Blue Marble

Viewers are Furious With Animal Planet for Mistreating Animals on "Reality TV"

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 3:36 PM PDT

Upset viewers of Animal Planet are venting on social media after Mother Jones uncovered photographic evidence of animal mistreatment behind the scenes of the TV network's hit show, Call of the Wildman.

Every garden-variety item that the network has posted on its Facebook page since our investigation published on Monday—the rescue of a baby moose, the birth of an endangered kakapo, photos of "15 puppies so precious you'll forget your own name"—has been flooded with comments about the much sadder coyote photo included in our report, which reveals the animal confined to a cramped trap three days before a film shoot in which the animal handler and Wildman star known as Turtleman planned to "capture" it by hand.

Under the baby moose post—which asks Animal Planet followers, "Who doesn't love a happy ending, especially when it involves an animal as cute as this one?"—D'Shannon Llewellyn writes: "We all love happy endings but more so when they aren't staged and involve abuse and stress that is intentionally inflicted on the animal for the financial profit of your tv station. #CalloftheWildman Staged, Abusive, and certainly not animal loving."

Rona Seltzer posted a message echoed by other commenters, writing that she has now "stopped watching/supporting animal planet due to so many stories about abuse on some of their shows."

"The images and investigation coming out of that show are absolutely disgusting," wrote Ryan M Simmons. "It's 2014, not 1814. The short lived days of glamorizing white trash who have no regards for the well being of animals have passed."

More from Animal Planet's Facebook page on Tuesday:

Amid a lengthy thread on the Facebook page of Animal Place, a sanctuary for farmed animals in California, Barb Ruguone summarizes a theme pointed out by multiple commenters: "You'd think that a channel named Animal Planet would be working for the humane treatment of animals and education and not contribute to their abuse. I was so sad to learn of their part in abuse."

There has been a similar outpouring on Twitter. Michael McIntyre ‏(@FeverCityStudio) summed up the mood this way:

Meanwhile, on Turtleman's own Facebook page, fans either seem unaware of the revelations or they are sticking by their guy: 

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Climate Change May Make Terrible Mudslides Like the One in Washington State More Common

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 5:14 PM PDT
An aerial view of the deadly mudslide in Washington.

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

The death toll from this weekend's mudslide through Oso, Wash., is still climbing, with more than 100 still listed as missing.

The stories emerging are the definition of heart-rending. Here's one, from the Seattle Times:

One volunteer firefighter who had stopped working around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night said many tragic stories have yet to be told. He watched one rescuer find his own front door, but nothing else—not his home, his wife or his child.

They're in the "missing" category along with many it is feared will eventually be listed as dead.

"It's much worse than everyone's been saying," said the firefighter, who did not want to be named. "The slide is about a mile wide. Entire neighborhoods are just gone. When the slide hit the river, it was like a tsunami."

The most immediate cause of the mudslide is a near-record pace of rainfall for the area so far in the month of March.

Rainfall so far during the winter month of March has been 200-300 percent above normal across parts of western Washington State, site of this weekend's tragic mudslide. National Weather Service's Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service

The Pacific Northwest has had an exceptionally wet finish to its rainy season, as storms that historically would have hit California were re-routed northward by a semi-permanent dome of high pressure that's been mostly responsible for the intensifying drought there.

This particular mudslide wasn't just a freak event brought about by heavy rain, although this month's deluge surely speeded the process. Another mudslide happened on this very same hillside just eight years ago.

In fact, the State of Washington recently completed a project aimed at preventing future mudslides, just short distance away from the site of this weekend's deadly tragedy. Only problem is? It was on the other side of the river. Again, from the Seattle Times:

Sixteen months ago, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) completed a $13.3 million project, called the Skaglund Hill Permanent Slide Repair, to secure an area just west of Saturday's slide, on the opposite side of the Stillaguamish River.

That project covered about a half-mile stretch of Highway 530, from mile marker 36.25 to 36.67. It secured a hill south of the river. Saturday's slide collapsed a hill north of the river and sent mud crashing into the Stillaguamish and across Highway 530 between mile markers 37 and 38, according to WSDOT.

This weekend's tragedy reminds me of a similar pair of mudslides that occurred in 1995 and 2005 along the coast of California, in the tiny town of La Conchita. In 2005, heavy rains caused groundwater levels to rise, re-mobilizing the previous debris flow and creating a repeat tragedy.

