Blue Marble - December 2011

Happy Birthday Endangered Species Act!

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 4:59 PM EST
Grizzly Bear hunting salmon at Katmai National Park, Alaska.

On this day 38 years ago Richard Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a landmark moment in human development when we formally recognized that animals and plants—imperiled as "a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation"—deserved to survive... and need our protection in order to survive.

The ESA has been embattled since its birth. But so is every advance in human thinking that expands the rights and humane treatment of nonhuman others.

Currently, there are ~1,990 species listed under the ESA. Some 1,380 of these inhabit the US and its waters. The rest are foreign species.

Here's a list of some species whose populations have grown since getting their ESA listing (HT Wikipedia):

  • Bald eagle (from 417 to 11,040 pairs, 1963-2007); removed from list 2007
  • Whooping crane (from 54 to 436 birds, 1967-2003)
  • Kirtland's warbler (from 210 to 1,415 pairs, 1971-2005)
  • Peregrine falcon (from 324 to 1,700 pairs, 1975-2000); removed from list
  • Gray wolf (dramatical population increase in northern Rockies, Southwest, and Great Lakes)
  • Gray whale (from 13,095 to 26,635, 1968-1998); removed from list
  • Grizzly bear (from about 271 to over 580 in Yellowstone area, 1975-2005); removed from list 3/22/07
  • Southern sea otter (from 1,789 to 2,735, 1976-2005)
  • San Clemente Indian paintbrush (from 500 to >3,500, 1979-1997)
  • Red wolf (from 17 to 257, 1980-2003)
  • Florida's key deer (from 200 to 750, 1971-2001)
  • Big Bend gambusia (from ~24 to >50,000)
  • Hawaiian goose (from 400 to 1,275, 1980-2003)
  • Virginia big-eared bat (from 3,500 to 18,442, 1979-2004)
  • Black-footed ferret (from 18 to 600, 1986-2006)

There are a lot of unsung heroes behind the reversals of fortune embodied in this list. Thanks to all of you.

RARE from Joel Sartore on Vimeo.

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Beijing's Clean Olympic Air: Mostly Luck?

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 10:21 AM EST
Smog in Beijing

Back in 2008, the Chinese government went to great lengths to improve the air quality in famously smoggy Beijing in time for the Olympics. For months in advance of the games, the city's motorists were only allowed to drive on certain days, and more than 300,000 of the most polluting vehicles were taken off the road entirely. The results, everyone thought, were impressive: A 2009 study found that the measures had reduced pollution by half.

But hold your applause: A newer study, released Tuesday, found that favorable weather conditions—rain at the start and wind during the games—played just as much of a role in the clean-up as emissions controls. A team of researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory used models to analyze weather and smog conditions in the weeks leading up to the games, as well as during and after. They confirmed that the pollution during the games was about half as bad as usual. But they also found that strong storms were responsible for half of the overall smog reduction. In a PNNL press release, a lead scientist on the study said Beijing officials were "lucky" that the weather cooperated.

The researchers also found that the pollution didn't just disappear when it was blown out of Beijing; rather, it moved to an area about 50 miles south of the city. It would have helped if the government had extended its strict emissions rules out beyond city limits, said the PNNL scientst. But considering just how grave Beijing's smog situation has become in recent months, it's pretty clear that the city and its environs are in need of much more than a quick pre-game clean-up. For a video of commuting in Beijing that will make your lungs hurt just to watch, click here.

Oil Unexpectedly Lethal to Herring in San Francisco Bay

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 3:34 PM EST
Pacific herring.

The Cosco Busan container ship that collided with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2007 and spilled 54,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay wreaked havoc on embryonic fish for the next two years. This according to a new science paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The effect of bunker oil on Pacific herring was so profound and unexpected that it now redefines our understanding of the sensitivity of fish embryos to oil—even in an environment where there's a lot of preexisting background pollution.

