Blue Marble

Dwindling Parrotfish Key To Coral Reef Survival

| Tue Nov. 6, 2007 4:34 PM EST

Scarus_iseri.jpg

A study finds the future of the Caribbean's failing coral reefs tied to fish with an equally uncertain future. The University of California Davis reports on a study of reefs overrun by marine algae (seaweeds) after a plague in 1983 killed virtually all the plant's natural grazers, sea urchins. (Read more about this in MoJo's The Fate of The Ocean.) With urchins gone, the corals' only line of defense against algae is parrotfish—also grazers. But parrotfish are disappearing from overfishing, allowing algae to outcompete corals on the reef.

The researchers created a mathematical model of the reef, then looked at what the future holds, investigating a process known as hysteresis: whereby an effect lags behind its cause. "The idea of hysteresis is that you go over a cliff, then find the cliff has moved," said UC Davis theoretical ecologist Alan Hastings. "Going back is harder than getting there. In this case, the loss of sea urchins sent the reef off the road, and now the only guardrail is the parrotfish. Our model showed that if we overfish parrotfish, and the reef goes off the cliff, we would need four times the fish we have now to bring the reef back."

The authors suggest that local authorities act now to reduce parrotfish deaths, including outlawing fish traps. They also call on anyone visiting the Caribbean and sees parrotfish on a restaurant menu to voice their concern to the management.

208026039_f84d3ca11c.jpg

Well—as the pithy bumpersticker says—at least the war on the environment is going well.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Weird Weather Watch: Tabasco, Soused

| Mon Nov. 5, 2007 6:02 PM EST

Many environmentalist and NGO analysts are predicting that Mexico will suffer disproportionately from climate change, amplifying immigration problems in the United States.

It looks like they might be right. The state of Tabasco in southern Mexico is suffering from the worst floods the flood-prone region has ever seen. Water rose in Villahermosa, the state capital, fast enough to drown out one-storey buildings in an hour. More than 300,000 people had to leave their homes.

The most ominous problem is that the contaminated water may stimulate outbreaks of cholera, malaria and dengue fever.

New Species in Aleutian Islands

| Mon Nov. 5, 2007 3:03 PM EST

anemone.jpg

Photo courtesy of Stephen Jewett, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Deep in the frigid waters of the Aleutian islands, scientists have discovered three new species—two kinds of sea anemones that drift along with ocean currents (other anemones tend to stay put in one place) and a ten-foot-long brown kelp that grows near ocean vents. Scientists believe that the new kelp might be part of a new seaweed genus or family. Check out a photo gallery of the newbies (and other Aleutian critters) here.

Stretching out about 1,200 miles between Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian islands are among the most remote land masses in the world. Last year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to ban the destructive practice of bottom trawling in more than 300,000 square miles off Alaska's coast, which is great news for the Aleutians. But the trawling ban doesn't solve the problem of pollution—researchers have found traces of industrial chemicals in the area, as well as unexploded ordinance leftover from WWII.

For an insider's perspective on conservation in this corner of the world, check out this interview with Erin McKittrick and Bretwood "Hig" Higman, a couple in the midst of a 4,000 mile hiking/rafting/skiing journey from Seattle up into the Aleutians.

Toxic FEMA Trailers

| Thu Nov. 1, 2007 1:22 PM EDT

fematrailerssmall.jpgTalk about adding insult to injury. It's been more than two years since Hurricane Katrina forced Gulf Coast residents out of their homes, and tens of thousands of them are still living in FEMA trailers today. As if that weren't bad enough, those trailers might be making people sick. FEMA trailer residents—especially kids—have been complaining of breathing problems, headaches, rashes, and allergies.

The EPA has tested trailers for formaldehyde—but strangely, only the empty ones. This led to a showdown between Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and FEMA Director David Paulison at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee federal hearing last summer:

"Did you test any other occupied trailers?" Waxman asked Paulison.
"We did not test occupied trailers," Paulson replied. "We went along with the advice that we received from EPA and CDC that if we ventilated the trailers that would reduce the formaldehyde issue."
Waxman pressed on, asking Paulison if FEMA tested to see whether ventilating the trailers in fact reduced formaldehyde levels. Paulison said that it did reduce levels in the empty trailers.
But Waxman interrupted the response, repeating that FEMA tests were conducted only on empty trailers with blowing fans, open windows and constant air conditioning.

Since the summer, there's been an outcry about the formaldehyde problem. The press has picked up the story, and at least one blog about toxic trailers exists.

In its "For the Record" release about formaldehyde, FEMA recommends that residents "increase ventilation," "keep indoor temperatures cool," and "keep the humidity low." Easy as pie. Unless, of course, you happen to live in cramped quarters in a subtropical climate.

