Blue Marble

Satellites to Rescue Starving Arctic Animals?

| Tue Mar. 18, 2008 12:47 PM PDT

MuskOxen.jpg

In the Artic, a lot still goes unseen. Take the weird weather event of October 2003 that killed 20,000 musk oxen on Canada's Banks Island above the Arctic Circle. Rain fell for days atop 6 inches of snow and seeped through to the soil. When the temperature plunged, the rain froze into a thick layer of ice that persisted all winter. Browsers couldn't dig through to feed on lichens and mosses, and one-third of a 70,000-herd of musk oxen perished. "Starvation happened over a period of many months and no one knew until they went up to do the population count the next spring," says Thomas Grenfell, research professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. The closest weather station, 60 miles away, didn't record any rainfall at the time and few people recognized the oxen's distress.

Now Grenfell and Jaakko Putkonen, also of UW, have found evidence of the 2003 rain-on-snow occurrence in passive satellite microwave imagery. This could provide a signature to help detect similar events in the future, throughout the sparsely-populated Arctic, including in Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia, and Scandinavia. They looked for patterns in data from 10 different satellite microwave channels that correlated with rain-on-snow events. "The subtleties in the microwave levels mean there can be high error margins on this information, but the Banks Island event stood out like a sore thumb in the data," said Grenfell. He hopes satellite data might make up for a scarcity of weather stations and enable native people, who depend on musk oxen, reindeer and caribou, to get food to the herds to prevent mass starvation.

Not explicitly stated but worrying nontheless—expect more rain-on-snow events as the Arctic warms. Which means, this is what we've come to, essentially taming wildlife to keep it alive. Sad benchmark. The study will be published March 25 in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Green Buildings Cut CO2 Fastest

| Mon Mar. 17, 2008 3:29 PM PDT

The fastest and cheapest way to cut deeply into CO2 emissions is to overhaul old buildings for efficiency and build new ones green from the start. Turns out that buildings are responsible for more than one-third of North America's CO2 emissions, says a new report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Promoting green design, construction, renovation and operation of buildings could cut North American building emissions from more than 2,200 megatons of CO2 annually to 500 megatons. Rapid deployment of emerging advanced energy-saving technologies could bring about these savings by 2030.

Currently, green buildings routinely reduce energy usage by 30 to 50 percent over conventional buildings. The most efficient now outperform them by more than 70 percent. The authors recommend ways to accelerate greening our homes and offices, calling upon government, industry and nongovernmental leaders to:

 

Create national, multi-stakeholder task forces for achieving a vision of green building in North America • Support the creation of a North American set of principles and planning tools for green building • Set clear targets to achieve the most rapid possible adoption of green building in North America, including aggressive targets for carbon-neutral or net zero-energy buildings, together with performance monitoring to track progress towards these targets • Enhance ongoing or new support for green building, including efforts to promote private sector investment and proper valuation methods • Increase knowledge of green building through research and development, capacity building, and the use of labels and disclosures on green building performance.

 

We need some national vision here. Yet another reason why 308 days, 19 hours, 37 minutes, and 1 second left (as of this writing) can't fly by fast enough.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Are Genetically Engineered Organics the Future of Farming?

| Mon Mar. 17, 2008 2:12 PM PDT

corn200.jpg This past weekend in the Boston Globe, Pamela Ronald, a U.C. Davis plant pathologist, tackled the debate over genetic engineering in organic farming. Without mincing words.

It is time to abandon the caricatures of genetic engineering that are popular among some consumers and activists, and instead see it for what it is: A tool that can help the ecological farming revolution grow into a lasting movement with global impact.

Bold, to be sure. But are these fightin' words? Probably.

President Bush Tells EPA How to Do Its Job; Clean Air Suffers

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 8:56 AM PDT

From the Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency weakened one part of its new limits on smog-forming ozone after an unusual last-minute intervention by President Bush, according to documents released by the EPA.
EPA officials initially tried to set a lower seasonal limit on ozone to protect wildlife, parks and farmland, as required under the law. While their proposal was less restrictive than what the EPA's scientific advisers had proposed, Bush overruled EPA officials and on Tuesday ordered the agency to increase the limit, according to the documents.
"It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference for the president personally to override a decision that the Clean Air Act leaves exclusively to EPA's expert scientific judgment," said John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The president's order prompted a scramble by administration officials to rewrite the regulations to avoid a conflict with past EPA statements on the harm caused by ozone.

