Blue Marble

Here Be Arctic Dragons

| Tue Aug. 5, 2008 11:56 PM EDT


One year ago Russia planted a flag of ownership on the seabed underneath the North Pole.

Now, with the ice melting before our eyes, the 21st century's first gold rush is on.

Want to know just who's after the Arctic's virgin oil, gas, and minerals? A new map shows the disputed territories that states might lay claim to in the future...

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Bacteria Not Flu Killed Most In 1918

| Tue Aug. 5, 2008 12:39 AM EDT

1918_1.jpg A new study in Emerging Infectious Diseases concludes that bacteria not influenza killed most people in the 1918 flu epidemic. The lesson: stock up on antibiotics for the next flu pandemic—bird flu, horse flu, or otherwise.

New Scientist reports that researchers sifted through first-hand accounts, medical records, and infection patterns from 1918 and 1919.

They found that bacterial pneumonia piggybacked on surprisingly mild flu cases. And the victims didn't die fast. A supervirus would have likely killed them in three days.

Instead, most people lasted more than a week and some survived two weeks—classic hallmarks of pneumonia.

Most compelling: medical experts of the day identified pneumonia as the cause of most of the 100 million deaths—the most lethal natural event in recent human history.

Other research suggests the brutal mechanism. Influenza killed cells in the respiratory tract, which became food and home for invading bacteria that overwhelmed overstressed immune systems.

Ten years later, penicillin overpowered bacteria in subsequent influenza epidemics. But nowadays we're having those nagging antibiotic problems.

So health authorities are increasingly interested in the role bacteria will likely play in the next pandemic. Yet little action has been taken. "They are just starting to get to the recognition stage," says Jonathan McCullers, infectious disease expert. "There's this collective amnesia about 1918."

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

Ivory Poaching Returns With A Vengeance

| Fri Aug. 1, 2008 10:52 PM EDT

800px-Baby_elephants3.jpg The ugly scourge of ivory poaching has reappeared in Africa—at levels higher than the epic slaughters of 1989.

Worse, the 7.4 percent annual death rate of 20 years ago was based on a population that numbered more than 1 million. Today the total African elephant population is less than 470,000.

Twenty years ago widespread media coverage of 70,000 elephants killed a year led to an international trade ban. That resulted in strong enforcement efforts, which halted nearly all poaching immediately.

But Western aid was withdrawn four years after the ban and poaching gradually increased to the current disastrous rates. Without anyone really noticing.

Except elephants.

Now a new study in the August Conservation Biology contends that most remaining large elephant groups will be extinct by 2020 unless renewed public pressure results in enforcement of the existing laws.

The good news: DNA evidence gathered from recent major ivory seizures shows conclusively that the ivory is not coming from all over Africa but from specific herds. Consequently, authorities could beef up enforcement in those areas and make an immediate dent in the problem.

The illegal trade is being carried out mostly by large crime syndicates. It's driven by growing markets in China and Japan, where ivory is in demand for carvings and signature stamps called hankos.

Good people of Asia, could you get over this fetish from the dark ages? No hanko is worth even one elephant.

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

What's in Anti-Viral Kleenex?

| Fri Aug. 1, 2008 2:43 PM EDT

Do all KLEENEX boxes come with federal warnings against misuse?

I hadn't intended to leave Walgreens with any kind of virucidal paper product, but in a fit of summer cold snuffles I accidentally bought a box of polka-dotted germ fighters equipped with directions against wiping up spills and an active ingredients list.

Promises the KLEENEX Anti-Viral tissue box: "[The] tissue has three soft layers, including a moisture-activated middle layer that kills 99.9% of cold and flu viruses in the tissue within 15 minutes."

Wow! Would eating one cure a cold altogether?

Tragically, this goes unanswered on the KLEENEX website. But here's my favorite question from the FAQ:

Solar Nirvana

| Thu Jul. 31, 2008 8:03 PM EDT

Dish_Stirling_Systems_of_SBP_in_Spain.JPG Science is publishing an MIT paper (in press) outlining a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal boutique energy source into the mainstream.

The breakthrough revolves around storing energy when the sun isn't shining—an expensive pitfall until now.

The new method uses the sun's energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Like photosynthesis.

Later the two can be recombined inside a fuel cell to create carbon-free electricity. Like running a fuel cell backwards.

The good part is the system would work day or night. The other good part is it requires nothing but abundant, nontoxic natural materials.

"This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said senior author Daniel Nocera. "Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

For those who want to know how it works…

Fires Burn Budgets Badly

| Wed Jul. 30, 2008 7:42 PM EDT

800px-Hercules_C130_bombardier_d_eau_Californie.jpg A couple of interesting articles on the fire season blazing in the West. The LA Times reports how fire commanders are pressured to order aircraft into action on major fires even when they won't do any good.

Why? Because they make good television. CNN drops, they call them.

