Blue Marble

Supreme Court Rules That Navy Can Use Sonar; Refuses To Discuss Impact on Whales

| Wed Nov. 12, 2008 7:35 PM EST

whale.jpgThe Supreme Court ruled today that a lower court overstepped its authority last February when, citing severe harm to whales and other marine mammals, it imposed strict rules on the Navy's use of sonar in the ocean off of Southern California.

The plaintiff in the case was the Natural Resources Defense Council, but it's not just environmental advocacy groups that oppose sonar. In 2006, Mother Jones reported that the International Whaling Commission, the UN, and a number of scientists had all concluded that the widespread use of sonar likely causes organ lesions, brain hemorrhages, and severe decompression sickness, all leading to mass beachings and deaths.

Despite the primacy of these concerns in the NRDC's filing, the court's decision did not directly address the merits of the environmental group's case. Chief Justice John Roberts did argue, however, that regardless of what harm the animals might suffer, the Navy's interests would almost certainly outweigh the whales'.

"For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine mammals that they study and observe," he wrote. "In contrast, forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet."

Guess no one told him that destroying marine ecosystems will cause bigger problems for the Navy than an enemy submarine.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from zen.

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Pesticide Cocktails Kill At "Safe" Doses

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 8:47 PM EST

591px-Rana_sphenocephala.jpg Combinations of ten of the world's most popular pesticides decimate amphibian populations even if the concentrations are within EPA safe limits for each chemical individually. These supposedly safe low-dose cocktails kill 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles. One pesticide alone—endosulfan, a neurotoxin banned in several nations but still used extensively in US agriculture—killed 84 percent of the leopard frogs all on its own.

Obviously we can't get a new EPA chief fast enough.

Biologist Rick Relyea at the U of Pittsburgh exposed gray tree frog and leopard frog tadpoles to small amounts of the 10 most widely used pesticides on Earth. He chose five insecticides (carbaryl, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, endosulfan, and malathion) and five herbicides (acetochlor, atrazine, glyphosate, metolachlor, and 2,4-D). He then administered: each of the pesticides alone, all the insecticides combined, a mix of the five herbicides, or all 10 of the poisons.

Word of the Year: Hypermiling

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 2:58 PM EST

The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its word of the year: hypermiling. Hypermiling, of course, is maximizing your car's mileage by any means necessary, from simple solutions like driving barefoot (to lighten your lead foot) to putting MPG before mortality and tailgating big rigs (to minimize drag). And when you look up hypermiling in the dictionary, the guy whose picture should be there is Wayne Gerdes, the mileage master who coined the term and whom MJ entertainingly profiled nearly two years ago—way before the lexicographers caught on. And way before the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers discovered hypermiling and tried to rebrand it as "EcoDriving." Ugh. Hopefully the Oxford word mavens will scrape the bottom of this year's short list (staycation, tweet, hockey mom) before they immortalize that term.

EPA Whistleblower Charges Political Interference in Shutdown of BP Investigation

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 2:05 PM EST

The environmental watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is pushing for an investigation into whether the Bush Justice Department improperly shut down an investigation into a massive BP oil spill in Alaska. The allegations of potential political interference were lodged recently by EPA whistleblower Scott West, the former special agent in charge of the investigation, who retired from the agency in early November after 19 years of service. On West's behalf, PEER filed a complaint on Monday requesting an investigation by the Justice Department's Inspector General.

West's allegations stem from a 2006 spill from a BP pipeline that leaked a quarter-million gallons of oil onto the Alaskan tundra, the largest in the history of Alaska's North Slope. The company ignored workers' warnings that maintenance was needed prior to the spill. An investigation by federal and state authorities ensued, but was cut short in October 2007 when the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with BP, in which the company was given a misdemeanor charge and fined $20 million. According to PEER's compliant, this was a slap on the wrist compared with the penalties the oil giant should have received. "The fines proposed by Justice (to which BP immediately agreed) were only a fraction of what was legally required under the Alternative Fines Act. EPA had calculated the appropriate fine levels as several times what Justice offered BP—ranging from $58 million to $672 million." The settlement also ensured that BP executives would not face potential criminal liability, according to the PEER complaint.

Mini Nuke Plants Will Power 20,000 Homes

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 8:49 PM EST

Susquehanna_steam_electric_station.jpg They're the size of a hot tub. They're buried underground. They'll power 20,000 homes for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world, at a start-up cost of $2,500 a house. They're 5 years away from mass production. They're miniature nuclear reactors delivered to your hood by truck and guaranteed to be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts, and be theft-proof because they'll will be encased in concrete and buried underground. And—get this—they'll be safe because they'll be guarded by a security detail.

