Blue Marble

A Natural Ocean "Thermostat" Protecting Coral Reefs?

| Thu Feb. 7, 2008 5:36 PM EST

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A Gaialike mechanism may be protecting some coral reefs by preventing sea surface temperatures (SSTs) from rising past a certain threshold. The study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science finds evidence of an ocean thermostat regulating SSTs in an extremely biologically diverse region of the western Pacific.

Warming sea temperatures in much of the tropical world have led to ocean-wide epidemics of fatal or near-fatal coral bleaching. Bleaching has become increasingly widespread in recent decades, with SSTs in tropical, coral-rich waters increasing 0.3-0.4 degrees C (0.5-0.7 degrees F) over the past two to three decades, and spiking higher.

But between 1980 and 2005, only four episodes of bleaching occurred on reefs in the Western Pacific Warm Pool—a lower rate than any other reef region. SSTs in the warm pool naturally average 29 degrees C (84 degrees F), close to the proposed thermostat limit, and have warmed up only half as much cooler areas of the oceans.

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Hidden Costs of Solar Power

| Wed Feb. 6, 2008 5:10 PM EST

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Wondering which solar technology has the smallest environmental footprint? In recent years new photovoltaic technologies have nearly doubled the efficiency of solar cells. Yet production methods, whether from silicon, metal, or other material, raise doubts about their environmental friendliness. For example, purifying and producing silicon uses a lot of water and energy, whereas refining zinc and copper ores to get cadmium, telluride, and other elements creates metal emissions and an energy sink.

Now Environmental Science & Technology calculates the impact. They've released a life-cycle assessment of some of the leading photovoltaic technologies. Some appear better than others. You can read the pdf here.

The study notes that, even with the costs, the benefits of replacing gas- and coal-fired grids with photovoltaics cut greenhouse & particulate emissions 89–98%. Rooftop panels reduce emissions even more due to the resulting decrease in transmission lines and other infrastructure.

The winner? Thin-film cadmium–telluride (CdTe) photovoltaics—with more efficient energy conversion and lowest costs.

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

Changing Climate Requires Change in Water Planning

| Tue Feb. 5, 2008 10:11 PM EST

flood.jpg Guess what? The past is no longer a reliable base on which to plan the future of water management. So says a prominent group of hydrologists and climatologists writing in Science. The group calls for fundamental changes to the science behind water planning and policy.

Managers currently operate on the premise that historical patterns can be counted on to continue. But human-induced changes to Earth's climate are shifting the averages and extremes for rainfall, snowfall, evaporation, and stream flows. These are crucial factors in planning for floods or droughts, in choosing the size of water reservoirs, and in deciding how much water to allocate for residential, industrial and agricultural uses. Even with an aggressive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, warming will persist and global water patterns will continue to show never-before-seen behavior.

"Our best current estimates are that water availability will increase substantially in northern Eurasia, Alaska, Canada and some tropical regions, and decrease substantially in southern Europe, the Middle East, southern Africa and southwestern North America," said lead author Christopher Milly, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Drying regions will likely also experience more frequent droughts.

What's in Bush's $3 Trillion Budget for the Environment?

| Tue Feb. 5, 2008 1:50 PM EST

bush-signing2.jpgBush's FY2009 budget, much criticized for its $3.1 trillion price-tag, has some surprising plans for the nation's environment like the Birds Forever Initiative, and some not-so-surprising endeavors, like the proposal for drilling in the Arctic that Congress previously blocked. Here's a summary of the environmental highlights.

The Good
—The new Birds Forever Initiative" grants an $8 million increase to Fish and Wildlife Service for monitoring, assessment, and conservation of migratory bird species. Would continue 2008 budget increase of $35.9 million for conservation of 200,000 acres of vital stopover habitat.
—$103 million to NASA and $74 million to NOAA for new equipment to continue climate research. NASA would also receive $910 million through 2013 to fund new missions.
—$49.2 million for "clean diesel" grants.
—Increased enforcement budget for the EPA, including additional $2.4 million for criminal enforcements.

The Bad
—Projects to improve sewer systems and clean up waterways reduced by $134 million from 2008, putting more costs on state governments.
—Funding for low-income residents to "weatherize" their homes (better windows, more insulation) cut from $280 million to $60 million.
—$110 million cut from Land and Clean Water Conservation Fund.
—Proposals to drill for oil and natural gas in the Outer Continental Shelf and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
—$3.7 million cut from endangered species program.

The 2009 budget also included a request from the Department of Energy for $648 million for "clean coal" research and technology, the largest request from the department in more than two decades.

