Blue Marble - February 2012

Think You're a Virtuous Valentine? Think Again.

Rushing out for a last-minute gift for a lover? Beware–the industries behind flowers, chocolate, and greeting cards are rife with lousy environmental and labor practices.

| Tue Feb. 14, 2012 7:03 AM EST
Rose farm worker in Ecuador

Valentine's Day skeptics are as prevalent as the holiday's loyalists: For every rose-toting lover, there's a cupid defector who most definitely does not want anything red, pink, or pastel-colored. After digging into the background behind the Valentine's Day industry, I'm pretty convinced that my own wry holiday spirit is merited—if not for this day's sky-high levels of consumption (expected to reach $17.6 billion this year) then, at the very least, for its environmental damage and poor labor practices. Below, a breakdown of the Valentine's Day trifecta: flowers, chocolate, and greeting cards. The results aren't pretty. So you can curse us for tainting your holiday—or thank us for enabling your cynicism.

Cut flowers: That bouquet you may be planning to gift today was most likely not grown in the United States. The floriculture industry taps out at $32.8 billion, and about $14 billion of that comes from the sale of fresh flowers. Around 63 percent of those blooms are imports from Colombia, and another 23 percent from Ecuador. *

The labor rights facts of this industry are truly depressing. In 2005, the International Labor Rights Forum found that 55 percent of women working in the Ecuadorian flower production trade (they constitute half the flower workforce) had been victim to sexual harassment in the workplace. Nineteen percent were forced to have sex with a supervisor or coworker. Compulsory pregnancy testing is also a serious industry issue. In Colombia, where women make up about 65 percent of flower workers, a survey conducted by the nation's flower industry union, Untraflores, found that about 80 percent of companies required women to take a pregnancy test as part of their job application process—presumably because they'd like to avoid providing paid maternity leave (required in Colombia). Another problem: In 2000, upwards of 48,000 children were found working in Ecuador's flower industry. Colombia wasn't much better. There have since been a number of hefty efforts at reform, and while Colombia's been improving, the US Department of Labor still confirms extensive child labor use in Ecuador.

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Gitmo Goes Green

The infamous naval base takes on renewable energy and efficiency.

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 6:24 PM EST

I'm sure this won't make lefties start feeling warm fuzzies toward Guantanamo Bay, but the Navy is apparently trying to make the Cuban base green. McClatchy reports the effort comes complete with bicycling cops, a 270-foot-tall windmill, and solar-powered floodlights.

There are still 171 prisoners held at Gitmo, along 1,850 members of the military and contractors. The base spends $11.7 million a year on power and water, according to the article, which is among the reasons the Department of Defense is trying to make its energy use more sustainable:

Everything from diesel fuel to spare parts arrives by ship or aircraft, more than tripling the price of power, according to base estimates.
"From my perspective certainly the greening of Gitmo is important," says U.S. Navy Capt. Kirk Hibbert, the base commander. National security is paramount, he said, but the Navy mandate to curb consumption "has an effect on almost everything we do here."
Hibbert's the man who put a pair of Navy cops on bikes to patrol the base rather than sit inside air-conditioned sport utility vehicles, an $800 a year savings that sends a symbolic message. And it's been on his watch that a contractor is building a huge solar array behind the high school.

You can read the full story here.

Video: Tracking 3,000 Pieces of Trash With GPS

Watch how MIT documented the trans-continental journey of garbage using digital sensors.

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 4:56 PM EST

Ever wonder what happens to that aluminum beer can, plastic yogurt cup, or cardboard pizza box after you toss it in the recycling bin?

Well, so did the good people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who in 2009 embarked on an ambitious effort to tag 3,000 pieces of trash with GPS-type sensors and track them through the national waste stream. They announced the project shortly after the publication of a three-part series in Mother Jones in which I followed my garbage and recycling through San Francisco's legendary recycling and composting system.

I'd also wanted to attach GPS tags to my trash, but unlike the nerds at MIT, didn't have $300,000 to drop on sensors. The MIT team synthesized their results into this fascinating video, which has been out for a while, sure. But it's still totally worth watching. 

Science Uprising

Triggered by a Brit mathematician, more than 5,000 academics are boycotting the publisher Elsevier and will not peer-review or submit any papers to its scientific journals.

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 4:00 PM EST
Einstein's blackboard.

