Blue Marble

New Species of Ice Invading Arctic

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 6:22 PM EDT
A different kind of ice is replacing ancient Arctic ice. The new stuff is qualitatively different. It's thinner, darker, wetter. Worse, it may already be changing the local weather and the ability to grow new ice. It could even alter the oceanic circulation that mediates global climate, reports Nature. Oh, it's bad for polar bears too.

Until recently, the Arctic maintained a lot of multiyear sea ice that takes years to grow and thicken and survives from one year to the next. Some melts each summer. But only in small areas. Too small for the wind to work up big waves. The new ice growing in these calm ponds forms unbroken sheets known as nilas ice.

But the multiyear ice is now melting so fast that vast areas are opening up. Big enough for big weather to set up waves. And these waves chop up the new ice as fast as it tries to form. Ice crystals tossed around in these conditions combine to form a slushy mixture called grease ice. After that, it sets into thin round pancakes of ice three to six feet in diameter.

Why is that worrying?

  • Round pancakes leave areas of dark open water between them.
  • This open water accelerates warming since less of the Sun's radiation is reflected (albedo).
  • Seawater slops up between the pancakes onto the ice so that falling snow melts rather than freezes on top.
  • Wetter pancake ice keeps the overall surface darker and warmer.

Jeremy Wilkinson of the Scottish Association for Marine Science in the UK says: "This whole cycle is not in models of the Arctic or the Antarctic. It's one of these conundrums that people haven't looked into." Young ice isn't that well studied because there used not to be much of it around. Now it's proliferating like an invasive species.

Wilkinson and colleagues just completed a series of lab experiments measuring the difference between nilas and pancake ice. They found that pancake ice actually forms faster than nilas ice. But this faster formation extracts fresh water from the ocean faster, leaving the seas saltier, which is likely to have an impact on ocean circulation, ice growth, and air temperature. The big stuff.

BTW, although the extent of the sea ice was greater in 2008 than during the record low of 2007, the additional ice was all young ice. Multiyear ice actually declined below 2007 levels.

Add to this the recent news that climate change and accompanying ice loss is now the single biggest threat to the survival of polar bears—stir in a dram of Canadian insanity in the form of an "extreme" polar bear hunt, whereby rich dudes throw down $35,000 for Inuit guides who save their asses from getting lost, sled dogs who haul their lardasses across the miles, and heated tents that keep their precious asses frost free—well, what can I say… How many of these manly men are getting fat bonuses from AIG, I wonder?

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Listen Up, Grown-Ups

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 11:06 PM EDT
Okay, there's been a ton of venting on my baby boom post. I still feel like people are missing the point I was trying to make. So let me try again.

Eoin O'Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor's bright green blog suggests that assigning responsibility for emissions across generations is inherently faulty since we'd have to trace it all that ways backwards to our original progenitor, "a clump of self-replicating molecules some four billion years ago."

Huh? We can't go backwards in time (well, not until the Large Hadron Collider goes online, anyway). So all we actually can do at this point in time to affect any change is to think of the future as we take actions and make choices today. So, yes, we must (not assign) but assume responsibility for emissions across generations.

Second, O'Carroll questions whether it's "a wise strategy to deploy environmental stewardship to urge people to voluntarily stop having kids?" He continues:

Even if such a strategy worked (a big if), the only people to heed this advice be those who care about the environment, while those who don’t care about the environment would continue breeding as usual. Given that children generally tend to share the social beliefs of their parents, this starts to looks like a recipe for eliminating environmentalism from the gene pool.

Okay, so those of us who know having more kids will screw up the world faster than it already is getting screwed up should go ahead and have those kids anyway because the screwed-up anti-greenies are going to take over the world? Sounds like a South Park episode to me. This is a classic Tragedy of the Commons approach akin to burying our heads in the diapers. The truth is we all own equal shares in the future of our planet and each one of us needs to protect the shares in any way we can.

Third, O'Carroll's cites Alex Steffen's "alternative" vision of how we can protect the climate by curbing population growth: that is, by empowering women.

