Blue Marble - February 2014

Watch: Dancers Defy Beijing's "Nuclear Winter" Smog

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 9:06 AM PST

Face masks are selling out online as China's cities this week choked on pollution so bad one local scientist called it "somewhat similar to a nuclear winter." A local cancer prevention official said this revolting blanket of air, largely caused by a "black triangle" of coal pollution, could pose a bigger public health risk than the 2003 SARS epidemic. At rates of over 20 times what the World Health Organization says are acceptable, the air has forced Beijing to shutter city factories, and residents have taken to social media to vent their anger using a now-well-known brand of dark humor. One of the funniest tweets reported by the South China Morning Post recalls a saying by current president Xi Jinping: "Make socialist core values as pervasive as the air." Chinese netizens: "Also as toxic?"

The official local scale of "PM2.5"—those tiny, toxic particles that can prove so dangerous to health—came in at 501 micrograms per cubic meter on Wednesday. The measurements taken from the US Embassy (and popularized via its Twitter feed) were higher, at 542: "beyond index." (The US EPA says anything above 300 is hazardous). Another measure of how bad it is: Radio Free Asia reported this week that a resident of the coal-burning city of Shijiazhuang, in a rare act of defiance, is suing the local government for failing to act over the deadly smog.

Comparing the frigid weather hampering the US to Beijing's endemic smog, Paul Flynn, tech director at PR firm Edelman in Beijing (and a friend), texted me: "After a week of Beijing pollution levels over 500, give me a clear arctic breeze any day." But if fleeing is not an option, why not dance? I loved watching this homage to Pharrell's infectious hit, "Happy," performed by brave locals and expats at some of Beijing's most recognizable tourist locations. The video, by filmmakers Stephy Chung, Em Jaay, and Sarah E Weber, hit the web this week, and has been already featured on a bunch of very cool China blogs that you should definitely keep tabs on. Enjoy!

H/t to Paul Flynn for pointing the video out.

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Sorry, California. A Little Rain Isn't Going to Save You.

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 3:51 PM PST
comparison of California drought maps

California, supplier of nearly half of the fruits, veggies, and nuts produced in the United States, is on track to experience its driest year in modern history. And though the state was lucky to have some rain this week, even a torrential storm would not be enough to fill its aquifers, replenish its soil, and save many of its crops.

We've been tracking the drought through the US Drought Monitor, which uses satellite imagery, water flow, and precipitation data to create weekly drought maps. (Data is collected on Tuesdays, and released the following Thursday.) As of this week, 21 of the state's 58 counties are experiencing "exceptional drought"—including those Central Valley areas where so many of the state's crops grow. Above, check out the maps we've compiled from the past few weeks, starting with the one that prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to announce a state of emergency on January 17.

State Dept. Investigators: No Conflict of Interest in Keystone XL Review

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 10:23 AM PST
Construction workers piece together the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt another blow Wednesday evening with the release of a long-awaited report from the State Department's internal oversight office on a potential conflict of interest in the Department's environmental review of the project. The report found that even though employees of the contractor hired to carry out the review had previously consulted for the company pushing the pipeline, the information they provided to the Department was "not misleading."

Moreover, the report found that State Department officials had followed protocol for objectively selecting a contractor, even taking steps that are above and beyond what is officially called for. For example, a six-person panel conducted in-person interviews with each contractor applying for the job.

Last night's report, issued by the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG), comes on the heels of the environmental review in question, which found that oil in the Canadian tar sands region would likely be exploited with or without Keystone XL. That was unwelcome news for the project's opponents, since President Obama, in his major climate change speech last summer, said his administration would approve the pipeline only if it wouldn't lead to a significant increase in carbon emissions. If rail, trucks, and other pipelines could transport the oil anyway, it's more likely the Obama administration will give a green light to the project. Last week, the editor of the prestigious journal Science (who previously served as the head of the US Geological Survey under Obama) made that argument in a surprise endorsement of the pipeline. A final decision could come this spring, but that is far from guaranteed.

The conflict-of-interest controversy dates back to November 2011, when the OIG began to investigate claims that TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, had improperly influenced the selection of a contractor to write an early environmental impact statement. No impropriety was found, but OIG made recommendations to improve the selection process. The next year, for a second environmental review called for by the president, State hired a new contractor: Environmental Resources Management. ERM's review was released in March 2013, and it was roundly criticized for being soft on the pipeline's potential harms, particularly downplaying the climate impact. Another major problem, as Mother Jones first reported, was that the publicly released biographies of the statement's authors, who were employees of ERM, had been redacted, concealing extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, including work directly with TransCanada. Another OIG investigation was opened up, leading to the report released yesterday.

