Blue Marble - January 2012

Where's Samuel L. Jackson When You Need Him?

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 1:48 PM EST

Several weeks ago, the Obama administration announced that it has finalized a new regulation prohibiting the interstate transport of several varieties of giant snake, some of which can grow up to 18 feet long. Such massive snakes have wreaked havoc on sensitive ecosystems, as a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms.

The researchers, led by Davidson College biologist Michael E. Dorcas, report that surveys around Everglades National Park discovered a 99.3 percent decrease in the number of raccoons observed between 2003 and 2011. The number of opossums observed was down 98.9 percent, and the number of bobcats declined 87.5 percent. Where did these animals go? Into the bellies of giant, hungry pythons. The researchers conclude:

These findings suggest that predation by pythons has resulted in dramatic declines in mammals within ENP and that introduced apex predators, such as giant constrictors, can exert significant top-down pressure on prey populations. Severe declines in easily observed and/or common mammals, such as raccoons and bobcats, bode poorly for species of conservation concern, which often are more difficult to sample and occur at lower densities.

See the Washington Post, National Geographic, and NPR for more.

And while we're on the subject, here's a video of a python who tried to eat an alligator but exploded.

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Chemotherapy Tweaks DNA of Mouse Offspring Too

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 4:58 PM EST

A new paper in PNAS reports that three common chemotherapy drugs destabilize DNA in mice enough to trigger new mutations long after exposure to the drugs has ceased—mutations which are then passed down to their untreated offspring.

A similar phenomenon has been observed in mice exposed to radiation.

Nature News reports on the original radiation findings:

[Co-author and geneticist Yuri] Dubrova and his colleagues were studying the effects of radiation when, purely by chance, they decided to look at mutation rates in the offspring of exposed mice. 'What we found was the biggest surprise of my life,' he says. The children had several times more mutations in their eggs and sperm than their radiation-treated parents. 'The genomes were unstable, and we still don't know why.'

The researchers surmised that chemotherapy drugs might trigger even stronger genetic effects, since chemotherapy is given systemically and radiation therapy isn't. So they investigated three common drugs—cyclophosphamide, mitomycin C and procarbazine—at mouse doses comparable to people doses, in the offspring of treated male mice. From the PNAS paper

After paternal exposure to any one of these three drugs, expanded simple tandem repeat mutation frequencies were significantly elevated in the germ line (sperm) and bone marrow of their offspring. This... was attributed to elevated mutation rates at the alleles derived from both the exposed fathers and from the nonexposed mothers, thus implying a genome-wide destabilization.

DNA mutations tend to accumulate in the genomes of offspring mice more than in their parents.

The researchers caution:

Our data also raise important issues concerning delayed transgenerational effects in the children of survivors of anticancer therapy.

Although Nature News points out that mice only live two years and so pass on their damaged DNA before there's much time for internal repair, whereas most humans treated for cancer are post-reproductive adults or adults made sterile by treatment:

'So we're talking about one group only: childhood cancer survivors,' says Dubrova. One recent study found no significant impact of radiation or chemotherapy on the rate of birth defects in 4,699 children of childhood cancer survivors.

 

Enviros File SEC Complaint Over Keystone Pipeline

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 2:14 PM EST

On Monday, Senate Republicans formally announced that they are introducing legislation that would force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline with or without the consent of the Obama administration. Unless that bill passes, however, the project remains on hold indefinitely. That has created some interesting business questions for TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline.

Now environmental activists are upping the pressure on their foe. Last week, Greenpeace sent a letter (PDF) to Mary Schapiro, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, requesting an SEC investigation into whether TransCanada has been misleading investors about the income it could receive from the pipeline project. In the January 26 letter, Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace, accused TransCanada of violating the SEC's "Employment of Manipulative and Deceptive Practices" rule, arguing that that the company misled investors in its filings and public statements by exaggerating both the number of jobs that the pipeline would create and the amount of money it would bring in.

TransCanada's most recent disclosure projects that Keystone pipeline complex will contribute $1.7 billion in earned income when it becomes fully operational. That amount would represent 26 percent the company's projected earnings in 2015. But with the project on hold indefinitely, those sorts of revenues seem out of reach.

Meanwhile, Corbin Hiar reports at iWatch News that TransCanada spent nearly half a million dollars lobbying for the pipeline last year.

TransCanada plans to reapply for approval in the future. Inside Climate has a good rundown of the company's options going forward. But as Greenpeace's Radford notes in his letter, failing to win approval for the pipeline will "significantly impact the company's future earnings and share price."

