Blue Marble

Photos: This Year's Strongest Typhoon Pounds Japan

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 12:04 PM EDT

Typhoon Vongfong—the word means "wasp" in Cantonese—brought torrential rain and damaging winds to Japan overnight, as it continued its northward trajectory across the Japanese islands. The powerful storm arrived just a week after Japan was hit by another typhoon, Phanfone, which took the lives of three US airman off Okinawa, a southern Japanese island where the US maintains a large military base. Last week, Vongfong became the strongest cyclone system observed all year, anywhere in the world—equivalent to a category 5 hurricane. It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it hit the Japanese island of Kyushu. The Japan Times is reporting that the storm has left at least 61 people injured and one missing, with hundreds of thousands advised to evacuate. Authorities took steps to protect the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the site of the 2011 meltdown.

Here are some photos of the storm as it moved through northeast Asia:

The storm created powerful waves in Wenling, in the coastal Chinese province of Zhejiang, on Sunday, drawing thrill-seeking crowds Whitehotpix/ZUMA
Not exactly the safest place to attempt a selfie. Whitehotpix/ZUMA
The view of the storm from the International Space Station last Thursday reveals its enormity. It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made land fall in Japan. Alexander Gerst/NASA
A huge tree upended by Vongfong's force on the coast of Setouchi, Kagoshima, on Sunday October 12. While the storm has been downgraded, it has increased in size, and still contains a huge amount of moisture. The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP
Waves pound the coast in the city of Kochi on the Japanese island of Shikoku on Monday October 13, 2014. The storm grounded 300 flights. Kyodo/AP
This photo of the super typhoon last week showed the eye of the storm was approximately 50 miles wide. NOAA/NASA
Streets were (almost) empty and shops shuttered in Toyko as Vongfong approached last night. The storm is expected to pass over the capital on Tuesday. kodomut/Flickr

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Alaska's Stranded Walruses Face a New Threat: Oil Drillers

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 12:07 PM EDT
walrus map
Yellow lines show the movement of radio-tracked walruses in 2013; the green highlighted section is where offshore drilling leases are available. USGS

Remember that jaw-dropping photo from last week that showed 35,000 walruses crammed onto a narrow strip of land because they couldn't find enough space on the disappearing Arctic sea ice? Turns out melting ice isn't the only thing the walruses have to worry about.

Last month, the energy blog Fuel Fix reported on details of Shell's newest plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. The company has a history of failure in the Arctic since it first got a federal green-light to explore there in 2012. Now they'll be heading back out next summer for another try, with up to six new wells in the Chukchi Sea.

The ocean expanse north of Alaska where Shell wants to drill is the most popular hangout for Alaskan walruses, as the map above, from a US Geological Survey study of walruses last year, shows. The yellow lines show the movements of a group of walruses over a two-week period in July 2013; red X's mark where researchers deployed radio tags on the walruses. The green outline indicates the cluster of Arctic oil drilling lease locations administered by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, including those Shell is eyeing. The wells would be upstream of Hanna Shoals, a biologically rich shallow shelf that tends to hold sea ice longer than other areas.

The Shoals are vital walrus habitat, especially as climate change diminishes sea ice throughout the Arctic, said Margaret Williams, Arctic programs director for the World Wildlife Fund. Risks to the walruses (and other marine life, for that matter) include disturbance by ship traffic and the fallout from oil spills. Spill cleanup is particularly challenging in icy waters, and the nearest Coast Guard station is across the state in Kodiak. 

"It's an amazing place that is full of life, with a very rich food chain," Willaims said. If oil and gas drilling goes forward, "you have a huge potential mess."

This Is Your Teenager's Brain on Soda

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 10:46 AM EDT

A growing number of doctors and public health experts now see sugar as one of the main culprits behind both widening waistlines and chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. But scientists are only just discovering how the sweet substance affects the brain—especially the developing brain. As you might guess, sugar isn't exactly making young people sharper. In fact, researchers at the University of Southern California recently published a study showing a connection between sugar consumption and memory problems.

For the USC study, scientists gave adolescent rats sugar-sweetened drinks that contained either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in "concentrations comparable to popular sugar-sweetened beverages." They observed the animals' ability to navigate through mazes compared to a control group of rats given plain water. The adolescent rats on sugar "were impaired in learning and remembering the task," says Scott Kanoski, the corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor of biological sciences at USC-Dornsife.