From the report:

Marcellus Energy Development Could Pave Over an Area Bigger Than the State of Delaware

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 1:49 PM PST

This story originally appeared on the Huffington Post website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Development of natural gas and wind resources in the Marcellus shale region could cover up nearly 1.3 million acres of land, an area bigger than the state of Delaware, with cement, asphalt and other impervious surfaces, according to a paper published this month in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The study, conducted by two scientists from the conservation organization The Nature Conservancy, predicts that 106,004 new gas wells will be drilled in the Marcellus region, based on current trends in natural gas development. The region includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia.

Believe It or Not, January Was Full of Big, Warm Climate Anomalies

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 4:00 AM PST

This story first appeared on the Atlantic Cities website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Much of America is about to be overrun by another miserable cold-dozer next week, but on the planetary scale, things have actually been warm. January's temperatures were the hottest for the month since 2007 and, with a combined global average of 54.8 degrees, this was the fourth warmest January since records began in 1880.

That's the word from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, which recently released an updated "State of the Climate" that includes the above map of temperature anomalies. Note cooler-than-normal patches in the eastern US, central Canada, Scandinavia, and a big hunk of Russia, which had country-scale temperatures 9 degrees below average. But the big story was heat, heat, heat, as NCDC explains:

During January 2014, most of the world's land areas experienced warmer-than-average temperatures, with the most notable departures from the 1981–2010 average across Alaska, western Canada, Greenland, Mongolia, southern Russia, and northern China, where the departure from average was +3°C (+5.4°F) or greater. Meanwhile, parts of southeastern Brazil and central and southern Africa experienced record warmth with temperature departures between 0.5°C to 1.5°C above the 1981–2010 average, contributing to the highest January Southern Hemisphere land temperature departure on record at 1.13°C (2.03°F) above the 20th century average. This was also the warmest month for the Southern Hemisphere land since September 2013 when temperatures were 1.23°C (2.21°F) above the 20th century average.

Some other outliers: France tied its warmest January on record with 1988 and 1936; China logged its second-warmest January since it started collecting records in 1961; and in Spain, it was the third-hottest month since 1996.

The climatologists also highlighted a few "significant climate anomalies and events" for January and pinned them to this map. Parts of the US had a severe lack of rainfall, the UK squelched through its third-wettest January on the books, and the Arctic sea ice continues to pull a disappearing act:

Western Australia doubled its usual precipitation and the extent of the Antarctic sea ice got huge in a season when it historically shrinks. Why's that last thing worrisome? "We suspect that the increasing presence of icebergs broken off from ice shelves and glaciers within the Antarctic sea ice pack is a major contributor to a temporary but increasing trend in the Antarctic sea ice extent," explains NOAA. "Since the rapid disappearance of the Antarctic ice shelves and glaciers itself is seen as a response to global warming, the slight increase in sea ice extent that we are observing can be paradoxically linked to the same warming trend."

To zoom in on the climate events in the US, there's this map showing California's ingrained drought, piles and piles of snow in Chicago, and the sweaty results of Alaska's recent heat wave. Overall, the country's western heat lost to the eastern frigidness—temperatures were 0.1 degrees below the 20th-century average and many states had top-10 cold Januaries, including Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, and Michigan:

Images courtesy of NCDC / NOAA

Giant Slaughterhouse Recalls Fancy Grass-Fed Beef After Processing "Diseased and Unsound Animals"

| Fri Feb. 21, 2014 4:00 AM PST

Last month, Rancho Feeding Corp., a slaughterhouse in Petaluma, California, issued a small recall notice, for beef it had processed on a particular day in 2013. That much was routine—meat processing facilities have to pull back product with some regularity when contamination is discovered. But the Rancho recall was different: Earlier this month, the company announced that it needed to recall all the beef it processed in 2013—8.7 million pounds in all, found in more than a thousand grocery stores in 30 states. The most famous of the recalled items are Nestlé Hot Pockets, but the plant produced a lot of other beef products for wholesale, including cheeks, lips, liver, oxtail, and other parts. So have you eaten any of that beef? Here's some background:

What is Rancho Feeding Corp.? Before it ceased operations last week, Rancho Feeding Corp. was the only USDA-approved slaughterhouse within about a three-hour radius of Petaluma. According to Stephanie Larson, the livestock and range adviser at the University of California's Cooperative Extension system, about 25 percent of Rancho's customers were "niche market" operations—many of which raised grass-fed and organic beef. The other 75 percent of the company's business was meat destined for burgers, tacos, chili, and other processed foods for supermarkets and restaurants. Many of Rancho's clients were dairies seeking to slaughter cows that were no longer giving milk.

