Blue Marble - May 2012

Why Is the Government Killing Bald Eagles?

| Fri May 11, 2012 4:00 AM EDT

It's a sad fact of life in wildlife management: Every now and then, wild animals have to be killed for the sake of ecological or agricultural protection. "Culling," as it's known, is often a last resort and is usually carried out with a grim sense of necessary duty. After all, most wildlife professionals aren't big on the idea of killing wildlife. 

Right?

An unsettling new investigation by the Sacramento Bee found that the federal Wildlife Services agency, an obscure bureau within the USDA tasked with "resolving wildlife conflicts," has in the last decade accidentally killed over 50,000 animals that posed no threat to people or the environment (in addition to nearly a million coyotes killed intentionally). The execution roster would make John Muir roll over in his grave: wolverines, river otters, migratory shorebirds, bald and golden eagles, and more than a thousand dogs (averaging eight a month!), including family pets. According to the Bee:

In most cases, [employees of the agency] have officially revealed little or no detail about where the creatures were killed, or why. But a Bee investigation has found the agency's practices to be indiscriminate, at odds with science, inhumane and sometimes illegal…because lethal control stirs strong emotions, Wildlife Services prefers to operate in the shadows.

"We pride ourselves on our ability to go in and get the job done quietly without many people knowing about it," said Dennis Orthmeyer, acting state director of Wildlife Services in California.

Officially, Wildlife Services exists to take care of things like aggressive bears, coyotes that eat a rancher's sheep, geese that won't get off the tarmac, etc. But the Bee reports that the methods the agency uses, like traps with spring-loaded poison cartridges, leave a grisly wake of bycatch, sometimes of federally protected species, that has been deliberately hushed up by top officials. Even people are at risk: 18 employees and "several members of the public" have been exposed to cyanide from the traps.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

New Bill Would Cut $113 Billion in Fossil Fuel Subsidies

| Fri May 11, 2012 3:30 AM EDT
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) at a 350.org rally.

A new bill introduced yesterday could put a near end to fossil fuel subsidies. The "End Polluter Welfare Act," introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), would eliminate a long list ($113 billion's worth) of tax break provisions aimed at oil, gas, and coal companies in the 2013 federal budget. Environmental groups such as 350.org and Friends of the Earth praise the bill as the most daring and comprehensive proposal to cut subsidies yet.

"This is a true stab at ending fossil fuel subsidies in full," Treehugger's Brian Merchant writes.

If passed, the bill would:

  • stop oil and gas companies from claiming that as "manufacturers" they are entitled to tax credits, about $12 billion in subsidies
  • eliminate a provision that allows oil and gas companies to use losses from fossil fuel investments to "shelter other income", $82 million in subsidies
  • remove the cap for oil spill liability (at $75 million) and pipeline clean-up (at $350 million) for tar sands
  • remove tax credits provided for the construction of advanced coal plants, $2 billion in subsidies

Past experience doesn't bode well for the likelihood that the bill would pass. As Merchant notes, a similar bill targeting big oil companies by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in March failed to pass through the Senate with the 60 votes required to avert a fillibuster.

Michael Briggs, a Sanders spokesperson, says they've got a plan. Their first goal is to mobilize popular support around the bill. "It's important to let the public know about all of the egregious subsidies that exist in order to build support for ending them," Briggs wrote in an email to Mother Jones. As of late yesterday, 904 people had signed onto a petition supporting the bill, he  says. Next they'll look for cosponsors in Congress.

Big Tobacco and Big Chemical Partner to Put Toxic Chemicals in Your Home

| Fri May 11, 2012 3:15 AM EDT

Flame retardants—chemicals added to a variety of consumer products that are meant to make them less flammable—have been linked to all kinds of health problems, including cancers, reproductive problems, and hormone disruption. But these phthalates and other problem chemicals are still still found in abundance in our homes, even in car seats and other products made for babies. So why are more of these chemicals being dumped into products than ever before?

The Chicago Tribune has an absolutely fantastic investigative series out this week looking at the abundance of these chemicals in our homes, the deceptive campaign waged to get them there, the bad science that is used to sustain the industry, and the lack of regulation at the federal level.

As the story notes, the use of flame-retardant chemicals has increased from 526 million pounds per year in 1983 in to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009. That figure is expected to grow to 4.4 billion pounds by 2014. They rose to prominence, as the series documents, with the help of Big Tobacco, which saw using the chemicals as preferable to designing cigarettes that wouldn't set the couch on fire if the smoker fell asleep. The industry has managed to maintain its hold by playing on people's fear of fire, making dubious claims of safety, and astro-turfing support.