That means increasing their access to reproductive health choices, education, jobs, loans, and protection against violence.  Everywhere this has happened, the birthrate has declined.

This is hardly a new approach to population control and is clearly the only one that has worked so far. So we're in agreement here. But I would add that part of the education that empowers women is providing access to scientific studies buried in obscure journals. Even telling them things they may not want to hear. In my case, I wanted to let women and men know that the cost of their next child is 10,000 to 13,000 extra metric tons of CO2. Is that not educational?

Deploying environmental stewardship is educational.

As for the photo I posted—and a lot of the readers took umbrage at it—apparently I violated a secret social contract that requires we publish only pictures of cute happy babies.

What's wrong with angry babies?

Which leads me to my final point. I do not hate babies, even when they're little monsters.

I'm just trying to talk about their future.

FDA Ordered to Reconsider Plan B Age Limits

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 8:17 PM EDT
Today, a federal court ordered the FDA to make Plan B available without a prescription to women age 17 and older (currently, age is set at 18 or older). Not only that, the court also mandated that the FDA reconsider making Plan B available over-the-counter to women of any age.

In the decision, the court wrote that the FDA "acted...in response to political pressure" and that the FDA's evidence for limiting Plan B access to those under 18 "lacks all credibility." You can read the rest of the scathing, 52-page decision here.

While reproductive rights activists and FDA reformists are rejoicing, there's also the predictable condemnation by conservative organizations like the Family Research Council. The FRC says it worries about girls' well-being, and claims the court's decision is politically motivated. The decision accepts "all of the claims of a political ideology promoting sexual license for teens." Personally, I don't really see how Plan B promotes sexual license. If anything, I would think it promotes sexual responsibility. What's your take?

Bringing Science to Journalism

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 2:40 PM EDT
Chris Mooney has written an excellent WaPo column calling on journalists to agree to follow a more empirical process, one which is "constrained by standards of evidence, rigor and reproducibility that are similar to the canons of modern science itself." He makes his case by calling out George Will, who is all too happy to continue misleading his global-warming-denying audience.

Will also wrote that "according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is one of many respected scientific institutions that support the consensus [.pdf] that humans are driving global warming... Climate scientists, knowing that any single year may trend warmer or cooler for a variety of reasons—1998, for instance, featured an extremely strong El Niño—study globally averaged temperatures over time. To them, it's far more relevant that out of the 10 warmest years on record, at least seven [.pdf] have occurred in the 2000s—again, according to the WMO.

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists—following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be—now more than ever.

Well said. This echoes what Mooney wrote for Mother Jones's September/October 2008 issue. After working for over a year as a fact-checker for MoJo, I must say that I couldn't agree more.

Exxon Valdez Plus 20 Years Minus Half A Million Birds

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 7:17 PM EDT
So what happens 20 years after 10 million gallons of heavy crude oil hit the delicate interface between land and sea in Alaska? First off, most everyone who doesn't live there has forgotten. But what about the landscape and seascape—is all forgotten there too?

Ten years after the fact, the final dead-bird tally came in at between 100,000 and 700,000 birds killed, reports Nature. Good news: many species have recovered since then. Others are still recovering. Bad news: the Pigeon Guillemot has not.

The what, you ask. Oh, just those little pigeon-sized birds of the high latitudes who can fly in the air, fly underwater, dive to 150 feet below the surface in near-darkness, root around on the bottom for two minutes and actually find things to eat, survive the winter among the ice in subfreezing air temperatures, in water temperatures below the freezing threshold of freshwater, live without ever drinking freshwater, sleep on the water in ferocious Arctic storms… You know, those one-of-a-kind things that make a species unlike any other species.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council categorizes human services—fishing, recreation, and subsistence use—as still only recovering.

A few positive developments as a result of the Exxon Valdez disaster:

  • Experiments in Prince William Sound led to groundbreaking bioremediation methods, notably using the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa to break down oil. (Much better than detergents that are as toxic as oil.) Yay, bacteria!

