Blue Marble

Pacific Waters Turning Acid

| Fri May 23, 2008 8:42 PM EDT

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The Pacific Ocean from Canada to Mexico within 20 miles of shore is showing sharp changes in pH levels for the first time. Scientists have feared this possibility as yet another side effect of our growing carbon dioxide emissions. Excessive CO2 in the air is absorbed by the ocean, forming carbonic acid that corrodes the shells of many marine creatures, including those that form the backbone of marine foodwebs. Worse, the acidified water upwelled from the deeper ocean is likely 50 years old. This suggests that acidification will increase in a delayed response to atmospheric CO2, which has grown from 310 parts per million 50 years ago to 380 parts per million today—the highest on Earth in more than a million years. "The coastal ocean acidification train has left the station," says Burke Hales of Oregon State University and an author of the Science study, "and there's not much we can do to derail it."

There is also a strong correlation between acidification and the dead zones forming off the Oregon and California coasts in recent summers. The dead zones are caused by upwelling waters that fuel an over-abundance of the tiny marine plants known as phytoplankton. Normally, the upwelling winds subside for a day or two every couple of weeks in a 'relaxation event' that allows the buildup of decomposing organic matter to be washed out to the deep ocean. But in recent years, especially in 2002 and 2006, there were few if any relaxation breaks and the phytoplankton blooms were enormous. "When the material produced by these blooms decomposes," Hales says, "it puts more CO2 into the system and increases the acidification."

It's too early to predict the biological ramifications. Shell-building plants and animals may be adapting, or they may already be suffering consequences that scientists have not yet determined. "We may have to assume that CO2 levels will gradually increase through the next half century as the water that originally was exposed to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is cycled through the system. Whether those elevated levels of carbon dioxide tip the scale for aragonites [shell-builders] remains to be seen," says Hale.

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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Teenager's Science Fair Project May Deliver Us From Plastic

| Fri May 23, 2008 3:55 PM EDT

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I bought groceries at Trader Joe's the other day. As anyone who has ever shopped there knows, Trader Joe's is full of incredibly attractive, cheap food, which, if you manage to make it through all the plastic packaging it comes in, you can actually eat. Unfortunately, by the time I started cooking I had more or less lost my appetite, since every time I discarded one of those packages I felt like I dropped another circle in hell.

So I pretty much love Daniel Burd right now. The 16-year-old from Waterloo, Ontario, as part of a science fair project, figured out a way to break down the polymers in plastic bags—compounds that can last for over 1,000 years—in about three months. Essentially, Burd hypothesized that since the bags eventually do degrade, it must be possible to isolate and augment the degrading agents.

Turns out that it's not only possible, it's kind of easy. Burd combined ground polyethylene plastic bags, sodium chloride, dirt from a landfill (which theoretically contains the microorganisms that ultimately degrade the plastic) and a yeast mixture in shakers for four weeks at a consistent temperature of about 86 degrees. At the end of the month, he took a sample of that mixture and combined it with a new one, with the goal of increasing the overall concentration of microbes. After one more repetition, he put fresh plastic bags in his solution for six weeks. In the end, the plastic degraded nearly 20%. A little more filtering to figure out exactly which microbes were the most effective, and he upped the degradation rate to 32%. He concludes, "The process of polyethylene degradation developed in this project can be used on an industrial scale for biodegradation of plastic bags. As a result, this would save the lives of millions of wildlife species and save space in landfills."

So, will this really work? Has a teenager really found a way to rid us of one of our most persistent environmental problems? Who knows, but judges at the Canada-Wide Science Fair apparently agree that it's worth pursuing. They sent Burd home with $30,000 in awards and scholarships. You can read his final report (all six pages of it) here (.pdf).

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Arbel Egger.

—Casey Miner

Downstream of the Tar Sands, Canada Launches a Comprehensive Review of Cancer Rates

| Thu May 22, 2008 4:45 PM EDT

Canadian health authorities announced today that they would launch a "comprehensive" review of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a small town 70 miles downstream of Canada's massive tar sands mines. In 2006, local doctor John O'Connor reported unusually high rates of cancer and other diseases in the town, where many locals subsist on fish and wild game. A few months later, when authorities filed a complaint against O'Connor for "raising undue alarm," they kicked off an epic dispute between the government and industry on one side and O'Connor, locals, and environmentalists on the other.

