Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the first walk on the moon. But before getting all nostalgic about Neil Armstrong and his small step, let's examine one dark side of the moon landing: lunar litter. As I was geeking out and reading the official Apollo radio transcripts, I was intrigued to find that six minutes before stepping onto the moon for the first time, Armstrong took a "jettison bag" and dropped it onto the surface. The bag, NASA explains, contained "empty food bags and other things [the astronuauts] no longer need and don't want to have to use fuel to take back to orbit"—including bodily waste collected inside their space suits. In other words, garbage. The big white trash bag was even documented by the very first photo Armstrong took on his moonwalk:

 

Funny how that shot never makes it into the Apollo 11 retrospectives. It's unclear what happened to the historic trash bag—was it incinerated when the astronauts took off again, or has it remained sitting beneath the left-behind section of the lander, frozen in time? Perhaps we'll get the answer from the NASA orbiter that's currently taking detailed photos of Tranquility Base, trying to check on the condition of artifacts such as the American flag planted there. I wonder if the resolution will be good enough to spot the first sack of lunar litter, still awaiting pick-up, 40 years later.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, July 17

Here's today's mix of science, environment, and health stories (ok, mostly health today) from our other blogs. And if you haven't read Josh Harkinson's piece about pot farms in our national parks, well, it's a trip. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Doctors without orders: The CIA is hiring doctors. Shudder.

Dream a little dream: Brad Delong's flights of health-care-reform fancy.

Climate change policy for the rest of us: How do you convince an ordinary schmoe that higher energy prices are worth paying?

Rationing rationale: Guess what? Health care is already rationed. Now, says Peter Singer, let's make it fair.

AMA, oh my: The American Medical Association endorses a pretty good health care reform plan. What a nice surprise.

Climate Security Wins a Round

I would never have believed it, but... just hours after the National Research Council requested that hundreds of classified images of the Arctic be released for scientific study of climate changeas I reported yesterdayVoila!—the Interior Department did just that.

Seven hundred images of sea ice from half a dozen sites around the Arctic, plus 500 images from 22 sites in the US can now be viewed online.

Oh, and they're seriously gorgeous. If you have enough bandwidth to open them.

Reuters reports the Arctic images have a resolution of 1 meter, a vast improvement on available pictures with resolutions of 15 to 30 meters.

The higher definition pictures reveal small features with big impacts on warming—like dark melt pools on top of the ice that absorb light and heat. These images will vastly improve the accuracy of forecast modelling.

Scientists were expecting the request for the Arctic images to be declassified to take months—at least.

But apparently someone in Washington digs science and actually understands something about climate security and the perils of thin ice.
 

Sarah Palin Runs With the Grizzlies

Soon-to-be former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has been communing with grizzly bears and tweeting about the survival tips she's picked up from the creatures she finds so majestic that she uses one as big, ferocious couch pillow. Some of her observations:

Great day w/bear management wildlife biologists; much to see in wild territory incl amazing creatures w/mama bears' gutteral raw instinct to

protect & provide for her young;She sees danger?She brazenly rises up on strong hind legs, growls Don't Touch My Cubs & the species survives

& mama bear doesn't look 2 anyone else 2 hand her anything; biologists say she works harder than males, is provider/protector for the future

You gotta admire those mavericky mama bears and their instinct to protect their cubs and refuse government handouts. Maybe Palin also had a twinge of self-recognition as she learned about other ursine behaviors such as mock charges and "false hibernation." And perhaps she was disappointed to hear that while grizzlies once freely roamed much of the lower 48, they're now considered a threatened species down there. No doubt they're just planning their comeback.  

 

AAA Expands Roadside Assistance to Bicycles

Over AAA's 107-year history, it has earned the goodwill of millions of drivers but also the acrimony of growing numbers of environmentalists. In recent years, prominent environmental groups have taken the club to task opposing funding for bike lanes and public transit, bashing the Clean Air Act, and pushing for ever more and bigger highways. So when the Oregon and Idaho chapter of AAA debuted a new bicycle roadside assistance program last week, many people were puzzled. Could the group formerly known as the American Automobile Association finally be going green?