Just how much meat is 8.7 million pounds? A few years back, my colleague Tom Philpott calculated that Cargill's 36 million pounds of recalled ground turkey was enough to make burgers for the residents of the world's six most populous cities. By the same logic, the 8.7 million pounds of Rancho recalled beef could make burgers for every resident of New York City, London, and Tokyo. As Gwynn Guilford at Quartz points out, letting that much potentially dodgy meat slip through the cracks is what happens when the government skimps on inspectors.

Why did they recall it? According to the USDA' s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Rancho issued the recall after FSIS inspectors determined that it had "processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection." It was a Class I recall, which means the FSIS considered it "a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death." Beyond the recall notice, though, FSIS has offered few details. So far, there are no reports of people getting sick after eating tainted beef processed by Rancho.

How does the recall affect ranchers? Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Marin Sun Farms, an artisanal meat producer in Point Reyes Station, California, has bought Rancho Feeding Corp. If the company reopens the facility as a USDA-approved slaughterhouse, Rancho's former clients will likely be relieved, since Rancho was the only game in town. (Consolidation of slaughterhouses is a problem for ranchers across the nation.)

Bill Niman, the founder of sustainable meat company Niman Ranch who now runs a grass-fed operation called BN Ranch, told the Village Voice that Rancho's closing would be "a great loss to the Northern California food community."

Sally Gale and her husband own Chileno Valley Ranch, a 600-acre, 100-head beef operation in Marin County that sells grass-fed beef directly to consumers. The Gales, who have owned their ranch for 15 years, used to hire a slaughterer to dispatch their steers on their property. (A few years ago, Bonne Azab Powell profiled a traveling slaughterer in Mother Jones.) But about five years ago, they received a notice saying that the practice was illegal and that they must take their animals to a USDA-certified slaughterhouse. The only one in the area was Rancho.

Because of the recall, the Gales have had to dispose of three adult steers—worth about $1,600 each—that Rancho had slaughtered. If Rancho closes, Sally Gale worries that the long drive to the next closest slaughterhouse, more than 150 miles away, will stress the animals and add an extra expense to what Gale describes as an "already marginal business." California's drought has hit ranches like hers hard, she says, and she expects that many will have to charge their customers more to make up for the losses. 

Typically, Chileno Valley Ranch sends about six cows to slaughter every week. Now, the Gales will be waiting until they have 30 ready to make the long trip worthwhile. "The government told us that we couldn't slaughter our own meat," says Gale. "And now they're telling us that we can't bring them to Rancho either."

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One Weird Trick to Curb Antibiotic Overuse

| Thu Feb. 20, 2014 4:00 AM PST

Antibiotic overprescription is a major problem. While there have been several campaigns to curb it, few have made a big impact—until now. In a new study, researchers Jason Doctor, an associate professor at the the University of Southern California's Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics and Daniella Meeker, an information scientist at the research think tank RAND Corporation, showed that they were able to reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions among study participants by 20 percent simply by posting signs.

"We were interested in some of the psychological factors that may affect what physicians are doing, and one of the big ones is this idea of a public commitment," Doctor explained. "If [physicians] make a public commitment they want to follow through with it, so that is how we came up with this poster idea."

The signs looked like they were meant for patients: Each 18-by-24-inch poster showed two letters—one in English and another in Spanish—explaining how unnecessary use of antibiotics can be harmful, causing side effects like diarrhea and yeast infections, as well as contributing to drug resistance. The most important part of the posters, however, was the signature and photo of the physicians who practiced in the offices where they were displayed. The researchers did not tell the doctors that the signs' real purpose was to remind the doctors themselves of their commitment.

"There have been studies that have posted these kinds of reminders and education," Meeker explained, "but our results have been much larger, and we attribute that to this commitment device."

Half the patients in the study saw doctors who had posted the commitment letter and the rest served as a control group. In the 12-week study period, inappropriate prescriptions—those written for conditions such as laryngitis, bronchitis, and non-strep sore throat, which don't usually respond to antibiotics—fell from 43 percent to 33.7 percent. For providers who did not post the commitment letter, the rate of inappropriate prescriptions actually rose to 53 percent. Researchers found in both cases appropriate antibiotic prescriptions were unaffected.

The study was small—it included just 14 physicians who saw close to 1,000 adult patients. But the team hopes to expand the experiment to more doctors' offices soon. Doctor and Meeker calculate that if applied throughout the US, the poster method could potentially save more than $70 million in drug costs and stop over 2 million inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions.

