Blue Marble - April 2012

New Poll: Most Americans Want Climate Action!

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 3:32 PM PDT

With right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh selling climate change as a vast left-wing conspiracy you might imagine that Americans couldn't be bothered to try and stop our planet from boiling. Thankfully, that's not true, according to a Yale/George Mason University poll released yesterday.

The poll finds that a majority of Americans—63 percent—think the US should act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. That's even if other countries don't take any action. Surveying some 1,000 Americans, the poll found that only five percent of respondents believe there's no need to reduce emissions at all (see chart below). "Clearly, reports of the death of public support for action on global warming are overblown," wrote Ruy Teixeira at the Center for American Progress, in response to the poll. 

What's more, the survey found, 65 percent of Americans support cutting greenhouse gas emission levels by 90 percent by 2050. That's huge. Sixty-three percent of those polled also said they wouldn't mind a utility bill price hike if it meant companies would be forced to source a portion of their energy from renewables.

It's too bad the talking heads are so out of touch with the rest of us.

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It's Okay to Eat Sardines...Right?

| Mon Apr. 30, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Sardines (Sardina pilchardus): Etrusko25 via Wikimedia CommonsSardines (Sardina pilchardus) Etrusko25 via Wikimedia Commons

Sardines are considered a sustainable seafood, one of the few fish you can eat guilt-free, right? Well, not exactly. Forage fish like sardines and anchovies are the key players in huge but delicate food webs known as wasp-waist ecosystems. These are so complex and dynamic that it's questionable whether we have the know-how to manage them well yet. And as we've learned the hard way from examples off California, Peru, Japan, and Namibia, wasp-waist ecosystems collapse catastrophically whenever the stresses of climate change intersect with the stresses of overfishing (see Andrew Bakun, et al., below*).

These systems are often driven by multiyear, even multidecadal, climate patterns like El Niño and La Niña—natural boom-and-bust cycles that remain largely beyond our abilities to scientifically manage. And while some overfished wasp-waist ecosystems have recovered after decades of fishing moratoria (California, Peru), others have not (Japan, Namibia). Some, like Peru, collapse repeatedly.

Global capture of sardines in the Sardinops genus in tonnes, 1950–2010, as reported by the FAO. Based on data sourced from the relevant FAO Species Fact Sheets: Epipelagic via Wikimedia Commons

Global capture of sardines in the Sardinops genus in tons, 1950–2010, as reported by the FAO. Based on data sourced from the relevant FAO Species Fact Sheets. Epipelagic via Wikimedia Commons 

I wrote about the downside of the sardine fishery in Mexico's Gulf of California in my latest Mother Jones print piece, "Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save a Species?" This is the story of my old friend Enriqueta Velarde's efforts to save the seabirds and other wildlife of the Gulf. Year after year she's taken on staggering problems. Today her biggest fear is the rapidly growing sardine fishery:

She's concerned because the Gulf of California sardine fishery, Mexico's largest by volume, landed more than a quarter million metric tons the year before. She knows the Gulf is a wasp-waist ecosystem: ecology-speak for a delicate food web dependent on forage fish (sardines and anchovies) that are virtually the only predators of all below them (plankton) and virtually the only prey of the tiers above them (bigger fish, seabirds, marine mammals)…Mexico just received a sustainability certification for its sardine fishery from the Marine Stewardship Council, which would vastly increase market demand in the US. Velarde fears that the fish, keystone to all Gulf species—including humans—will crash.

 

Tern with fish: Badjoby via Wikimedia Commons

Tern with fish Badjoby via Wikimedia Commons 

But it's the Marine Stewardship Council, and you can trust what they say is okay to eat is okay, right? Well, not necessarily. As I've written here about swordfish, here about Chilean sea bass, and here about pollock, hake, Antarctic toothfish, and krill, there are increasing concerns among scientists about the criteria the MSC is using to certify fisheries as sustainable.

So before you take a bite of that sardine sandwich, you might think about all the truly vast ecosystems—composed of seabirds, bigger fish, seals, dolphins, whales, and sharks—utterly dependent on sardines and their kin. And the fact our fisheries management might not yet be capable of managing what we don't yet fully understand.

