Blue Marble - April 2012

Why Motorbikes Can Be Worse for the Planet Than Cars

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 1:30 PM EDT

Kate Sheppard is reporting this week from Vietnam, where she's learning how the country is already adapting to climate change. To read her first dispatch—from a farm where one family is planting a new type of watermelons designed to withstand weird weather caused by global warming—click here. Her second dispatch, about too much salt in the Mekong Delta, is here.

Hanoi is easily among the world's most polluted cities. Some experts even think it's the worst in Southeast Asia, but there are plenty of others that provide stiff competition. It's apparent even as you approach the city, since the urban skyline is obscured by a heavy haze. Before coming here, I'd heard I would never see the sun in Hanoi. That has proven not to be much of an exaggeration.

But unlike in US cities, the nasty air here isn't from a fleet of cars. It's from all the motorbikes and mopeds, which number at least 1.8 million in Hanoi. (That estimate is from 2008, however, and is likely far too low now given that the population has since swelled to 7 million.) Nationwide, there are about 20 million on the roads, buzzing and zigzagging along.

The streets of Hanoi are a free-for-all of two-wheeled transit. Divider lines are treated more like suggestions than commands, and crossing the street on foot is only for the brazen. I've seen people texting, chatting on the phone, smoking, eating, even reading as they zip past. They carry panes of glass, giant ice cubes, impossibly large loads of rice and beer. On Sunday, I saw a guy carrying another motorcycle on the back of his motorcycle. Parents stow toddlers between them, sometimes fitting an entire nuclear family on one bike. 

It's hard to imagine what the congestion would be like here if all those cycles were cars. But when it comes to air pollution, all these motorcycles are actually worse than cars. They do get much better miles-per-gallon of gasoline and thus emit less climate-changing carbon emissions. But they produce more of the nasty stuff like carbon monoxide and smog-forming pollutants, due to less sophisticated engine design and a general lack of emission standards on two-wheeled transit, particularly in the developing world. (Last fall's season premiere of the TV show "Mythbusters" focused on the subject of the comparative environmental impact of motorcycles and cars, in fact.)

Many motorcyclists don full-coverage face masks to block out at least the larger particles. Still, the small-particle pollution, which the face masks can't filter, is four times higher here than acceptable levels set by the World Health Organization, Than Nien News recently reported. It presents a huge challenge for Hanoi, one that the government is paying more attention to because of the major threat it poses for public health. Meanwhile, the traffic here continues to increase by 12 to 15 percent each year.

It's hard to capture just how many motorcycles there are here in a photo, since the frenetic energy of all that motion it doesn't really transfer in a photo. But here's an attempt:

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Two Years After the BP Spill, Gulf Oysters Are Full Of Heavy Metals

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 3:40 PM EDT

On the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, evidence of the spill's ongoing impacts on Gulf people and ecosystems continues to mount. As if eyeless shrimp, toxic beaches, and dead dolphins weren't bad enough, a new study suggests that Gulf oysters are also in trouble.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences says that oysters in the Gulf contain higher concentrations of the heavy metals found in crude oil now than they did before the spill. Using a method known—awesomely—as "laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry," the scientists vaporized oyster shells and ionized them, separating out different elements according to their mass and making it possible scientists to identify them.* They measured higher concentrations of vanadium, cobalt, and chromium—three heavy metals present in oil—in the oysters sampled after the spill. Even more worrisome, the team found that 89 percent of post-spill specimens displayed the signs of metaplasia, a condition in which tissues are transformed in response to stress. Oysters suffering from the condition often have trouble reproducing, which could have worrisome implications for oyster populations and the species further up the food chain that depend on them.

Scientists don't yet know how trace metals like those found in the oysters move through food chains, or what effects they could have on high-level consumers, including people. This study is just the start of a broader effort to understand the impacts of heavy metals on Gulf ecosystems: the team is planning to conduct a similar analysis of mussels, and hopes to model the potential impacts of the spill on the Gulf food web. For now, though, the study provides more evidence that the oil spill's effects are still being felt, and are likely to continue long into the future. The findings are particularly troubling in light of past studies indicating that the combination of heavy metal pollution and warmer temperatures is especially deadly for oysters—a fact that doesn't bode well in an age of warming seas.

It's yet another piece of bad news for Louisiana's oystermen, who are still struggling to recover from the double whammy of Katrina and the BP spill, and faced with consumers afraid to eat the oysters they do manage to harvest. For many, particularly in the African-American, Cajun, and Croatian communities, oyster fishing is a tradition stretching back generations; for them, the long-term effects of the spill threaten to put an end to a way of life with a proud heritage. It's also bad news for the state's economy, which reaped around $300 million from oyster sales in good years before the spill. And of course, it's bad news for lovers of the region's iconic sandwich, the oyster po'boy.