Watch Bill Nye Explain Climate Change to GOP Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn

| Sun Feb. 16, 2014 10:05 AM PST

Bill Nye is getting good at this.

Fresh off a mega-debate that embarrassed Young Earth creationists and led to none other than Pat Robertson denouncing their views, Nye appeared on Meet the Press today to debate Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a global warming "skeptic."

On the air, Blackburn, who is vice-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, denied that there is a scientific consensus on climate change and argued that "you don't make good laws, sustainable laws, when you're making them on hypotheses, or theories, or unproven sciences." (There is indeed such a scientific consensus; at one moment, host David Gregory had to correct Blackburn on this point.)

But Nye rebutted her with some simple science lessons that made a lot of sense—noting that going from 320 to 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, something Blackburn called "very slight," is actually a very big change in percentage terms (Nye said 30 percent; it is actually a 25 percent increase). At the same time, Nye also hammered home a compelling message centered on patriotism. "As a guy who grew up in the US," he said, "I want the US to lead the world in this....The more we mess around with this denial, the less we're going to get done."

The key gotcha moment in the debate came when Nye called out Blackburn for failing to lead on the climate issue. "You are our leader," he said to Blackburn. "We need you to change things, not deny what's happening."

"Neither he nor I are a climate scientist," Blackburn noted during the debate. But as Nye observed, only one of them is a politician, whose job is to use the best information that we have at our disposal to make the world work better.

Watch the Christian Right Argue Over Whether the Earth Is Really 6,000 Years Old

| Sat Feb. 15, 2014 4:00 AM PST

How do we know that Bill Nye won the creationism debate with Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis earlier this month? Simple: The Christian Right is now airing its grievances over the outcome publicly, with one of its top leaders saying the debate made Christians look completely out of touch.

Via Right Wing Watch, here's a video from last week of televangelist Pat Robertson blasting the idea that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old, as Young Earth creationists like Ham assert. "There 'aint no way that's possible," explains Robertson, noting that anyone working in the oil industry can see as much as they drill through layer after geological layer to extract ancient hydrocarbons. "You can't just totally deny the geological formations that are out there," Robertson continued. "Let's be real. Let's not make a joke of ourselves."

Watch Robertson's comments above.

But that's just the beginning: Ham then responded to Robertson and raised the stakes further on Facebook. "Pat Robertson is so misinformed and deceived," Ham lamented. "Sad that so many will believe him." Ham later continued:

Oh, that God would convict and open the eyes of Christian leaders and Christian college and seminary professors, so many of whom are as uninformed and deceived as Pat Robertson. God have mercy.

The truth is that Ham did make a joke of himself, actually arguing at one point that lions were vegetarians before Noah's Flood. Such are the intellectual contortions required of Young Earth creationists who seriously want to insist, against not just biological but also geological and physical evidence, on an Earth that is younger than its oldest living tree.

Robertson, meanwhile, is no paragon of rationality: This is the same guy who asserted, in response to Walt Disney World's "Gay Days," that "I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you ... It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor." And yet here, he comes off as the voice of moderation. Indeed, Robertson even seems to embrace a form of theistic or "progressive" evolution that is not necessarily incompatible with scientific understanding.

This suggests that, if nothing else, the creationism debate was highly disruptive of the evolution-creationism status quo. Just maybe, there will be enough upheaval on the Christian right to trigger a serious reconsideration of their attacks on science education across the country. (Wishful thinking, we know.)

Why It Makes Sense to Kill Baby Giraffes (Sorry, Internet)

| Fri Feb. 14, 2014 10:17 AM PST

Update,  March 25, 2014, 2:35 p.m. ET: The zoo has reportedly killed 4 lions now, too.

A second Danish zoo has announced that it might kill a male giraffe. The news comes just days after the internet exploded with outrage when Marius the 18-month old giraffe was dispatched with a bolt gun and dissected in front of an audience that included children, before being fed to the lions at the Copenhagen Zoo. In a dark twist, the next potential euthanasia candidate, at the Jyllands Park zoo, is also named Marius.

The media circus began with protestors outside the Copenhagen Zoo on Sunday and a petition signed by 27,000 people to rehouse Marius in one of several zoos that had already indicated that their doors were open.

Then came the death threats to Bengt Holst, the zoo's director of research and conservation. And the emotional opinion pieces.

As this debate rages, it's crucial to remember that Marius was not just an exotic attraction: he was part of a larger conservation program that breeds animals with the specific goal of maintaining the diversity of each species' gene pool.