All I Want for Christmas is a Biodiesel Hummer. No, Really.

| Tue Oct. 30, 2007 9:20 PM EDT

Think there are no real inventors anymore? That would be news to Johnathan Goodwin, proud creator of the world's most fuel-efficient Hummer.

By combining biodiesel and hybrid technology and reconfiguring engines, Goodwin can double the fuel efficiency of a number of giant American cars and nearly eliminate their emissions, using almost nothing but stock GM parts (OK, and the occasional jet engine). He's currently working on the Governator's 1987 Wagoneer, and is slated to overhaul Neil Young's 1960 Lincoln Continental.

As for the country's decaying car capital, Goodwin has little sympathy, pointing out that "Detroit could do all this stuff overnight if it wanted to."

—Casey Miner

From Gmail to Global Warming Skeptics (With a Single Click)

| Mon Oct. 29, 2007 4:02 PM EDT

global%20warming.jpgUpon logging into my Gmail account this morning, what should I find in the "sponsored link" spot above my inbox but the following message:

"Global warming is not a crisis! Gore won't debate."

Intrigued, I clicked on the link and found myself at the website of the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank whose mission is "to discover and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

WTF? ExxonMobil Funds Research - By An Astrophysicist - On Polar Bears And Climate Change

| Mon Oct. 29, 2007 3:22 PM EDT

792px-Polar_Bear_2004-11-15.jpg

The House Committee on Science and Technology is examining ExxonMobil's motives for funding research by an astrophysicist into the impact of climate change on the polar bear population of western Hudson Bay in Canada. New Scientist reports that if polar bears are listed under the Endangered Species Act, steps to protect their habitat could directly hurt ExxonMobil's economic interests:

The researchers, including Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published their findings as a "viewpoint", which is not peer-reviewed. They conclude that the polar bears are not threatened by climate change (Ecological Complexity, DOI: 10.1016/j.ecocom.2007.03.002). "It's hard to see this article as rigorous, sound science," [subcommittee chair Brad] Miller says. "The public has a right to know why ExxonMobil is funding a scientist whose writing is outside his area of expertise." . . . ExxonMobil denied its funding was motivated by political interests.

Really.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Has Oil Peaked Already?

| Mon Oct. 29, 2007 2:59 PM EDT

1449449901_304d12978c_m.jpg According to the German Energy Watch Group, world oil production peaked in 2006, far earlier than expected. The nonprofit's scientists, working independently of government and industry, analyzed oil production figures and predicted it would fall by 7 percent a year, dropping to half of current levels by 2030. The report also predicts falls in gas, coal and uranium production, and warns that supply shortages could cause meltdowns in human society.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

California Fires Batter Endangered Species

| Mon Oct. 29, 2007 2:17 PM EDT

condor2.jpg

So what happens to species already on the brink when fires, fueled by our changing climate, visit like never before? Nature reports that the San Diego Zoo suffered damage to one of its California condor breeding facilities—though the birds, thankfully, were safely evacuated ahead of the flames. The zoo also lost a planned habitat for endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs—a habitat designated after the frogs' original home was burned in the huge wildfires of 2003. The frogs may now have to be moved to another zoo altogether.

29167_mountain_yellow_legged_frog.jpg

At Camp Pendleton, one of only two known habitats of the endangered Pacific pocket mouse was burned. No one knows yet whether the mice survived.

PocketMouse.jpg

Sadly, these are just the kind of stressors that healthy populations can survive but which wipe out those species already reeling from the blows of over(human)population, habitat loss, pollution, illegal wildlife trade, and border fences.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

News Flash: Icebergs Still Exist

| Fri Oct. 26, 2007 7:47 PM EDT

icebergs200.jpgThese days, everyone seems to want a piece of the Arctic. (Diamond prospectors, bone hunters, and global warming tourists are just a few northward bound parties.) After all, who knows what treasures lurk under those hunks of melting ice?

But if you're planning on skipping up to the Arctic and expecting smooth sailing, think again. Today, the International Ice Charting Working Group issued a report on the state of the Arctic sea ice. In the report is a reminder that global warming hasn't quite done away with icebergs yet:

The Arctic is already experiencing an increase in shipping, primarily for oil and gas development and tourism, and we can expect to see further increases as diminishing ice extent makes Arctic marine transportation more viable...The IICWG cautions that sea ice and icebergs will continue to present significant hazards to navigation for the foreseeable future. The Arctic will still have a winter ice cover that will linger into summer for varying lengths of time depending on a range of conditions.

Let's hope it stays that way.