  • Exxon Mobil Corp tried to claim that some of the spilled oil was not its oil. In response, scientists bombproofed the art of hydrocarbon fingerprinting, assuring no one will easily dodge their own unctuous provenance again.

  • The US Coast Guard tightened its chains of command and retrained its clean-up teams for oil spills.


  • Single-hulled tankers—like the Exxon Valdez—are now barred from US ports. France and Spain—with their own disastrous oil-spill history—won't allow them within 200 miles of their coast.

The bad news:

  • The single-hulled Exxon Valdez was repaired, sold, renamed the Mediterranean and is still plying Asian waters.

  • Herring have not recovered since the spill. The problem could derive from the spill. Or it could be from overfishing. Or from ecosystem shifts. Or from an ugly combination of all.

  • Surface puddles of Valdez crude oil can still be found.

  • Pockets of undegraded oil rest just below the surface of some beaches, where sea otters dig for food.

  • Last year the US Supreme Court eviscerated the financial punishment to Exxon Mobil by lowering the punitive damages from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million. The court judged the initial award as excessive under maritime law.

Sounds like we need a Planet Earth law that accurately reflects the costs of ecosystem services, one that even a high court sequestered far from the wild can understand.

Any Alaskans out there want to tell us what else it looks like on the ground or in the water 20 years on?

The Obama Vegetable Garden

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 5:09 PM EDT

When Obama was elected back in November, activists had high hopes that he'd demonstrate liberal values with personal changes at the executive mansion. Never mind that presidential limousine; ride bicycles. Plant a garden. Serve quinoa at state dinners. Send the girls to public school.

And then the Obamas turned out to be, well, yuppies. They sent their kids to Sidwell Friends. They're redecorating the second floor using furniture from Pottery Barn. They even retained George W. Bush's White House cook, a woman who once served beef tenderloin and cheese grits to the prime minister of Denmark.

But now there's hope again. From Oprah's interview with the first lady comes news (via Treehugger) that the Obamas will plant a White House vegetable garden:

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Could Climate Change Bring Down Insurers?

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 12:54 PM EDT
We know all too well what happens when insurers like AIG overexpose themselves to Wall Street's impossible gambles. What happens when the insurance industry plays the odds on climate change? We don't really know, since the $16 trillion global industry hasn't fully revealed its exposure to the potential impacts of environmental meltdown. Even without hard numbers, it's easy to see how things could go very badly for them—and their customers—as the weather gets weirder and wilder. (A recent report found that rising sea levels could cause $100 billion in property damage this century in California alone.) Some European insurers have been been worried about this scenario for nearly 20 years; in 1990, the head of Swiss Reinsurance warned that "if the feared climate change is confirmed, it will obviously stretch the insurance industry to is limits." And that was back when we were still at 350 ppm.

American insurers have been more nonchalant about confronting climate change. It looks like that's about to change.

"Tiniest of Baby Booms" A Monster

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 9:37 PM EDT

You can't miss it in today's news: US births break record, 40 percent out-of-wedlock. Frankly, my dear, who gives a shit about the wedding bands. Though that's pretty much what all the moralizing is about.

No, what's stupefying is the fact that nowhere in this much-travelled article does anyone ever talk about the real impact of more babies being born in the US in 2007 than any other year in the nation's history.

So let's talk about it. And let's start with a really interesting study just published in the journal Global Environmental Change. A couple of statisticians at Oregon State U disengaged their mechanical pencils from their pocket protectors, clicked some fresh lead onto recycled paper (we hope) and came up with this bold analysis into that sacristy of human reproduction—to have or not to have:

  • A mother and father are each responsible for one half of the emissions of their offspring and 1/4 the emissions of their grandchildren and so on forever or thereabouts
  • Therefore, under current US conditions, each child adds 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of the average female
  • That's 5.7 times her lifetime emissions
  • Translation: one child costs nearly 6 times your own CO2 emissions
  • In the pessimistic scenario, each American child adds 12,730 metric tons to your carbon legacy
  • In comparison, under current Bangladeshi conditions, each child adds 56 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of the average female

The bottom line is that absolutely nothing else you can do—driving a more fuel efficient car, driving less, installing energy-efficient windows, replacing lightbulbs, replacing refrigerators, recycling—comes even close to simply not having that child. All those good things still add up to less than 500 metric tons of CO2 savings. Not having the kid saves between 10,000 and 13,000 metric tons of CO2.

