Blue Marble

Polar Bears Found Swimming 60 Miles Offshore

| Wed Aug. 27, 2008 1:04 AM EDT

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An aerial survey has recently found at least nine polar bears swimming in open water far off Alaska. One was at least 60 miles from shore. All could have difficulty making it back to land and are at risk of drowning, particularly if bad weather strikes.

"To find so many polar bears at sea at one time is extremely worrisome because it could be an indication that as the sea ice on which they live and hunt continues to melt, many more bears may be out there facing similar risk," said Geoff York, polar bear coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund. "Polar bears and their cubs are being forced to swim longer distances to find food and habitat."

The discovery of the nine bears at sea came as the US Minerals Management Service was conducting marine surveys in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in advance of potential offshore oil development. In May, the US Department of Interior listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. However, the state of Alaska has opposed the listing and has sued the federal government over its decision to list the bear.

Professor Richard Steiner of the University of Alaska's Marine Advisory Program said: "The bottom line here is that polar bears need sea ice, sea ice is decaying, and the bears are in very serious trouble. For any people who are still non-believers in global warming and the impacts it is having in the Arctic, this should answer their doubts once and for all."

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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California's Gamble: Building More So People Drive Less

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 6:12 PM EDT

sprawl.jpgIn a so-crazy-it-just-might-work attempt to combat global warming, California legislators are trying to get people to drive less by building more—and more intelligently.

Acknowledging that passenger cars account for 30% of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, lawmakers want to make it easier for people to avoid using their cars by encouraging denser development.

A bill now making its way through the legislature would dole out state transportation funds—about $15 billion—only to those communities that pursued "smart-growth" development plans, such as filling in commercial strips and building new homes around existing roads and rail lines. "We know people are going to drive. We want them in their cars for less time," said the bill's author, state Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). It's a pragmatic approcah to a persistent problem: Instead of preventing new development—a move that business interests say stunts economic growth—the measure would encourage cities to build responsibly.

Conventional wisdom says that if they want Californians to stop driving, politicians will have to pry the steering wheels from their cold, dead hands. But if they do this right, residents of the Golden State can have their cake and eat it too. Development isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if it means that more people can work in the communities where they live. The higher gas prices climb, the more crucial such choices will become.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from the pink sip.

Wind Turbines Decimate Bats

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 2:06 AM EDT

Big-eared-townsend-fledermaus.jpg We know wind turbines kill birds. Now a University of Calgary study shows they kill bats in even higher numbers. And not from collisions but from a sudden drop in air pressure known as barotrauma. Ninety percent of the bats examined post mortem showed signs of internal hemorrhaging consistent with barotrauma from the turbine blades. Only about half showed any evidence of direct contact with the blades.

Because they echolocate, bats seldom collide with manmade structures. But an atmospheric-pressure drop at wind-turbine blades is undetectable. And because they're mammals, they die more than birds from barotrauma. Their balloon-like lungs have two-way airflow and flexible sacs surrounded by capillaries. When external pressures drop, the sacs overexpand and burst the capillaries. Bird lungs are more rigid with a one-way circular airflow and withstand pressure drops better.

Bat fatalities at wind turbines far outnumber bird fatalities and the majority of bats killed are migratory species that roost in trees—including hoary bats, eastern red bats, and silver-haired bats. Little is known about their population sizes. But wind turbines could devastate them. . . Simple solution. Don't run the turbines at night. And for the sake of birds-of-prey, don't run them during peak migrations.

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

Shipwrecks Wreck Reefs

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 8:49 PM EDT

800px-RMS_Rhone_2003_10.jpg Shipwrecks on coral reefs appear to increase the invasion of alien species. A US Geological Survey study finds unwanted species completely overtake the shipwreck and eventually the surrounding reef, eliminating all native corals and dramatically decreasing the diversity of other reef organisms.

Sadly, we've been deliberately sinking ships for decades, imagining they might "anchor" healthy new reef communities. But the new study published in the open access journal PloS One is the first to document how manmade structures rapidly destroy the coral community.

The study was conducted at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the central Pacific. This remote area has seen little human activity since WWII. Scientists began surveying a 1991 shipwreck in 2004. Since then, they've observed exponentially increasing populations of a anemonelike animal, Rhodactis howesii, around the wreck. The densities decrease with distance from the ship. Although Rhodactis are rare to absent in other parts of the atoll, they're also populous around buoys.

Greenland's Ice, Going, Going. . .

| Wed Aug. 20, 2008 8:05 PM EDT

Daily satellite images of Greenland's glaciers reveal the break-up of two of its largest glaciers in the last month. A massive 11-square-mile piece broke off the Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland between July 10th and by July 24th. That's half the size of Manhattan. Between 2000 and 2001 the same glacier lost 33 square miles of floating ice.

What worries researchers from the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University is what appears to be a massive crack further upstream. A break-up there would doom 60 square miles, or one-third of what's left of the massive ice field.