The Post adds, "the rules that the EPA issued Wednesday will help determine the nation's air quality for at least a decade."

The Best Doctor Blog You're Not Reading

| Thu Mar. 13, 2008 1:10 PM PDT

One of the most candid and well-written ER blogs out there had the grave misfortune to be mentioned on NPR today. I give it six months, tops, before twitchy hospital admin and and overzealous privacy lawyers team up to shut it, like its ill-fated kin, down.

In the meantime, WhiteCoat Rants is a fascinating window into our national healthcare policy woes, as well as an insidery look at the gallows humor needed to patch people up for the same lunkhead problems, day after day after day.

Where else can you find a satire on how to make a tranquilizer dartgun using only trauma shears and discarded chest tube containers? Or the reason why, which would be to capture gazelles for the family dinner "while waiting for Medicare payments and [health] insurance approvals to come through?"

The Emergency Room—really the Emergency Department as some will sniffily correct—is the last stop not just for the uninsured, but for all of us. So the next time you're in the ED getting sewn up after a bar fight, or treated for back pain on a weekend, or soothed at midnight because your goo-producing kid has a weird fever, say thanks. You'll be among the few who do.

Enraged John McCain Charges Bears

| Mon Mar. 10, 2008 9:36 PM PDT

You know, Teddy Roosevelt got a lot of mileage for being nice to a bear. The ubiquitous Teddy bear was the upshot of his refusal to shoot. So you think John McCain would know better. The Washington Post reports a great piece on McCain's standard stump speech fare about a $3 million study of the DNA of bears in Montana. "Unbelievable," he says. Well, what's unbelievable is that no one on McCain's staff has bothered to inform him of the real purpose of the study he's spent so much energy despising since 2003. Katherine Kendall, a kick-ass biologist, and the mastermind of the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, is actually doing John McCain and his descendants a genuine favor by tackling the life-and-death issues of biodiversity. According to the WP:

Kendall is one tough field biologist: She's rafted wild rivers, forded swollen streams and hiked through remote backcountry for weeks at a time. She goes to places inhabited by all manner of large creatures with sharp teeth. She was once charged by an enraged grizzly. She stared the bear down… As a scientist with the US Geological Survey, she set out to get the first head count of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. She and her co-workers at the USGS have used DNA primarily as a bear-identifying tool… "There's never been any information about the status of this population. We didn't know what was going on—until this study," Kendall said. This was an astonishingly ambitious research project involving 207 paid workers, hundreds of volunteers, 7.8 million acres and 2,560 bear sampling sites [including the bear rub tree seen in the video]. The project did not cost $3 million, as McCain's ad alleges, but more than $5 million, including nearly $4.8 million in congressional appropriations. It had a strong advocate in Congress in Montana's three-term senator, Conrad Burns, a Republican who was defeated in his reelection bid in 2006.

Bear at a rubbing tree.

Bottom line: we need bears. We need tough field biologists whose dedication often means the difference between survival and extinction for their study animals. We need to stand up to McCain when he charges blindly and stare him down. Anyone up for attending a stump speech in a bear costume?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Prescription Drugs Are in our Drinking Water: What to do Now?

| Mon Mar. 10, 2008 5:26 PM PDT

The biggest sex story of the day, besides the expensive sex life of the New York Governor, is the revelation that prescription drugs (including sex hormones) are in the drinking water of 41 million Americans. Forget Room 871's minibar. Maybe Spitzer got horny on tap water.

That drugs are in our water isn't new news, but the AP's five-month investigation will be sure to prompt a rush on Brittas and bottled snowmelt from the Alps. It will also probably lead to a reexamination of our wastewater treatment systems, including the policy of spreading sewage sludge on farmland--sort of the stealth turd in the swimming pool of water politics. Sludge, the black goop that comes out of sewage plants, contains drug residues that have the potential to be absorbed into plants and animals and run off into streams. So does the "purified" water that comes out of the same plants, but the sludge has gotten less attention as of late. Now almost forgotten is the high-ranking EPA scientist, David Lewis, who raised a stink over sludge a few years ago. The EPA fired him, though not before he exposed shortfalls in the EPA's science on sludge and some shady ties between government and industry.

