Blue Marble

Biofuels & Biodiversity Don't Mix

| Tue Jul. 8, 2008 6:47 PM PDT

349px-Palm_oil_Ghana.jpg Very little can be done to make palm oil plantations more hospitable for birds and butterflies. Consequently rising demand for the biofuel will decimate biodiversity unless natural forests are preserved.

Lian Pin Koh of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich counted birds and butterflies in 15 palm oil plantations in Borneo and found that palm oil plantations supported between 1 and 13 butterfly species, and between 7 and 14 bird species. Previous research found at least 85 butterfly and 103 bird species in neighboring undisturbed rain forest.

The paper, Can palm oil plantations be made more hospitable for forest butterflies and birds?, to be published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, comes at time when rising demand for food and biofuels is squeezing biodiversity. Unless oil palm agriculture is regulated, rising global demand is likely to convert more forests into fuel for your car and mine. Frankly, my dear, neither is worth it.

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

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The Latest Twist On Storms: Bigger & Badder

| Tue Jul. 8, 2008 5:56 PM PDT

800px-Dszpics1.jpg Dust devils, water spouts, tornadoes, hurricanes and cyclones are all born of the same mechanism and will intensify as climate change warms the Earth's surface.

A new mathematical model out of the University of Michigan forecasts the maximum expected intensity of a spiraling storm based on the depth of the troposphere and the temperature and humidity in the storm's path. Current thermodynamic models make assumptions about the energy feeding the storm system and the full measure of friction slowing it down, rather than including actual quantities.

The new model predicts that for every 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit the Earth's surface warms the intensity of storms could increase by at least a few percent. For an intense storm, that could translate into a 10 percent increase in destructive power.

Lead author, Nilton Renno, is also co-investigator on NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander mission, where his model calculates the intensity of dust storms in Mars' polar regions.

You think NASA would send their little pet up there without the best mathematical models? Yet the G8 still thinks it's okay to wait until 2050 to halve our emissions. May the troposphere around them be warm, slippery, and full of convective vortices.

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

Smart Energy = No More Wall Warts

| Mon Jul. 7, 2008 11:07 PM PDT

Surge_protector.jpg

Wall warts are those external power adapters that come with everything electronic these days. We know they suck. First of all, they're energy vampires, sucking 4 percent of all electricity used in the average US home even when they're not in use. They consume 52 billion kilowatt hours of power annually, the same amount of energy produced by 20 average-size power plants.

They also suck in terms of design. Many are too big and use up both sockets. Some are too heavy to stay in their sockets.

Doug Palmer of Calit2 at UCSD thinks there's a better way. He's designing a prototype for a Universal Power Adapter, or uPower adapter, a "smart" device that would supply both power and communications to consumer electronics.

Palmer's adapter would serve as a single power supply for one or more mobile devices, "requesting" the voltage needed, when needed, and delivering that and nothing more. This makes sense when you think that many modern electronics use only 3 to 12 volts yet have to deal with wall sockets that deliver 220 or 100. In theory, even hybrid cars could be plugged into the uPower adapter.

The smart design might also improve conditions in the developing world. Palmer is collaborating with Calit2's India Initiative, which works with the Indian government, universities, and NGOs to create collaborative projects. One of India's most pressing needs is reliable energy in a country that lacks a reliable power grid. Paired with a low-cost solar panel, the uPower adapter might provide lighting to some of India's 1 billion for the first time.

See? When we actually use our much-vaunted intelligence, the future looks better.

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

America's Coral Reefs Declining

| Mon Jul. 7, 2008 6:10 PM PDT

398px-PillarCoral.jpg Not good news. NOAA reports that half of US coral reef ecosystems are in poor or fair shape. This includes reefs in the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Navassa Island, Florida, Flower Garden Banks, the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, the Pacific Remote Islands, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Palau.

The nation's coral reefs face intense threats from development, overfishing, run-off from the land, and recreational use. Even the most remote reefs suffer from marine debris, illegal fishing, and climate change problems, including coral bleaching, coral diseases, and ocean acidification.

More than 270 researchers authored the 15 chapters of the 569-page report, grading the ecosystems' health as excellent, good, fair, poor or unknown. They note that US reefs have been declining for decades. Since the last status report in 2005, two coral species, Elkhorn and Staghorn, have become the first corals ever listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

One thing's for sure, we're going to leave behind tons of documents detailing exactly how the the world got frakked while we awaited the anti-Bush.

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

Snake Sidewinds Energy from the Sea

| Thu Jul. 3, 2008 4:40 PM PDT

snake_waves.jpg How cool is this. A giant rubber tube may help pump affordable electricity from ocean waves. The snakelike design is called the Anaconda. It's ultra-simple, cheap to manufacture and maintain, and could help deliver clean energy from the sea.

Here's how it works. The Anaconda is closed at both ends, filled with water, and anchored below the surface. One end faces the oncoming waves. When a wave hits, the water squeezes the Anaconda, causing a bulge wave to form inside the tube. The bulge wave runs through the snake at the same time the ocean wave runs along the outside of the tube, squeezing the tube further and causing the bulge wave to grow bigger. Eventually the bulge wave triggers a turbine at the far end of the Anaconda. The power produced by the turbine is then fed to shore via a cable.

Confused? Watch the video.

The Anaconda is still only a small-scale prototype. It's funded by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, in collaboration with the Anaconda's inventors and with its developer, Checkmate SeaEnergy. Engineers at the University of Southampton are embarking on large-scale experiments and mathematical studies, working towards full-scale implementation.

Never underestimate the intellectual power mustering on all fronts. We may yet immunize the future against ourselves.