At the heart of the debate is whether Canada can continue to mine the tar sands, which now serve as the single largest source of U.S. foreign oil, without destroying its environment and poisoning its citizens. The impact of the tar sands on global warming is clear, but the health concerns of Native American groups may ultimately do more to curtail the sands--the world's largest strip mines. In the weeks since Mother Jones published a comprehensive story on O'Connor's fight, environmental pressure on the government has mounted. In late April hundreds of ducks were poisoned in a tar sands tailings pond, prompting renewed protests and a government pledge to investigate. The latest move by health authorities shows that the environmental health threats of the Canadian tar sands remain, to say the least, a sticky issue.

Bizarre Public Opinion Numbers on Global Warming

| Thu May 15, 2008 4:30 PM EDT

Roughly 70 percent of Americans believe there is "solid evidence" the earth is warming, according to new Pew poll numbers. Just under half think that warming is caused by human activity. That's disappointing — we've got more work to do, Mother Jones! — but not that surprising. On the other hand, try explaining this:

Over the last year and a half, the number of Americans who believe the Earth is warming has dropped. The decline is especially precipitous among Republicans: in January 2007, 62 percent accepted global warming, compared to just 49 percent now.

Or this!

...among college-educated poll respondents, 19 percent of Republicans believe that human activities are causing global warming, compared to 75 percent of Democrats. But take that college education away and Republican believers rise to 31 percent while Democrats drop to 52 percent.

Consider me stumped.

Polar Bears Win Protection

| Wed May 14, 2008 4:01 PM EDT

baby-polar-bear.jpgAfter several months of delays, the polar bear has been declared protected under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming. This is the first time in history that global warming has officially "endangered" an animal, and the great white bear is the first species the Bush administration has put on the endangered list in two years. This is the longest gap between new animals added to the list since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 under the Nixon administration.

McCain Recycles His Green Image...From MoJo?

| Wed May 14, 2008 3:25 PM EDT
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In the past few days, we've seen John McCain turn green faster than David Banner. Just in case this sudden transformation shreds his clothing, he can now suit up in his campaign's new line of "Go Green" merchandise. Items include 70% bamboo polo shirts, organic cotton baseball caps, and a travel mug made from recycled plastic. All feature a new twist on the militaristic McCain logo—the little star has been replaced with the recycling symbol. That's okay—the symbol is all about reuse, even if it's being used to woo voters who want their trash to biodegrade in less time than it takes to get US troops out of Iraq. But how to explain why the lead image on McCain's climate-change page (top) is oddly reminiscent of the logo from our latest cover (bottom)?

(Tip of the organic hat to Tim Dickinson.)

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MoJo Nukes Convo: Harvey Wasserman Highlights

| Tue May 13, 2008 12:08 PM EDT

harvey-wasserman.jpgHarvey Wasserman, author of Solartopia! Our Green Powered Earth, is an anti-nuclear activist. Wasserman feels that nuclear is a "costly and dangerous curse from previous bad decision-making." Nuclear is costly, he says, not only fiscally but environmentally. "The radioactive fuel chain is a major cause of global warming," Wasserman says. Instead, he suggests we embrace wind and solar power, which are "already proven and cheaper."

Below are highlights from Wasserman from MoJo's recent expert-led online reader conversation:

"Since you have quoted a Rockefeller study, how about we quote Al Gore, in a letter (to me) dated November 3, 2000:

'Thank you for your recent inquiry regarding nuclear energy and the Kyoto Protocol. Let me restate for you my long held policy with regard to nuclear energy. I do not support any increased reliance on nuclear energy. Moreover, I have disagreed with those who would classify nuclear energy as clean or renewable. In fact, you will note that the electricity restructuring legislation proposed by the [Clinton] Administration specifically excluded both nuclear and large scale hydro-energy, and instead promoted increased investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. It is my view that climate change policies should do the same....Al Gore'

This letter is posted at the www.nirs.org web site, where answers to many of the other questions raised in this dialog can be found."

"There is more nuke than solar/wind capacity in the US not because of market forces favoring nukes, but because the US government, initally at the behest of the nuke weapons industry, has poured hundreds of billions into the technology."

"I have seen far too many containment domes to have any faith in any of them. No other kind of industrial facility can inflict the kind of damage that can come from a nuke."

"There is a reason there seems to be little middle ground in these nukes versus renewables debates, which is that there really isn't any."

"The critique of corporations is simple: corporations in the country have human rights, but no human responsibilities."