*Papers:

  • Andrew Bakun, Elizabeth A. Babcock, Salvador E. Lluch-Cota, Christine Santora, Christian J. Salvadeo. Issues of ecosystem-based management of forage fisheries in "open" non-stationary ecosystems: the example of the sardine fishery in the Gulf of California. Rev Fish Biol Fisheries. 2009. DOI 10.1007/s11160-009-9118-1
  • Andrew Bakun. Wasp-waist populations and marine ecosystem dynamics: Navigating the "predator pit" topographies. Prog Oceanography. 2006. DOI:10.1016/j.pocean.2006.02.004

 

Reef Sharks Vanishing Around Populated Islands

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 1:45 PM PDT

Gray reefs sharks: Albert kok via Wikimedia CommonsGray reefs sharks: Albert kok via Wikimedia Commons

A new study finds that sharks living on reefs near areas populated by people have declined by between 90 and 97 percent compared to relatively pristine reefs where few or no people live.

"We estimate that reef shark numbers have dropped substantially around populated islands, generally by more than 90 percent compared to those at the most untouched reefs," says Marc Nadon, lead author of the study.

The authors of the paper in early view at Conservation Biology deployed 1,607 towed-diver surveys—that's where scientists are used as shark bait (kidding, sort of)—to count sharks at 46 reefs in the central-western Pacific Ocean. They combined those data with information on human population, habitat complexity, and reef area, as well as with satellite-derived measurements of sea surface temperature and oceanographic productivity.

These methods allowed them to fill in the blanks on the numbers of missing sharks. Their models showed that:

  • Densities of gray reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus), and other reef sharks increased substantially as human population decreased. 
  • Densities of reef sharks increased substantially as primary productivity and minimum sea surface temperature (which correlates to reef area) increased.

From the paper:

Simulated baseline densities of reef sharks under the absence of humans were 1.1–2.4 [per hectare] for the main Hawaiian Islands, 1.2–2.4 [per hectare] for inhabited islands of American Samoa, and 0.9–2.1 [per hectare] for inhabited islands in the Mariana Archipelago, which suggests that density of reef sharks has declined to 3–10% of baseline levels in these areas.

 

Blacktip reef sharks: Jon Rawlinson via Wikimedia CommonsBlacktip reef sharks: Jon Rawlinson via Wikimedia Commons

"[Sharks] like it warm, and they like it productive," said Julia Baum, Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, referring to the increase in reef sharks the team found in areas with higher water temperatures and productivity. "Yet our study clearly shows that human influences now greatly outweigh natural ones."

The paper:

  • NADON, M. O., BAUM, J. K., WILLIAMS, I. D., MCPHERSON, J. M., ZGLICZYNSKI, B. J., RICHARDS, B. L., SCHROEDER, R. E. and BRAINARD, R. E. (2012), Re-Creating Missing Population Baselines for Pacific Reef Sharks. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01835.x

 

Feds File First Criminal Charges Related to BP Gulf Spill

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
The US Coast Guard battle the blazing remnants of Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010.

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website.

Two years after oil from a BP well began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the US Department of Justice has filed criminal charges alleging that a former BP employee destroyed critical evidence in the early days of the unfolding disaster.

The charges are the first to be filed in what the Obama administration has called the worst environmental disaster in American history, and they are significant because they target an individual employee for his actions.

According to an affidavit and complaint filed today in a Louisiana court, Kurt Mix, a former drilling and completions engineer, deleted email and text messages he had sent to senior BP managers estimating that the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf was many times greater than the amount stated publicly. Mix was specifically instructed by attorneys contracted by BP to retain his records before he deleted them, the affidavit states.