The researchers also found evidence of swelling in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. The swelling appeared in the adolescent rodents who consumed both sugary solutions, although the results were more pronounced for the rats given high-fructose corn syrup (usually the sweetener used in soda). Damage to this part of the brain is often found in people who suffer from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

The results of a memory test conducted. "Effects of Sucrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup Consumption on Spatial Memory Function and Hippocampal Neuroinflammation in Adolescent Rats," Hsu et al.

Kanoski says they did not determine why sugar influences the brain this way, but stressed that there was a clear connection to how it could impact youth. "We know that not only with adolescents, but with all critical period of development, there seems to be a higher susceptibility to environmental influences on behavior and biological systems," he says.

The study came out of a long line of research, headed by Kanoski and others, looking at the negative effects of the Western diet. This diet is high in saturated fats and simple sugars, and rats raised on it don't turn out too well: "They gain weight, they have increased adiposity, impaired glucose tolerance," Kanoski has found. Maybe even more disturbingly, they have "impaired cognitive processes," he says. Since these animals have similar physiological and neurobiological systems as humans, they serve as a reflection of how this diet might be screwing with our health and memories, too.

More than a quarter of teens drink at least a soda a day, and close to a fifth drink two or more.

In Kanoski's study, adult rats were also fed sugary diets and had to go through the mazes, but they didn't suffer the same cognitive defects as adolescents high on sugar. Assuming the results would hold true for people, that means we're feeding the population whose brains are more vulnerable to sugar the most sugary beverages. According to a 2011 National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief, teens and young adults consume more sweetened drinks than any other age groups. A food marketing study published by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 shows that spending on soda marketing to teens was "higher than any other food category for teen marketing." This publicity appears to be working. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that more than a quarter of teens drink at least a soda a day, and close to a fifth drink two or more.

There might still be hope, though. Kanoski's team is now looking into whether sugar's negative affects can be turned around. Although Kanoski says he doesn't have results on this yet, "there have been other studies showing that animals can recover from cognitive deficits." But until stronger evidence of this turnaround arrives, add soda to the list of things you only realize later in life you wish you hadn't indulged so much in as a teen.

Study: Hospitals Give Patients Antibiotics for No Reason at All

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Some hospital patients are on antibiotics for good reason: They have an infection, or they're at high risk for getting one. But according to a new study, other patients are given antibiotics for no reason whatsoever. Researchers could find "no documented rationale" for 7 percent of surveyed participants who had been given prescriptions. 

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed patients in 183 hospitals across 10 states over the course of five months to capture a clearer picture of how often antibiotics are prescribed, how much is prescribed, and for how long. Of the roughly 11,000 patients surveyed close to half confirmed they had been given antibiotics. Most of this group also reported they were taking more than one form—some up to four different kinds at once.

To understand how to improve antibiotic use, researchers also sought to identify which drugs are most commonly used and why. Though there are 83 different antibiotic drugs available, four specific kinds (parenteral vancomycin, piperacilintazobactam, cefriaxone, and levofloxacin) are used most often, sometimes when they are not the best fit for the infection being treated.

More than 2 million people in the US contract dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections each year, killing more than 23,000.

"Despite the evidence supporting early, appropriate therapy, a substantial proportion of antimicrobial use in the US acute care hospitals may be inappropriate," the researchers write. "Inappropriate antimicrobial use needlessly puts patients at risk."

Antibiotics are essential to battling a variety of bad bugs, and that's why it is so important that they are used sparingly. Superbugs are developing at an alarming rate, and antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem. A report released by the CDC last year detailed the rise in "nightmare bacteria" that stand to "pose a catastrophic threat." More than 2 million people in the US contract dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections each year, killing more than 23,000. The CDC reports that even more die from complications from those infections. And, because these infections require long hospital stays and prolonged treatment, the cost is immense. Some estimates range as high as $20 billion in healthcare costs and up to $35 billion for productivity lost.

There have been attempts to curb the demand for the drugs, and the CDC even implemented a "Hospital Antibiotic Stewardship Program," intended to improve the way doctors prescribe the drugs. But researchers involved in this study say more needs to be done. "To minimize patient harm and preserve effectiveness, it is imperative to critically examine and improve the ways in which antimicrobial drugs are used," they write. "Improving antimicrobial use in hospitals benefits individual patients and also contributes to reducing antimicrobial resistance nationally."

Walmart Is the Biggest Corporate Solar User. Why Are Its Owners Funding Groups That Oppose Solar?

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 5:57 PM EDT
Solar panels adorn the roof of a Walmart store in Arizona.

Walmart loves solar power—as long as it's on their roof, and not yours.