Like in La Conchita, this weekend's disaster occurred in an area known for its landslides. There are surely other, more remote areas where this process happens with less tragic results.

One of the most well-forecast and consequential components of human-caused climate change is the tendency for rainstorms to become more intense as the planet warms. As the effect becomes more pronounced, that will make follow-on events like flooding and landslides more common.

But we don't have to wait for the future. This is already happening. Here's an explainer, from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

As average global temperatures rise, the warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, about 4 percent more per degree Fahrenheit temperature increase. Thus, when storms occur there is more water vapor available in the atmosphere to fall as rain, snow or hail. Worldwide, water vapor over oceans has increased by about 4 percent since 1970 according to the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, its most recent.

It only takes a small change in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere to have a major effect. That's because storms can draw upon water vapor from regions 10 to 25 times larger than the specific area where the rain or snow actually falls.

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's (USGCRP) most recent report, scientists have observed less rain falling in light precipitation events and more rain falling in the heaviest precipitation events across the United States. From 1958 to 2007, the amount of rainfall in the heaviest 1 percent of storms increased 31 percent, on average, in the Midwest and 20 percent in the Southeast.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a database and monitoring program dedicated to identifying other places like La Conchita and Oso that may be at risk of future mudslides.

Watchdog: Chris Christie's Post-Sandy Proposal for Federal Funds Is "a Contradictory Mess"

| Fri Mar. 21, 2014 8:01 AM PDT

An environmental watchdog group has slammed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's proposal for more Superstorm Sandy recovery funds, saying that the plan "conflicts with its own announced projects, ignores known threats, and contains numerous flaws."

New Jersey's Office of Emergency Management released the plan early last week. The state must submit this proposal, known as a hazard mitigation plan, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by the end of the month in order to receive more disaster recovery and mitigation aid. The plan does not ask for a specific amount of money, but functions instead as a wish list that may open up new funding streams for New Jersey in the future.

But having reviewed the plan, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, is calling for FEMA to require New Jersey to make major changes before accepting the plan.

"The plan looks like it was put together at the last minute by a sleep-deprived college student, furiously cutting and pasting regardless of whether it is coherent," says Bill Wolfe, the director of PEER's New Jersey branch.

The proposal is detailed about the risks facing coastal New Jersey in the event of another storm like Sandy. But, Wolfe tells Mother Jones, it is almost entirely lacking in details on how New Jersey would rebuild the coast differently. "In real terms, in exchange for [FEMA] resources, the state is proposing no concrete, enforceable commitments to change anything," Wolfe says. In light of this, Wolfe says FEMA ought to require New Jersey to make broad changes to its municipal planning codes and state building requirements before giving the proposal its seal of approval.

In a press release, PEER states that it has only made "a cursory review" of the Christie administration's plan. But even its glancing evaluation turned up numerous errors. Christie's office set an April 11 deadline for public comments on the plan; but the final version is due to FEMA by the end of March. A section of the plan refers to the "Coastal Management Office," which Christie-appointee Bob Martin, the commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, abolished.

In other sections, the proposal makes statements undermining the state's ongoing construction projects. One portion of the plan decries the "hard structures" some coastal towns have built to protect vulnerable properties, as these can exacerbate erosion. But in a paragraph that follows, the plan praises work that New Jersey is overseeing to build new hard structures.

Pieces of the plan that deal with flood risks are especially problematic. In writing the flood risk section, the plan's authors failed to map New Jersey's hazardous waste management facilities, toxic waste sites, or chemical storage sites, and assess the risk of their releasing contaminants in the event of a flood, according to PEER. The plan also fails to evaluate the future risk of flood for the Barnegat Bay and Raritan Bay areas—two portions of New Jersey worst-hit by Sandy.

The plan "hides the risk of sea level rise by using a scale that makes it impossible to see the impacted areas on the map," PEER evaluators note. And some flood maps in the plan fail to account for projected levels of sea level rise, period.

PEER likens these flaws to the issues that spurred the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general to audit New Jersey's plans to spend $1.5 billion the state has already received in federal recovery aid—an ongoing probe partially inspired by PEER's complaints. In both cases, Wolfe notes, the plans were written with the help of private contractors who solicited little public input. "The process employed here typifies a governing style that is hyperpoliticized, fiercely insular, and ultimately utterly ineffective," he says.

