Blue Marble

Birds Feed Citizen Scientists

| Sat Apr. 5, 2008 4:58 PM EDT

45705967_eb04516a4c_m.jpg But first, the slacker birds. You know them. You've seen them. They flit from one bird feeder to the next, swilling millet, spilling sunflower seeds, covered in hulls and husks. Ever wondered about the ecological effects of feeding these backyard beauties? Well, Gillian Robb, Robbie McDonald, Dan Chamberlain, and Stuart Bearhop of various worthy institutes in the UK have published a research review in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, an online journal of the Ecological Society of America, as reported by AAAS. We dole out 500,000 metric tons of bird seed annually in the US and UK, supporting millions of songbirds. This researchers found that, though beneficial, the bonus seed may be a mixed blessing. From the abstract:

While alteration of the natural dynamics of food supply represents a major intervention in avian ecology, we have a remarkably limited understanding of the impacts of this widespread pastime… We consider positive impacts, such as aiding species conservation programs, and negative ones, such as increased risk of disease transmission. It seems highly likely that natural selection is being artificially perturbed, as feeding influences almost every aspect of bird ecology, including reproduction, behavior, demography, and distribution.

In one study, Robb and her colleagues found that dozens of blue tits that nibbled hand-out peanuts all winter fledged more chicks in the spring than those not fed. But a 2001 study of Florida scrub jays found that fed birds ate too much in winter and laid their eggs too early, so natural food sources weren't available when the hatchlings needed them. The review hints at concerns about indirect impacts too. Namely that fed winter residents could be monopolizing all the good breeding territories and natural food supplies in the spring, outcompeting returning migrants.

On the plus side, feeders and nest boxes offer some swell opportunities for studying bird behavior. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has launched some cool citizen-science web efforts:

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Mapping Media Attention

| Thu Apr. 3, 2008 9:46 PM EDT

Here's a great series of cartograms—maps distorted to reveal a bias. In this case media attention by region. You can click on the buttons to see how newspapers warp their coverage of world news according to parochial interests. Nicolas Kayser-Bril first published this online on L'Observatoire des Médias, and later in expanded form in the Online Journalism Blog. Below is a newer cartogram, made in partnership with Gilles Bruno, of the coverage of the blogosphere. Their hope is to update these maps daily or weekly to pressure editors into covering more diverse issues.

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As for the cartographers' bias, where are the data for coverage of the world-ocean, accounting for more than 70% of Earth's surface? Where's Antarctica?

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

CO2 Reductions Overly Optimistic

| Wed Apr. 2, 2008 10:10 PM EDT

2108987446_0cc86b89ec.jpg Reducing global emissions of carbon dioxide over the coming century will be more challenging than society has been led to believe. This according to an important commentary, called "Dangerous Assumptions," appearing in the journal Nature, and summarized in a press release from the National Science Foundation. The authors, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, and McGill University in Montreal, write that the technological challenges of reducing CO2 emissions have been significantly underestimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won the Nobel in for its Climate Change 2007 reports.

"In the end, there is no question whether technological innovation is necessary—it is," write the authors. "The question is, to what degree should policy focus explicitly on motivating such innovation? The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that business-as-usual advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions."

"Not only is this reduction unlikely to happen under current policies," says Roger Pielke, Jr., of CU-Boulder, "but we are moving in the opposite direction right now. We believe these kinds of assumptions in the analysis blind us to reality and could potentially distort our ability to develop effective policies."

Homeland Security Builds Fence to Enforce Law; Waives Law to Build Fence

| Wed Apr. 2, 2008 4:00 PM EDT

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A month ago, Julia Whitty wrote that the government might be moving towards a saner approach to the border fence—environmentally speaking, anyway. Yesterday's news was not so sunny (and not so sane): the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will waive a host of federal environmental regulations in order to complete nearly 700 miles of border fence by the end of the year.

DHS insists that "the department remains deeply committed to environmental responsibility, and will continue to work closely with the Department of Interior and other federal and state resources management agencies to ensure impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic artifacts are analyzed and minimized." Hard to see how they can possibly argue this when they plan to ignore the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and 28 other pieces of legislation whose scope includes everything from desert protection to Native American rights.

I wish I could say that this will be a tough sell, especially in those border communities already chafing at the government's heavy hand. But, sadly, it won't, because they don't have to sell it at all. The Department's authority comes directly from Congress, which amended a section of a 1996 law to allow the head of Homeland Security to waive regulations at his sole discretion. In short, legislators are so determined to build a fence that they'll ignore the ongoing, unified opposition of local leaders and environmental groups, and flout the law in order to enforce it.

Update: In the "nothing money can't buy" department, The Texas Observer reports that the fence will skip property owned by a major Bush donor.

—Casey Miner

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user jcarter.

Time's Breaking News: Ethanol Is Bad

| Wed Apr. 2, 2008 3:19 PM EDT

Time's cover story this week debunks the idea that ethanol holds the promise of clean energy. But that's old news, right? Back in November, Mother Jones' "The Ethanol Effect" broke down America's newest cash crop, kernel by kernel. It reveals that growing one acre of corn requires 110 gallons of gasoline, and that ethanol's net energy output is far less than that of conventional fuel. Check out all the raw numbers here.

