard," one activist wrote to Temple. "I declare an open season on Stan Temple." (Police promptly arrested the suspect.) When Travis Longcore, science director of the environmental group Urban Wildlands, filed suit in Los Angeles against the city's TNR program, an irate blogger posted his cellphone number.

But now a wildlife biologist has taken the fight to a new level. Science reports that the D.C. Superior court has found Nico Dauphiné, a wildlife biologist who has written papers about the threat that feral cats pose to birds, guilty of attempting to poison cats. A neighbor of Dauphiné's, who had been leaving food out for strays in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood, noticed that in the mornings the food was sometimes coated with white powder. She alerted the local humane society, who tested the powder and found it to be poison. The Humane Society then teamed up with police to make a video of the food bowls, which was used as evidence in Dauphiné's trial:

That night around 10:30 p.m., Dauphiné can be seen approaching the bowl, pulling something out of a small bag, reaching down toward the food twice, and then leaving the scene. The next morning, police found the food covered with the same white powder as before, which tested positive as poison.

Oof. A bunch of the conservation biologists I talked to for my piece accused cat advocates of acting emotionally rather than rationally in defending cats that kill birds. But the poisoning incident doesn't exactly make Dauphiné look like a dispassionate scientist, either.

 

 

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House Republicans Subpoena Solyndra Docs

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 12:45 PM EDT

On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted along party lines to subpoena White House documents on Solyndra, the solar company that went under after receiving a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

It's not out of the ordinary for Congress to subpoena documents. There were several attempts during the Bush administration to get a hold of documents related to controversial environmental decisions, but the administration blew them off. This subpoena, however, comes despite the fact that the Obama White House has already provided 85,000 pages of documents, and has been attempting to work with the committee.

As you can imagine, Democrats on the committee aren't as enthused about this matter as House Republicans. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the committee, issued this statement Thursday morning that speaks pretty well to the situation. The rest is below the fold:

In my 35 years in Congress, I have presided over the issuance of only one subpoena in the time I served as a Committee Chairman. It, too, concerned an environmental policy matter that began during the Bush Administration. But unlike this subpoena for every single internal White House email related to Solyndra, the one I issued was issued on a bipartisan basis, with my Ranking Republican Member, Jim Sensenbrenner, fully supporting my efforts to learn more about the Bush Administration’s response to global warming.

Building a Nuclear Power Plant on a Fault Still Not a Great Idea

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

When the East Coast was rocked by an earthquake this summer, there was a momentary bout of concern about a Virginia nuclear power plant that sat right on the fault line. The 5.8 quake was stronger than what the North Anna plant was designed to withstand, and the reactors had to be shut down. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still in the process of deciding whether they should be turned back on.

The watchdogs at the Project on Government Oversight are asking NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko to release records related to the plant before a decision about reopening it is made. The group has requested records from plant owner Dominion, but were told that a lot of those records are sealed and housed at the University of Virginia's library. POGO included with itsb letter a 34-year-old memo from the Department of Justice that indicates that the plant's original owners knew that they were building it on a fault line as far back as 1970, but hid that from regulators at the time.

The memo, from May 1977, was the conclusion of an investigation into whether criminal charges should be brought against VEPCO for concealing this info. It notes that the plant's original owner, Virginia Electric Power Company, along with engineering contractors the company hired, tried to cover up the fact that a fault had been found under the site in 1970. The company had already invested $730 million in the plant, and didn't want the plant's ability to get a license to operate compromised. From the memo:

Radioactive Gas Detected at Fukushima Power Plant

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 5:29 PM EDT

Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant burning on 12 March 2011.: Credit: US Department of Energy.Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant burning on 12 March 2011. Credit: US Department of Energy.Radioactive xenon 135 gas has been detected at reactor two at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, reports the BBC. This reactor was thought to be close to a stable shutdown.

The good news is there hasn't been any accompanying rise in pressure or temperature, at least as so far reported. The bad news is the xenon gas indicates that nuclear fission has resumed in the reactor. Engineers have applied boric acid, which helps suppress a nuclear reaction.

The New York Times reports the plant's owner, Tokyo Power and Electric (TEPCO), admitted for the first time Wednesday that fuel inside three stricken reactors is likely still experiencing bursts of fission.

This comes just hours after Japanese MP Yasuhiro Sonoda drank water collected and purified from two Fukushima reactors, after reporters challenged him to prove its safety. The Sydney Morning Herald reports he appeared nervous and his hands shook as he drank the water during a televised news conference.

Tah-dah! Rep. Moran Unveils a Circus Animal Protection Act

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 3:44 PM EDT

Following a yearlong Mother Jones investigation of Ringling Bros. elephant abuse, a bill to protect exotic animals has finally appeared in the three-ring circus that is Congress. The Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act was presented Wednesday with the support of Northern Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, former The Price Is Right host Bob Barker and CSI actress Jorja Fox.

In his decision to support the bill Wednesday, Rep. Moran cited recent reports of elephant abuse. "Based upon publically available research, including video and photographic evidence, it is clear that traveling circuses cannot provide the proper living conditions for exotic animals," he said. "This legislation is intended to target the most egregious situations involving exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses." According to Morgan's spokeswoman Anne Hughes, Moran read Mother Jones' story "The Cruelest Show on Earth."

The five-page bill calls for the restriction of exotic and domesticated animals in traveling circuses and exhibitions. Specifically, it would forbid all exotic and wild animals from performing if they had been traveling in mobile shelters at any time in the 15 days before. So much for the traveling circus. To make his case, Rep. Moran cites the health costs of traveling and capitivity on exotic animals, psychological and behavioral problems, elephant hooks, electric shocks, and other forms of abuse. He also mentions how an angry, cooped-up elephant might pose a danger to the public.

Here, in its entirety, is the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act: