Blue Marble - January 2012

A Meditation on Elderly Animals

| Thu Jan. 12, 2012 5:23 PM EST

 

Elderly Animals: Photographs by Isa Leshko from Mark & Angela Walley on Vimeo.

It's always interesting to me how provocative is the subject of elderly animals. I've met animal lovers vehemently opposed to what they feel is the cruelty of keeping old friends alive. Others believe continuing their care is the apex of human compassion.

I find Mark and Angela Walley's short film on Isa Leshko's photos a beautiful meditation on aging and love... And you?

You can see more of Isa's images at her website.

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Senate Republicans to Obama: Approve Keystone XL or Else!

| Thu Jan. 12, 2012 4:37 PM EST

Last month, Republicans in Congress succeeded in getting a provision attached to a bill extending the payroll tax cut that forces the Obama administration to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days. Now Obama has until Feb. 21 to issue a verdict on the proposed 1,661-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas.

But in reality, Republicans gave Obama an easy out here. In order to approve the pipeline, he'd have to railroad the review process, which has not been completed yet. He'd also have to ignore a bunch of our nation's fundamental environmental laws, like the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Obama could just say that he can't approve the project because they forced him to violate other laws.

Now Republicans are at work on yet another way to get around the White House on Keystone. North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven (R) released a draft bill that would take away the president's authority on the pipeline if he doesn't grant his approval. Basically, Republicans in Congress forced Obama to make a decision, and if he decides in a way they don't like, they're going to ignore him anyway.

Reuters reports that Hoeven is working on the new legislation with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sens. Richard Lugar (Ind.), David Vitter (La.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mike Johanns (Neb.). The bill would allow work on the pipeline to begin right away—environmental laws be damned. (It would, however, let Nebraska continue its negotiation with TransCanada, the company that wants to build the massive pipeline, on an alternative route through that state.)

Hoeven also held a press conference with the president of TransCanada—just in case it wasn't clear whose side he's on.

 

Pigs Playing Video Games = Ethical Farming?

| Wed Jan. 11, 2012 9:36 AM EST
Gamer pig is riding high, baby.

It's easy to forget how much pigs are like us. Take, for instance, the simple fact that we're both omnivorous. Or that we both provide for and deeply treasure our newborns. We both have a tendency to form violent, marauding gangs. And we both enjoy playing flashy video games just for the fun of it.

Wait, what?

Cue Michelle Clement, blogging at the Scientific American on interspecies gaming:

[R]esearchers at Wageningen University [in the Netherlands], in the course of their research on ethical livestock farming, noticed that pigs like to play with dancing lights...European regulations currently require that pig farmers provide mentally-stimulating activity for their pigs in order to reduce boredom, which leads to aggression and biting, and researchers at Wageningen University, in collaboration with the Utrecht School of the Arts, are currently developing a video game called "Pig Chase" for livestock pigs...[The] game would be an interspecies two-player game.

Turning Your Teeth Green (In a Good Way)

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 4:00 PM EST

Dr. Nathan Swanson, Newmarket Dental, New Hampshire: James WestDr. Nathan Swanson, Newmarket Dental, New Hampshire: James West

Dr. Nathan Swanson had one of those "holy crap" moments one day when he  looked at the amount of waste his old dental practice produced.

"All the offices, in all the roads, in all the states, in all the countries, it's a phenomenal amount of waste!" he said during my recent trip to New Hampshire.

So when he opened his own dental practice five years ago, he began a long journey to claim the title as New Hampshire's greenest dentist, by seeking out corn-based spit cups, biodegradable toothbrushes and a new $30,000 digital x-ray.

"You know, I might not be able to change everybody's way of doing business or practicing dentistry," he told me. "But I'm certainly going to change mine."

Nathan is part of a growing movement, according to Ina Pockrass, the co-founder of the Eco-Dentistry Association, which provides industry-standard certification and helps market over 100 green dentistry products. Nathan is one of 700 members in 45 states, catering to a growing market of what Ina calls "eco-Moms" and "label readers." Since mid-2009, the association has witnessed a "torrent of interest", she says.

"Dentistry is getting beyond drill, fill and bill."

Nathan Swanson is  Climate Desk's first Trailblazer, a weekly story showcasing one person's way of tackling climate change. If you want to nominate a Climate Desk "Trailblazer" in your neck of the woods, follow @climatedesk on Twitter, or like our Facebook page and shoot us a message.

Doomsday Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 3:31 PM EST
The Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight on Tuesday. It now reads 11:55 p.m.