Now You Can Get Solar Panels at Best Buy

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 10:39 AM PDT
solar costs
Tim McDonnell

There was an era when putting solar panels on your roof was a time- and money-sucking hassle on par with remodeling your kitchen. But the cost of going solar has been dropping fast. The latest signal of the industry's move into the mainstream came last week, when San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity* announced it would begin to sell solar systems out of Best Buy, alongside big-screen TVs and digital cameras.

"There are a lot of people out there with unshaded roofs, paying high electricity bills, who just don't know this is an option for them," said Jonathan Bass, SolarCity's vice president of communications. The move into Best Buy "gives us a chance to have that conversation with more people."

The company is the biggest installer in the country's biggest solar market, California, a state that earlier this month broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days, churning out enough electricity from solar panels to power roughly 3 million homes. Just since last summer, California's solar production has doubled, according to the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state's electric grid. There's a lot more growth where that came from, Bass said.

McDonald's Definition of "Sustainable": Brought to You by the Beef Industry

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

In January, McDonald's announced that it will begin the transition to sustainable beef in 2016. The plan was met with skepticism, since it didn't actually define "sustainable." In the weeks that followed, McDonald's continued working with a group called the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) to come up with a working definition of the term, and on Monday, GRSB released a draft of its definition for public comment. In addition to McDonald's, GRSB's new set of sustainability guidelines will also be implemented by the group's other members, which include Walmart, Darden Restaurants (the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster), Cargill, Tyson Foods, and the pharmaceutical company Merck.

Despite its name, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is not so much an environmental organization as a meat industry group. Its executive committee includes representatives from McDonald's, Elanco, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Just two environmental groups—the World Wildlife Fund and Netherlands-based Solidaridad—are part of its executive board. Cameron Bruett, president of GRSB and chief sustainability officer for JBS USA, a beef-processing company, said that McDonald's, along with other members, helped come up with the organization's "sustainability" definition and guidelines. 

"I don't know if there's any justification for banning antibiotics in feed," said a GRSB spokesman.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the group's leadership, the GRSB's guidelines are short on specifics. Instead, the group provides a definition for sustainability that is open to members' interpretation. The plan says, for example, that sustainable companies must provide "stable, safe employment for at least the minimum wage where applicable" and institute "where applicable, third-party validation of practices by all members of the value chain." But it doesn't doesn't specify which third-party groups should conduct audits, and doesn't explain how workplaces should be monitored to prevent labor violations. In its section on climate change, it says that GRSB members should ensure that "emissions from beef systems, including those from land use conversion, are minimized and carbon sequestration is optimized." But it does not include any specific examples of target emissions standards or grazing policies.

Also absent from the plan is any mention of the beef industry's use of antibiotics. In the United States, four-fifths of all antibiotics go to livestock operations. McDonald's uses antibiotics to "treat, prevent, and control disease" in its food-producing animals, according to a McDonald's spokesman.

Using antibiotics to prevent disease—rather than only to  treat infections—has been criticized by some food-safety experts. But the new plan doesn't recommend that members ditch the practice. "I don't know if there's any justification for banning antibiotics in feed, I know that's popular in some media circles, I haven't seen the scientific evidence," said Bruett. Yet studies have shown that antibiotic-resistant bugs can jump from animals to humans. In February, several experts told Mother Jones that McDonald's couldn't call its beef plan sustainable unless it addressed the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. When asked about whether McDonald's will continue to be given antibiotics under the new sustainability plan, a McDonald's spokesman referred Mother Jones to this statement from February, saying "We take seriously our ethical responsibility to treat sick animals"​ and indicated that the company will continue to review its policy.

GRSB says that the lack of details in the plan is intentional; it "deliberately avoids" metrics that could be used to measure progress in sustainability, instead leaving it up to local roundtables to tailor the recommendations to specific regions. Bruett noted that "You could come out with a global standard, but it would simply be ignored, and it wouldn't lead to improvements among members." He adds, "There's all the discussion about sustainability, but it's by people who have very little knowledge or participation in the livestock industry...you'll never achieve [improvement] unless you have producer participation or support.​" 

But Dr. David Wallinga, the founder of Healthy Food Action, a group of health professionals dedicated to promoting good nutrition, points out that while it's true that one-size-fits all metrics don't always work, without specifics, policies are "largely unenforceable." He adds, "I suppose it's good that McDonald's is taking on the task of setting guidelines for sustainable beef, [but] a few foundational blocks are missing."

White House Unveils New Climate Data Project

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 10:24 AM PDT
President Obama's June 2013 climate address.