One bright spot amidst the often-bleak Gulf Coast news comes in the form of the RESTORE Act, which has been slowly winding its way through Congress over the past year. If enacted, it would deliver much-needed funds—80 percent of BP's Clean Water Act fines—to coastal communities and coastal restoration projects; fingers crossed that the bad news about ongoing ecosystem and social impacts will have a silver lining in the form of greater impetus for the act's passage.

 

Correction: The original version of this article stated that the elements were identified according to the light that they radiated rather than their mass. Thanks to a commenter who pointed out the error, it has been corrected.

 

Americans on Environment News: We Want More!

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 2:15 PM EDT

It may not come as much of a surprise that news on the environment drags far behind in popularity compared with, say, news on whether or not Lindsay Lohan wears a bra, but apparently Americans are beginning to realize there's a problem. According to results from a nationwide poll released Thursday, roughly 79 percent of Americans believe environmental news needs a drastic overhaul—both in terms of how much it's being covered and what's making up the conversation.

Vietnam Dispatch: The Salt Problem

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 12:20 PM EDT

Kate Sheppard is reporting this week from Vietnam, where she's learning how the country is already adapting to climate change. To read her first dispatch—from a farm where one family is planting a new type of watermelons designed to withstand weird weather caused by global warming, click here.

The disappearing coastline is one of the most oft-cited concerns about climate change, as rising sea levels gradually chip away at the edge of our terrestrial domain. In Vietnam, that's certainly a concern, with 2,025 miles of exposed coastline. But more immediately, the rising seas are pushing salty water into freshwater sources like the mighty Mekong River.

The delta is the region of southern Vietnam were the branches of the river reach the sea. Known here as the "Nine Dragons" of the Mekong, the tributaries pass through fertile farmland before emptying into the sea. Salinity intrusion has long been a problem, but as the sea level rises, the salty waters of the South China Sea are traveling farther up the long fingers of the Mekong. The salt poses an immediate threat to much of the agriculture here: rice, coconuts, and other crops. It's also making it harder for people who live here to access freshwater for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

This is a particular challenge in Vietnam's Ben Tre province, whose land lies between four of the Mekong's dragons. I visited Ben Tre, a sleepy coastal province about two hours from Ho Chi Minh City, as part of a field trip for the Community-Based Adaptation Conference taking place in Vietnam this week. Ben Tre is the most affected of the country's provinces in terms of sea level rise, with 50 percent of its land area expected to be submerged by 2100 with one meter of sea level rise (which is within the range of what scientists predict will occur). But saltwater intrusion is already a major problem, and local officials say that the brackish water is creeping as much as five kilometers farther up the river each year. (It's also exacerbated by decreased flow down the Mekong from big dams upstream, and by more severe dry seasons that mean less fresh water flowing through.)

It's not just in Ben Tre. Here's the projection for salinity intrusion throughout the Mekong Delta from climate researchers at Can Tho University's DRAGON Institute:

DRAGON Institute/World BankDRAGON Institute/World Bank

Home to 1.3 million people, Ben Tre has nearly tripled its GDP in recent decades by increasing agricultural and shrimp exports, and boasts that it's the "coconut capitol" of Vietnam. But access to freshwater is crucial to continued development here, and getting that water is getting really difficult.

This is one reason the Vietnamese government has made Ben Tre a pilot site for a National Target Program to Respond to Climate Change. The first projects have included building a dam and a sluice gate to protect freshwater in the region. Earlier this week, I went out to see the earthen dam in the Thanh Tri commune that now closes off a branch of the river so that salt water can't enter. To get out to this part of the country, we crossed over five smaller fingers off the river, rumbling over five tiny one-lane bridges.

The dam was started in 2010 and completed a year later. Now, on one side shrimpers and farmers load up large boats with goods for transport. On the other, coconut trees grow along the freshwater. Atop the dam, a few locals are repairing small wooden boats used to navigate the tributaries and channels. The province also built a large sluice gate on another branch of the Mekong to prevent saline intrusion back in 2002.

The newest dam might seem underwhelming; after all, who hasn't seen a dam before, and this one is really just a pile of dirt. But they're significant for several reasons. For one, it's expensive to build a dam. This project was paid for with part of a $25 million grant from the Danish government, which is also providing technical support for the province. And for two, it's kind of a big deal to dam off open access to a waterway—a permanent testament to the fact that the Vietnamese government doesn't think this problem is getting any better any time soon.