"People wrongly assume that AAA only cares about cars," says Marie Dodds, the chapter's director of government and public affairs. "But for example, this year in the 2009 state legislature, we supported the transportation package, which had elements of mass transit, peds, and bicycles. We realized that whether it's because of the economy, the environment, or wanting to improve your fitness, bicycles are becoming a more popular option to get around. So basically we're just staying with the times."

Or with the competition. The chapter's home city, Portland, Oregon, is also HQ for the rival upstart, Better World Club, which launched in 2002 as "the nation's only environmentally-friendly auto club." Better World offers a carbon offset service (now also an option at the Oregon AAA), eco-travel services, discounts on hybrid car rental, and what was, until last week, the nation's only bicycle roadside assistance program. "We are nothing like AAA or other auto clubs," says the BWC's website, which links to a raft of stories on the AAA's lobbying record. "We have the same reliable roadside assistance, but we have a unique policy agenda."

Dodds of AAA says the club's environmental record has improved since the early '90s, when it opposed a law that allowed cities to use highway funds for public transit and bike paths. "That's something that happened 16 years ago," she says. Still, she has no qualms about the club's membership in the American Highway Users Alliance, a group that BWC opposes. "The reality is that the US is, for the most part, a car-based nation," she says. The Alliance's 2008 year-end report brags that it opposed "Smart Growth" development, the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate global warming, and an amendment to a global warming bill by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that would have "included unprecedented anti-mobility provisions, increased fuel costs, and diverted funds from highways."

Are those efforts at odds with AAA's work in Oregon? Consider this: if you're on your bike alongside a busy freeway and you get sideswiped by a car, who's going to pick up the mangled two-wheeler while you're in the hospital? As the club's website says, "Wherever you drive, in the U.S. or Canada, 24 hours a day, AAA will help."

UPDATE: Talk about identity crisis. . .Treehugger reports that AAA is also planning to launch an "eco icon" in its tour book that will denote "green" hotels.

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday July 16

Stories on health, energy, the environment, and other Blue Marble-appropriate topics from our other blogs you might have missed.

I Love Sonia: GOP tells Sonia Sotomayor she has some "splainin" to do.

 

Climate Security vs. National Security

So here's an interesting value test in the modern age. What's of greater importance—keeping secret our secret observations of other Arctic nations, or making available our secret observations in order to transform our understanding of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice?

The National Research Council asks that hundreds of images derived from classified data be immediately released and disseminated to the scientific community. The images provide otherwise unavailable data of melting and freezing processes associated with climate change.

As things stand now, our ability to project future Arctic ice cover is severely hampered by a dearth of data. Readily available satellite images generally suck because the data are low-res. Data collected from drifting manned stations are unreliable since ice stations fall apart before data collection is complete. Data collected from aircraft flights are low-yield and expensive. 

But the classified images that already exist could illuminate a bunch of important stuff:


Moreover, the National Research Council says the 2007-2008 images would greatly enhance intensive ground-based observations carried out during the Fourth International Polar Year. The 2007 summer sea-ice minimum was a record low—more than 20 percent below 2005's previous low and nearly 40 percent below the 1979-2000 average minimum. The release of the high-res imagery would enable a lot more investigation into those banner bad years.

In the 21st century, climate security is national security.
 

Is Calorie Labeling Playing Favorites?

We wrote on Monday about the numerous benefits of calorie labeling on health and consumer choices. Here's an update on how the debate is unfolding throughout the intertubes. Blogger Ezra Klein has a print piece in today's Washington Post praising calorie labeling as a way to wean Americans off foods that will increase our waist size and most likely kill us. An excerpt:

But will putting calorie counts where we can see them make a difference? Possibly. Early studies, along with some anecdotal evidence, show that this practice is driving eaters to choose lighter items.