And here are what a few readers had to say about Wasserman:
"Harvey, I try to approach issues with an open mind. Keeping an open mind means maintaining a healthy disinterestedness, [but] I have run out of tolerance for your emotionally-laden sloganeering. Who are you to define what gets to be harmonious and what must be war? Sun and wind as love from the earth? The sun causes cancer. Wind becomes hurricanes that destroy cities."—Jonathan Severdia

"The problem with your perspective is that it's not being implemented, not by SMUD, not by anyone. If you look at who IS building wind-farms and solar (CPS) it's all the same utilities you've been screaming about for decades:FPL, PG&E, etc."—David Walters

"If you read Henry Wasserman's comments in his profile, it is OBVIOUS he knows what he's talking about, and is CORRECT in his assessment. An to anyone oblivious to the dangers that are posed merely from design flaws and human error...read about Chernobyl and gain an understanding of the loss that will impact literally generations and generations and generations."—Mike

"I gather that you are not enthusiastic about coal, so, without nuclear, how can we produce baseload power to meet projected demand? Massive solar thermal may do the trick for the Southwest, but how do we provide for Buffalo, Minneapolis & Flint?" —Douglas Price

How To Win A Nobel

| Sat May 10, 2008 8:40 PM EDT

teaser.png Log enough hours of Foldit and you might play your way into a cooperative Nobel. The new online game is designed to understand how existing proteins fold themselves, as well as to design new ones. The ultimate goal is to tap into that endless supply of human gaming energy to solve really hard problems. You might find yourself part of a cure for HIV or Alzheimer's or malaria. Or one of the many who designs a new protein to break up toxic waste, say, or absorb CO2 from the air.

There are more than 100,000 different proteins in the human body. They form every cell, make up the immune system, and set the speed of chemical reactions. We know many of their genetic sequences but don't know how they fold up into shapes so complex it would take all the computers in the world centuries to calculate them. Yet humans' natural 3-D problem-solving skills, utilized in an addictive gaming scenario, might solve the problems in only years. Or less. At least that's what a bunch of computer scientists, engineers, and biochemists from the University of Washington are hoping.

The game looks like a 21st-century version of Tetris, with multicolored geometric snakes filling the screen. A half-dozen UW graduate and undergraduate students spent more than a year figuring out how to make the game accurate and engaging. They faced challenges commercial game developers don't encounter, including not knowing the best results themselves.

Let Them Eat Biofuel

| Fri May 9, 2008 11:52 PM EDT

800px-Gas_Prices_Medium_Term.png Gas prices are rising and this could be great news. Even though it seems lousy in the short run. The truth is higher gas prices are already forcing people to drive less, skip trips, rethink vacations, and reject SUVs—part of a whole host of behavioral changes that add up to rare good news for our endangered atmosphere. LiveScience blogger Robert Roy Britt writes that some people are already slowing down on the roads as a means to save gas, as are some airlines. Higher gas prices are also saving human lives. Two thousand fewer people will die road deaths and 600 fewer will die from air pollution. One economist calculates that each $1 rise in gas equals 14 percent less fuel consumption over the long haul.

However, higher gas prices simultaneously feed biofuel fever. Why use oil when you can use corn? But biofuel is also associated with steeply rising food costs. The dilemma is that you and me can drive 1,000 miles or we can feed a person for a year, and people around the world are getting hungrier, writes Stan Cox on AlterNet. Our gas guzzling ways are about to drive the state of Iowa, the epicenter of agriculture, to import corn. How's that for weird? Apparently it's so weird that the politicos are scrambling to plow under last year's crop of legislature as fast as they can, writes Cox:

Now 24 Republican members of Congress, citing high food prices, have come out into the open to urge a retreat from the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandates rapid increases in biofuel production... Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has formally requested that the federal government relax biofuel requirements imposed on his state… The Missouri legislature is considering a rollback of its own recently passed law requiring that gasoline must be mixed with a minimum percentage of ethanol.

MoJo Nukes Convo: Jonas Siegel Highlights

| Fri May 9, 2008 5:59 PM EDT

Jonas%20Siegel%20head%20shot.jpgJonas Siegel is editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a media organization that focuses on the intersection of science and security, and has covered nuclear weapons and energy issues for the past five years.

Although Siegel is in awe of nuclear's amazing energy-generating power—"a pound of uranium 235 has more than 2 million times the energy content of a pound of coal," he says—he acknowledges that so far the industry has been hindered by safety issues. The industry must address the risk of nuclear proliferation and waste storage if it's to become a part of our future mix of energy-providers, Siegel says.

Check out some of Siegel's other views, below, as expressed in last week's Blue Marble expert-reader conversation:

"One of the most vexing aspects of the current system is that it allows ... the same uranium enrichment facilities that enrich fuel for power production can also enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. The plants that reprocess spent fuel after it is taken out of a reactor can be used to make additional fuel—or plutonium for nuclear weapons."