So why are we still giving tax breaks for having kids? Why are we pretending that because they're cute they're harmless? Little monsters.

I'm Flicking the Lights Off

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 1:20 PM EDT


Sarah Silverman did it first but this crew does it DARKER for Earth Hour: Saturday 28 March 8:30pm. You can too. Don't forget.

Madagascar's Coup d'Etat

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 1:04 PM EDT

During a college semester abroad in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, I suddenly felt compelled to write long letters to anyone who I thought might read them. Partly it was to plaster entire envelopes with the country's beautiful palette of penny stamps--everything from lemur scenes to Elvis tributes. But I also really needed to tell someone about the malnourished, 24-hour banana salesmen who slept in doorways, the giant hissing cockroaches in the outhouses, and the men who stood on the rocks alongside the coral beaches and hurled out fishing line, bending over as it unspooled off the tops of their heads.

Madagascar has never been a practical country, and I suppose that's part of its charm. The bridges are all washed out. The national highway is a soup of laterite. Rural folk live in mud-brick hovels yet spend the afterlife within palatial cement replicas of airplanes and taxi brousses--the jacked-up WWII-era troop carriers that are the only way to get around. The less intractable of these problems were, according to Fort Dauphin's students, caused by the greed and ineptness of the country's then-president, Didier Ratsirika, who clung to power only because his party rode into town before each election atop huge loads of free rice.

An island off the southeast coast of Africa, Madagascar is in some ways even more tragic than the continent's cliches. When humans first drifted there from Africa and Indonesia beginning only about 1000 B.C., it was as if they followed the wake of a second Noah's Ark. They found lemurs the size of gorillas, pygmy hippos no bigger than pigs, and elephant birds, which stood 10 feet tall and weighed half a ton. Those creatures were long ago engulfed in wave of extinction that continues to this day. Among the most tenuous survivors is the Aye Aye, which seems like a fusion of monkey, bat, and woodpecker. Despite Madagascar's status as a virtual mini-continent where 80 percent of species are found nowhere else, its infrastructure has been too unreliable to support what should be a thriving tourism industry.

There was once hope that politicians could turn things around. In 2002, Malagasy president Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made dairy farmer, ousted Ratsirika at the polls in a wave of popular support and optimism. Of course, Madagascar was still a country where children stood on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, waiting to dance for the occasional driver in hopes he'd toss coins out the window; poverty ran deep. So when Andry Rajoelina, the young, charismatic disc jockey who'd become mayor of the nation's capital, Antananarivo, organized protests against rising food prices and government graft last year, Ravalomanana had him ousted. The ensuing three-month standoff ended this week when troops sympathetic to Rajeolina stormed the presidential palace and forced Ravalomanana to cede power.

"This is no clash of policies; it is a clash of personalities," the BBC opined. That doesn't mean it's any less a disaster. The Madagascar military has ended its tradition of not taking political sides. Rajoelena has refused to submit to a referendum on the presidency, paving the way for an uncertain period of dictatorship. And tourism has ground to a halt and will likely take months or years to start up again, especially in the midst of a global downturn.

As the coup clearly shows,  tourism and poverty are uneasy bedfellows. The tragedy in Madagascar is that they need not be. Though hard to reach and difficult to navigate, Madagascar is far from dangerous. It simply needs more ways for tourist money to flow to people at the bottom of the economic ladder, and more tourists who won't let a few sand fleas, stomach bugs, and lost tires get in the way of seeing the most unique place on the planet.