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

Making Fake Stuff Look More Real

| Thu Jul. 3, 2008 4:00 PM PDT

pleather%20couch%20150.jpgBad news for snobs and aesthetes the world over: Scientists are working hard to make synthetic material look "more natural."

Researchers at the National Physical Laboratory in England have set up an experiment to determine what tips our brains off that a substance is the real deal, and not an impostor:

The physical characteristics of a surface, such as its colour, texture and surface roughness, are being linked to what is happening in a person's brain when they see or touch the surface. Once this is understood it should be possible to accurately predict what we will perceive as natural, and manufacturers will be able to design synthetic products to meet this expectation. The results could have a great impact on materials such as wood, animal skin and furs, marble and stone, plants and even prosthetics.

Offended though your rarefied tastes may be, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ostensibly, these fakester materials of the future will be a far cry from Naugahyde. Ultimately, if we get to the point where we can (sustainably and non-toxically) make faux ivory so convincing it's indistinguishable from the actual elephant product, well, I know a few elephants who probably wouldn't have too many aesthetic complaints. I've never known an old-growth forest to call fake mahogany tacky, either.

Photo by Flickr user Somaamos

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Farms Kill Frogs

| Thu Jul. 3, 2008 3:35 PM PDT

734px-Bufo_marinus_from_Australia.JPG You might think a farm canal would be a better place for a frog than a supermarket drainage ditch. Not so. University of Florida zoologists find that suburban toads suffer fewer reproductive abnormalities than toads living near farms—where many possess both testes and ovaries.

Sure it sounds like good clean bi fun. But double tooling is ultimately a lethal attribute. Here's why. Normal male toads (toads are a variety of frogs) have thick, strong forelimbs. More of the intersex frogs (found only in ag areas) have thin, weak forearms. Plus intersex frogs have fewer "nuptial pads"—the scrappy skin on the feet used to grip females during mating. The likely end result: fewer tadpoles.

This is the first peer-reviewed study to compare wild toads from heavily farmed areas with those from partially farmed and completely suburban areas. Past studies have suggested a link between farm herbicides and sexual abnormalities in amphibians, whose populations are crashing globally.

The UF study finds that male toads are the most affected. Normally, males are brown and females are mottled with brown stripes. But males from ag areas are mottled and look like females. The more agricultural the site, the more feminized the males' reproductive organs and the less testosterone they produce.

"What we are finding in Bufo marinus might also occur in other animals, including other amphibian species and humans," says lead author Krista McCoy. "In fact, reproductive abnormalities are increasing in humans and these increases could partially be due to exposure to pesticides."

Another reason why organic is less expensive than the alternative.

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

Clean Energy Leaps Forward

| Wed Jul. 2, 2008 2:51 PM PDT

800px-Windenergy.jpg Think green energy isn't going to happen? Well, despite financial market turmoil, more than $148 billion was sunk into the global sustainable energy sector last year. That's up 60% from 2006.

According to the UNEP report, Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2008, climate change worries, growing support from world governments, rising oil prices and ongoing energy security concerns fueled another record-setting year of investment in renewable energy.

Wind attracted the most investment ($50.2 billion in 2007). Solar power grew most rapidly ($28.6 billion of new capital, at an average annual rate of 254% since 2004).

The first quarter of 2008 looked sluggish. But investments rebounded in the second quarter, even as global financial markets remained in turmoil. Venture capital and private equity for sustainable energy was up 34% above the second quarter of 2007.

"Just as thousands were drawn to California and the Klondike in the late 1800s, the green energy gold rush is attracting legions of modern day prospectors in all parts of the globe," says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General.

There's tons of gold waiting in the bottom of the oil barrel.

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

Bad Math = More Extinctions

| Wed Jul. 2, 2008 2:02 PM PDT

gone_rhino_300x398.jpg We may be underestimating extinction risks by as much as 100-fold. The problem is that current extinction models treat all individual members as the same. You know, one polar bear is more or less a behavioral, programmed clone of the next polar bear.

Ooops. Not so. A new model finds that random differences—male-to-female sex ratios, size differences, behavioral variations—affect individuals' survival rates and reproductive success. These differences don't just ripple outward. They tsunami outward into the overall population. Consequently, extinction rates for endangered species can be orders of magnitude higher than conservation biologists previously believed.

The model developed by Brett Melbourne of Colorado University Boulder and Alan Hastings of the University of California Davis monitored populations of beetles in lab cages. "The results showed the old models misdiagnosed the importance of different types of randomness, much like miscalculating the odds in an unfamiliar game of cards because you didn't know the rules," says Melbourne.

Some high-profile endangered species like mountain gorillas are already tracked individually. But for many others, like stocks of fish, biologists only measure abundance and population fluctuations. "It's these species that are most likely to be misdiagnosed," says Melbourne. "We suggest that extinction risk for many populations… need to be urgently re-evaluated with full consideration of all factors contributing to stochasticity, or randomness."

The IUCN Red List tallies more than 16,000 species threatened with extinction worldwide. One in four mammal species, one in eight bird species and one in three amphibian species are teetering on the brink. The new study in Nature, "Extinction risk depends strongly on factors contributing to stochasticity," makes those numbers look tame.

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

Forecast for Solar: Cloudy

| Tue Jul. 1, 2008 3:06 PM PDT

Solar_energy_power_266094_l.jpgNow that the Bureau of Land Management is deferring solar projects on public land, the forecast for solar energy seems a bit cloudy. What happened?

Just over a year ago, the BLM was actively encouraging solar projects to be shuttled through in a "timely manner." Then it teamed up with the Department of Energy "to assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with solar energy development."