Big Changes in Ocean Salinity Intensifying Water Cycle

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 1:56 PM PDT

Surface salinity changes for 1950 to 2000. Red indicates regions becoming saltier, and blue regions becoming fresher: P.J. Durack, et al. 2012. Science. DOI:10.1126/science.1212222

Surface salinity changes from 1950 to 2000. Red shows regions becoming saltier, blue regions becoming fresher:  P.J. Durack, et al. Science. 2012. DOI:10.1126/science.1212222

A paper in Science today finds rapidly changing ocean salinities as a result of a warming atmosphere have intensified the global water cycle (evaporation and precipitation) by an incredible 4 percent between 1950 and 2000. That's twice the rate predicted by models. 

These same models have long forecast that dry areas of Earth will become drier and wet areas wetter in a warming climate—an intensification of the water cycle driven mostly by the capacity of warmer air to hold and redistribute more moisture in the form of water vapor.

satellite image shows the distribution of water vapor over Africa and the Atlantic Ocean on  2 Sept 2010: NASASatellite image shows the distribution of water vapor over Africa and the Atlantic Ocean on 2 Sept 2010: NASA

But the rate of intensification of the global water cycle is happening far faster than imagined: at about 8 percent per degree Celsius of ocean warming since 1950.

At this rate, the authors calculate:

  • The global water cycle will intensify by a whopping 16 percent in a 2°C warmer world
  • The global water cycle will intensify by a frightening 24 percent in a 3°C warmer world

 

A schematic representation of the global water cycle, with the key role of the ocean and surface rainfall and evaporation fluxes expressed: Durack et al. Science. 2012. DOI:10.1126/science.1212222

A schematic representation of the global water cycle, with the key role of the ocean and surface rainfall and evaporation fluxes expressed: Durack et al. Science. 2012. DOI:10.1126/science.1212222 

The changes will not be uniform across the globe, but trend toward increased drying of arid areas and  increased flooding of wet areas.

And the resulting changes in freshwater availability are likely to be far more destabilizing to human societies and ecosystems than warming alone. 

"Changes to the global water cycle and the corresponding redistribution of rainfall will affect food availability, stability, access, and utilization," says lead author Paul Durack at the University of Tasmania and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The paper:

  • Paul J. Durack, Susan E. Wijffels and Richard J. Matear. Ocean Salinities Reveal Strong Global Water Cycle Intensification During 1950 to 2000. Science 2012. DOI:10.1126/science.1212222

BP, Dow Chemical Sponsoring the "Greenest Ever" Olympics, and UK Enviros Aren't Having It.

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 1:54 PM PDT

Ever since the fleet-footed runners and chariot races of ancient Greece, ethics have been at the root of the Olympic games. There's an Olympic oath, creed, and hymn. And then there's the torch, which has come to represent purity or goodwill, depending on who you ask. 

So, in the spirit of Olympic integrity, London—which will host the summer Olympics this July—has promised to prepare for its games with an eye towards environmentalism, making London 2012 "the greenest Games ever." Just one problem: Three of the Olympics' official sponsors—BP, Dow Chemical, and Rio Tinto—are all currently embroiled in lawsuits over alleged commission of large-scale environmental harms. (A set of criminal charges against BP were just filed yesterday.)

The irony here has not been lost on some of the UK's environmental watchdogs, who last week launched "Greenwash Gold 2012," a campaign to bring attention to the environmental records of these three sponsors. The groups behind the project—the London Mining Network, Bhopal Medical Appeal, and the UK Tar Sands Network—argue that it's greenwashing to let these eco-harming companies sponsor the games. 

The campaign's website offers up details on each company's environmental records alongside biting, animated videos. Visitors are asked to vote on which company "gets the dishonour" of winning the Greenwash Gold for "covering up the most environmental destruction"—to be awarded by the campaign in July, when the Olympics start. (Silver and bronze will also be awarded, so don't worry: all three companies are guaranteed to medal.)

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"I'm Going To Hold Up if God Is Kind. If He's Harsh, I Will Have To Retreat."

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 11:50 AM PDT

Pham Van The. Photo by Kate SheppardPham Van The. Photos by Kate Sheppard

On Tuesday, I traveled to the edge of Vietnam's Ben Tre Province, to the place where the Cua Ham Luong, a broad branch of the Mekong River, meets the South China Sea. We had to take a boat to get out here, wading through the warm waters to the flat, brown sand beach. And there, beyond a manmade sand wall, I met Pham Van The, a 60-year-old farmer out here at the edge of the earth.

