Blue Marble

Forestry: Where Bush's Midnight Regs Could Backfire

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 2:34 PM EST

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The Bush Administration is pushing two last-minute decisions that could double logging on more than 2 million acres of federal forestland and make it much easier for timber companies to convert forests into subdivisions. The moves are opposed by environmentalists even as the political upside for Republicans is less clear than it would have been in the '90s, when the GOP gained traction in the West by siding with loggers against the spotted owl.

Bush's move to increase logging, which would affect 2.6 million acres in southwest Oregon, comes at a time when some large private timber farms in that area have collapsed due to over-harvesting. As a result, the battle lines of the old timber wars are being redrawn. For example, before Charles Hurwitz sold his Pacific Lumber company in June, he'd closed three of his four mills and fired 80 percent of his workers. Most locals now blame Hurwitz for the layoffs, and the new owners of the company have won support from both loggers and environmentalists by pursuing a sustainable yield and preserving old growth trees. Increasingly, loggers no longer demand pillaging harvests, while enviros support logging as a preferable alternative to development. Bush's move ignores that trend.

Which brings us to Bush's second midnight reg: allowing the Plum Creek Timber Company to pave roads through forest service land in Montana, which would open up much of the company's 1.2 million acres there to rural subdivisions. The move has incurred the ire of county governments, which worry that it could undo efforts to cluster housing in urban areas and create new burdens to provide services. During the presidential campaign, Obama shrewdly noted the the subdivisions could "cause prime hunting and fishing lands to be carved up and closed off." They'd also take the land out of timber production, reinforcing the common cause between enviros and loggers on urban sprawl.

If Bush really wanted to help out loggers, he would have curbed the housing bubble. The collapse in residential construction has slashed timber prices. But the Republicans, like Hurwitz, were more concerned with raking in the green than sustainably growing it.

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Can Paving America be Eco-Friendly?

| Sat Jan. 3, 2009 1:12 PM EST

Given that Obama's economic stimulus package is likely to include billions of dollars in road projects, how will he counteract the environmental toll? One idea, supported by the steel industry, is to funnel more of that money into rail, such as the $45-billion high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco that was approved by the state's voters in November.

Another idea is to build those roads greener. Two new cement companies, one in Great Britain, another in Silicon Valley, claim to have discovered a new way to produce cement that not only emits no carbon dioxide, but also sucks much of it from the atmosphere.

This is no small feat. Cement production accounts for 5 percent of the world's CO2 emissions--more than the entire aviation industry. And a recent report by the French Bank Credit Agricole estimated that demand for cement will increase 50 percent by 2020.

The Silicon Valley company, Calera Corp, was founded by Stanford professor Brent Constanz, who in 1986 invented a medical cement that revolutionized the way hospitals repaired broken bones. Unlike conventional cement, which is made by heating up limestone or clay to around 1500 degrees C, his medical cement combined carbon dioxide and magnesium to mimic the way coral reefs are formed. His new eco-cement works much the same way, except the carbon dioxide comes from power plants that would otherwise spew it into the atmosphere. The British company, Novacem, uses a similar process.

Both companies claim their products are strong enough to work in roads, buildings, and bridges and are cost-competitive with conventional cement. The hard part will be to convince customers that the cements will endure the test of time when there's no real track record. Of course, using conventional cement will also be a gamble--in the form of some 450 million tons of yearly carbon emissions.

Study: Great Barrier Reef Sees Worst Growth Rate in 400 Years

| Fri Jan. 2, 2009 1:11 PM EST

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Scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science report that the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest reef system (visible from space), is facing historic peril. Not that this is news. Mother Jones has reported extensively on the subject. But new research published in the journal Science includes the largest study to date about environmental damage to Australia's reefs.

The reef is experiencing is slowest growth rate in nearly 400 years, and gone unchecked, could lead to zero growth by 2050, says Glenn De'ath, the study's co-author. "When you disturb an ecosystem in this way, you get a cascading effect. You then get a chain reaction -- the fish habitat is lost."

What's to blame? The usual suspect: global warming. Rising sea temperatures are causing coral bleaching, in which corals release the algae which nourish them. The effect is grimly obvious underwater, where previously vibrantly colored reefs come appear like piles of bones. Without algae, corals eventually die. Says De'ath, "We may have seriously underestimated the rate of climate change and this should compel us to drastic steps to decarbonise Australian and global economic systems."


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Leonard Low.

iBreath, Your New Year's Eve Drinking Buddy?

| Wed Dec. 31, 2008 11:36 AM EST

The newly released iBreath, an alcohol breathalyzer accessory that attaches to your iPod and iPhone, is the newest addition to the list of Apple-friendly alcohol apps and devices (you know, Drunk-Dial and Taxi Magic?) and I think it's pretty brilliant. The iBreath, created by David Steele Enterprises Inc., sells for $79. It claims it can measure your alcohol content within two seconds and within .01 percent accuracy—and it even doubles as an FM transmitter. (The marriage of personal science with FM transmission capability seems a little odd, but what the hell.) What's next: an iSugar glucose meter? Maybe an iClean personal STD test?

Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, has come out against the iBreath, telling the Los Angeles Times that kids will just use it for drinking games and no one should drive with any alcohol in their system no matter what, and we should all just take public transportation. If you are falling down drunk, obviously calling a cab is the only thing you should be doing. But this device could be useful for those who have two glasses of wine at dinner, or two cocktails at the bar, and might not realize that even if they don't feel tipsy, it's not too hard to surpass .08 percent blood-alcohol content. And until public transportation in many cities is more widely available after last call, and kids start thinking that Monopoly is more fun than drinking (i.e., never), iBreath fills an intereresting gap.