Study: Your Child is Not Fat Because You Had a C-section

| Mon Jan. 30, 2012 11:50 AM EST
Don't blame the Cesarean, ma.

There are plenty of risks that come with opting for a Cesarean section: There's always the chance of postpartum infection. There's a possible link between elective C-sections and higher infant mortality. The operation is often performed too early. And the scarring isn't exactly a plus.

But according to a recent study, the concern of "your kid will end up a fattie if you don't suck it up and give birth the way God intended..." can be crossed off the list.

Reuters Health has the story:

Kids born by Cesarean section are no more likely to become obese than if they are born vaginally, a new study concludes...For the new research, [scientists] used data on three groups of several thousand people born in Southern Brazil in 1982, 1993 or 2004...The new research is of particular interest in Brazil, because in 2009 more than half of the babies there were born by C-section. In the U.S., the number has been on the rise for years and is now over 30 percent.

The research does rightly address a controversial Brazilian study published last May that suggested a correlation between C-sections and fatter children. (The working theory was that lack of exposure to bacteria from the birth canal could increase the chances of chunky brood.)

Greens Go After Obama Admin on Arctic Drilling

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 6:45 PM EST

Pew Environment is running some aggressive new ads targeting the Obama administration's decision to allow drilling in the Arctic to proceed. Last year, the Department of Interior approved Shell's drilling plan for the Beaufort Sea. Here's the television ad, which is ran on CNN and MSNBC after the State of the Union address on Tuesday, and which is running this weekend during the Sunday shows:

The group also took out full-page ads in Politico and the New York Times, cosponsored by the Ocean Conservancy. The group said they are expecting some key decisions on Arctic drilling from the administration in the coming weeks.

Image-of-the-Week: Chile's Antarctic Superbug

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 6:07 PM EST

Escherichia coli: Mattosaurus via Wikimedia Commons.

Escherichia coli: Mattosaurus via Wikimedia Commons. 

Escherichia coli bacteria are ubiquitous in the lower gut of warm-blooded critters, and because we're warm-blooded and more or less ubiquitous on planet Earth, so are E. coli. While many strains are harmless, others are deadly. A new paper in Applied and Environmental Microbiology reports that one-fourth of seawater samples collected off Antarctica now contain E. coli that  carry genes to make the enzyme ESBL. This enzyme is known to destroy antibiotics and is potentially more dangerous than the superbug MRSA. The contaminated seawater samples were found off three Chilean research stations, none of which deploy any form of sewage treatment. So far none of these superbug E. coli have been found in penguins. The researchers are beginning to investigate the local gulls. WTF, Chile? Clean your mierda.

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About That "Clean Energy" Future

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 5:45 PM EST

President Obama devoted a significant portion of his energy remarks in the State of the Union to natural gas development on Tuesday. He called for greater production of the 100-year supply here in the US, and pledged to take "every possible action" ensure that it is done safely.

"America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk," he told the joint session of Congress. He has repeated his support for natural gas in multiple stops along his "America Built to Last" tour this week, which included a visit to a UPS facility in Nevada to tout a liquefied natural gas refueling station the company received stimulus money to build.

Leaving aside the concerns about safety related to fracking (and there are quite a few), the natural gas push raises a number of other questions about the longer-term safety and well-being of our citizens. For one, natural gas is still a fossil fuel. That means there's a finite supply of it, and 100 years isn't all that long, in the grand scheme of things. My (currently nonexistent) kids might still be alive then!

And then there's the greenhouse gas issue. Yes, in some ways it's cleaner than coal. Burning it releases less CO2, but it's not emission-free. The process of extracting gas from shale also causes a good deal of methane leakage. Cornell University's Robert Howarth, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, released a paper last year that found it shale gas extraction is responsible for 20 percent more greenhouse gases than coal overall. Now he's got a new paper coming out in the journal Climatic Change that reasserts his finding natural gas is actually be worse than coal, which the Inter Press Service covered this week:

However, those climate gains are more than negated by methane leaks both at the well during the fracking process (called flow-back), and through the gas delivery and distribution system. Howarth and colleagues estimate that between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of all shale gas produced leaks—called "fugitive emissions"—into the atmosphere, making it worse than burning coal or oil.
Methane has 105 times the warming potential of CO2 over a 20-year time frame, after which it rapidly loses its warming potential. If large amounts of methane are released through fracking—as seems likely with hundreds of thousands of new wells forecast in the next two decades—Howarth says global temperatures could rocket upward from 0.8C currently to 1.8C in 15 to 35 years, running the risk of triggering a tipping point that could lead to catastrophic climate change.

