Blue Marble

More Than 40% of World Ocean "Heavily Impacted" by Humans

| Thu Feb. 14, 2008 4:36 PM EST

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A new study in Science reports more than 40% of the world ocean is heavily impacted by human activities. Scientists from UCSB and NOAA combined 17 data sets of different human activities, examining overfishing, fertilizer run-off, commercial shipping, and pollution, and analyzed the effects on marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, continental shelves, and the deep ocean. The team also examined climate change by three measures: sea surface temperatures, UV radiation, and ocean acidification. These were found to be among the most important factors in global impact.

"This project allows us to finally start to see the big picture of how humans are affecting the oceans," said lead author Ben Halpern, at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at UCSB. "Our results show that… the big picture looks much worse than I imagine most people expected. It was certainly a surprise to me." The most heavily affected waters include large areas of the North Sea, the South and East China Seas, the Caribbean Sea, the east coast of North America, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Bering Sea, and several regions in the western Pacific. The least affected areas are largely near the poles. "Unfortunately, as polar ice sheets disappear with warming global climate and human activities spread into these areas, there is a great risk of rapid degradation of these relatively pristine ecosystems," said Carrie Kappel, a principal investigator on the project at NCEAS.

The researchers note there's still time to preserve the more pristine areas. And we can all do our part. Know what you eat. Know what you buy. Buy less. Eat less.

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.

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Text Your Way to Sustainable Seafood

| Wed Feb. 13, 2008 2:52 PM EST

img_posters_114-Sustainable-Fish.jpg These days it's tricky enough navigating the terrain of seafood for health concerns, much less moral ones. Plenty of organizations have compiled comprehensive lists of good and not-so-good fish to eat, depending on whether the fish are imperiled, how they're caught, their overall health, and other factors.

But let's say you're out at a restaurant and there's fish on the menu (for example, the buttermilk fried calamari that was on the menu when I was dining out last weekend) but you forgot your geeky pocket-sized sustainable fish reference guide. Feel caught in a moral quagmire? Simply get out your cell phone and text "fish" and the name of the fish to 30644. You'll get a text informing you about the fish's sustainability.

I tried the service and within seconds got a text back telling me:

squid; (GREEN) few environmental concerns; squid grow quickly making them resistant to fishing pressure

So I forged ahead, and the squid didn't disappoint.

If your choice isn't "green," the text will provide you with alternatives. This nifty service is offered by the Blue Ocean Institute.

—Joyce Tang

Scary New CO2 Numbers on Shipping, Plus a Hopeful Breeze

| Wed Feb. 13, 2008 1:49 AM EST

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More bad news on the real costs of all the cheap goods that come our way from all over the world via the high seas. A leaked UN report says pollution from shipping is nearly three times higher than previously thought, and that annual emissions from the world's merchant fleet have already reached nearly 4.5% of all global emissions of CO2. The report warns that shipping emissions are destined to become one of the largest single sources of manmade CO2 after cars, housing, agriculture, and industry. By comparison, the aviation industry, under heavy pressure to clean up its act, emits only half as much CO2, reports the Guardian:

The figure is highly embarrassing for the four governments, including Britain, that paid for the report. Governments and the EU have consistently played down the climate impact of shipping, saying it is less than 2% of global emissions and failing to include shipping emissions in their national estimates for CO2 emissions. Previous attempts by the industry to calculate levels of carbon emissions were largely based on the quantity of low grade fuel bought by shipowners. The latest UN figures are considered more accurate because they are based on the known engine size of the world's ships, as well as the time they spend at sea and the amount of low grade fuel sold to shipowners. The UN report also reveals that other pollutants from shipping are rising even faster than CO2 emissions. Sulphur and soot emissions, which give rise to lung cancers, acid rain and respiratory problems are expected to rise more than 30% over the next 12 years.

Here's a partial solution, at least, as reported by the BBC. The world's first commercial cargo ship partially powered by a giant kite just sailed from Germany to Venezuela. The MS Beluga Skysails—seen in the photo above—carries a computer-controlled kite, measuring 160sq m (1,722sq ft), designed to cut fuel consumption by as much as 20%.

So, how about we accept cheap goods from abroad only if they come in under sail?

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.

All About Light

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 10:47 PM EST

13Cribsheet.jpg The latest addition to SEED's excellent Cribsheet series: Light. On one page, everything you wanted to know or remember about the electromagnetic spectrum, wave-particle duality, how light interacts with matter, how we use light to study the size, age, and composition of the universe, how light can help provide clean energy, faster computers, and efficient space travel. Check out other Cribsheets on everything from hybrid cars to nuclear power to extinction to genetics, to name a few.

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.