The trigger for an Academic Spring that's blossoming around the world is mathematician Timothy Gowers at the University of Cambridge, winner of the prestigious Fields medal, who wrote a blog post last month protesting  Dutch publisher Elsevier's business practices. 

Elsevier publishes a mind-numbing number of journals, something approaching infinity.

Here are Gowers' main objections, in his own words.

  1. [Elsevier] charges very high prices—so far above the average that it seems quite extraordinary that they can get away with it. 
  2. One method that they have for getting away with it is a practice known as "bundling," where instead of giving libraries the choice of which journals they want to subscribe to, they offer them the choice between a large collection of journals (chosen by them) or nothing at all. So if some Elsevier journals in the “bundle” are indispensable to a library, that library is forced to subscribe at very high subscription rates to a large number of journals, across all the sciences, many of which they do not want. (The journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is a notorious example of a journal that is regarded as a joke by many mathematicians, but which libraries all round the world must nevertheless subscribe to.) Given that libraries have limited budgets, this often means that they cannot subscribe to journals that they would much rather subscribe to, so it is not just libraries that are harmed, but other publishers, which is of course part of the motivation for the scheme.
  3. If libraries attempt to negotiate better deals, Elsevier is ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals.

Since then, others mathematician created the website in support of Gowers and against Elsevier. Thousands of academics joined the protest, 34 of whom published a more detailed manifesto explaining the reasons behind the boycott—including Elsevier's support of the hotly-contested SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy bills in the US and the Research Works Act that aims to prevent government-funded researchers from being required to publish in open-access journals.

A similar petition in 2001 attracted 30,000 signatories and eventually led to the creation of the Public Library of Science (PloS ONE)—an open-access  publishing venture based in San Francisco.

The powerhouse science journal Nature (not part of Elsevier) describes the likely impact of the Elsevier boycott:

Avoiding the company is unlikely to be problematic for mathematicians. "Elsevier doesn't have any really strong journals in mathematics," says Rob Kirby, a topologist at the University of California, Berkeley. But its biology and medicine journals include big-hitters such as Cell and The Lancet, so a boycott in those fields would be both a bigger blow to the company and a bigger sacrifice for the signatories. So far, around 900 people declaring themselves to be in biology or medicine have signed the pledge.

New Scientist (owned by the parent company of Elsevier) quotes Gowers as saying the protest is particularly popular with mathematicians because many no longer rely on journals to disseminate findings but instead freely share information online through blogs and wikis. The Polymath project allows mathematicians to solve proofs collaboratively online and was born from a 2009 blog post written by Gowers.

Climate Change Bird Atlas

An interactive online bird atlas gives you a sneak peek at the fate of 150 American bird species under different climate scenarios and emission levels.

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 4:41 PM EST

American goldfinch.: Mdf via Wikimedia Commons.

American goldfinch: Mdf via Wikimedia Commons. 

There's an interesting database online through the US Forest Service called the Climate Change Bird Atlas. It's based on another database, the Climate Change Tree Atlas (both are forecasts for eastern forests and birds). One leads to the other, since the fate of forests will affect the future of many species of birds. From the USDA/Forest Service site:

Changing forests mean changing habitat for the wildlife species that depends on them. The current and modelled distribution of 150 bird species is presented in the accompanying Climate Change Bird Atlas.

The database is interactive and reasonably easy to figure out. Here you can see one potential future for the American goldfinch, the iconic state bird of three widely separated states—New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington. The goldfinch is a truly common bird that's benefited greatly from living alongside us, thriving at weedy roadsides and backyard bird feeders.  American goldfinch abundance change map.: USDA/Forest Service. Matthews, S.N., L. R. Iverson, A.M. Prasad, A. M., and M.P. Peters. 2007-ongoing. A Climate Change Atlas for 147 Bird Species of the Eastern United States [database].American goldfinch abundance change map: USDA/Forest Service. From: Matthews, S.N., L. R. Iverson, A.M. Prasad, A. M., and M.P. Peters. 2007-ongoing. A Climate Change Atlas for 147 Bird Species of the Eastern United States [database]. But parsed against three climate change scenarios and two emissions scenarios, the future of the American goldfinch gets sketchy. The map on the left shows current abundance of the American goldfinch in the Eastern US, with pink being the most abundant.

The map on the right shows a forecast decline in abundance based on high climate change/emissions scenarios... Looks like the "Canadian goldfinch" could be set to become the iconic provincial bird of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario.