Anyway, this is all to say that the safety and environmental concerns related to shale gas extraction aren't limited to fracking, and that the "cleanness" of this clean-energy solution isn't entirely clear.

Inside Apple's Hidden Factories. Finally.

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST

UPDATE: This American Life has retracted the story it ran about monologist Mike Daisey's visit to Chinese factories; Daisey has admitted that he fabricated significant portions of the story. The piece "uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story," he wrote in a blog post. "What I do is not journalism."

--

Almost everyone I know owns something made by Apple, and while most of us spend a fair bit of time obsessing about our gadgets—which apps are worth paying for? Is Siri useful or annoying?—rarely do we talk about where they came from. In part, that's because Apple wants it that way: The company is famously tight-lipped about its manufacturing process, and few outsiders have ever made it into their factories.

But now, Apple's tough facade has finally begun to crack: Recent coverage (more on this below) has provided a glimpse into Apple's vast supply chain and the massive profits it produces—more than $400,000 for every employee, according to a New York Times investigation. Here at Mother Jones, we've got a somewhat related investigation in the pipeline—come back in a few weeks for the details. Meanwhile, my colleague Dave Gilson made this handy tool.

We've loaded this iPhone up with 10 apps you won't find on a real smart phone. Click on an app to learn where your phone's electronic components really came from.

Supply Side Bad Apples Miner Threat Tantalized
Negative Charge Tin Soldiers
Screen Slaver MicroPolluter
BadVibes Locked In
Reset iPhone
 
 

Supply Side

Apple spends an estimated $100 on the iPhone's 1,000-plus parts. It keeps a tight lid on where in the world they come from. If you deconstruct the gadget, you'll find fewer than 130 parts with a brand name or "made in" label on them.

Bad Apples

iPhones are made in Shenzhen, China, by the Taiwanese company Foxconn, which has been criticized for its working conditions, including long hours, harsh discipline, and a rash of worker suicides. Apple's own reviews found that more than half its audited manufacturers did not meet its labor standards for things such as child labor.

Miner Threat

A 16GB iPhone 3GS contains 12 gold-plated parts. Producing 1 ounce of gold creates 80 tons of waste. Layers of middlemen make it difficult to trace the source of the gold (or any other metal) in an iPhone, making it easy for minerals from conflict zones to slip into the supply chain.

Tantalized

The iPhone includes a tantalum capacitor. After a United Nations report linked its manufacturer, Kemet, to the illegal mineral trade in eastern Congo, the company vaguely announced it "supports avoiding" tantalum from the region.

Negative Charge

Rechargeable batteries have energized demand for lithium. Getting more will mean digging up 3,000 square miles of pristine Bolivian salt flats, home to one-half of the world's lithium reserves.

Tin Soldiers

Tin is used to solder circuit boards. Some 27,000 tons are extracted from Congo annually, earning armed groups an estimated $93 million or more.

Screen Slaver

The 3.5-inch LCD screen is reportedly made in Taiwan and China by Wintek, which has faced allegations of low wages, forced overtime, and ripping off migrant workers.

BadVibes

High-density tungsten is used to make cell phones vibrate. Three-quarters of the world's supply comes from China—not known for its mining safety record—and 1,400 tons are dug up annually in Congo.

MicroPolluter

Making a 0.07-ounce microchip uses 66 pounds of materials, including water and toxic chemicals such as flame retardants and chlorinated solvents. Greenpeace gives Apple a 4.6 out of 10 for its efforts to eliminate hazardous chemicals and minimize e-waste.

Locked In

The list price for a 16GB iPhone 4S is $649. It's yours for less than $200, if you don't mind being locked into a two-year contract with AT&T or Verizon.

This week, the New York Times has launched a series called "The iEconomy," and the first piece in the series focused on Apple's massive outsourcing of jobs to China. No task is too big, no deadline too tight:

One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone's screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company's dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

Another article focused on the "harsh conditions" at the Chinese factories where Apple gadgets are made.

A few weeks back, there was an incredible episode of This American Life, wherein Mike Daisey, a monologist and "self-described worshipper in the cult of Mac" visits the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where iPads are made. What he finds there is mind-boggling. First, the sheer size of the place: 34,000 workers. The cafeterias seat thousands, and the dormitories are so crowded the beds remind Daisey of coffins.

