Blue Marble

30 Million Years to Recover From Extinction?

| Fri Jan. 18, 2008 3:02 PM EST

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Scientists have been saying for a while that by the end of this century, half of all species could be extinct. And a new study says that it could take an awfully long time for Earth to recover—30 million years, to be specific.

Back in the Permian era, Earth lost more than 90 percent of all life. Scientists once thought that species rebounded quickly from the hit, but it turns out they were sort of missing the fine print, according to researchers at Bristol University:

Sahney and Benton looked at the recovery of tetrapods – animals with a backbone and four legs, such as amphibians and reptiles – and found that although globally tetrapods appeared to recover quickly, the dramatic restructuring that occurred at the community level was not permanent and communities did not recover numerically or ecologically until about 30 million years later.

And when the species were struggling to rebound back then, they didn't even have to deal with us.

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FDA Approves Cloned Animals for Store Shelves

| Tue Jan. 15, 2008 7:50 PM EST

cloned-pigs.jpgThe FDA announced today that cloned animals (and offspring and milk produced by said clones) are safe to consume. The agency said that cloned cows and pigs and other farmed animals "are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals." Which, as you may have read, isn't saying much.

But with cloned animals costing tens of thousands of dollars each, it's unlikely they will become a staple of our diet unless the technology that produces them is radically less expensive. Their offspring, instead, may be killed to provide consistent meat and milk products.

If you don't want to buy clones or cloned offspring, caveat emptor: the FDA "is not requiring labeling or any other additional measures for food from cattle, swine, and goat clones" or their offspring because the agency considers clones and non-clones identical. Food retailers and consumers, I think, will see the issue differently. I can just see the ads now: "the Carl's Jr. 100% ORIGINAL beef burger! No clones!"

To Eat or Not to Eat? That Ain't the Question.

| Tue Jan. 15, 2008 6:15 PM EST

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Yesterday the LA Times posed a question to its readers: Why do we eat? More specifically, why do we overeat? Their answer, supported by several scientists and studies, was that the sheer ubiquity of food triggers an almost Pavlovian eating reflex.

Several recent studies, papers and a popular weight-loss book argue that eating is an automatic behavior triggered by environmental cues that most people are unaware of—or simply can't ignore. Think of the buttery smell of movie theater popcorn, the sight of glazed donuts glistening in the office conference room or the simple habit of picking up a whipped-cream-laden latte on the way to work.

In short, Americans are so divorced from the idea of food as nutritious that we don't even react to our bodies' physical cues, instead responding to subliminal environmental messaging. The fact that our environment is saturated with unhealthy foods creates the illusion that we have no choice but to eat them. The only solution, sigh the scientists, might be government regulation of everything from vending machines to portion size.

But if it's true that people have no free will when it comes to food, the message hasn't yet reached marketers. Far from subtle, the motivations behind ad campaigns are often brutally clear.

Dead Hearts Beat Again, Thanks to Science

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 6:52 PM EST

Heart500.jpg Scientists at the University of Minnesota have combined young cells with dead hearts to make...new hearts. Yes, that's right sci-fi fans: They grew a new, living, beating heart right there in their lab.

How they did it: Researchers used new heart cells from baby rats and combined them with the valves and "outer structure" of an adult rat's dead heart. In two weeks, "the cells formed a new beating heart that conducted electrical impulses and pumped a small amount of blood," reported the New York Times. As the scientists detailed in Nature Medicine yesterday, the newly created hearts were implanted in other rats, and were not rejected. The process, called "whole organ recellularization," could be done with virtually any organ, said researcher Doris Taylor.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in our country. Currently, there are about 3,000 people waiting for donor hearts and 550,000 people are diagnosed with heart disease each year. Even for those lucky enough to get a donor heart, the surgery provides no guarantee that their body won't reject the organ. The new process reduces risk of rejection and actually increases the chance that the body will grow new blood vessels and muscles on the implanted heart. So the discovery that we may be able to some day re-grow our own hearts for implantation is encouraging, to say the least. If this kind of procedure were to be used in humans (and scientists involved in the experiment emphasize that that's about 10 years away), stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow would be injected into a specially prepared heart-like structure made from cadaver parts.