Wow. I feel so much better already. TSA for garden nukes.

The Guardian reports the mini nuke plants were developed by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, daddies to the first atomic bomb. The US government has licensed the technology to the New Mexico company Hyperion, which said last week it's taken more than 100 firm orders, largely from the oil and electricity industries. Hyperion plans to start mass production within five years. They're also targeting (is that irony?) developing countries and isolated communities.

CO2 Levels Already in Danger Zone

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 6:08 PM EST

toc-cover-310x250.jpg If we want to avert climate disaster we have to reduce atmospheric CO2 below present levels. Like Right Now.

This is a big change in thinking. Until recently many believed we could emit a wee bit more before calling calamity down upon ourselves and everything else. The new paper in Open Atmospheric Science Journal echoes Bill McKibben's piece in the current Mother Jones: The Most Important Number on Earth.

The number is 350. That's parts per million. Atmospheric CO2 is currently at 385 ppm and increasing by about 2 ppm a year from the burning of coal, oil, and gas and forests. Many thought we could get to 450 ppm before disaster. But the new research is based on improved data on Earth's climate history and ongoing observations of change, especially in the polar regions. The researchers combined evidence of Earth's response to past CO2 changes with recent patterns of climate changes. The results show that atmospheric CO2 has already entered a danger zone.

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MoJo Audio: PETA President on Chicks and Clicks

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 1:22 PM EST

PETA is best known for two things: animal rights and outrageous ads. Its campaigns have featured naked women galore, caged ladies in bikinis, and even an online striptease. Feminists accuse PETA of being sexist, but the organization's founder and president Ingrid Newkirk says that's "rubbish." The campaigns are designed to get people to go to PETA's educational site, she says, and they work. To hear more from PETA's president about why the organization goes with such controversial tactics, and why her new book isn't just about animals, click here.

Droughts Destroy Dynasties

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 12:51 AM EST

400px-Drought.jpg Chinese history is replete with the rise and fall of dynasties. New research identifies a natural phenomenon behind at least three of the downfalls—the weakening of the summer Asian Monsoon. The same problem may be afflicting northern China now.

Summer monsoon winds originate in the Indian Ocean and sweep into China. When the monsoon is strong, it pushes farther into northwest China. The new research found a strong summer monsoon prevailed during at least one of China's golden ages, the Northern Song Dynasty, when rice first became China's main crop and China's population doubled. Weak summer monsoons coincided with drought in the northwest and the increasing civil unrest that unraveled the Tang, Yuan, and Ming dynasties.

The droughts were deciphered from layers of stone in a 1,810-year-old, 4.5-inch long stalagmite from Gansu Province, China. Measurements of uranium and thorium revealed the date each layer was formed. Analysis of two forms of oxygen were used to match those measurements to low rainfall dates. Prior to this research no one expected that a record of surface weather would be preserved in underground cave deposits.

Scientists Vote Obama

| Tue Nov. 4, 2008 4:26 PM EST

Barack Obama has captured the lion's share of visible support among scientists, reports AAAS. "It's an enthusiasm chasm," says Michael Stebbins, president of the Scientists and Engineers for America Action Fund, which created a YouTube channel for scientists to explain their choice. As of press time, 22 videos have been posted, all by Obama supporters.

Bernice Durand, a physicist who worked for antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968, has jumped back into the political fray for Obama. Since September, she's worked with more than three dozen scientists who've placed articles or letters in 50-plus newspapers in 20 states, most of them considered still up for grabs. The scientists have also appeared on radio shows and been interviewed by reporters covering the campaign. "On issues of science," says Durand, "on support for research, and on [Obama's] interactions with the scientific community, there's no contest compared to McCain," she says.

Nothing like the disaster of the past 8 years and the potential for so much worse to motivate scientists to finally step out from behind the wall of science and claim their rightful—and much needed—voices in society.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics, Part 2

| Tue Nov. 4, 2008 1:47 PM EST

The following is a guest blog entry by Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society.

To read The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics Part 1, click here.

Efforts by California and Massachusetts to assert regulatory oversight of direct-to-consumer gene testing companies elicited predictable howls in the libertarian-leaning regions of the blogosphere. The gist of the don't-tread-on-me argument: Those are my DNA sequences; keep your hands off.

23andMe understands this impulse, and appeals to it. On the "values" page of its website, for example, it says, "We believe that your genetic information should be controlled by you….Though we store and help you interpret it, your genetic information is yours to have and explore."