—Celia Perry

Cheaper, More Reliable Solar?

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 11:34 PM EDT

feature_solar1.jpg It's appearing in the form of solar thermal. Instead of converting sunlight to electricity, solar thermal, also called concentrated solar power, harness the sun's energy by converting sunlight to heat with the help of mirrors. This according to a great piece in the current Geotimes, magazine of the American Geological Institute. Some plants use curved mirrors, known as parabolic troughs, to focus sunlight onto pipes filled with circulating oil that circulate and heat steam to power a standard generator. In another system, solar power towers use large fields of sun-tracking mirrors that focus solar energy onto a receiver on top of a central tower. The intense energy concentrated onto the tower produces temperatures up to 2,732 degrees Fahrenheit, which then heats water to produce steam and drive a turbine to generate electricity. Many newer plants use insulated tanks filled with molten salt for heat storage, which provide power on cloudy days and at night—addressing the ephemeral nature of solar power.

Seems the searing West just might be the place for a lot more solar thermal.

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

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Ice Blocking Canada's Seal Hunt

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 8:56 PM EDT

HarpSeal.jpg Good news. Thick ice is slowing sealing boats from reaching the baby harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, reports Planet Ark. Consequently, only three pups out of a quota of 275,000 were killed the first day. This after last year's "hunt" was affected by a lack of ice. The Canadian government has promised the slaughter will be more humane this year. How? After a hunter shoots or clubs a seal, he now must check its eyes to ensure it is dead, and if not, the animal's main arteries must be cut.

Okay, let's get clear about this. That does not qualify as humane.

The Canadian seal hunt is the largest mass slaughter of marine mammals on Earth, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Just what are they doing with all those dead baby seals? The furs are made into coats and clothes. And there's a growing market for seal oil, high in omega-3 fatty acid… and PCBs:

American West Heating Twice as Fast

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 7:52 PM EDT

317488203_967e4514e6_m.jpg Don't think climate change is going to affect you? Well, if you live in the American West, it already is. In fact the west is heating up faster than the rest of the world, reports the National Resources Defense Council. The average temperature rise in the drought-struck Colorado River basin is more than double global average—especially bad news for the 30 million people living in Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego, among the nation's fastest growing American cities and all dependent on the Colorado for water.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization analyzed temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for 11 western states and found the average temp in the Colorado River Basin, from Wyoming to Mexico, was 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the historical average for the 20th Century, and more than twice the global rise of 1.0 degree. Throughout the West, the average temperature increased 1.7 degrees. "We are seeing signs of the economic impacts," says study author Stephen Saunders, including $2.7 billion in crop losses since 2000, commercial salmon losses, reduced hunting revenues, and shorter, less profitable ski seasons. The Colorado River Basin is in the throes of a record drought and climate scientists predict more and drier droughts in the future as hotter temperatures reduce the snowpack and increase evaporation. "We need strong leadership from western senators to pass America's Climate Security Act," said Spencer.

How about any leadership? You know, turning off the lights one hour a year ain't gonna work. In 2007 I was optimistic about Earth Hour. A year later, I'm like, is this all we're ever going to do?

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.

Sierra Club Boots Florida Chapter Over Clorox Deal

| Fri Mar. 28, 2008 3:03 PM EDT

greenworks-dilutable.gifThe Sierra Club voted this week to suspend its entire 35,000-member Florida chapter for four years and removed the chapter's leadership. The reason? The chapter openly criticized the Club's decision to partner with Clorox for Clorox's new "Green Works" line of "natural" cleaning products.

The dispute between the Florida chapter and the national organization started in December, when Sierra Club's national board of directors overrode the Club's Corporate Relations Committee to approve the deal with Clorox. So far, details about the exact nature of the agreement have not been revealed, except for the fact that Clorox will pay the Sierra Club for its sponsorship and the use of its logo on Green Works products, with the exact amount depending on product sales.

Trees Cast Dark Shadow Over Solar Panels

| Thu Mar. 27, 2008 6:33 PM EDT

solar_energy_power_262070_l.jpgIn one of those "only in California" type lawsuits—a state that heavily promotes solar and renewable energy under the California Solar Initiative—homeowners Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett of Sunnyvale, California, have been forced to chop down two redwood trees in their backyard that were obstructing prime-time rays from their neighbor's solar array. Citing the Solar Shade Control Act, a remnant legislation from the energy crisis of the '70s, a Santa Clara County judge ruled in December in favor of solar array owner and Santa Clara resident Mark Vargas.

Vargas installed the 10-kilowatt solar array on his home in 2001. Treanor and Bissett's redwoods, which were planted in 1997, eventually grew tall enough to shade more than 10 percent of Vargas' solar panels, inciting a not-so-neighborly feud. Aside from the tricky issues regarding property rights, the case also pits the benefits of carbon-dioxide-absorbing resources against those associated with sources of renewable energy.