If you visit the Climate Change Bird Atlas you can play around with the outcomes for many eastern birds, compare projections, and run basic animations.

 Credit: Dori via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Dori via Wikimedia Commons.The atlas is derived from a paper in the science journal Ecography. Here's an excerpt:

Mounting evidence shows that organisms have already begun to respond to global climate change... We therefore developed statistical models of 147 bird species distributions in the eastern United States, using climate, elevation, and the distributions of 39 tree species to predict contemporary bird distributions... These models were then projected onto three models of climate change under high and low emission scenarios for both climate and the projected change in suitable habitat for the 39 tree species.

The paper is open access if you want to read more about the authors' modeling methods and the climate change/emissions scenarios they worked with. Their overall findings:

  • Breeding habitat will decrease by at least 10% for 61-79 species.
  • Breeding habitat will increase by at least 10% for 38-52 species in the eastern United States.

Most interesting about this paper was how it expanded the envelope beyond the usual climate/elevation-only models to include the effects of changing forests/vegetation. In some cases, refugia of forests may keep birds in places we are accustomed to seeing them, even when most of their kind have moved away or dwindled away.

The paper:

  • Matthews, S. N., Iverson, L. R., Prasad, A. M. and Peters, M. P. 2011. Changes in potential habitat of 147 North American breeding bird species in response to redistribution of trees and climate following predicted climate change. Ecography, 34: no. DOI:10.1111/j.1600-0587.2010.06803.x 


EPA to Cruise and Cargo Ships: No More Dumping on California's Coasts

What a new sewage ban, the largest of its kind in the country, will mean for the state's densely populated coastline.

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 4:13 PM EST

Great news, Golden State: Federal regulators have ruled that, starting next month, no more sewage shall be dumped on your coasts. Or at least not without consequence. Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency designated California's 1,624-mile coastline (stretching from Mexico to Oregon) a federal no-discharge zone, banning large vessels like cruise (PDF) and cargo ships from unloading sewage and other types of pollution into the state's coastal waters. (Of course, oil leaks and spills and their aftereffects will continue to be a problem.)

"California's coastal waters will no longer serve as a sewage pond for big ships," said state EPA Secretary Matthew Rodriguez in an agency press release. "For too long, pollution from these vessels has endangered our marine environment, jeopardized public health, and threatened the coastal communities that rely on recreation and tourism dollars." The EPA estimates that the no-discharge zone will prohibit more than 22 million of the 25 million gallons of treated sewage dumped by vessels in California waters each year. A small boater flushing untreated sewage into the water produces as much bacterial pollution as that of treated sewage produced by 10,000 people, according to a 2003 study by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The marine conservation group Oceana estimates (PDF) that an average cruise ship generates 30,000 gallons of human waste every day. Untreated sewage, chemical, and oil runoff from marine vessels can contaminate water with toxins, coliform bacteria (the family of bacteria that includes E. coli), and invasive species, all of which can disrupt marine ecosystems.

The new sewage ban, which creates the nation's largest no-discharge zone to date, will apply to some 2,000 cargo ships that traverse the state's ports each year. It could also effect the nearly 77 percent of Californians who live on or near the coast, as well as marine and other wildlife. The state coastline is home to four national marine sanctuaries, portions of six national parks and recreation areas, and more than 200 other marine reserves and protected areas, according to the EPA.

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Energy Reboot

A cute video appeal to abandon dirty energy for clean energy.

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 2:36 PM EST



A cute British appeal to get off dirty energy and dump their big six energy companies. (Although here in the US—for me at least—the video also evokes memories of other falling towers.)

Al Qaeda and The Whales

Yes, there is a connection there.

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 8:57 AM EST
Be nice to whales. Or this will happen to you, your friends, and all your loved ones.

Did whales benefit from the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Turns out that question isn't as boneheaded as it sounds.

In July 2001, scientists from the New England Aquarium began a study of right whales in the Bay of Fundy in the Gulf of Maine, testing whale excrement for "hormone-related chemicals" that indicated the animals' stress levels. And when the September 11 attacks happened, a window of opportunity was suddenly open for examining whether sound pollution was a major cause of stress for these whales.

AFP has the story:

The steady drone of motors along busy commercial shipping lanes not only alters whale behaviour but can affect the giant sea mammals physically by causing chronic stress, a study published Wednesday has reported for the first time.