They're all over most homes—in the insulation, carpet padding, televisions, and couches. Health and environmental groups have long raised concerns about their abundance and impacts. But firefighters aren't big fans of them, either, as studies have found that the chemicals aren't effective at preventing fires and actually make the smoke from fires more toxic.

It's a four-part series, but there are also numerous graphics, videos, and sidebars to check out. Seriously, just go read it.

Saving a Frog That Can Kill 10 People in Minutes Flat

| Thu May 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Wikimedia CommonsWikimedia Commons

I get a lot of press releases about cute, cuddly, endangered critters. They're not often about ugly or slimy species. But yesterday, I got one from several conservation groups touting efforts in Colombia to protect one of world's deadliest animals: the golden poison frog.

The tiny frog weighs less than one ounce, but is possibly the most dangerous animal in the world. How dangerous? Well, as the press release explains:

Its poison is so toxic that even coming in contact with a paper towel that has touched the frog has been fatal to animals. Although they are only two inches long, it is estimated that each golden poison frog has enough toxin to kill ten adult people within minutes.
[…] This frog is named because of its bright orange skin that is covered by a secretion of deadly alkaloid poison (batrachotoxins). The toxin prevents nerves from transmitting impulses, leaving muscles in a constant state of contraction – leading to heart failure. Death comes within minutes.

Yeah, not exactly the kind of animal you want to go out and hug. The frog has just one natural predator, a snake that evolved to withstand its poison. The biggest threat to the frog is the loss of habitat, which has been destroyed by both illegal gold mining and logging in Colombia.

But now the Colombian conservation group Fundación ProAves has partnered with the World Land Trust, American Bird Conservancy, and Global Wildlife Conservation to buy 124 acres in the Chocó forest along the country's western coast to create the Rana Terribilis Amphibian Reserve. It is the first designated conservation area for the frogs, which are considered endangered internationally.

It strikes me that the golden poison frog represents a real test of our willingness to save endangered species. It's not cute, in my humble opinion. It's not endearing. It could kill you—and nine of your friends.

Feds May Outlaw Treading On Tea Party's Favorite Snake

| Thu May 10, 2012 3:01 AM EDT

In what might be one of the tea party's greatest unintended victories, treading on the snake depicted on the protest movement's ubiquitous "Don't Tread On Me" flags could soon become illegal.

The iconic yellow flag, originally designed by the American revolutionary Christopher Gadsden circa 1775, features a drawing of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which was once plentiful in longleaf pine forests across the Southeast. But while the Gadsden flag has proliferated as a symbol of fierce resistance to "Big Government," the eastern diamondback has gotten clubbed, shot, and bulldozed by the private sector to the point that on Wednesday the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it's considering protecting the snake under the Endangered Species Act.

Tea partiers aren't happy about efforts to save their symbol. "They're up to their kneecaps with rattlesnakes in Texas!" says Alan Caruba, a blogger for Tea Party Nation, who added that it wouldn't really bother him if they weren't. "The bottom line is that species go extinct. They always have and they always will." (Told of the plight of the tea party's snake, a spokesman for the Koch-funded conservative group Americans for Prosperity muffled a laugh, then promised to email a statement but never did).

Though environmental groups haven't exactly started waving Gadsden flags, they do see the the diamondback as a symbol worth appropriating. A press release from the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the federal government to protect the diamondback, argues that its decline is symptomatic of the unsustainable development of longleaf pine forest throughout the Southeast. The snake now occupies only about 3 percent of its original range.

Of course, those kinds of facts aren't about to win over Tea Party Nation's Caruba, who, like many tea partiers, sees the Endangered Species Act as just another part of the nefarious "Agenda 21," a supposed plot by the United Nations to convert Earth into a giant biosphere reserve. "The very thought that the diamondback rattlesnake is endangered is absurd," he says. "There are a lot of mice and voles, so you know, we are not going to run out of rattlesnakes either."