The story was originally published by The Huffington Post and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The White House today unveiled a new Climate Data Initiative to make government-held data more available to researchers and businesses, and improve climate change preparedness across the country.

President Barack Obama had already mentioned the data initiative in a list of new programs announced in his big climate speech at Georgetown University last June. Today was its official unveiling.

One part of the data initiative is a new climate-focused section within the Data.gov website—called Climate.Data.gov—which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will run. The climate data site will also offer infrastructure and geographic mapping data sets—showing bridges, roads, canals, etc.—from such agencies as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Homeland Security.

To solicit ideas from the private sector on how to use all this data to create images and simulations showing coastal hazards, NOAA and NASA are launching a Coastal Flooding Challenge.

Making more of this type of information publicly available, the Obama administration announced, will "stimulate innovation and private-sector entrepreneurship in support of national climate-change preparedness."

According to the announcement, several companies—including Intel, Google, Microsoft and Esri (which creates geographic information systems software)—have committed to create new mapping software, applications and other technological tools for visualizing and preparing for climate-related risks. Nonprofits, academic institutions and local groups are also providing technological support.

In a White House blog post accompanying the announcement, chief presidential science adviser John Holdren and White House senior counselor John Podesta called the initiative an "ambitious" effort to make government data available to the private and philanthropic sectors.

The Climate Data Initiative, they wrote, "will help create easy-to-use tools for regional planners, farmers, hospitals, and businesses across the country—and empower America’s communities to prepare themselves for the future."

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Your Coffee Pods' Dirty Secret

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Coffee brewing is in the midst of a revolution, and I'm not talking about the AeroPress. It comes in the form of a small 2-by-2-inch single-serving pod that requires a special machine. Keurig, owned by Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee, makes the most popular pods, called "K-Cups." At the press of a button, the Keurig brewer punctures a small hole into the aluminum lid of an individual plastic cup filled with grounds, flushes it with steaming water, and, voilà! Out comes one hot cup of joe.  

When Keurig launched its specialized brewing system in 1998, it might have come off as a bit niche. Not anymore. According to a survey by the National Coffee Association, nearly 1 in 5 adults drank single-cup-brewed coffee yesterday, making it the second most popular way to brew after the traditional drip methods—and far more popular than espresso machines.

Keurig would not tell me what types of plastic go into its #7 blend, saying the information was proprietary.

The single-serve method has experienced impressive growth: According to the Seattle Times, while US consumers bought $132 million worth of coffee pods in 2008, they forked over $3.1 billion for them last year, compared to $6 billion for roasted coffee and $2.5 billion in instant coffee. Keurig also has similar brewing systems and pods for tea and iced beverages, and will roll out a system for Campbell's soup later this year.

What Keurig customers love, proclaims Green Mountain's 2013 annual report, is the system's "Quality, Convenience, and Choice"—and let's be real, it's convenience that trumps for most busy Americans. Keurig systems take under a minute to brew coffee, and cleaning them is laughably easy: Just chuck the used coffee pod in the trash, then press a button, and a "cleansing brew" shoots hot water through the system to clear it of residue.

But critics warn that the packaging needed for these systems comes with environmental and health-related costs. By making each pod so individualized, and so easy to dispose of, you must also exponentially increase the packaging—packaging that ultimately ends up in landfills. (And that's to say nothing of the plastic and metal brewing systems, which if broken, aren't that easy to recycle either.)

Journalist Murray Carpenter estimates in his new book, Caffeinated, that a row of all the K-Cups produced in 2011 would circle the globe more than six times. To update that analogy: In 2013, Green Mountain produced 8.3 billion K-Cups, enough to wrap around the equator 10.5 times. If Green Mountain aims to have "a Keurig System on every counter," as the company states in its latest annual report, that's a hell of a lot of little cups.

Green Mountain only makes 5 percent of its current cups out of recyclable plastic. The rest of them are made up of a #7 composite plastic, which is nonrecyclable in most places. And for the small few that are recyclable, the aluminum lid must be separated from the cup, which also must be emptied of its wet grounds, for the materials to make it through the recycling process. Even then, chances are the pod won't be recycled because it's too small, says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the National Resources Defense Council.

Keurig just released a sustainability report announcing that the company plans to make all coffee pods recyclable by 2020, among other ecofriendly efforts. The company says it's evaluating the type of plastic used in the cups, exploring potential biodegradable and compostable packaging, and coming up with an easier way for customers to easily prepare them for recycling.