Sea Level Rise Twice As High as Current Projections

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 10:25 PM EST

New research on Greenland glaciers suggests that sea level rise will be twice as high the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate of 18 to 58 cm (0.6 to 1.9 ft) by 2100. The study, published in the Journal of Glaciology (pdf), combines important data long missing from the ice sheet models. Researchers from the University at Buffalo, Ohio State University, the University of Kansas, and NASA, combined field mapping, remote sensing, satellite imaging, and digital enhancement techniques to glean "hidden" data from historic aerial photographs, some 60 years old.

The resulting two-dimensional pictures are of limited value. But the researchers digitized them, removed the boundaries between them, and turned several pictures into a single 'mosaic' producing one data set viewable in three-dimensions. "By reprocessing old data contained in these old photographs and records, we have been able to construct a long-term record of the behavior of the [Jakobshavn Isbrae] glacier," says lead author, Beata Csatho. "This was the first time that the data from the '40s could be reused in a coherent way."

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You can see in this 1946 image how the 4-mile-wide Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier is flowing from the ice through Greenland's rocky coast. Image courtesy of University at Buffalo.

Other glacier views and data here and 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.

More Arctic for the U.S.

| Tue Feb. 12, 2008 6:35 PM EST

noaa-map.jpgA new map of the Arctic sea floor may help the United States should it decide to join in on the international land grab going on up north. While the U.S. clearly owns all the above-water land in Alaska, the land beneath the Arctic Ocean is trickier. It is literally uncharted territory, mostly unclaimed, and butts up against Russia, Greenland, the U.S., and other countries who are now trying to extend their borders northward.

The map, made with NOAA data, shows that Alaska's continental shelf extends more than 115 miles further than believed. An international sea treaty gives countries the rights to govern their continental shelf beyond 230 miles if the country can prove the shelf extends that far. So the further the shelf, the more seabed the United States potentially has to drill for oil. There are estimates that as much as 25% of the world's undiscovered oil reserves lie beneath the Arctic sea floor, making it a possible future fuel source, though most likely a deadly one for the strange, new species scientists have only recently discovered there. Not only would it disturb their habitat, if there was an oil spill in the Arctic, it would be harder than usual to clean up because it's so far from land, so cold, has moving ice, and lack of natural light during some times of the year. However, as the U.S. has yet to even officially claim the land, the legality of oil drilling by American companies is still undetermined.

NOAA plans a second research expedition for fall this year.

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Whales (and Dugongs) Hear Good News

| Mon Feb. 11, 2008 7:41 PM EST

061019192417.jpg In the last week federal courts have twice slapped the Navy for sonar testing in the ocean. The first, by a federal court in San Francisco, is a preliminary injunction against the use of Low-Frequency Active (LFA) sonar, which relies on extremely loud, low-frequency sound to detect submarines at great distances. According to the Navy's own studies, LFA generates enough noise to significantly disrupt whale behavior more than 300 miles away, and under certain conditions can cross an entire ocean basin. Yet the Navy wants to deploy LFA in more than 75 percent of the world-ocean, reports ENN. "This order protects marine life around the world from a technology that can affect species on a staggering geographic scale," said Joel Reynolds of the National Resources Defense Council, lead group in the coalition asserting that an LFA permit issued last year by the National Marine Fisheries Service violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The second injunction was for Mid-Frequency Active (MFA) sonar in exercises off southern California. MFA sonar, also used in submarine detection, has been linked to mass deaths of whales in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, and elsewhere, reports the Los Angeles Times. A federal judge in Los Angeles already ruled against the Navy on this. The Bush administration was attempting to reverse that ruling, pleading that "emergency circumstances" prevented normal compliance with the law. No go, said U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, calling Bush's effort to maneuver around the original court order "constitutionally suspect."

The Dark Side of Biofuels

| Mon Feb. 11, 2008 4:54 PM EST

biofuel.jpg Yet another study deepening our understanding of just why converting native ecosystems to biofuel farms is increasing not mitigating climate change. This according to a study by the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservancy published online today in Science, finding that turning rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands into biofuel-yielding croplands emits large amounts of carbon that add to the atmosphere's already heavy burden of greenhouse gases.

In Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the US, land is being planted with corn or sugarcane to produce ethanol, or with palm trees or soybeans to produce biodiesel. The land conversions pump out 17 to 423 times more carbon than the annual savings from replacing fossil fuels with the biofuels. This carbon debt must pay off before they biofuels begin to have the effect of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In the worst scenario, peatland conversions to palm oil plantations in Indonesia ran up a carbon debt requiring 423 years to pay off. In the Amazon, soybeans will take 319 years. The conversion of U.S. grasslands for corn ethanol and Indonesian rainforests for palm biodiesel also ran up big carbon debts.

There is a solution. The researchers suggest that biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained greenhouse gas advantages. In the US, Conservation Reserve Program lands, idle lands, and others once in agriculture can be used to grow biofuels and provide energy sources much better than fossil fuels.

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.

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.

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.