Blue Marble

Zoos Squabble Over Polar Bear Profits

| Fri Jul. 11, 2008 4:25 PM EDT

knut.jpg

Last year, Knut the polar bear cub became an international celebrity after animal rights activists said he should be allowed to die rather than raised by humans. The Berlin Zoo disagreed, and their adorable cub quickly became an environmental icon as well as the Zoo's most popular exhibit, bringing $8 million in revenues. Now the Neumuenster Zoo is trying to get a piece of the profits, saying that because it owns Knut's father, it kind of own Knut too. Neumuenster is looking into court action, as so far the Berlin Zoo has refused to give in.

As for Knut, he's suffering now that the intense attention he used to get is tapering off. When the Berlin Zoo was closed for a few days this winter, he howled for hours. He reportedly cries when there aren't enough people near his enclosure and pines for his former keeper, Thomas Dorflein, who hand-raised him, crying when he picks up Dorflein's scent. One of Knut's keepers told Der Spiegel that the bear "has something of an identity crisis. He doesn't know that he's a polar bear." The keeper, Markus Robke, says that Knut should be moved to someplace more secluded, away from people and away from those who raised him. "As long as he's with us, he will always regard Thomas Dorflein as his father."

Image courtesy Berlin Zoo

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Glacier Growth Caused by Climate Change?

| Thu Jul. 10, 2008 2:05 PM EDT

shasta150.jpg
As we already know, most of the world's ice is melting fast. Not so on California's Mt. Shasta, where glaciers are actually growing because of global warming.

Here's how it works: The Pacific Ocean is warmer now than in years past. Warmer temperatures mean more moisture, which in turn means more snowfall on Mt. Shasta.

This is not the case for other nearby mountain ranges. The Sierra Nevada range, which is just 500 miles south of Mt. Shasta, is losing ice—in fact, it has lost about half its ice over the past 100 years.

Like Antarctica's increasing sea ice, the Mt. Shasta glaciers are another piece of evidence that global warming is a little more complicated than most of us think.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons.

What's the Most Polluting Car?

| Thu Jul. 10, 2008 1:20 PM EDT

suv.jpgForbes.com has published a list of the ten dirtiest cars. Or more accurately—vehicles, since all but a few are SUVs and trucks. (And surprise! The Hummer isn't number one).

The list order is mostly based on the EPA's air pollution rankings, but to break ties, Forbes.com also took into account vehicles' carbon footprints. The nadir of the coverage is in their "Tips for Polluting Less":

Experts say that realizing even minor improvements in fuel economy among the worst polluters on the road is the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall. For example, choosing a base GMC Yukon with a 5.3-liter V8, which gets 16 mpg overall, instead of the high-end Denali version and its 14-mpg 6.2-liter V8 would save more than 130 gallons of gasoline per year for the typical driver, and eliminate 1.7 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, says Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Langer then goes on to say that "achieving the same savings through improvements to a 42-mpg Honda Civic Hybrid would require a 25-mpg boost, to 67 mpg."

So let's get this straight: Consumers should feel good about choosing a Yukon SUV over a hybrid, since the Yukon is way more efficient than the Denali? That's kind of like trying to lose weight by eating a ho-ho instead of a ding-dong.

Full top ten list after the jump.

Red Tide? Hold Your Breath, Run Fast

| Wed Jul. 9, 2008 7:06 PM EDT

La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780.jpg The airborne toxins inhaled in the spray of red tides may be cancer causing. At least in lab rats, those sorry creatures perpetually suffering for our crappy decisions. NOAA scientists report that in fighting brevetoxins, the rats' immune systems convert them to molecules that destroy DNA in the lungs.

Which is the first step for many cancer causing agents. In other words, the process is likely carcinogenic.

The brevetoxin Karenia brevis has long been known to cause neurotoxic poisoning (from consumption of contaminated shellfish), and respiratory irritation (from inhalation of toxic sea spray). Cancer may be its newest side-effect, albeit one with a slower onset.

Red tides, you might remember, are on the rise globally, fueled by our flagrant overuse of fertilizers—which, voila!, also make plants in the sea grow really fast too. Not good for the sea, or you, or me. Or lab rats.

Red tides and their alter-egos, dead zones, are also linked to our warming climate. Both of which are linked to growing threats to human health, even if Dick Cheney's office worked hard to suppress that information.

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

Biofuels & Biodiversity Don't Mix

| Tue Jul. 8, 2008 8:47 PM EDT

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.

The Latest Twist On Storms: Bigger & Badder

| Tue Jul. 8, 2008 7:56 PM EDT

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.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Smart Energy = No More Wall Warts

| Tue Jul. 8, 2008 1:07 AM EDT

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 8:10 PM EDT

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 6:40 PM EDT

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 6:00 PM EDT

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