The findings were made possible, researchers said, by an event that at first glance seems far removed from the plight of cetaceans: the attacks on New York's Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Only a catastrophe of that magnitude, they explained, could have caused maritime traffic to suddenly drop off, making it possible to measure the impact of varying levels of sound pollution in the sea.

Over the last 50 years noise caused by cargo and military vessels, along with high-decibel sonars used for oil exploration, has gradually increased in intensity and scope. Baleen whales communicate at the same low-frequency wavelengths emitted by these ships, in the range of 20 to 200 hertz (Hz), and some species have adapted by emitting louder and more frequent acoustic signals.

Fascinating stuff.

How to Cook After a Catastrophe

Hurricanes and droughts devastated US agriculture last year. But with smart substitute ingredients, a top New York chef shows how you can still cook up a storm.

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 7:00 AM EST

A weather presenter and a celebrity chef walk into a kitchen…that was the novel hook for this cooking class (and, hell, it's not often Climate Desk gets to film a cooking show).

This is about as far away from the dry, cracked soil of a Texas cattle ranch as it gets: Fifth Avenue, New York City. At a seminar that cost $225 a head, a small selection of guests learned about the impact of 2011's record number of billion dollar disasters—there were 12, including the ongoing drought in Texas—and how to cook around them using substitute ingredients. While author and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich talked about the ingredients affected by last year's weather, TV meteorologist Bonnie Schneider (you've probably seen her on CNN) explained how climate change is causing tougher farming conditions and leaving Americans with bigger food bills.

The take-out lesson? Disaster cooking is about more than simple substitution.

"Recycling food is not about reheating food," Bastianich said. "It's about making something new." After demonstrating how to create a delectable ragout, she added, "There's going to be a run on oxtails!"

Lidia Bastianich at Eataly, New York: James West

Lidia Bastianich at Eataly, New York: James West

Birds Near Fukushima Hit Harder Than at Chernobyl

A new study suggests an ominous future for birds in range of Japan's nuclear disaster.

| Wed Feb. 8, 2012 4:03 PM EST
Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

Bird populations in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture appear to be more whacked by the effects of low-level radiation than expected—based on responses by the same species around Chernobyl after that nuclear power plant disaster. This according to a new paper in the science journal Environmental Pollution 

Last July, four months after the earthquake and tsunami, a team of European, Japanese, and American researchers identified and counted birds at 300 locations in Fukushima prefecture between 15 and 30 miles (25 and 48 km)  from the nuclear complex. Most of these areas were still open to human occupation and were experiencing external radiation levels from 0.5 to 35 microsieverts per hour.

The team compared the results to their similar investigation in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone between 2006 and 2009, 20 to 23 years after that nuclear disaster. 

Their findings:

  • Overall, as expected, the bird community in Fukushima declined significantly in the more contaminated areas.
  • For 14 species of birds that appeared in both Fukushima and Chernobyl, the decline in population size was more pronounced at Fukushima than Chernobyl.
  • Among all birds, including the species not common to both areas, more birds declined in Chernobyl than Fukushima. 

Why these discrepancies? Possibilities include:

  1. The Fukushima birds have never experienced radiation of this intensity before and may therefore be especially sensitive to radioactive contaminants.
  2. Overall more birds declined at Chernobyl because it's been more than two decades since that disaster, during which many species have basically disappeared from the most contaminated regions.
The study notes that the Fukushima accident occurred at the height of the main breeding season.

Neither of those possibilities bode well for Fukushima's birds in the long run.

The authors note that the March 11, 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima occurred at the height of the main breeding season when birds were working at or close to their maximum sustainable level of energy output. Though presumably the Chernobyl birds, hit by radiation beginning on April 26, 1986, were experiencing similar stressors.

According to senior author Timothy Mousseau at the University of South Carolina's College of Arts and Sciences:

Our results point to the need for more research to determine the underlying reasons for differences among species in sensitivity, both initially and following many generations of exposure... [and that] large-scale studies be initiated in Fukushima immediately to make the research potentially much more revealing.

The paper: 

  • Anders Pape Møller, Atsushi Hagiwara, Shin Matsui, Satoe Kasahara, Kencho Kawatsu, Isao Nishiumi, Hiroyuki Suzuki, Keisuke Ueda, Timothy A. Mousseau. Abundance of birds in Fukushima as judged from Chernobyl. Env Poll.