Top Hospitals Have 27% Lower Mortality Rate

| Mon Feb. 4, 2008 5:29 PM EST

793567365_fb45589496_m.jpg This according to HealthGrades, in the largest annual study of hospital quality in America, analyzing more than 40 million hospitalization records over the most recent three years. The results indicate that patients treated at top-rated hospitals nationwide are nearly one-third less likely to die, on average. Patients who undergo surgery at these high-performing hospitals also have an average five percent lower risk of complications during their stay. Overall, 171,424 lives may have been saved and 9,671 major complications avoided during the three years studied, had the quality of care at all hospitals matched the level of those in the top five percent. "This disparity in the quality of care at U.S. hospitals is disappointing," says Samantha Collier, MD, HealthGrades chief medical officer.

You can check the ratings of your local hospitals for free here.

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

China to Stop Rain for Olympics

| Fri Feb. 1, 2008 7:43 PM EST

beijing-rain.JPGAn article in the Los Angeles Times notes that the Chinese are planning to keep rain away from the roof-less Olympic stadium—by force if necessary.

The Chinese are planning on using "cloud seeding" to ensure good weather. To do this, they have farmers sitting not too far from Beijing with anti-aircraft guns. When the farmers see a cloud that looks like it might rain, they fire silver iodide into it. The particles of iodide makes the cloud's moisture condense around them, creating rain.

That's not all China has up its sleeve. In the Mother Jones January/February 2008 issue we noted Chinese plans for "rainmakers" and a new, low-emissions, public transit system for the Olympic village.

For more on Beijing's attempt to make 2008 Olympics go off without a hitch (or a CO2 emission), check out Beijing Goes Green.

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Vote Your Genes

| Fri Feb. 1, 2008 7:03 PM EST

istockphoto_3887591_democrat_vs_republican_on_white.jpg Fire the pundits. Cancel the debates. According to an emerging idea in the social and political sciences, political positions are substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason. New Scientist follows the trail of evidence:

Twin studies suggest that opinions on a long list of issues, from religion in schools to nuclear power and gay rights, have a substantial genetic component. The decision to vote rather than stay at home on election day may also be linked to genes. Neuroscientists have also got in on the act, showing that liberals and conservatives have different patterns of brain activity… People who scored highly on a scale measuring fear of death, for example, were almost four times more likely to hold conservative views. Dogmatic types were also more conservative, while those who expressed interest in new experiences tended to be liberals. [This] review also noted research showing that conservatives prefer simple and unambiguous paintings, poems and songs.

Finally, an explanation for Thomas Kinkade, "God Bless America," and flag fetishes.

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

Study: Republicans Don't Care About Warming Planet

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 7:56 PM EST

Maybe this just confirms what you already knew, but a new study by Pew shows that Republicans don't care about global warming. Only 12% of Republicans in the January 2008 poll thought dealing with global warming should be a "top priority," as oppposed to 47% of Democrats and 38% of Independents. In fact, global warming was the issue Republicans cared least about.

For a Mother Jones summary of where the candidates, Republican and Democrat, stand on issues like global warming, check out our "Primary Colors" package here.

Heat Increases Baby Bottle Chemicals

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 6:34 PM EST

baby-bottle.jpgA University of Cincinnati study has found that the hotter the liquid, the faster polycarbonate plastic bottles release toxins. Currently, reusable water bottles, baby bottles, and many other containers are made out of polycarbonate plastic. (For an easy guide to types of plastics and their dangers, click here.)

Researchers found that plastic bottles holding boiling water released bisphenol A, an environmental pollutant, up to 55 times faster than those containing room-temperature water. Baby formula is commonly boiled in preparation, so it's likely that very hot formula could leach high amounts of bisphenol A from baby bottles. However, the researchers do not know how much bisphenol A humans would have to consume before it became harmful.

Bipsphenol A is known to cause cancer and hormone irregularities and is "just one of many estrogen-like chemicals people are exposed to," said lead researcher Scott Belcher, "and scientists are still trying to figure out how these endocrine disruptors—including natural phyto-estrogens from soy which are often considered healthy—collectively impact human health."

While scientists figure out the effects, you might consider switching your plastic travel mug to stainless steel.

Alaska Delays Decision for Tribe to Hunt Young Wolves, Bears

| Tue Jan. 29, 2008 8:02 PM EST

wolves.jpgAs a vegetarian, pet-owning urbanite who's never been hunting, I find it hard to stomach the idea of grown men with rifles killing fuzzy baby animals. So it was with mixed feelings I read today that Alaskan tribes will have to wait until November to see if they can legally cull wolf pups and bear cubs in their dens along the Kuskokwim River. The now-banned practice, traditional among Orutsaramuit people in southwestern Alaska, is intended to reduce predators killing too many of the moose that tribes rely on for subsistence hunting. While conservationists predictably see the practice as cruel, the real bone of contention lies between the state of Alaska and tribal officials.