But if we ever have the ready option of organ replacement, will we live our lives differently? Will we eat hamburgers and cheesecake in abandon, secure in the knowledge that heart #2 is waiting for us in a freezer somewhere? My biggest question, really: Would this therapy be affordable for all, or for like many other medical breakthroughs would only the rich be able to afford it? Which brings us back to reason number 2,360 to support universal healthcare.

Toyota Tops Consumer Reports' Greenest Cars

| Fri Jan. 11, 2008 2:50 PM EST

prius.jpgAlthough "eco-friendliness" ranks well behind "safety" and "value" among qualities consumers consider when buying cars, Consumer Reports did due diligence finding out which brands of cars are perceived as the most green. To be clear, they only tested for brand's perception as an eco-friendly car-maker, not how friendly the actual car is to Mother Earth.

It's probably no surprise that Toyota ranks the highest, with its seemingly ubiquitous Prius. Nearly half of the consumers surveyed say they associate Toyota with being green, twice as many as selected the runner-up brand, Honda. Ford (Escape Hybrid), Chevrolet (Tahoe Hybrid), and GMC (Yukon Hybrid) came in at third, fourth, and fifth places, respectively.

Although being "green" came in fifth among qualities consumers say they look for, it's encouraging that eco-friendliness was ranked higher than "design/style" and "technology/innovation." To me, that signifies that Americans may be more willing to put the environment above looks and style or unnecessary doo-dads when purchasing their next automobile. Of course, if we had better public transportation systems, we might not need all those cars on the road at all. But hey, a gal can dream.

Iditarod Race Feels Global Warming's Heat

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 6:30 PM EST

iditarod3.jpgCiting "less-than-winter conditions," and encroaching suburban development, Iditarod officials are moving the famous dog race's starting point 30 miles north from Wasilla to Willow. They're also shortening the first, ceremonial leg of the competition (the short, easier race that precedes the harsh, longer race to Nome) by seven miles.

This isn't the first time officials have had to change the traditional sled dog race's route. Just six years ago, a lack of snow forced them to move the 1122-mile-long race's start point 200 miles north, from Wasilla to Fairbanks. And even now, they have to truck in snow for the ceremonial start.

Warm weather isn't the only element threatening the Iditarod: Increasing suburban development has crunched in previously wide-open spaces. "No matter what the weather conditions would be, there's a lot of asphalt and other things that don't mix well with competitive racing," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee. "To be around that is stressful for the dogs."

You can see an interactive map of the trail for this year's race, which begins March 1, here. To see the NOAA satellite view of the land around the start point, go here.

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Antarctic Sea Ice Increase: Fodder for Global Warming Skeptics?

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 2:37 PM EST

antarctic200.jpgHold onto your hats, kids, because climate change skeptics are sure to have a field day with this one: Researchers have found that for the past 20 years, while ice in the Arctic has been rapidly decreasing, Antarctic sea ice has actually been increasing. "See?" The skeptics will say. "If the world really were getting warmer, then it wouldn't be all cold and icy in the South Pole."

But like many global warming denialist arguments, this one doesn't leave a whole lot of room for scientific nuance. Not all that science is fully understood yet, but until it is, you can fire back at doubting Thomases with a few basic facts: For starters, South Pole ice is much thicker than North Pole ice (2 miles in the Antarctic vs. 6-10 feet in the Arctic). Also, the ice in the north sits on open ocean, so it gets warmed from beneath&8212;while in the south, much of the ice sits on a continent.