Two years ago, when it appeared that world leaders might actually address the global threats around us, the BAS ratcheted the clock backward by a minute, to 11:54pm.

Now that petite burst of optimism has dissolved.

Why?

It's mostly about the global failure deal with climate change.

Specifically, according to the BAS:

"The challenges to rid the world of nuclear weapons, harness nuclear power, and meet the nearly inexorable climate disruptions from global warming are complex and interconnected."  
  • We're near the point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophic atmospheric changes
  • Unless we build alternative technologies in the next five years, we're doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing ocean acidification
  • Fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built in 2012-2020 will produce energy and emissions for 40 to 50 years 
  • Russia, China, India, and South Korea will likely continue to construct nuclear power plants, enrich fuel, and shape the global nuclear power industry 
  • Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and others, are still intent on acquiring civilian nuclear reactors for electricity despite the Fukushima disaster

Better news on this front:

  • Solar and photovoltaic technologies are getting cheaper
  • Wind turbines are being adopted commercially
  • Energy conservation and efficiency are becoming accepted as sources for industrial production and residential use
  • Many of these developments are taking place at municipal and local levels:
"The political processes in place seem wholly inadequate to meet the challenges to human existence that we confront."

The BAS scientists note:

As we see it, the major challenge at the heart of humanity's survival in the 21st century is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, without exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons.


  

Credit: Savantpol via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Savantpol via Wikimedia Commons.

Other issues worrying the BAS include nuclear disarmament:

  • The path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not clear and leadership is failing

  • It's still possible for radical groups to acquire and use highly enriched uranium and plutonium to wreak havoc in nuclear attacks

  • Disagreements between the US and Russia about missile defense, and insufficient cooperation among the nine nuclear weapons states is creating distrust that is leading nearly all nuclear weapons states to hedge their bets by modernizing their nuclear arsenals

  • Ambiguity about Iran's nuclear power program continues to be the most prominent problem

  • The potential for nuclear weapons use in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and particularly in South Asia is alarming, and ongoing efforts to ease tensions, deal with extremism and terrorist acts, and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international relations have had only halting success  

Credit: World Nuclear Association via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: World Nuclear Association via Wikimedia Commons.

And the BAS is also concerned about nuclear energy:

  • The Fukushima disaster raised significant questions needing to be addressed
  • Safer nuclear reactor designs need to be developed and built, and more stringent oversight, training, and attention are needed to prevent future disasters
  • A major question: How can complex systems like nuclear power stations be made less susceptible to accidents and errors in judgment?

 

Climate Coverage Goes Cold

| Mon Jan. 9, 2012 6:05 PM EST

The Daily Climate recently released an interesting study on coverage of climate change. Specifically, the non-profit website that aggregates climate-related news found that coverage of the topic dropped significantly in 2011. News about the topic hit a peak in 2009, with the Copenhagen climate conference and all the anticipation that world leaders might actually make a new climate deal. That didn't happen, and interest in the subject has waned quite a bit since then.

There was a 42 percent drop in 2011 from the high two years earlier, and a 20 percent drop from 2010, according to the Daily Climate's count. The survey found 19,000 articles on climate change published in 2011, down from 32,400 stories in 2009. They also found a dip in television coverage. This isn't really all that surprising; anyone who follows climate change news knows this is the case. And frankly it would be hard to conceive of how the subject will ever get as much or more attention than it did in '09.

It seems to me, though, that Daily Climate may have missed a lot of the climate coverage out there. They surveyed only "mainstream" news outlets (which is somewhat of a subjective term), and it sounds like how they count articles as opposed to blog posts is a little fuzzy. I just did a quick survey of my own stories and blog posts in the past year. I found 34 blog posts that were entirely or partially about the topic of climate change in just the last 4 months of the year. If I count over the whole year, I guess there were only 10 articles explicitly about climate change. But that's the nature of writing on the internet—some things go up as blog posts, some go up as articles, but that really doesn't say much about the content itself. I'm not sure if the Daily Climate included MoJo on its list this year as it did in the 2010 survey.

The author of the report does acknowledge that determining the amount of coverage by counting the bylines of some of the most prolific environmental reporters is both an "imprecise" and "flawed" way to come up with a total, particularly when you think about the distinction between a blog post and an article. And for better or worse, the subject is being covered more in blogs than it is in newspapers or other traditional news efforts these days.