Arctic Ocean is a Potent Methane Source Too

| Wed May 9, 2012 4:19 PM EDT

Arctic sea ice: NOAA

Arctic sea ice: NOAA 

We've known for a while that a melting Arctic is likely to be a big methane producer, and that methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Until recently we thought the primary sources of Arctic methane were from:

  1. Melting tundra
  2. Melting marine sediments (like gas hydrates)

Now a new paper in Nature Geoscience reports the Arctic Ocean is itself a source of atmospheric methane. Here's how this scientific riddle got cracked. From NASA's Earth Observatory:

During five research flights in 2009–10, [researchers] measured increased methane levels while flying at low altitudes north of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas... The methane level detected during the flights was about one-half percent higher than normal background levels.
But where was the methane coming from? The team detected no carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, which would have been a signature of methane coming from the human combustion of fuels. And based on the time of year, the location, and the nature of the emissions, it was unlikely that the methane was coming from high-latitude wetlands or geologic reservoirs.

 Thawing on East Siberian Arctic Shelf: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

Thawing on East Siberian Arctic Shelf: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation 

The researchers eventually pinpointed the source: the Arctic Ocean. But not just any part of the Arctic Ocean. From the paper:

"While the methane levels we detected weren't particularly large," says lead author Eric Kort, "the potential source region, the Arctic Ocean, is vast. So our finding could represent a noticeable new global source of methane."

We further show that high methane concentrations are restricted to areas over open leads and regions with fractional sea-ice cover. Based on the observed gradients in methane concentration, we estimate that sea–air fluxes amount to around 2 mg d−1 m−2, comparable to emissions seen on the Siberian shelf. We suggest that the surface waters of the Arctic Ocean represent a potentially important source of methane, which could prove sensitive to changes in sea-ice cover.

To put that into perspective, the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is leaking an amount of methane comparable to all the methane from the rest of the world's oceans put together. In the schematic above, you can how its permafrost is highly porous, allowing methane stored under to burst through cracks into the atmosphere. 

According to the new research, now we're talking about a rapidly de-icing Arctic, with methane bursting through its ice cracks, capable of contributing hella big methane to the atmosphere. Talk about a tipping point.

No one's yet sure how the methane is produced, but lead author Eric Kort suspects biological productivity in Arctic surface waters may be the culprit. "It's possible that as large areas of sea ice melt and expose more ocean water," he says, "methane production may increase, leading to larger methane emissions."

 

 

The video condenses the rapid changes underway in the Arctic into two minutes (though prior to the new evidence on methane production from the Arctic Ocean).

The paper: 

  • E. A. Kort, et al. Atmospheric observations of Arctic Ocean methane emissions up to 82° north. Nature Geoscience. DOI:10.1038/ngeo1452 

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Small Islands Team Up on Energy

| Wed May 9, 2012 3:10 PM EDT

Small island nations are often painted as the victims when it comes to climate change, and for good reason. They're the most vulnerable to sea level rise, and many have few options when it comes to internally relocating coastal residents. But, determined to play a role in deciding their fate, a group of small island countries have banded together to make their own energy use sustainable.

On Tuesday, 20 small island nations signed the Barbados Declaration, which affirms their commitment to "providing all households with access to modern and affordable renewable energy services, while eradicating poverty, safeguarding the environment and providing new opportunities for sustainable development and economic growth."

It also affirmed the individual commitments those countries have made. Barbados, for example, has committed to cutting its carbon dioxide emissions 4.5 million tons by 2029. It plans to do so by drawing 29 percent of its energy from renewables and cutting energy use by 22 percent through efficiency measures. Prime Minister Freundel Stuart of Barbados said in a statement that the country believes the effort will also save them $283.5 million in energy costs.

Other island countries also made big commitments. The Maldives reaffirmed its plan to make the energy sector carbon neutral by 2020, which we've reported on before. Mauritius plans to to increase its share of renewable energy to at least 35 percent by 2025. And Seychelles plans to produce 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030.

Moving to renewables is a priority for small island states, not just because of the climate consequences, but also because their dependence on a fossil fuels is particularly burdensome. Nearly everything runs off imported oil, and have to have all their goods shipped in on giant, oil-guzzling tankers. As a result, they're more vulnerable to price swings than the rest of us.

Sneezy in the City

| Wed May 9, 2012 11:59 AM EDT

Are you an urban-dweller who suffers from allergies? Maybe you need more bacteria in your life, according to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to the "biodiversity hypothesis," reduced contact of people with natural environmental features and biodiversity may adversely affect the human commensal microbiota and its immunomodulatory capacity.

Ilkka Hanski, the report's coauthor, explained that in slightly less scientific-y terms to BBC News (via Treehugger):

There are microbes everywhere, including in the built environment, but the composition is different between natural environments and human-built areas. The microbiota in natural environments is more beneficial for us. They are important for...the normal development of the immune system.