Pham grows watermelons and a local variety of yellow melons here in the sandy soil, the vines creeping out from the ground in long rows. He used to have 5,000 square meters of farm, on land the government gave him. He's been here for a quarter of a century, but in the past few years, the water has been creeping in on his farm. "The sea was swallowing it up," he tells me, through a translator. In the last three years, it's gotten much worse, threatening the small thatched building he and his family use while they're out here working on the farm. Their home, at least, is about 3 kilometers inland and is safer from floods.

Pham has built a makeshift barrier against the seas out of sand and coconut fronds, which is littered with trash that's washed ashore. The small wall provides some protection, but not enough. The floods still come in during very high tides, the worst of which come late October to mid-November. When those tides happen, he stays up all night, watching for the water to come in. If it gets too close, he adds more sand to try to save the farm.

I asked why he thinks the floods are getting worse. "I'm a farmer, I wouldn't know how to predict it," he says. "When it comes I deal with it."

Pham is small and bronzed by the sun, and his face is expressive. He laughs easily, even while talking about the damage that's been done to his farm. He hand-rolls tobacco as we talk under the shade of their workshop. The slightly salty breeze from the sea provides relief from the brutal mid-day sun. His wife, Duong Thi Hai, rests in the hut before going back out to the fields to water the crops.

The worst he and his wife have seen was when Typhoon Durian—a storm named after the pungent southeast Asian fruit—ripped across the southern coast of Vietnam in 2006. They were out at the farm when it made its way to land. "I couldn't grab anything," he says. "I just grabbed my wife's hand and was like, 'You have to follow me! Don't go anywhere else, or we’ll die.'" They ran inland, and neighbors with boats pulled them to safety.

I visited his house with Nguyen Thanh Lap, the vice director of Thach Phu Nature Reserve based in this district. Along with other local officials, Lap is in charge of a project to plant mangroves and other trees along the coast, in hopes that it would provide a better barrier for farmers like Pham. They're currently trying to convince Pham and his neighbors to take part in the project.

"If there was forest here, it would stop the wind, stop the tides, protect their land," Lap tells me. But the trees take a long time to grow, and the farmers here already working with limited space fear losing profitable farmland to the trees. While the government does provide some compensation for planting and caring for the trees, it's not as much as they'd make on melons.

"It's hard to convince them to give up this short vision for a long one," says Lap.

Pham says he's been persuaded of the value of the proposal, but they still have to bring the 15 other farmers in the area to consensus on the project before it can go forward. In the meantime, they'll keep fighting back the tides themselves.

"I'm going to hold up against it if God is kind," says Pham. "If he's harsh, I will have to retreat."

Duong Thi Hai: Kate SheppardPhotos by Kate SheppardPhotos by Kate Sheppard

Antarctic Ice Melting From Below by Warming Ocean

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 11:20 AM PDT

 

First map of Antarctica's moving ice: Image courtesy Eric Rignot, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California IrvineFirst map of Antarctica's moving ice: Image courtesy Eric Rignot, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California Irvine

A paper published today in the science journal Nature reveals that the melting of Antarctica's ice sheet is being driven by a warming ocean more than a warming atmosphere.

Which means even though summer air temperatures have not yet warmed enough to substantially melt Antarctica's surface snows, the oceans are undermining the frozen continent from below—fueling a recent, widespread, and intensifying glacier acceleration and its accompanying rise in sea levels.

The results are based on 4.5 million measurements made by a laser instrument mounted on NASA's now defunct ICESat satellite between 2003 and 2008, which mapped the thickness of most floating ice shelves around Antarctica. The results:

  • Of 54 ice shelves mapped, 20 are being melted by warm ocean currents, most of those in West Antarctica.
  • In all cases the inland glaciers that flow down to the coast and feed into these thinning ice shelves have accelerated, draining more ice into the sea and contributing to sea-level rise.