 

A pile of coconuts beside the new dam.: Kate SheppardA pile of coconuts beside the new dam Kate Sheppard

5 Pieces of Good News From Planet Earth

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Credit: NASA.Credit: NASA.

Most news from nature is depressing—species extinctions, changing climate, dying oceans. Yet it's not all bad... though we might never know it, since positive news is underreported. 

I wrote about this tendency in my latest MoJo print piece about my old friend Enriqueta Velarde and her work to save an island and a whole ecosystem called Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save a Species?

That article grew from a call-to-arms in a science paper in TREE last year: Conservation science must engender hope to succeed. The authors persuasively argued that by not reporting good conservation news, both the media and science journals facilitate a climate of despair and pessimism and create a self-defeating positive feedback loop. They suggested we work harder to broadcast successes stories and the people behind them. 

So what works and where? Here are a few stories that caught my eye recently.

Credit: Scott Schliebe via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Scott Schliebe via Wikimedia Commons.

1) Huge Drop in PCB Levels in Norwegian Polar Bears 

Nothing we hear about polar bears these days is good. Except this. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have found that levels of toxic PCBs and related contaminants in bears from the island of Svalbard have dropped by as much as 59 percent in cubs, and by as much as 55 percent in their mothers, between 1998 and 2008. Biologist Jenny Bytingsvik says the sharp downward trend is a sign that international agreements to ban PCBs are working.

 

Credit: Amur Leopard via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Amur Leopard via Wikimedia Commons.

2) Amur Cats Get Their Own National Park 

Extremely rare Amur leopards (wild population: 30) have won a long-fought battle to establish a safer home for them with the establishment of the 650,000-acre (262,000-hectare) Land of the Leopard National Park in Russia's Far East. The park is also home to 10 rare Amur tigers. Since some cats cross the border into China, the World Wildlife Fund hopes to establish a cross-border reserve to allow the leopards to expand their habitat and hop the border at will. China already has two wildlife reserves on its side.

 

Credit: Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons.

3)  Half Billion Dollars Funds Most Ambitious Conservation Programs Ever

The Global Environment Facility based in Washington DC, which administers huge honking trust funds for conservation, allocated $516.4 million to 40 individual projects and nine larger program last November—its most ambitious round of funding ever. Included: a proposal to protect at least 5 percent of Brazil's ocean territory through marine protected areas; and a project to investigate the potential of creating 'blue forest' preserves in the ocean to facilitate the storage of carbon over time by mangrove and coral ecosystems. 


Credit: Oregon State University via Flickr.Credit: Oregon State University via Flickr.

4) Right Whales Return to New Zealand

Southern right whales have been extinct from ancestral calving grounds off New Zealand for more than a century. So presumably no living whales remembered how to get to New Zealand from their sub-Antarctic feeding grounds. Yet some whales are finding their way home again. And recently published research by a team from the US, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia suggests they're a genetically distinct group—the likely descendants of whales that once lived off New Zealand. Prior to whaling, 30,000 whales bred in the sandy bays of Kiwi Land. A few dozen have returned since 2005, hopefully the pioneers of a new wave.

 

 Credit: Tamar Assaf via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Tamar Assaf via Wikimedia Commons.

5) Arabian Oryx Returns from Extinction

This beautiful antelope was believed to be extinct in the wild since ~1973 when the last individual was shot in Oman. Captive breeding efforts went into cooperative overdrive with a program called Operation Oryx, a collaboration between the Phoenix Zoo, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wildlife Fund. Today after successful reintroductions and a lot of hard work from antelope moms, ~1,000 individuals are again living in the wild, with ~6,00-7,000 in captive herds. The species has ratcheted up three levels on the Red List: from "Extinct in the Wild" to "Critically Endangered" to "Endangered" now to "Vulnerable." Only two more stops before "Least Concern."

Bonus: Did you know that earth's protected areas cover 8 million square miles of land and sea—more than twice the size of Canada? We've sure come a long way since 1872. Charts and maps here.

There Are More Protected Places on Earth Now Than Ever Before

| Thu Apr. 19, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Credit: Tiago Fioreze via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Tiago Fioreze via Wikimedia Commons.

 

In case it sometimes feels like we've never done anything good for the wild parts of our planet, take a look at these stats from the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA).