Some competitors already have recyclable or biodegradable versions of this single-serve pod; Nespresso's lid and pod is made entirely from aluminum. A Canadian brand, Canterbury Coffee, makes a version that it says is 92 percent biodegradable (everything save for the nylon filter can break down). Finding a substitute is an interesting challenge, says Keurig spokeswoman Sandy Yusen, because coffee is perishable, and so the material used must prevent light, oxygen, and moisture from degrading the coffee.

Another reason to look beyond plastic is a concern with what could leach out of the material when heated. Yusen confirmed that the #7 plastic used in K-Cups is BPA-free, safe, and "meets or exceeds applicable FDA standards." But new evidence suggests that even non-BPA plastics can test positive for estrogenic activity. (Our "Frightening Field Guide to Common Plastics" contains more information about this.)

"No. 7 plastic means 'other,'" says the NRDC's Hoover. "You don't know what it is." One concern with this plastic mix is the presence of polystyrene, containing the chemical styrene, which Hoover warns is especially worrisome for workers. A possible carcinogen, styrene can wreak havoc on the nervous systems of those handling it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemical also shows up in tobacco smoke and home copy machines, and in the Styrofoam used in food containers.

The New York Times determined that single-brew coffee ends up costing more than $50 a pound, even for Folgers.

Keurig would not tell me what types of plastic go into its #7 blend, saying the information was proprietary, nor would it confirm or deny the presence of polystyrene in the mix.

Keurig does make a plastic and mesh reusable coffee filter. But why use a filter that necessitates cleaning—and also requires a fancy-schmancy brewing system—over the traditional method? As Hoover points out, "you're essentially giving up the convenience of the little teeny tiny cup."

It's not just convenience that's sacrificed. By my calculations, a K-Cup-worth of coffee will run up your tab way more than grounds and a filter (not including the cost of the brewer); a standard pod of Green Mountain coffee costs 68 cents, while one cup of the company's Vermont Blend brewed the traditional way costs about 44 cents, filter included. The New York Times did a more comprehensive analysis of the actual price of single-brew coffee, and determined that it ends up costing more than $50 a pound, even for standard brands like Folgers, compared to the less than $20 you can expect to pay for a bag of roasted beans. Call me a cheapskate, but I'll stick to freshly ground coffee that doesn't require a bulky brewer and billions of plastic pods to be delicious.

Earth designed by Ben King from The Noun Project.

Coffee capsule designed by Stefan Brechbühl from The Noun Project.

Was the Los Angeles Earthquake Caused by Fracking Techniques?

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 4:44 PM PDT
The epicenter of today's LA quake was eight miles from oil waste injection wells. Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance

Was the 4.4-magnitude earthquake that rattled Los Angeles on Monday morning caused by fracking methods? It's hard to say, but what's clear from the above map, made by Kyle Ferrar of the FracTracker Alliance, is that the quake's epicenter was just eight miles from a disposal well where oil and gas wastewater is being injected underground at high pressure.

Don Drysdale, spokesman for the state agency that oversees California Geological Survey, told me that state seismologists don't think that the injection well was close enough to make a difference (and the agency has also raised the possibility that Monday's quake could have been a foreshock for a larger one). But environmental groups aren't so sure.

In 2011, a 5.7-magnitude temblor in Oklahoma—where quakes are rare—destroyed 14 homes and baffled seismologists.

In other states, injection wells located 7.5 miles from a fault have been shown to induce seismic activity, points out Andrew Grinberg, the oil and gas project manager for Clean Water Action. "We are not saying that this quake is a result of an injection," he adds, "but with so many faults all over California, we need a better understanding of how, when, and where induced seismicity can occur with relation to injection."

"Shaky Ground," a new report from Clean Water Action, Earthworks, and the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that the close proximity of such wells to active faults could increase the state's risk of earthquakes. According to the report, more than half of the state's permitted oil wastewater injection wells are located less than 10 miles from an active fault, and 87 of them, or about 6 percent, are located within a mile of an active fault.

Scientists have long known that injecting large amounts of wastewater underground can cause earthquakes by increasing pressure and reducing friction along fault lines. One of the best known early examples took place in 1961, when the US Army disposed of millions of gallons of hazardous waste by injecting it 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. The influx caused more than 1,500 earthquakes over a five year period in an area not known for seismic activity; the worst among them registered at more than 5.0 on the Richter scale and caused $500,000 in damage. Geologists later discovered that the Army well had been drilled into an unknown fault.