From the paper:

The accident oiled shoreline near spawning habitats for the largest population of Pacific herring on the west coast of the continental United States. We assessed the health and viability of herring embryos from oiled and unoiled locations that were either deposited by natural spawning or incubated in subtidal cages.

Their findings:

  • Three months after the spill, embryos at oiled sites showed nonlethal heart defects typical of exposure to oil.

  • More surprising, embryos from adjacent, shallower, intertidal waters  showed unexpectedly high rates of tissue death and fish mortality (the fish were literally falling apart) unrelated to heart defects.

  • No toxicity was observed in embryos from unoiled sites.

So what was the cause of the unexpected mortality in shallow intertidal waters? The Cosco Busan's bunker oil—a blend of thick fuel oil distilled from crude oil and contaminated with various, sometimes unknown, substances—interacting with sunlight. This previously unknown nastiness greatly magnified the effects of the Cosco Busan spill.

"Based on our previous understanding of the effects of oil on embryonic fish, we didn't think there was enough oil from the Cosco Busan spill to cause this much damage," said Gary Cherr, director of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory one of the paper's co-authors. "And we didn't expect that the ultraviolet light [sunlight] would dramatically increase toxicity in the actual environment."

In 2008, virtually no live larvae hatched from the herring spawn collected at the oiled sites. Two years later, embryos sampled from the oiled sites still showed significant heart defects, though no increase in death rates.

The video shows how neglect enabled the spill to go viral. 

 

The paper:

  • John P. Incardona, et alUnexpectedly high mortality in Pacific herring embryos exposed to the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay. PNAS. 2011. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1108884109

The Science of Pickles

| Tue Dec. 27, 2011 12:26 PM EST

Pickles are mysterious things. You take a regular old vegetable. Just your average cucumber, carrot, bell pepper. Add some brine, maybe a few spices, and then, a few days later, presto! A pickle. But what really causes this magical transformation? The latest episode of The Field Trip podcast sets out to find an answer:

On our tastiest field trip yet, we investigate the delicious world of fermentation and the bacteria that make it possible. We take a trip through Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, where owner Alex Hozven explains the art and science behind fermenting food and shows us how they make sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha and other mysterious surprises. At Cultured, they use traditional methods of fermentation — that means no heat, and no vinegar, but plenty of Lactobacilli and other friendly microbes. Come with us as we explore “the cave” and learn about its billions of tiny workers.

Then we check in with fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods and expert on all things pickle-y. We hear about some surprising and tasty treats that we had no idea are made through fermentation, and learn about some of the ancient roots of pickling, and why it was such an important method of food preservation in the era before refrigeration.

Have a listen:

Play

Shell Oil Messes Off Two Coasts

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 3:20 PM EST

Shell's 100-mile-long oil slick off the Nigerian coast, 21 December 2011.: Envisat ASAR image analyzed by SkyTruth, data courtesy European Space Agency.Shell's 100-mile-long oil slick off the Nigerian coast, 21 December 2011. Envisat ASAR image analyzed by SkyTruth from data courtesy of the European Space Agency.Shell has admitted to spilling up to 40,000 barrels (1.4 million gallons) of crude oil into the ocean about 75 miles (120 km) off Nigeria on Wednesday. The spill occurred while it was transferring oil from a floating oil platform to a tanker.

Satellite pictures captured by independent monitors Skytruth (more here) show a 356-square-mile (923-square-km) slick approaching the oil-battered coast of the Niger Delta. All production from the Bonga field—normally about 200,000 barrels (7.2 million gallons) a day—has been suspended in the wake of the spill.