The National Library of Medicine says that allergies are an "exaggerated immune response or reaction to substances that are generally not harmful." In other words, your body flips out over pollen, even though it has no real reason to do that, mostly because it's bored. And exposure to a diverse range of bacteria helps build up your immune system, training it to respond to things it really needs to deal with.

Anecdotally, this has been true for me. I grew up on a farm, playing in mud puddles, eating lettuce straight out of the field, swimming in ponds. I had no idea what allergies were. But shortly after moving to DC, which is among the worst cities for allergies, I was besieged by horrible sniffles, sneezes, runny eyes, and constant itchiness. And I've met a fair number of other urban-newcomers who suffered the same fate. So maybe we all just need to get out—outside, in real nature—more often.

A Better Tsunami Warning System?

| Tue May 8, 2012 5:40 PM EDT

 Research vessel Kilo Moana: NOAA

Research vessel Kilo Moana: NOAA

A new paper in Geophysical Research Letters outlines a better and cheaper way to detect and track tsunamis based on equipping ships in the commercial fleet with real-time-streamed GPS (Global Positioning System). 

Current tsunami detection systems primarily consist of seismic stations and tide-gauges on land, the DART buoy sea-floor pressure sensor system in the deep ocean (now only partially deployed globally and frequently inoperative), and real-time, land-based GPS networks. But what's needed to really save lives is GPS deployed on deep ocean platforms. The authors write:

A... broadly applicable deep-water GPS-buoy system... like the existing DART network, would be extremely costly to build and maintain, limiting the number of units that could be deployed, and thus requiring careful site selection based on our best estimate of the hazard... We suggest that the commercial shipping fleet, in contrast, represents a vast existing infrastructure with excellent spatial coverage across most of the globe that could be exploited to construct an extremely cost-effective tsunami detection network in the deep oceans.

 

Position of R/V Kilo Moana during 2010 Chile tsunami: James H. Foster, et al. GRL. 2012. DOI:10.1029/2012GL051367Position of R/V Kilo Moana during 2010 Chile tsunami: James H. Foster, et al. GRL. 2012. DOI:10.1029/2012GL051367

The authors got a chance to test the feasability of this approach when the M8.8 earthquake struck Chile in February 2010. At the time the University of Hawaii research vessel Kilo Moana (photo above) was underway on a passage from Hawaii to Guam (map above), cruising at 11 knots of speed and logging data from its dual onboard GPS. These recorded a modest ~ 4-inch-high wave (~10 centimeters)—the first ever shipboard detection of a tsunami. 

As for how to scale up from one ship to a network of tsunami-sensing ships, the authors suggest a template already exists in the Voluntary Observing Ship (VOS) Scheme, which trains merchant sailors to take weather observations at sea. The authors write:

It is estimated that 11% of the commercial fleet is contributing to the VOS scheme... VOS reports indicate that the north Pacific shipping lanes between Asia and N. America have, on average, more than 350 VOS ships crossing the dateline on any given day. Assuming an average transit of ten days, if each of the currently cooperating ships could be upgraded to provide GPS data streams we could expect at least 3,500 new tsunami sensing systems just in the N. Pacific.

 

 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Tahiland: David Rydevik via Wikimedia Commons

2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand: David Rydevik via Wikimedia Commons

The authors also calculate that a ship-based detection system would have detected in less than an hour the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which, undetected, killed upwards of 230,000 people in 14 countries.

The paper:

  • Foster, J. H., B. A. Brooks, D. Wang, G. S. Carter, and M. A. Merrifield (2012), Improving tsunami warning using commercial ships, Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, L09603, doi:10.1029/2012GL051367.

 

Money Can't Buy Love, But It Can Buy Nice Satellites

| Tue May 8, 2012 1:32 PM EDT

Human understanding of the orb we call home has improved vastly in the past decades. But our ongoing effort to improve on that knowledge is at serious risk, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

Budget shortages, rising costs, and failed missions have left our earth observation systems "in a more precarious position than they were five years ago," according to the report: 

"The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards," said Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Our ability to measure and understand changes in Earth's climate and life support systems will also degrade."

Andrew Freedman of Climate Central also spoke to Hartmann, who offered more grim predictions:

During just the next eight years, U.S. Earth observation capabilities are likely to decline to roughly 25 percent of current levels, Hartmann said.
“We need those observations from space more than we ever have before, and just when we’re going to need them the most they’re not going to be there,” he said.

This comes as we face melting glaciers, more extreme weather events, and changes in rainfall patterns. There's never been a time when we needed information about Earth more desperately.