It's also true that not all of my posts were about climate science. Some were about what politicians had to say about the topic. Some were about extreme weather and its relationship to climate change. Others were about policies that are designed to deal with climate-changing emissions, or fossil fuel projects that would generate more climate-warming emissions. It's not clear from their report how narrowly they defined a "climate" story. (I've put in a request for an explanation, and I will update when I hear back.)

That said, I don't argue with the fact that climate coverage has slipped. This is a major reason that Mother Jones and six other news organizations recently relaunched The Climate Desk. Producer James West has two new videos out already, a first on the endangered GOP climate hawk and another on the threat that climate change poses to maple syrup. Stay tuned for more!

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Totally Drug-Resistant TB Emerges in India

| Mon Jan. 9, 2012 3:19 PM EST
X-ray of a patient with advanced pulmonary tuberculosis.

At least 12 patients in Mumbai, India, have been infected with a totally drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. One has died.

The Times of India reported on Saturday:

Tuberculosis, which kills around 1,000 people a day in India, has acquired a deadlier edge. A new entity-ominously called Totally Drug-Resistant TB (TDR-TB )-has been isolated in the fluid samples of 12 TB patients in the past three months alone at Hinduja Hospital at Mahim [in Mumbai]. The hospital's laboratory has been certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) to test TB patients for drug resistance. While Iran first reported TDR-TB cases three years ago, India seems to be only the second country to report this deadly form of the disease. TDR-TB is the result of the latest mutation of the bacilli after Multi-Drug-Resistant TB (MDR-TB ) and Extremely Drug-Resistant TB (XDR-TB ) were diagnosed earlier.

The Hindustan Times reports the new strain as:

[A] condition in which patients do not respond to any TB medication... The mortality rate for this strain of the infectious disease is 100%... The patients, including a 13-year-old girl were diagnosed in October. A 31-year-old woman from Dharavi died in November... Doctors treating these patients say the absolute resistance is a result of the patients being prescribed wrong antibiotics by unspecialised doctors.

Maryn McKenna at Wired writes that the news from India was first was published in a little-noticed letter to Clinical Infectious Diseases (CID) last month, and notes:

TB is already one of the world’s worth killers, up there with malaria and HIV/AIDS, accounting for 9.4 million cases and 1.7 million deaths in 2009... At the best of times, TB treatment is difficult, requiring at least 6 months of pill combinations that have unpleasant side effects and must be taken long after the patient begins to feel well. Because of the mismatch between treatment and symptoms, people often don’t take their full course of drugs.

The CID letter reports inadequate care provided to four of the 12 Indian patients, who saw as many as four different doctors, and at least three received partial, multiple courses of the wrong antibiotics:

A study that we conducted in Mumbai showed that only 5 of 106 private practitioners practicing in a crowded area called Dharavi could prescribe a correct prescription for a hypothetical patient with MDR tuberculosis. The majority of prescriptions were inappropriate and would only have served to further amplify resistance, converting MDR tuberculosis to XDR tuberculosis and TDR tuberculosis.

Worryingly, the first emergence of totally drug-resistant TB seen in 15 patients in Iran in 2009 included Afghani, Azerbaijani, and Iraqi immigrants, writes McKenna. Many health workers at the time assumed the total number of cases was higher than diagnosed, since there was (and is) little in the way of even basic medical care in those border areas. 

Worldwide, only two-thirds of countries with resistant TB have the labs to diagnose those strains, with only 10 percent of multi-drug-resistant TB patients receiving treatment, at cure rates as low as 25 percent. There's no cure for totally drug-resistant TB. 

Few hospitals in India can test for resistant TB and cases there might be more prevalent as well. 

Image-of-the-Week: Sweden's Green Veneer

| Fri Jan. 6, 2012 6:04 AM EST

Virgin spruce forest in Fulufjället National Park, Sweden.: Credit: Vilseskogen via Flickr.Virgin spruce forest in Fulufjället National Park, Sweden. Credit: Vilseskogen via Flickr.

Sweden is renowned for its beautiful boreal forests of spruce and pine—and for its sustainable environmental policies. But an article by photojournalist Erik Hoffner in Yale Environment 360 sheds light on its dark forestry practices. Surprisingly lax Swedish forestry laws leave many logging decisions to the appetites of timber companies, with 37 percent of forestry operations now prioritizing production over conservation. As a result, Sweden's forest is rapidly "younging," with nearly half its woodlands too immature to harvest. The latest trend is to log old diversity-rich forests in the Arctic north, where regeneration is glacially slow. "[T]he country's supposedly sustainable forestry practices are little more than a green veneer," writes Hoffner. "Large areas of forest, particularly the oldest tracts in the north, are being felled with little regard for the biodiversity they harbor."