And because citizens and politicians have come to expect the sight of aircraft dumping water and fire retardant means "their " fire is getting the attention it deserves.

It's not that aircraft aren't useful. They can help a lot. But aircraft don't put out fires, say firefighters. And their use is escalating the cost of fighting wildfires. Last year the Forest Service spent $296 million—up from $171 million in 2004.

The Sacramento Bee reports the Forest Service has already spent $900 million this year, nearly 75 percent of its fire-suppression budget. And this on a season that hasn't reached peak yet.

These days nearly half the Forest Service's budget is spent fighting wildfires or trying to prevent them. In 1991, it took only 13 percent. So far this year's fires have cost $210 million more than at the same point last year.

The Bee article alludes to the fact that climate change is driving a longer, more expensive, and more extensive, fire season.

Which is just one of the reasons why our big global warming experiment is going to be such a budget burner.

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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Doctors Prescribe... Nothing

| Tue Jul. 29, 2008 9:39 PM EDT

402px-Surgeon_operating%2C_Fitzsimons_Army_Medical_Center%2C_circa_1990.jpgThe patient is ill. It's contagious. It's sweeping the globe. And the doctors prescribe… two pills of ignorance and a shot of whining.

How's this? Well, a new survey reports that most health department directors believe their jurisdictions will face serious public health problems from climate change in the next 20 years. Yet few have done anything to detect, prevent, or adapt to the threats.

This, even though the majority of these directors believe that heat waves, heat-related illnesses, reduced air quality, reduced water quality, and reduced water quantity are likely to become common or severe problems in a warming climate.

Several factors contribute to the slackerism. Most survey respondents felt hamstrung by a lack of knowledge about climate change. Most felt little help was available from state and federal slackers. Most felt they needed more funding, staff, and training.

In other words, most are hoping someone else will take care of it.

"The reason why so many Americans view climate change as a threat to other species rather than as a threat to people may be in part because health professionals have been largely silent on the issue," says Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication. "By using the opportunities available to them, public health and health care professionals can educate people on the threats of climate change to their health and wellbeing."

That would require the docs to get off the antidepressants and get, well, seriously worried.

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

Perfect Storm Stores CO2 Perfectly

| Mon Jul. 28, 2008 9:19 PM EDT

473px-Typhoon_Mindulle_28_jun_0445Z.jpg Hurricanes may be getting bigger and more frequent as a result of climate change. But they may also be counterbalancing their destruction by sequestering millions of tons of carbon in the deep ocean.

A new study finds that a single typhoon in Taiwan buried as much carbon as all the other rains in that country in a year.

Of the 61 million tons of sediment carried out to sea by the Choshui River during Typhoon Mindulle in 2004, some 500,000 tons consisted of particles of carbon, weathered from Taiwan's mountains.

That's 95 percent as much carbon as the river transports during normal rains in a year. It also equates to more than 400 tons of carbon per square mile washed away during the storm.

The good news is that once the carbon gets buried in the ocean it eventually becomes sedimentary rock and doesn't return to the atmosphere for hundreds of millions of years.

So, the work of tropical storms isn't enough to cancel out the warming gases we're putting into the atmosphere. But it's a pretty good response from a stressed planet.

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

China Exports 33% Of CO2 Footprint

| Mon Jul. 28, 2008 8:55 PM EDT

200px-D-Link_made_in_china.JPG One-third of China's carbon footprint comes from producing goods for export. That's up from an estimate of 25 percent only 10 months ago.

Now a new paper in Energy Policy say China's export emissions equaled 1.7 billion tons of CO2 in 2005. That's 6% of total global emissions. The same as Germany, France, and the UK combined.

Many of the industries producing these emissions make electronics for the rich world. Which gets sticky when you realize that international policy penalizes the producer country, not the consumer. China, understandably, thinks that's wrong, reports New Scientist:

"In some measure, it makes sense if people buy goods and become liable for the emissions generated when the goods are produced," says Benito Müller of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, UK. "They will certainly be more choosy about what they buy."

Even Chinese consumers.

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

More Cell-Phone Wariness From Docs

| Fri Jul. 25, 2008 2:40 PM EDT

cellphone150.jpgThe Baltimore Sun reports that another group of doctors has voiced its concerns about cell phones. They're the latest to do so; last year, a different group published the Bioinitiative Report, a roundup of some of the studies that suggest a link between cell-phone radiation and brain cancer.

This new group includes some bigwigs—most notably Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Herberman told the Sun, "Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later."

This, in a nutshell, is the precautionary principle, which is an important piece of this whole debate—but it's not really anything we haven't heard before. And we probably won't hear anything new until more science is in. Unfortunately, this could take quite a while. So the question remains: Should we follow Herberman's advice and use our mobiles sparingly till we know more?

Full disclosure: After researching "This is Your Brain on Cell Phones," I bought a headset. Just in case.