As Michael Behar detailed in-depth last year in Mother Jones, fracking is now a leading suspect for a spate of serious earthquakes in places that hardly ever see them, such as Oklahoma, where in 2011, a 5.7-magnitude temblor destroyed 14 homes and baffled seismologists.

"In some locations of the US, the disposal of wastewater associated with oil/gas production, including hydraulic fracturing operations, appears to have triggered some low-magnitude seismic activity," concedes Drysdale, the Geological Survey spokesman. But in California, he adds, oil companies are required to evaluate surrounding geology before disposing of wastewater underground, and can't inject it at dangerously high pressures.

Yet Grinberg, a coauthor of the "Shaky Ground" report, says that the existing regulations don't go far enough now that quake-prone California is poised for a fracking boom. Though he'd like to see a moratorium on fracking while the risks are studied, he wants any eventual regulations to at least require seismic monitoring at or near injection wells and to look at the cumulative earthquake risk of entire oil fields.

Science Deniers Are Freaking Out About "Cosmos"

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 2:53 PM PDT
The second episode of "Cosmos" examines evolution, and the interrelatedness of all life on Earth.

If you think the first episode of the new Fox Cosmos series was controversial (with its relatively minor mentions of climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang), Sunday night's show threw down the gauntlet. Pretty much the entire episode was devoted to the topic of evolution, and the vast profusion of evidence (especially genetic evidence) showing that it is indeed the explanation behind all life on Earth. At one point, host Neil deGrasse Tyson stated it as plainly as you possibly can: "The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact." (You can watch the full episode here.)

Not surprisingly, those who deny the theory of evolution were not happy with this. Indeed, the science denial crowd hasn't been happy with Cosmos in general. Here are some principal lines of attack:

Denying the Big Bang: In the first episode of Cosmos, titled "Standing Up in the Milky Way," Tyson dons shades just before witnessing the Big Bang. You know, the start of everything. Some creationists, though, don't like the Big Bang; at Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis, a critique of Cosmos asserts that "the big bang model is unable to explain many scientific observations, but this is of course not mentioned."

Fox

Alas, this creationist critique seems very poorly timed: A major new scientific discovery, just described in detail in the New York Times, has now provided "smoking gun" evidence for "inflation," a crucial component of our understanding of the stunning happenings just after the Big Bang. Using a special telescope to examine the cosmic microwave background radiation (which has been dubbed the "afterglow" of the Big Bang), researchers at the South Pole detected "direct evidence" of the previously theoretical gravitational waves that are believed to have originated in the Big Bang and caused an incredibly sudden and dramatic inflation of the universe. (For an easy to digest discussion, Phil Plait has more.)

Denying evolution: Sunday's episode of Cosmos was all about evolution. It closely followed the rhetorical strategy of Charles Darwin's world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, beginning with an example of "artificial selection" by breeders (Darwin used pigeons, Cosmos used domestic dogs) to get us ready to appreciate the far vaster power of natural selection. It employed Darwin's favorite metaphor: the "tree of life," an analogy that helps us see how all organisms are living on different branches of the same hereditary tree. In the episode, Tyson also refuted one of the creationist's favorite canards: the idea that complex organs, like the eye, could not have been produced through evolution.

The "tree of life" on Cosmos Fox

Over at the pro-"intelligent design" Discovery Institute, they're not happy. Senior fellow David Klinghoffer writes that the latest Cosmos episode "[extrapolated] shamelessly, promiscuously from artificial selection (dogs from wolves) to minor stuff like the color of a polar bear's fur to the development of the human eye." In a much more elaborate attempted takedown, meanwhile, the institute's Casey Luskin accuses Tyson and Cosmos of engaging in "attempts to persuade people of both evolutionary scientific views and larger materialistic evolutionary beliefs, not just by the force of the evidence, but by rhetoric and emotion, and especially by leaving out important contrary arguments and evidence." Luskin goes on to contend that there is something wrong with the idea of the "tree of life." Tell that to the scientists involved in the Open Tree of Life project, which plans to produce "the first online, comprehensive first-draft tree of all 1.8 million named species, accessible to both the public and scientific communities." Precisely how to reconstruct every last evolutionary relationship may still be an open scientific question, but the idea of common ancestry, the core of evolution (represented conceptually by a tree of life), is not.