Get Paid To Say Dumb Stuff About Global Warming on Video

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 6:07 PM EST

How much does climate denial cost? Apparently it only takes $500. Steve Milloy, the former tobacco lobbyist turned Fox News columnist and global warming denier extraordinaire, is offering that much money to anyone who will make a scene next week at a State Department screening of a new documentary about how climate change is affecting the Himalayan glaciers.

The film is a coproduction of the United Nations Development Program, Arrowhead Films, and Discovery Channel Asia, and will be followed by a panel discussion. Yesterday, Milloy asked the readers of his "Junk Science" blog to show up at the event and film themselves heckling panelists, promising $500 to anyone who does.

Climate-change deniers have been trying for years to argue that the glaciers aren't really melting, or that if they are it's not that big of a deal, and Milloy's certainly a known quantity in the denial world. Let's see if anyone takes him up on his offer.

Winter Arctic Update

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 2:13 PM EST

Icebergs around Cape York,Greenland. : Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.Icebergs around Cape York, Greenland. Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.The National Snow and Ice Data Center's (NSIDC) latest polar ice report is in and the big news is that this winter might be a lot different from last, even though we're still in the middle of a La Niña.

The reason is the appearance of a mostly positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO), which tends to produce less snow and warmer-than-average temperatures over the wintertime North America and Eastern Europe.

Daily Arctic Oscillation Index values from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center, Sept 2011 to Jan 2012, showing relative pressure anomalies between polar and mid-latitude regions. :  Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA NWS Climate Prediction Center.Daily Arctic Oscillation Index values from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center, Sept 2011 to Jan 2012, showing relative pressure anomalies between polar and mid-latitude regions. : Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA NWS Climate Prediction Center.

Last winter saw the opposite: tons of snow and really cold temps over much of North America and Europe and warmer-than-normal conditions over much of the Arctic. That's because a negative Arctic Oscillation took hold. I wrote about that here.

Arctic Oscillation: positive phase (left) has higher air pressure in mid-latitudes than in Arctic, leading to milder winter for US; negative phase (right) has higher air pressure over Arctic, pushing frigid, wet air into US.: Credit: NASA.Arctic Oscillation: positive phase (left) has higher air pressure in mid-latitudes than in Arctic, leading to milder winter for US; negative phase (right) has higher air pressure over Arctic, pushing frigid, wet air into US.: Credit: NASA.Technically, the Arctic Oscillation is a measure of atmospheric pressure variations at sea level north of 20N latitude. Where an Arctic high develops affects weather thousands of miles away.

Last year the so-called "Arctic fence" that keeps cold air penned up in the north broke down, allowing frigid air to spill south. So far that's not happening this winter. Though the AO is a fickle—not seasonal—phenomenon and can switch up at any time.

Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2011 shows a decline of 3.5% per decade.: Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2011 shows a decline of 3.5% per decade. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The NSIDC report points out that during a positive Arctic Oscillation, like now, thick sea ice tends to migrate through Fram Strait between Greenland and Iceland, leaving much of the Arctic with thinner ice that melts out more easily the following summer.

In the graph above you can see the precipitous decline of December Arctic sea ice—averaging -3.5 percent per decade since 1979—a trend that's stronger than the AO alone.

Arctic sea ice extent on 9 September 2011, the 2nd lowest extent on record.: Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.Arctic sea ice extent on 9 September 2011, the 2nd lowest extent on record.: Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

After last year's warm Arctic winter, the 2011 summer sea ice extent was the second lowest on record. (FYI, August sea ice is declining by 9.3 percent per decade... HT @Sustainable2050 for that stat.)

Which means we started this winter with a major deficit. And even though sea ice grew slightly faster than normal in December 2011, and even though temperatures in much of the Arctic were lower than normal in December, overall sea ice cover was still below average. In fact, the third lowest on record.

The five lowest December sea ice extents have all occurred in the past six years. Polar bear.: Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.Polar bear swimming. Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.

The positive feedback loop between less ice, open sea water, and escalating temperatures can be seen in the Atlantic side of the Arctic, in the Kara and Barents seas. Higher-than-average December temperatures there were at least partially a result of of dwindling sea ice, allowing more heat to escape from open sea water and further warm the atmosphere.

The eastern coast of Hudson Bay didn't freeze entirely until late December. Normally, it's completely frozen over by the beginning of December. That's a bad start to the winter for Hudson Bay polar bears.