My piece, "Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save a Species?" is about one conservation success story: Mexican biologist Enriqueta Velarde, who has singlehandedly brought two bird species back from the brink of extinction on an Island off the coast of Mexico. Happily, Velarde's story is part of a larger trend. Since 1872 we've take a once radical idea—preserving nature—and scaled it up globally with amazing speed.

 

Credit: World Database on Protected AreasCredit: World Database on Protected Areas

 

According to the WDPA: 

  • As of 2008 there are >120,000 protected areas covering a total of about 8 million square miles (~21 million square kilometers) of land and sea
  • That's an area more than twice the size of Canada
  • Terrestrial protected areas cover 12.2 percent of the Earth's land area
  • Marine protected areas cover 5.9% of Earth's territorial seas and 0.5% of extraterritorial seas 
     

 

Credit: World Database on Protected AreasCredit: World Database on Protected Areas

 

There's still much variation from nation to nation:

  • Only 45 percent of 236 assessed countries and territories have >10 percent of their terrestrial areas protected
  • Only 14 percent of 236 assessed nations have >10 percent of their marine areas protected 

And there's still a long way to go to meet targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity:

  • By 2009 only half the world's 821 ecoregions were >10 percent protected
  • Less than 20 percent of the world's 232 marine ecoregions were >10 percent protected
  • While nearly 10 recent of land ecoregions had <1 percent protected
  • And more than 50 percent of marine ecoregions had <1 percent protected

Yet the trend remains positive. Ecoregions deemed most important for preserving biodiversity increased in total protection from 19-25 percent in 1990 to 26-35 percent in 2007. 

 

 Credit: World Bank, Development Education Program

Credit: World Bank, Development Education ProgramAnd when you set this exponential trend towards protection against the exponential growth in our population since the Industrial Age—with all its exponentially increasing pressures to exploit not protect—then this revolutionary advance in human thinking becomes all the more impressive.

Each one of these hard-won protections for the natural world sustains us more than it costs us.

Credit: ProtectedPlanet.net/World Database on Protected AreasCredit: ProtectedPlanet.net/World Database on Protected Areas

The World Database of Protected Areas has created an interactive website where you can see what's protected where. 

And check out their ProtectedPlanetOcean to interact with the marine waters granted some measure of preservation.

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Will Obama's New Rules Make Fracking Better for the Planet?

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 5:15 PM EDT
"Green completion" equipment in the field

The Obama administration took a heavy swing in the ongoing battle over fracking today by imposing new rules that would, for the first time, restrict the release of smog-causing pollutants from natural gas wells. But the law turns a blind eye to greenhouse gases released by fracking; the EPA admits fracking accounts for 40 percent of the nation's overall methane (an even stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) emissions.

By 2015, all fracked wells will be required to implement "green completion" equipment, which catches toxic gases like benzene on its way out of the earth and into the atmosphere. But the rule does not directly limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the EPA's move to exclude greenhouse gases from the ruling was likely political: "If you're controlling toxic air pollutants, right-wing ideologues are back on their heels, but when the EPA goes after climate change, all the right-wing nuts come out of the woodwork." Still, Doniger stressed that while the rule could have gone further, the mandated equipment would indirectly take a big bite out of methane emissions.

The announcement has already excited many in the areas of Pennsylvania where fracking is a fact of daily life. "As a resident near a gas field, air pollution is way scarier than water well contamination," said Susquehanna County environmental organizer Rebecca Roter, referring to the other major concern many locals have about fracking.

Matt Walker of Pennsylvania's Clean Air Council stressed that while the rule is a boon for health concerns, further regulation was needed to curb the release of gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, that contribute to global warming. "We need to keep pushing," he said. "We hope the EPA will set standards for greenhouse gases in the future."

Gina McCarthy of the EPA said the mandate would yield a 90 percent reduction in air pollutants released as a byproduct of the fracking process at some 13,000 gas wells nationwide.

"Green completion" equipment is already mandatory in some states, and is already in place at nearly half the nation's natural gas wells, McCarthy said, but the three-year rollout period was requested by industry leaders to allow all well operators time to purchase, install, and train employees on it.

Charts: Dirty Energy's Election Ad Spending Spree

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 12:50 PM EDT

Hey there, swing state resident: Does this ad look familiar?

The video, which got 1.3 million views in the last two weeks, is sponsored by the American Energy Alliance. AEA, as it turns out, is one of several pro-oil and gas interest groups spending oodles of cash on campaign advertisements in 2012, according to a new analysis by Think Progress. (MoJo's Alyssa Battistoni gets into the weeds with—and righteously fact-checks—these ads here.)