—Kathleen Flynn

Pickens Plan Quietly Falters

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 12:23 PM EST

So much for the vaunted Pickens Plan. Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens' massively publicized scheme to build a $10 billion wind farm in West Texas has discreetly been put on hold. Pickens cites the difficulty securing financing during the credit crisis, but has also told reporters that energy prices would have to rise again before the project becomes economically viable. This underscores the myth about Pickens' supposedly altruistic motives. The media has often portrayed him as an aging robber baron (and former Swift Boater) reborn as an idealistic green crusader--what use does an octogenarian have for greed, the thinking goes (He's even a finalist now for Dallas Morning News' "Person of the Year"). But I've argued that Pickens' real motive--getting even richer--is exposed by his plays for water rights in West Texas and public subsidies for natural gas in California--two moves adamantly opposed by environmentalists. Perhaps most telling, Pickens recently slashed $10 million from the media campaign he started to promote wind and natural gas. If Pickens himself isn't going to peddle wind right away, it seems there's less incentive for him to get everybody else on the wagon.

Remember Those Urban Myths About Waking Up In a Tub of Ice, Sans Kidney?

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 8:59 PM EST

Well, here's the 2009 version: Waking up with your head shaved, a chip implanted in your brain, and hornier than David Duchovny. With your guilty Significant Other leering at you. Yup, now there's a 'sex' chip ready to be soldered into your brain. From the Daily Telegraph:

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Monitor Your Health With A Cell Phone

| Wed Dec. 24, 2008 12:27 AM EST

Mobile_phone.png Here's the house call of the future. A prototype cell phone that monitors HIV and malaria patients and tests water quality in undeveloped areas or disaster sites. Data is then be sent via the cell phone to a hospital for analysis and diagnosis.

The imaging platform is already here. It's called LUCAS and has been experimentally installed in a cell phone and a webcam, each of which then takes an image of blood, saliva or other fluids using short-wavelength blue light. LUCAS can identify and count the microparticles instantly by using a decision algorithm to compare the captured images to a library of images.

The technology is the brainchild of electrical engineer Aydogan Ozcan of UCLA. His latest version, called holographic LUCAS, is described in the journal Lab On A Chip. Holographic LUCAS can identify smaller particles than before, such as E. coli. Ozcan's next step is to build a handheld device for people in remote areas to use to monitor the spread of disease, allowing doctors to know where they're most needed fast.

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 Best Chocolate You've Never Heard Of

| Mon Dec. 22, 2008 9:00 PM EST

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Kallari, released at Whole Foods in October, is the world's first widely-available chocolate bar made and marketed by actual cacao farmers. It also might be the best chocolate I've tasted, and I'm a big chocolate fan. It's produced with a rare, highly-celebrated bean grown in the Ecuadorian Amazon by 850 enterprising Quichua families who receive 100 percent of the profits. It probably doesn't hurt that they got a little bit of help from Robert Steinberg, the founder of Berkeley's renowned Scharffen Berger chocolate. If you're looking for a holiday gift, Kallari's 75% cacao bar might be a good bet. In these depressing times, you'll get to talk about how it was made by farmers who until recently couldn't even afford to ship their beans from the jungle to Quito but who now run the show--true role models for us children of the recession. And then you can suggest opening it right away so you can snap off a big chocolatey chunk for yourself.

Methane Leaking Into Arctic Ocean

| Fri Dec. 19, 2008 7:56 PM EST

800px-East_Siberian_Sea_map.png The carbon pool beneath the Arctic Ocean is leaking. A study on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf found an increase in methane bubbles rising from chimneys on the seafloor in 2008. In fact more than 1,000 measurements registered the highest dissolved methane concentrations ever seen in the summer Arctic Ocean. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

These new data from the International Arctic Research Center indicate the underwater permafrost is thawing in one of two (or both) ways. First, thawing permafrost initiates the decomposition of previously-frozen organic material, releasing methane and carbon dioxide. Second, ice-like methane hydrates trapped underneath the permafrost seep out when the permafrost thaws.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a shallow continental shelf stretching 900 miles into the Arctic Ocean from Siberia. It's known to be a year-round source of methane to the globe's atmosphere. But until recently scientists believed that much of its carbon pool was safely insulated by underwater permafrost. Not anymore. Now the fuse is lit on the methane time bomb. . . . And we're still talking about drilling for new sources of oil? WTF? Listen up Barack Obama: The promised change has gotta be faster than the melting methane.

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.

Carbon Storage Models Get Realer

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 10:17 PM EST

Carbon_sequestration.jpg Two new modeling studies are tackling simulations of long-term CO2 storage. The first examines leakage of stored CO2 from abandoned oil wells. The second attempts to simulate the big picture, starting with capture and leading to injection and storage, evaluating costs and risks of potential sites.

Both papers are published online at Environmental Science & Technology. Both simulate projects that aim to capture CO2 from power plants and store it underground in aquifers or sedimentary deposits. Pilot carbon capture and storage projects are currently underway in Germany, Norway, Canada, Algeria, and the U.S.

The first paper from the U of Bergen, Norway, and Princeton finds that abandoned wells have created a Swiss-cheese pattern of holes across North America. CO2 can escape from these wells. Undersea storage would avoid the Swiss cheese problem, the authors note. But an ocean solution is more expensive.