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An 11 square mile area of the Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland (80˚N, 60˚W) broke away between July 10th and by July 24th. Petermann has a 500-square-mile floating section, the longest floating glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. Photo courtesy Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University.

Living Green in Denmark

| Mon Aug. 18, 2008 10:40 PM EDT

794px-Ophalingsspil.jpg The inhabitants of the Danish island of Samsø have achieved their target of self-sufficiency in renewable power in only 10 years. Eleven wind turbines now tower over green fields and 10 rise from the North Sea. Rye, wheat and straw are used to heat the one-story buildings. Solar panels have sprouted on roof tiles, reports Planet Ark.

Samsø is home to just 4,000 people. Yet without any construction subsidies, the islanders have invested $84 million of their own money. That's $20,000 per person on average. It's a challenge their government set for the island in 1997, funded largely through local taxes and individual investments. Outside magazine calls it a muscular combination of new technologies, capitalist smarts, and old-school stewardship.

Some residents homes have opted to stay with oil furnaces for heating. Cars are still common. Yet the island has become carbon neutral because the wind turbines offset emissions from cars and oil furnaces.

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Primary Sources: The 1940 Census on "White"

| Mon Aug. 18, 2008 8:49 PM EDT

From AP comes the news that by 2042 whites will no longer be the majority ethnic group in the United States:

By 2050, whites will make up 46 percent of the population and blacks will make up 15 percent, a relatively small increase from today. Hispanics, who make up about 15 percent of the population today, will account for 30 percent in 2050, according to the new projections. Asians, which make up about 5 percent of the population, are projected to increase to 9 percent by 2050.

What does this mean? Historically, not a damn thing.

According to the current census a white person is:

A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "White" or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Near Easterner, Arab, or Polish.

This means that someone whose parents were born in Morocco, who looks like this, would be white. Someone with parents from Argentina, who might look like this, would not be.

But it hasn't always been that way. Race is an arbitrary classification. The first census, in 1790, broke the population into exactly three racial groups: "free whites," "other persons," and "slaves."

By the 1910 census Americans were instructed to:

Write "W" for white; "B" for black; "Mu" for mulatto; "Ch" for Chinese; "Jp" for Japanese; "In" for Indian. For all persons not falling within one of these classes, write "Ot" (for other), and write on the left-hand margin of the schedule the race of the person so indicated. For census purposes, the term "black" (B) includes all persons who are evidently full-blooded negroes, while the term "mulatto" (Mu) includes all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.

The 1940 census demanded that Americans sort their identity according to the following Byzantine racial classification system:

Solar Superhighways

| Fri Aug. 15, 2008 12:16 AM EDT

800px-Indiana-rural-road.jpg Researchers are developing a solar collector to turn roads and parking lots into cheap sources of electricity and hot water. "Asphalt has a lot of advantages as a solar collector," says Rajib Mallick of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. "For one, blacktop stays hot and could continue to generate energy after the sun goes down, unlike traditional solar-electric cells.

Plus there's already gynormous acreage of installed roads and parking lots. They're resurfaced every 10 to 12 years. The solar retrofit could be built into that cycle. No need to transform other landscapes into solar farms. Or maybe not as many.

Furthermore, extracting heat from asphalt would cool the urban heat-island effect, cooling the planet a wee bit. Finally, solar collectors in roads and parking lots would be invisible, unlike those on roofs. Cuz we all know how attractive roads are.

Running From The Waves in Beijing

| Thu Aug. 14, 2008 12:00 AM EDT

800px-Tuvalu_Funafuti_atoll_beach.jpg Tuvalu's first Olympics may be it's last. The Pacific island-nation faces inundation from rising sea levels and no one knows if its nine coral atolls will still exist for future Olympics. Tuvalu's two track athletes and one weightlifter are gunning for more than gold, reports Planet Ark.

Neighbor island-nation Kiribati has sent three athletes to its second Olympics. But its atolls are also disappearing. Storm surges erode coastlines and contaminate fresh water supplies, and long before the islands go under they'll be uninhabitable.

Think of it as a sneak preview for all coastlines.

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

Solar Cell World Record

| Wed Aug. 13, 2008 11:35 PM EDT

275px-Photoelectric_effect.svg.png A new world record has been set by a solar cell that converts 40.8 percent of light into electricity. The proud parents are scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab.

The 40.8 percent efficiency was measured under concentrated light of 326 suns. One sun is the amount of light that hits Earth on a sunny day. The new cell will work well for space satellites. Also for land-based arrays that focus sunlight onto solar cells with lenses or mirrors.

You know, the kind we need to be building everywhere. Marshall Plan for Earth, and all that.

The new cell is grown on a gallium arsenide wafer. Then flipped over and the wafer removed. The result is an extremely thin and light solar cell with better performance and cost. Bring it on.

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