The Guardian reports on skepticism of Shell's estimates, based on its poor record in the region:

[A] leading Nigerian human rights group said Shell's figures about the quantity of oil spilled or the clean-up could not be relied on. "Shell says 40,000 barrels were spilled and production was shut but we do not trust them because past incidents show that the company consistently under-reports the amounts and impacts of its carelessness," said Nnimmo Bassey, head of Environmental Rights Action, based in Lagos. The spill, one of the worst off the coast of Nigeria in 10 years, is particularly embarrassing for Shell, coming only four months after a major UN study said it could take Shell and other oil companies 30 years and $1bn to clean spills in Ogoniland, one small part of the oil-rich delta. The company also admitted responsibility in August for two major spills in the Bodo region of the delta that took place in 2008, but has yet to pay compensation.

Shell also admitted to a spill in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday of some 13,400 barrels gallons of drilling mud mixed with synthetic oil from the Deepwater Nautilus—a sister rig to the Deepwater Horizon.

The spill occurred at the Appomattox discovery, just 26 miles southeast of last year's disastrous spill. Shell plans five new exploratory wells at Appomattox, hoping to recover more than 250 million barrels of oil... though the Houston Chronicle reports it could be weeks before the company can resume drilling in the hotly-disputed site:

The Appomattox project is at the heart of a high-stakes dispute between environmentalists and the federal government over offshore drilling... In separate cases that have since been consolidated, conservationists are arguing that the government acted prematurely in green-lighting the plan without first finishing an environmental study of the Gulf... The cases present a major test of the federal government's power to swiftly review and approve deep-water exploration plans.

 

EPA Delivers Holiday Gift: New Mercury Rules

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 6:17 PM EST
What, you don't want me?

A little bit of good news for the holidays: the EPA is taking some coal out of our stocking. On Wednesday, the agency announced the new national standards on mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, an event that has enviros and public health groups cheering.

The rules, according to the EPA, will yield $9 in public health benefits for every $1 that the industry has to spend on technology to cut pollution. Officially called the utility maximum achievable control technology (or utility MACT), the pollution limits will also prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 childhood asthma attacks each year, according to the agency. Overjoyed statements from groups like Greenpeace, the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, Green for All, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Sierra Club, and Environment America have flooded reporters' inboxes. The Evangelical Environmental Network, which had campaigned for the rules on the argument that "mercury pollution is a pro-life issue," was also quite pleased.

The Center for Progressive Reform had a good post on the new rules, and David Roberts at Grist explains why they're are such a BFD.

The emissions limits have been in the works since a set of amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1990—which, if you're keeping track, is a kind of a long time to wait. The EPA is touting these as the first standards on these pollutants, but that's not entirely true. The Bush administration did put out mercury rules, but they were crappy and got thrown out in court for failing to protect public health.

Of course, even though it's had plenty of time to get ready for them, the energy industry doesn't like the rule because it means they might have to shut down some coal plants that can't meet the standards. The rules will probably put somewhere between 32 and 58 power plants out of business, according to the AP's analysis. This is not, however, going to cause massive blackouts as doom-saying foes of the rule have claimed. And by the EPA's estimates, 60 percent of coal- and oil-fired power plants already have pollution controls; it's just the oldest and dirtiest that would be affected. Which is, of course, another reason why enviros are so happy.

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Unusual Marine Mammal Deaths on 4 US Coasts

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 5:20 PM EST
Harbor seal.

As of this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared three "unusual mortality events" (UME)—unexplained death clusters—for multiple species of marine mammals on four US coastlines: the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bering Sea, and the Chukchi Sea.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a UME declaration triggers a scientific investigation into the cause or causes of the die-off. At least two of these UMEs have potential implications for human health.

1) Gulf of Mexico whales and dolphins—ongoing since February 2010. As of Dec. 18, 2011, 611 cetaceans (whales and dolphins) have stranded in the Northern Gulf of Mexico; 5 percent have stranded alive, and 95 percent dead. From the latest NOAA report:

In addition to investigating all other potential causes [including ongoing effects of the Deepwater Horizon debacle], scientists are investigating what role Brucella [a bacterial infection] may have in the UME. Since our original finding of Brucella in 5 stranded dolphins from Louisiana, scientists have been concentrating testing on cases that show pathological changes consistent with the fetal pneumonia or adult meningitis identified in the first 5 cases. Here are our results showing the total number of Brucella cases identified so far. We will update these numbers when new results are available. FAQs on the investigations of the ongoing dolphin die-off and the potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill on marine mammals are available.