For now, consumers will have to sort out how to deal with the drug-laced water problem on their own. In case you're wondering, one sure-fire water filtration method for removing pharmaceuticals from your tap is reverse osmosis. In arid Southern California, Orange County began operating a reverse osmosis system late last year that extracts drinking water from sewage (they call it "toilet to tap'). The superior cleanliness of this source relative to drinking water from lakes and rivers might have struck me as ironic--before Spitzer exploded my brain's irony synapse.

Foldable Cars Park (Stack) Like Grocery Carts

| Fri Mar. 7, 2008 4:55 PM PST

citystack.jpg

It's still only an idea. But a fine one from MIT's The Media Lab's Smart Cities. A futuristic electric CityCar that can drive itself and, at the press of a button, look for a parking spot behind others like itself, then fold in half and stack like a shopping cart. Reuters reports that a miniature mock-up version has gone on display at a campus museum, and there are plans to build a full-scale model this spring. Wired's blog Autotopia explained the car's premise some time ago:

The GM-backed CityCar prototype is a lightweight electric vehicle that's cheap to make and could be folded and stacked at transit hubs for rental by commuters under a shared-use model. The trick is to rethink the wheel. In the CityCar, a robotic drive system controls electric motors, steering and braking mechanisms, suspension, and digital controls embedded in each wheel — all integrated into plug-and-play sealed units that can be snapped on and off… Besides its stackability, its omnidirectional wheel configuration enables a turning radius of zero, turning U-turns into O-turns… Other features: push-button start, handlebars where the steering wheel would be, and a body made of Kevlar, carbon fiber, or some other lightweight composite.

Imagine if parking, drive time, congestion, navigation, and your fellow driver was no longer an issue. Imagine what that might do to emotional health, personal time & energy budgets, neighborly love, and the big CO2 footprint in the sky. Imagine if we didn't need to compete for space but could happily piggyback on each other. Okay, call me an idealist but there are days when the future looks good enough for hope... You'll have to navigate on your own through the Smart Cities pages to find the City Car. But it's a really fun ride.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Corporations Need Green Police

| Thu Mar. 6, 2008 5:09 PM PST

623962630_a88b833cf6_m.jpg Voluntary environmental programs among businesses don't work. This according to a new study from George Mason University of more than 30,000 firms. Some of those firms were participants in the Environmental Protection Agency's VEPs (Voluntary Environmental Programs), some weren't. Participants received $69 million from the EPA last year (1.6 percent of the agency's budget). Yet nonparticipating companies performed 7.7 percent better than participants in meeting environmental goals.

Why? Well, self-monitored companies performed worst of all (nonparticipators outperformed them by 24 percent). The absence of third-party oversight invites 'free ridership,' says Nicole Darnall, lead author. "Companies are taking part in these programs and receive credit for doing so, but some aren't really adhering to the goals. Nonparticipating companies may have stronger goals… [and] a higher performance." The study is published in Policy Studies Journal.

In other words, slacker companies with no genuinely good intentions get the money under Bush's castrated EPA… Sigh. Practice compassionate impeachment.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.


EPA Union Leaders Take on Top Brass Over CA Waiver Decision

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 12:40 PM PST

On Friday, 19 union local presidents representing more than 10,000 EPA employees submitted a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson accusing him of "abuses of our good nature and trust." The complaint cited the California greenhouse gas waiver decision and several other issues, including the oversight of mercury emissions from power plants. It expanded upon a protest of the waiver decision submitted by a smaller group of EPA staffers in January.

That same Friday I happened to attend a forum at UC Davis on California's greenhouse gas regulation efforts. Ken Davis, the point man on global warming lawsuits for the AG's office, mentioned that the EPA had earlier that day submitted a 40-page declaration expanding upon its reasoning for denying the waiver. The EPA was calling the declaration its "final rule," which, he speculated, was an effort to reset the clock on the AG's appeal of the decision. He considered the move a shameless delaying tactic.

Clearly, we haven't heard the last of the global warming fight between California and the EPA. Johnson is increasingly isolated: public opinion, state legislatures, and, of course, the world at large are moving in the opposite direction. Expect an increasing amount of high profile dissent from within the EPA as the political season unfolds--especially if it looks more likely that a Democrat will retake the White House.