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica on the afternoon of 12 January 2010 .: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica on the morning of 13 January 2010: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica  rapidly breaking up. Top image taken on the afternoon of 12 January 2010. Bottom image taken 24 hours later on the afternoon of 13 January 2010: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

The melting is happening fastest where deep troughs cut through the underwater continental shelf, allowing warmer water access to the undersides of the ice shelves. 

Lead author Hamish Pritchard at the British Antarctic Survey says:

"What’s really interesting is just how sensitive these glaciers seem to be. Some ice shelves are thinning by a few meters a year and in response the glaciers drain billions of tons of ice into the sea. This supports the idea that ice shelves are important in slowing down the glaciers that feed them, controlling the loss of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet... We think [the cause is] linked to changes in wind patterns. Studies have shown that Antarctic winds have changed because of changes in climate and that this has affected the strength and direction of ocean currents. As a result warm water is funnelled beneath the floating ice. These studies and our new results therefore suggest that Antarctica’s glaciers are responding rapidly to a changing climate. 

 

 

You can see that happening in this NASA video which shows warm ocean currents attacking the underside of ice shelves. Ice shelves colored red are thicker (greater than 1,800 feet / 550 meters). Those colored blue are thinner (less than 650 feet / 200 meters).  

The ice2sea project team behind the new paper will be releasing its projections on sea level rise into the 21st and 22nd centuries later this year. 

MAPS: Biblical Flooding Is Coming to a Refinery Near You

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Oil and water don't mix, but that may soon change.

A rare Senate hearing on the threat of rising sea levels last week coincided with a new report from Climate Central, a non-profit that publishes peer-reviewed environmental research, that shows rising seas may soon be lapping at the country's oil and gas refineries, electric and natural gas power plants, and even nuclear facilities.

Climate change has raised global sea levels by eight inches since the late 19th century, amping up storm surges and flooding around the world. Extreme coastal deluges—of the sort that's only supposed to happen once a century—are those that reach at least four feet above local high tides. The rate of this kind of biblical flooding is expected to more than double by 2030, according to the report. Check out the researchers' map of coastal threats from rising waters in your area:

Climate Central

This is bad news for coastal energy facilities. The analysis, which assessed data from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, the US Geological Survey and FEMA, tallied nearly 300 locations, spread across 22 coastal states, which stand on ground below that critical high tide-plus-four level. That includes 130 natural gas, 96 electric, 56 oil and gas, and 4 nuclear facilities. Here's Climate Central's map of of all the at-risk locations. (You can adjust the data to show energy facilities at higher and lower flood levels.)


More than half are in Louisiana. That state can't win.

Ben Strauss, Director of Climate Central's Program on Sea Level Rise, and co-author of the report, who testified at the Senate hearing, says flooding of energy facilities could result in blackouts, damage to critical access roads and destruction of mechanical systems. At refineries storm surges could cause spillage, damage to storage tanks, and national oil supply shortages. Or imagine an American Fukushima, in which flood waters cut off power supplies, keeping reactors from being cooled, and triggering a nuclear meltdown.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the lone Republican at the hearing, called the report's findings "a wake-up call."

Scientists expect waters to rise 20-80 more inches this century, depending on whether the world gets it together policy-wise. Don't hold your breath.

Well, actually, you might need to.

Does Chocolate Make You Thin?

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 1:45 PM PDT

Scientists love to investigate the potential health benefits of chocolate: A search of "chocolate" on PubMed, the primary database of biomedical research, yields references to 800 papers over the last three years. This emerging body of evidence suggests that chocolate might improve a range of metabolic processes and reduce the risk of heart disease, among other positive effects.

Just this week, researchers from San Diego State University are reporting at a scientific conference that, in a randomized trial, eating dark chocolate led to lowered blood glucose levels and better cholesterol profiles. The trial was very small (31 participants), very short (15 days), and as-yet unpublished, so the findings, while encouraging and consistent with previous research, need to be taken with a huge dose of caution.