2) New England harbor seals—declared on Nov. 3, for Maine, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. Since Sept. 1, 2011, 162 harbor seals have died, most of them under six months old. From the NOAA declaration:

The UME is ongoing and all mortalities are being thoroughly investigated to the extent possible. The majority of cases have involved young of the year and many have similar skin lesions (ulcerative dermatitis). Unlike historical young of the year harbor seal mortalities, which are often attributed to malnutrition, many of these animals are in good body condition. During the UME investigation, Influenza A H3N8 was confirmed in five harbor seals that stranded in New Hampshire in mid-September/early October 2011... This particular virus subtype, while found in horses, birds, seals, and dogs, has not been detected in humans in recent decades. While the risk to humans from this virus is low (according to the Centers for Disease Control and National Wildlife Health Center), we want to remind people to keep a safe distance from seals they encounter on the beach and in the water and to keep their pets away from these animals. If they see an animal that looks sick, please report it to the NOAA stranding hotline or local stranding network member.

3) Alaska ringed seals and (soon) walruses—declared Dec. 20, 2011. Since mid-July, more than 60 dead seals and 75 diseased seals (mostly ringed seals) have been reported in Alaska, in the Arctic and Bering Strait regions. From the NOAA declaration:

During their fall survey, scientists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service also identified diseased and dead walruses at the annual mass haul-out at Point Lay... Seals and walruses suffering from this disease have skin sores, usually on the hind flippers or face, and patchy hair loss. Some of the diseased mammals have exhibited labored breathing and appear lethargic. Scientists have not yet identified a single cause for this disease, though tests indicate a virus is not the cause... [N]o similar illnesses in humans have been reported. Still, it is not known whether the disease can be transmitted to humans, pets, or other animals. Native subsistence hunters should use traditional and customary safe handling practices, and the Alaska Division of Public Health recommends fully cooking all meat and thoroughly washing hands and equipment with a water/bleach solution.

Even the Weather is Bigger in Texas

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 12:53 PM EST

Gov. Rick Perry's default solution to his state's disastrous drought was to ask Texans to pray for rain. But residents of the Lone Star State had a whole lot of other weather problems to pray about this year.

On Tuesday, Climate Central took a look at the ten states most affected by this year's weather chaos—and found that Texas tops the list. The ranking took into account the number of people killed by extreme weather events, the price of damage, and how it affected the lives of average residents. Here's what Climate Central had to say about Texas:

Texas was hit by eight of the nation’s billion dollar disasters - the most of any state in the country. Of the eight, the three most devastating were drought, heat, and wildfires. The drought still grips the state, and it is the most intense one-year drought on record. Unlike past dry periods, the damage to the state has been aggravated by record-breaking heat. Groundwater levels in much of the state have fallen to their lowest levels in more than 60 years, according to observations from NASA satellites.
The heat during the summer of 2011 was relentless, with many cities smashing records for the longest stretch of 100-degree days, including Dallas with a record 70 straight days with 100-degree heat, and San Angelo with a whopping 98 days above 100. July 2011 was the hottest month ever recorded statewide, and Amarillo, Texas reached 111 degrees on June 26, an all-time record high for that location where records date back to 1892.

Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey rounded out the top 10. Nationally, there were twelve billion-dollar disasters this year, including hurricanes, wildfires, drought and tornadoes. And there's more to come in the future, if you believe climate scientists. Which Rick Perry doesn't, of course.

10 Gifts to Give the Ocean

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 6:23 PM EST

NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response.NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response.