That's the takeaway from a report released today by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which found that between 2010 and 2013 the Walton Family Foundation has donated just under $4.5 million to groups like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which have worked to impede state-level policies that promote clean energy.

The list of groups that have received funding from the Walton Foundation reads like a who's who of "the groups who are leading the charge against rooftop solar," said Stacy Mitchell, who authored the report. Rob Walton, who sits on the Foundation board, is also the chair of Walmart's board; his family are majority shareholders of Walmart and some of the richest people in America.

The funny thing is that Walmart, the world's biggest company, is also the world's biggest commercial solar user. Indeed, solar power is a key aspect of its much-touted green makeover. According to data released last year from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Walmart has 89 megawatts of installed solar capacity on its retail rooftops. That's twice the capacity of second-ranked Costco and more than the total capacity of 37 individual states. Of course, those figures are less impressive when looked at in a light that better reflects the company's mind-boggling size: Less than 3 percent of the company's total power comes from renewables—including solar, wind, and biogas—according to EPA data.

Here's the list of groups receiving funding from the Walton Foundation that have taken positions against state-level clean energy policies, according to the report:

walton chart
Courtesy Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The dollar figures in the chart above come from the Walton Family Foundation's last four annual reports. All the groups listed, Mitchell said, have opposed state-level clean energy policies like renewable portfolio standards or net-metering, both of which are key tools in helping more households go solar.

Clearly the groups listed here are involved in a host of conservative and free-market issues beyond energy, so there's no direct evidence that the Waltons' foundation donated to these groups because of their opposition to policies promoting renewables. Indeed, a foundation spokesperson said that the report is misleading because it ignores the foundation's donations to environmental groups and instead "chooses to focus on a handful of grants none of which were designated for renewable energy-related issues."

But backing groups like this has a direct impact on the growth of clean energy, Mitchell said.

The upshot, she said, is "not that their vision of the future doesn't include some solar power. It's just solar power they own and control."

Walmart declined to comment on the report.

This Is What the Most Powerful Storm of the Year Looks Like From Space

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 5:13 PM EDT

Super Typhoon Vongfang is mercifully expected to weaken before making landfall in Japan Monday, but at its peak it has reached wind speeds up to 180 mph, making it the most powerful storm of 2014 (so far).

Thursday morning, NASA astronaut Reid Weissman showed the world just what that type of storm looks like from, well, above the world.

(via Wired)

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Fracking Chemicals, Brought to You by Susan G. Komen

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 9:36 AM EDT

Here's some news that frankly, I initially thought was a spoof: for the second year in a row, breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure—which caused massive outrage when it defunded Planned Parenthood in 2012—has partnered with Baker Hughes, a leader in the fracking industry. The Houston-based oilfield services company will donate $100,000 to Komen over the year and sell 1,000 pink-painted drill bits used for fracking.

According to Baker Hughes' "Doing Our Bit for the Cure" campaign website, "The pink bits serve as a reminder of the importance of supporting research, treatment, screening, and education to help find the cures for this disease, which claims a life every 60 seconds."

The irony here is that one of the primary criticisms of fracking is that the fracking process injects possible and known carcinogens, including benzene, formaldehyde, and sulfuric acid, into the ground and surrounding environment. A 2011 senate investigation of 14 leading fracking companies found that, between 2005 and 2009—far from the height of the fracking era—the companies had "injected 10.2 million gallons of fracturing products containing at least one carcinogen."

Only adding to the irony is the fact that Komen's very own website, "Environmental Chemicals and Breast Cancer Risk," informs readers of "Common chemicals that may be associated with breast cancer," and some of the chemical categories listed are exactly those released when fracking.

Here are a few of those chemicals, along with the Komen website's very own explanations of the cancer risks of their chemical categories:

  • Naphthalene, a type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon: "Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – found in vehicle exhaust, air pollution, tobacco smoke, and grilled and smoked food...are produced by combustion and can be found in household sources such as car and other vehicle exhaust; cigarette smoke; and barbequed, smoked or charred foods. They are also found in industrial sources from petroleum production, waste incineration and coal or oil-fired power plants. Inhalation is the major means of PAH exposure because it can become suspended in the air. Like other chemicals associated with breast cancer risk, PAHs are stored in fat tissue and are considered EDCs because they can interact with the estrogen receptor. They can also act directly on DNA to cause mutations."
  • Lead and Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, a type of phthalate: "It has been well accepted that our body's own hormones, especially estrogen, play an important role in breast cancer risk. However, research has found that numerous environmental chemicals can act like estrogen. These chemicals are often referred to as endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) and some researchers believe they may contribute to breast cancer risk by mimicking or disrupting the effects of the body's natural estrogen. Some commonly recognized EDCs are DDT, BPA, PAHs, dioxin, PCBs, phtlalates and heavy metals (e.g., arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury)."