Sydney Indymedia e-mailed renowned NASA climate scientist James Hansen, and he kindly put the Antarctic trends in some context:

All of the models, and the observations, have the central parts of Greenland and Antarctica growing faster because of global warming. This is a consequence of warmer air holding more moisture, thus increasing snowfall. But the net effect of warming on both continental ice sheets is mass loss, the increased melting being a larger effect than the increased snowfall.

And according to Hansen, not all of Antarctica's sea ice is increasing:

He also said "The fact that West Antarctica is shedding mass at a substantial rate, even though there is only small warming of surrounding sea surface temperatures, is a telling fact in my opinion, and a likely consequence of the warming ocean at depth, which affects the ice shelves that buttress West Antarctica, as discussed in our paper 'Dangerous human-made interference with climate: a GISS modelE study.'"

So there you have it: As usual, climate change is much more complex than skeptics would have us believe.

If China Can Ban Plastic Bags, Why Can't We?

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 2:05 PM EST

china-bags.jpgCommunist governments may be oppressive to American eyes, but they do have the power to make sweeping environmental changes. Key example: China.

As Jacques Leslie reports in our current issue, China is the world's top CO2 emitter and uses more coal than any other nation. But in a bid to reduce pollution, effective June 1, the country's Communist government has banned those flimsy, white, petroleum-based plastic bags. And not just in a few cities, but across the entire nation of 1.3 billion people.

"While [the bags] providing convenience to consumers," the central government said in a statement, "they have also caused serious pollution, and waste of energy and resources, because of excessive use and inadequate recycling," China uses about 3 billion plastic bags a day.

Thicker plastic bags will still be allowed, for a fee, but the government is highly encouraging people to use traditional baskets or re-usable cloth bags. Citizens have been receptive, perhaps because pollution is so bad in China that most have experienced its effects (poor water quality, lung-searing smog) firsthand.

One consequence could be, since production of the bags in China will be banned, that perhaps we'll end up with fewer over here. Everything else we sell is made in China, if our plastic bags are too we might face a welcome shortage.

Feds Miss Deadline to Help Polar Bears

| Wed Jan. 9, 2008 7:00 PM EST

polar-bear150x180.jpgFederal authorities missed the deadline this week to classify polar bears as "endangered." Seems rampant habitat loss due to global warming isn't compelling enough to get them listed.

Well, today three conservation groups announced that they're going to sue the Department of the Interior to get the endangered status for the bear.

This all started last January, when an Interior Secretary proposed putting polar bears on the federal endangered list. The Endangered Species Act requires a final decision no later than a year after such a proposal. While the government claims that the deadline was missed because of the complex science involved, and because there has never been a species listed due to global warming, conservationists say that the federal government consistently uses such administrative excuses to keep animals off the list or meddle in scientific findings.

Just to give some context for the "science" part of the argument, a National Geographic study found that polar bears may be extinct by 2050 due to global warming, and in summer 2007, there was 40% less Arctic ice than there was in 2000, according to a study by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. As we wrote about last year, global warming is leading to extinctions across the global board. Unfortunately, we may not have the time it takes to convince the federal government otherwise, or to compel the feds to get their paperwork in order.

Artist Drives Mass Consumption Home

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 6:31 PM EST

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A picture is worth 1,000 words. Chris Jordan's photo illustrations are worth 200,000 cigarette packs, 170,000 disposable batteries, eight million toothpicks, two million plastic beverage bottles, and 426,000 discarded cell phones. (Not that you can tell from the tiny reproduction, but the image accompanying this item contains 29,569 handguns.) In his humbling exhibit titled "Running the Numbers, An American Self-Portrait" the accomplished Seattle-based artist uses these subjects and others to depict our consumer culture's troubling stats. The smoke-packs illustrate the number of Americans that die every six months from smoking-related illnesses; the batteries represent fifteen minutes worth of Energizer's product output; the toothpicks show the number of trees harvested annually to create mail-order catalogs. You get the picture. So rather than blather on for another thousand words about these fascinating images, perhaps I'd better just send you to look at them.