We're still waiting for the full data from New York's experiment. But the researchers there shared unpublished numbers with the County of Los Angeles Public Health Department, which was preparing an analysis in case Los Angeles wanted to follow New York's lead. Based on those numbers, Los Angeles researchers settled on a "conservative" estimate: 10 percent of chain restaurant patrons would order meals that were merely 100 calories lighter.

Surprisingly, that mild change in behavior has a huge and immediate effect: It would avert 38.9 percent of the county's expected weight gain in the next year. If 20 percent of patrons order meals with 150 fewer calories, it would avert 116 percent of the expected weight gain, which is to say that the County of Los Angeles would actually lose weight.

On his blog, Matt Yglesias agreed, but argued that "what seems really wrongheaded about the NYC law is to limit its effect to chain restaurants." Atrios responded that New York's labeling law is limited to chain restaurants because "requiring it of every restaurant for every item would really place a really large burden on small establishments." He added, "It's more reasonable for large chains because their menu items are standardized and the cost can be spread over their entire chain.

So the netroots seems to agree that calorie labeling is beneficial. But is it appropriate to force it on some restaurants, and let others off the hook?

Buying Green: Bad for Your Credit?

Till today, I couldn't find too many reasons not to shop at the Salvation Army: Thrift-stores are cheaper, better for the planet, and usually more interesting than the mall. But turns out my fondness for weird old mugs could land me in financial hot water. Treehugger has a great little post today about green consumer habits that some credit companies consider "red flags:"

Credit companies take note, for instance, if you charge services like tire retreading and shoe repair to your card. Or if you're shopping at thrift stores like the Salvation Army.

The message: Buying used things and repairing broken ones instead of buying new means you're struggling financially, and can't be trusted to pay back a loan. That's awfully backwards. Little do the credit companies know how much poorer I'd be if I didn't shop at the Salvation Army.

For other credit company red flags, check out this Concord Monitor piece.

Cute Endangered Animal: Kangaroo Rat

This week's cute endangered animal is the kangaroo rat. Now you might not think that any animal with "rat" in its name would be cute, or in danger of disappearing, but both are true for several species of kangaroo rats here in the U.S. Despite its name, the kangaroo rat is not actually a rat, but rather a relation the gopher family. Currently, six species of kangaroo rats (genus Dipodomys) are facing extinction. They all live in the Western half of the US, starting in the Dakotas and extending West to California and Nevada, preferring desert habitats. The tiny animals measure just 2" at the shoulder, and like to get around by hopping like kangaroos (as much as 6" a leap!). Kangaroo rats are known for their love of dust baths, for cramming an incredible amount of food into their cheek pouches and, on occassion, for hiding under the crotches of hapless biologists.

The native kangaroo rat was thriving until the 1950s, when a two-tiered threat of agriculture and human development hit them: the farmers carried out pest-control campaigns against the rats (who found newly-tilled soil perfect for burrows), and new roads made it hard for rats to find new habitat. More recently, oil and natural gas exploration has been painted as a possible culprit in a number of rat deaths. Also, given that the rats relate their mating status and territory by thumping their long hind legs on the ground, one can only imagine that development also hinders intra-species communication.

The kangaroo rats' survival is important to environmentalists because the animals are a "keystone species" in their environments. With kidneys four times as strong as humans', kangaroo rats get most of their daily moisture from their food: seeds and nuts. By eating plants with the largest seeds, they allow plants with smaller seeds to flourish, which in turn effects the surrounding insect and bird populations.

Despite their importance to the ecosystem, the federal government has not been pro-active in protecting the kangaroo rat. Just last year, US Fish & Wildlife proposed cutting a California kangaroo rat's protected habitat by about 2/3. Conservation groups said they were going to sue the department, and Fish & Wildlife relented by changing the planned habitat reduction. Scientists said last year that they will use an Israeli satellite to take pictures of the rats habitat which will help them get an accurate population count. Though just how accurate the satellites will be remains unknown. "It's fairly rare for something so small to be a keystone species," UC Berkeley's Tim Bean told USA Today. "It's easier to track, say, bison."