According to Fuel Fix, "Each steel bit—weighing 85 to 260 pounds—is painted by hand at the company's drill bit manufacturing facility in The Woodlands and then shipped to the drill site in a pink-topped container containing information packets with breast health facts, including breast cancer risk factors and screening tips."

Advocacy group Breast Cancer Action called the Komen/Baker Hughes partnership "the most ludicrous piece of pink sh*t" they've seen all year.

Buzz Kill: Pot Growers May Be Wiping Out This Cute Furry Mammal

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
A fisher

Weed smokers, here's some news to bring you down from your high: On Monday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed listing the western population of fishers, furry relatives of weasels, as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. According to a press release, the "major threats" to the species include "toxicants associated with anti-coagulant rodenticides" used at "illegal marijuana cultivation sites...on public, private, and tribal lands."

Fishers are forest-dwelling, cat-sized mammals—and one of the only known predators of porcupines—that were nearly wiped out by trapping and logging during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the current threats to the fishers are familiar, like wildfires and logging. But FWS found the misuse of rodenticides, more commonly known as rat poison, to be a "relatively recent and troubling threat." There are now about 4,000 fishers left in dispersed pockets in California, Oregon, and Washington. FWS cited a study that found rat poison in the blood of 85 percent of fishers studied between 2012 and 2014.

The rise in rodenticide usage stems partly from the proliferation of "trespass grows," or hidden spots in public parks, forests, and tribal lands where marijuana growers cultivate their goods. Each year, the United States grows about 22 million pounds of marijuana, and nearly half of the cannabis eradicated by law enforcement comes from trespass grows. It's difficult to overstate how much the grows contribute to the weed industry: In 2013, 72 percent of the outdoor plants seized by law enforcement in California came from trespass grows.

The decline of fishers is only one of a number of side-effects to this booming, secretive cultivation. Illegal grows divert streams, use tremendous amounts of water and energy, apply unregulated or banned rodenticides, and, in some cases, pose safety risks to researchers like Mourad Gabriel, who led the rat-poison study cited by FWS.

This video, produced by my colleagues Brett Brownell and Josh Harkinson for their deep-dive on the topic earlier this year, gives a sense of the shady world of trespass grows:

Monday's proposal to add the western population of fishers to the threatened species list would make it illegal to harm, kill, wound, or trap fishers in Oregon, Washington, and California. The Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking comment on the proposal for 90 days, during which several public informational meetings will be held in the three states.

Let's Watch the Moon Drip Red With Blood!

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 2:39 AM EDT

Don't look now but the blood moon is back. The full lunar eclipse should begin to be visible around 2:15am PT. No, it does not mean the world is ending.

Watch it here or, you know, just go outside and look up...or don't! You don't have to go outside. Maybe you're a shut in. Maybe it's cloudy. Maybe you're blind. Maybe you've never been outside because your father was killed by a bear when you were very young and now you have a debilitating fear of bears and there are a lot of bears outside so you don't go outside. Whatever. It's not important. What I'm saying is, your inability to go outside is not a deal breaker for me. I'm not going to let our relationship die on this hill. We can make this marriage work whether you want to go outside and watch it or not. Here's a livestream:

If These 35,000 Walruses Can't Convince You Climate Change Is Real, I Don't Know What to Tell You

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 11:36 AM EDT
AP Photo/NOAA, Corey Accardo

This an image from a NOAA research flight over a remote stretch of Alaska's north shore on Saturday. It shows approximately 35,000 walruses crowded on a beach, which according to the AP is a record number for this survey program.

Bear in mind that each of the little brown dots in this image can weigh over 4,000 pounds, placing them high in the running to be the world's biggest climate refugees.

Why are so many walruses "hauled out" on this narrow strip of land? Part of the reason is that there's not enough sea ice for them to rest on, according to NOAA.

On September 17, Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent for 2014, which according to federal data is the sixth-lowest coverage since the satellite record began in 1979.

"The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic," Margaret Williams, the managing director of WWF's Arctic program, said in a statement.

If you've ever seen these blubbery beasts duke it out, then you know there's some serious marine mammal mayhem in store. Thanks, climate change!