Denying climate change: Thus far, Cosmos has referred to climate change in each of its two opening episodes, but has not gone into any depth on the matter. Perhaps that's for a later episode. But in the meantime, it seems some conservatives are already bashing Tyson as a global warming proponent. Writing at the Media Research Center's Newsbusters blog, Jeffrey Meyer critiques a recent Tyson appearance on Late Night With Seth Myers. "Meyers and deGrasse Tyson chose to take a cheap shot at religious people and claim they don't believe in science i.e. liberal causes like global warming," writes Meyer.

Actually, as Tyson explained on our Inquiring Minds podcast, Cosmos is certainly not anti-religion. As for characterizing global warming as simply a "liberal cause": In a now famous study finding that 97 percent of scientific studies (that bother to take a position on the matter) agree with the idea of human-caused global warming, researchers reviewed 12,000 scientific abstracts published between the years 1991 and 2011. In other words, this is a field in which a very large volume of science is being published. That hardly sounds like an advocacy endeavor.

On our most recent episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Tyson explains why he doesn't debate science deniers; you can listen here (interview starts around minute 13):

These Pictures of Spring Flowers Will Melt Your Frozen Heart

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 12:00 PM PDT

Climate change might have had a hand in the exceptionally cold winter much of the country just suffered through, but on the upside, there's new evidence that it's sending spring in early, and giving us more time with wildflowers.

That's the conclusion of one of the most exhaustive surveys ever conducted on flowering "phenology," the term scientists use for the timing of seasonal events (such as the day the first migratory birds arrive in a given place or, in this case, the first day flowers open). The study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From 1974 to 2012, biologist David Inouye* of the University of Maryland took a team to Colorado just as the winter frost was beginning to thaw, and spent the spring and summer documenting when 60 common plant species had their first, last, and peak (i.e., the most individual plants) flowering.

In all but one of the species, the date of first flowering moved incrementally forward each year, by more than a month in at least one case. You can see a sampling of the flowers in these photos, along with how much earlier they are flowering these days compared to 39 years ago, when the study began. Overall, said study co-author Paul CaraDonna, the ecological onset of spring advanced by about 25 days, from mid-May to late April, mostly thanks to warming temperatures (about 0.7 degrees F per decade here) that melted snow early.

"With these changes in climate, the plants are coming out a lot sooner," CaraDonna said.

In addition, CaraDonna said, last flowerings are happening later in the fall, so that the overall flower season is now about 35 days longer than it was 39 years ago.

Scientists have known for years that climate change messes with nature's datebook, throwing off plants (including flowers and trees), animals (from birds to plankton), and even fungi that rely on clues like temperature and weather to know when to breed, migrate, come out of hibernation, and whatever else they need to do. In fact, one of the first great phenologists was Henry David Thoreau, whose notes on the first flowering of some 500 plant species around Walden Pond were recently tapped by a pair of Boston University biologists to inform modern-day research, which found flowering times for these plants to have advanced an average of 10 days.

What makes this new research unique is not only the sheer size of the dataset, but that it tracks the flowers through the spring and summer until the frost comes back in the fall. Knowing the date of first flowering is important, CaraDonna said, but limited.

"It's like if the cover of a book looks cool, but you don't know what the rest of the book is about," he said. "We're really curious about how these patterns contribute to other patterns in the community that you can't see if you just look at first flowering."

In other words, flower phenology has implications beyond making nice company for hikers. The early appearance of flowers increases competition amongst them for pollinators, like bees, which can in turn get thrown off by unusual dining options, and the effects cascade up the ecological pyramid from there. In the biological marketplace, "things that used to be on sale at different times are now on sale together," said co-author Amy Iler.

CaraDonna said the next step in the study is to look more closely at how the shifted timing of flowers can destabilize an ecosystem, but even now he's confident the impacts are underway: "If you change this much of an ecological community, there will be consequences."

 
 

* Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to biologist David Inouye as "Daniel Inouye." We regret the error.

Photo credits:

Lanceleaf springbeauty: Wikimedia Commons

Glacier lily: Wikimedia Commons

Heartleaf bittercress: Wikimedia Commons

Western monkshood: Eric Hunt/Flickr

Slenderleaf collomia: Wikimedia Commons

American vetch: Wikimedia Commons

Ballhead sandwort: Wikimedia Commons

Aspen fleabane: Wikimedia Commons

Creeping mahonia: Matt Lavin/Flickr