What to give that favorite ocean on your list? Here are 10 little presents that say "thanks" in a big way to the  big-wet-deep-dark-mysterious lifegiver to us all.

Credit: DanCentury via Flickr.Credit: DanCentury via Flickr.

1) On your next visit to the ocean—or any of its feeder rivers, lakes, streams, or ponds—pick up trash. Every piece of (mostly) plastic you carry away will spare the ocean pollution lethal to life.

Credit: Buzz Hoffman via Flickr. Credit: Buzz Hoffman via Flickr.

2) Report garbage on the beach via this smartphone app to the Marine Debris Tracker project.

Via Project Aware.Via Project Aware.

3) If you're a diver, join an underwater clean-up group, like Project Aware, and report into their Dive Against Debris dataset.

Credit: reuvenim via Flickr.Credit: reuvenim via Flickr.

4) Reconsider synthetic fleece. As new research shows, its microfibers wend their way from your washing machine through wastewater treatment plants to become yet more plastic pollution in the ocean. (MoJo's Tom Philpott wrote more about that here.)

Credit: Justin Gaurav Murgai via Flickr. Credit: Justin Gaurav Murgai via Flickr.

5) If you eat ocean animals or plants, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list for what's sustainably fished and what's not. Use its recommendations to double-check the recommendations of the Marine Stewardship Council... the group that "vets" seafood sold at Whole Foods and many other markets and restaurants, but that's been making dubious judgement calls of late.

Credit: colros via Flickr.Credit: colros via Flickr.6) Avoid ocean-based remedies and natural medicines like shark cartilage, fish oil (use flaxseed), coral calcium (leafy green veggies are better), plus ingredients (like dried seahorses) in some "herbal" medicines—or any other stuff taken from the sea that may or may not make you healthier but will sicken the ocean.

Credit: irmiller via Flickr. Credit: irmiller via Flickr. 7) Use ocean-friendly sunscreen at the ocean, river, lake, stream, or pond where you swim. Up to 600 tons of the stuff gets washed off, or washed downstream, into the ocean ever year, carrying all kind of nasties with it. Plus sunscreen may not be so good for you as you think. Here are tips for some better choices.

Credit: Ryan E. Poplin via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Ryan E. Poplin via Wikimedia Commons.

8) If you keep a saltwater aquarium, buy only fish certified by the Marine Aquarium Council.

Credit: Lee R Berger via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Lee R Berger via Wikimedia Commons.9) Forgo the purchase of ocean souvenirs—objects or jewelry made of coral, sea shells, nautilus shell, dried seahorses—anything that had to be killed and removed from the ocean in order for you to take it home.

Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service via Flickr.Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service via Flickr.10) Learn more about the ocean. Our well-stocked brains are good for the ocean and all living things.

Happy Holidays!

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Inefficient Lighting

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 6:23 PM EST

Blue Marble readers are no strangers to the multi-year war on efficient lighting undertaken by congressional Republicans. In the name of freedom, they have tirelessly campaigned to overturn a 2007 law, despite the fact that it didn't actually ban incandescent bulbs—it merely required all bulbs to use less energy. Well, last week Republicans succeeded in delaying the new law from going into effect until next October, ten months later than it would have otherwise.

But here's the kicker. Despite all the outrage generated by the GOP about how the bulb law is destroying American business, motherhood, and apple pie, the lighting industry is actually all for it. And manufacturers are annoyed that the law has been delayed, as Politico reports today:

Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them.
After spending four years and millions of dollars prepping for the new rules, businesses say pulling the plug now could cost them. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association has waged a lobbying campaign for more than a year to persuade the GOP to abandon the effort.
Manufacturers are worried that the rider will undermine companies’ investments and "allow potential bad actors to sell inefficient light bulbs in the United States without any fear of federal enforcement," said Kyle Pitsor, the trade group’s vice president of government relations.

It's funny. The only time the GOP seems dedicated to "freedom of choice" is when it involves lighting products.