Taken together, the AEA (which is partially funded by the Koch brothers) and others have spent at least $16.75 million in advertisements. By contrast, the Obama campaign and his super-PAC have spent a fraction of that defending his energy policies. Here's how the money stacks up:

Mother Jones illustration.: Source: Think Progress; Kantar Media/Campaign Media Analysis GroupMother Jones illustration. Source: Think Progress; Kantar Media/Campaign Media Analysis Group

Vietnam Dispatch: Adapting to Climate Change, One Melon at a Time

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 12:20 PM EDT

The Nguyens' daughter, Oanh, shows off a melon.: Photo by Kate SheppardThe Nguyens' daughter, Oanh, shows off a melon. Photo by Kate SheppardGreetings from Vietnam! I'm here for two weeks reporting on climate change adaptation, which can mean many things around the world. In the Thua Duc commune on Vietnam's southeast coast, it's meant the introduction of new watermelons.

Nhan and Chan Nguyen grow melons, peanuts, casava, and turnips here, on a patch of land off a dirt path shooting off of a dirt road that turns off from another dirt road. In other words, they're pretty far out in the rural reaches of Vietnam. Their small, tubular green melons poke out between the vines, shining in the hot afternoon sun. Ditches of stagnant water running beside the field give off a pungent, boggy smell.

For years, the couple used local watermelon seeds. But it's become harder to make money on those plants in recent years. They were prone to disease, and didn't handle screwy rain patterns very well. It used to rain for about six months each year, but now the rains can come for up to nine months out of the year. "In the past the weather was more regular, so we could use the old seeds, no problem," said Nhan. But they realized that growing melons was just getting more difficult. "We were worried and we thought about it a lot. We thought we would have to do something different."

Through a grant from Oxfam, the Nguyens and nine other families were able to start planting a different variety of watermelon instead, a more resilient variety that wouldn't suffer as much in unfavorable weather. And they were able to buy black plastic to cover the rows of seeds after planting, which helps lock water and heat in the sandy soil to coax the vines out of the ground. The project is more about adopting better agricultural methods, something that's needed with or without climate change. But the effect Oxfam is hoping to get from the project is making farmers more resiliant to whatever nature might bring them.

The cost of the projects per family was 3.5 million Vietnamese Dong—which sounds like a lot, but is only about $175 US. But it's a significant amount of money for a farmer who, even when prices are good, can only fetch 5,000 Dong ($0.25) for a kilo of melons. When prices are bad, which they've been recently due to an early storm this year, they can only get about 2,000 Dong, or $0.10. In the first year of the program in 2009, Oxfam worked with 10 families, nine of which were able to turn a profit, ranging from 1.5 million Dong ($75) to 6.9 million ($345). The international aid group has since expanded the project to 50 local families.

The Nguyens were quite excited to show me their products, plucking several small, ripe green melons from the field. They split the sun-warmed melons into eighths, dripping sweet pink juice as they passed them to eagerly awaiting visitors.

The Nguyens' watermelon field: Kate SheppardThe Nguyens' watermelon field: Kate Sheppard

Nhan cuts up melon.: Kate SheppardNhan cuts up melon.: Kate Sheppard


Mapping Disease to Climate

| Tue Apr. 17, 2012 1:37 PM EDT

 Sea-Surface Temperate (SST) (oceans) and Normalized Dirrerence Vegetation Index (NDVI) (land) observed globally for January 2007: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

Sea Surface Temperature (SST) Anomaly color scale.Sea Surface Temperature (SST) Anomaly color scale.

Vegetation Anomaly percent color scale.Vegetation Anomaly percent color scale.

This map from the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio shows a snapshot of the relationship between environmental extremes and a deadly disease outbreak in Africa in January 2007. (Click here for larger image.) Specifically:

  1. Unusually high sea surface in the equatorial waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans (red)
  2. Which fueled persistent, heavy rains over East Africa
  3. Which caused an anomalous burst of plant growth in East Africa (magenta)
  4. Which created a perfect storm of conditions for the emergence of mosquitoes that spread Rift Valley fever

Rift Valley Fever is passed by mosquitoes from viral reservoirs in bats to livestock and people. The 2006-2007 Rift Valley Fever outbreak spread through Kenya and Somalia, killing 148 people and infecting many more, causing costly closures of livestock markets and costing the Kenyan government $2.5 million for vaccine deployment.

Click for larger image: NOAA/NCDCClick for larger image: NOAA/NCDC 

The cascade of factors that ended in the death of many emerged from the record-breaking climate extremes of 2007. The map above from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center shows a few of them. Click it for a larger image.