Daisey meets a young woman who cleans iPad screens and discovers that she is just 13. While he is there, a worker dies after a 34-hour shift. But the most chilling part was Daisey's description of the factories as virtually silent. There's no thrum of machinery, he realizes, because there are hardly any machines. What we miss when we wax nostalgic about a time when things were made by hand, he says, is that "There are more handmade things now than there have ever been."

More bad news: Back in August, the Chinese NGO Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs released a report (PDF) on the pollution created by Apple's sprawling supply chain. Among its findings was that Apple doesn't even seem to be looking for environmental problems during its factory audits:

…the coalition has discovered more than 27 suspected suppliers to Apple that have had environmental problems. However, in the '2011 Supplier Responsibility Report' published by Apple Inc., where core violations were discovered from the 36 audits, not a single violation was based on environmental pollution…Therefore, despite Apple’s seemingly rigorous audits, pollution is still expanding and spreading along with the supply chain.

Of course, none of this is good news for gadget hounds. But is it bad enough to make people swear off iPads? Or at least to pressure Apple to change its ways? 

Long Overdue Plant Hardiness Map is a Hothouse

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 6:53 PM EST

 2012 plant hardiness zone map: USDA and Oregon State University

2012 plant hardiness zone map. Click for interactive image: USDA and Oregon State University

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a long overdue new version of their Plant Hardiness Zone Map yesterday—the first update since 1990.

How out of date was the 1990 map? It was based on data from 1974 to 1986. That's 26 years ago. 

The new map is interactive, which is cool, and based on a much finer data scale than the old one, which is great. And guess what. It shows that things are getting warmer. The USDA managed to pretty much bury that fact in Bureaucratese in their press release (highlights are mine):

Compared to the 1990 version, zone boundaries in this edition of the map have shifted in many areas. The new map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States. This is mostly a result of using temperature data from a longer and more recent time period; the new map uses data measured at weather stations during the 30-year period 1976-2005. In contrast, the 1990 map was based on temperature data from only a 13-year period of 1974-1986.

 

1990 USDA plant hardiness: USDA1990 USDA plant hardiness: USDA

In the 1990 map above you can see the scale is less fine. But you can also tell at a glance where things have changed in a big way, compared to the 2012 map... in the southern Rockies, southern Appalachians, upper Michigan, swathes of the Canadian and Mexican borders, coastal California, etc.

The 2012 map comes with its own interesting climate-phobic history, as noted by Cornell University's gardening.cornell.edu

In 2003 the American Horticultural Society released a draft version of a new map based on data from 1986 to 2002, which showed dramatic northward movement of hardiness zones. USDA pulled this map from circulation and had said they would release an updated map in 2005. Instead, in 2006 the Arbor Day Foundation issued a map noting that indeed climate zones had shifted significantly from 1990 to 2006, implying that the climate was warming. The map released today by USDA confirms many of these trends.

 

2006 USDA plant hardiness map: USDA2006 Arbor Day plant hardiness map: Arbor Day Foundation

 

Here's the 2006 Arbor Day Foundation map, using the same scale as the 1990 map. You can see how things have warmed and how the planting zones are shifting north. If you parse this map against the finer-scale of the 2012 map, they look pretty much the same. 

A Victory for Cute Kids, Civic Engagement, and the Trees

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 6:39 PM EST

You have to hand it to the enterprising students of Ted Wells' fourth grade class. On Wednesday, I wrote about the kids' Change.org campaign to get Universal Pictures to include more environmental education in the promotional materials for the film version of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. On Thursday, Wells and Change.org announced that Universal has added a huge green icon to the movie site that takes visitors to a page full of information and tips on protecting the environment.

The "Lorax Project" page includes educational materials about trees around the world and ideas about what young people can do to protect them. Wells found out that Universal had updated its site when a representative from the company gave him a call on Wednesday afternoon. I spoke to Wells on the phone Thursday evening, after the class celebrated at their Brookline, Mass. school.

"I need to teach my students a lot in a year, but if I can teach them that they can make a difference, that it feels really good to be part of something bigger than themselves ... those are life lessons," Wells said. "I am pleased kids can have those experiences at 9 or 10."

Wells also sent some great quotes from his students via email. "We're going to be on earth longer than adults will," said one student in the class, Sophia. "By the time we're adults, it might not look as good as it does now UNLESS people start caring."

"Even though we might be very little we can still make a lot of change in anything we work hard at," said another student, Georgia.

The class petition got more than 57,000 signatures at Change.org. Wells said the class had a dance party during their snack break on Thursday to celebrate the victory.