Blue Marble

Mother Jones Contributing Writer Julia Whitty Speaks in SF Tomorrow

| Mon Aug. 20, 2007 5:31 PM EDT

Bay Area residents: don't miss author, filmmaker, and Mother Jones contributing writer and blogger Julia Whitty ("Gone," May/June 2007). She'll be speaking tomorrow at the California Academy of Sciences about "wonders and warnings from the oceans." Time: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Location: 875 Howard Street, between 4th and 5th Streets. Admission price: $8 for non-members.

See you there!

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What's Your Walkability Score?

| Mon Aug. 20, 2007 2:10 PM EDT

Bragging about your neighborhood's through-the-roof property values is, like, SO late nineties. These days, one-upmanship is all about establishing eco cred. Luckily, there's a handy new website, Walk Score: Just enter in your address, and the site instantly calculates your home's "walkability score," on a scale of 1-100. The principle is pretty simple: If you can walk to the supermarket and your favorite restaurant, for example, you can expect a high rating. If you have to get in your car just to get the newspaper at the end of your driveway, though, don't expect any walkability bragging rights.

But is walkability always a good thing? Crosscut Seattle's David Brewster isn't so sure:

And does walkability work? Sightline cites research showing that residents of compact areas (homes mixed with stores and services, and a street network designed for walking and strolling) are less likely to be obese, suffer fewer chronic illnesses, and may breathe cleaner air than suburbanites by being farther from the "pollution tunnel" of busy highways.
Such claims are probably true in a broad sense, but there are interesting complexities in the new science of walkability. All those nifty shops in walkable neighborhoods, for instance, are signs of gentrification, which normally drives density downward by replacing working class families with wealthier singles. Transit stations normally do not help bring more density, since many are surrounded by parking lots or have such high property values that neighborhood services can't pay the rent. Another paradox is that really charming walkable neighborhoods soon line up the pitchforks to oppose increased residential densification in any form.


Weird - er, New-Normal - Weather Watch: Too Hot to Cool Nuclear Reactors

| Sun Aug. 19, 2007 10:39 PM EDT

Frank Strait's blog at Accuweather informs us that it's so hot in the east that nuclear reactors in the Tennessee Valley are being shut down because the water drawn out of the Tennessee River is too warm to cool them. That's a first. The Tennessee Valley Authority said it would compensate for the loss of power by buying power elsewhere—though just Thursday they announced they were imposing a fuel surcharge on their customers because hydropower production is already down from the drought.

So maybe we won't have to learn how to cut our own profligate carbon footprints. Maybe it will all be done for us in a hand-of-imaginary-friend, I mean, -god kind of way.

Add to this news the extremely weird behavior of tropical system Erin—it actually got stronger after landfall. And the fact that those fabulously bizarre birds known as frogmouths are breeding at the London Zoo for the first time in nearly a decade because, apparently, they're mistaking the neverending deluge there for a monsoon. Seems someone likes the new normal. JULIA WHITTY

Arctic Sea Ice Shrinks To Record Low (Again)

| Fri Aug. 17, 2007 7:54 PM EDT

The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that Arctic sea ice broke an ominous record yesterday, with the least Arctic sea ice ever measured by satellite. The previous record low was set in September 2005 (see MoJo's Has The Age Of Chaos Begun?). Yesterday's record, August 16th, 2007, falls a full month shy of the typical summer low — which means there's a lot more melting yet to come. Sea ice extent is currently tracking at 2.02 million square miles, just below the 2005 record absolute minimum of 2.05 million square miles.

The Cryosphere Today scooped the news by a week, reporting on August 9th a new Arctic minimum sea ice.

A week before that, I heard it from Dave Carlson, an oceanographer at Oregon State University and current Director of the International Polar Year, during a talk he gave at Science Foo — a kind of science summit put together by O'Reilly Publishing and Nature Publishing, and hosted by Google at the Googleplex. Carlson reported then that NASA already saw the new record in their scopes.

The Sci Foo (FOO = friends of O'Reilly) meeting, by the way, proved exciting, exhilarating, inspiring, and terrifying, in no particular order. The good stuff came from the meeting of so many amazing minds, complete with their own onboard databases of experience and knowledge. The terrifying stuff came from listening to these physicists, mathematicians, bioengineers, biochemists, doctors, and about every other science and technology job known to humans, discuss the Really Big Problems of the day — everything from climate change to bioweapons. Everyone was probing science's responsibility and knowledge, and tossing around solutions. I'll be blogging more about this summit in coming posts.

In regards to the Arctic melting trend, it's likely to continue and even accelerate. You can read the how's and why's in my 2006 MoJo article, The Fate of the Ocean. It all has to do with albedo, water temps, positive feedback loops, and the like. JULIA WHITTY

Weird Weather Watch: Brutal Heat Wave in the South

| Thu Aug. 16, 2007 8:16 PM EDT

It was 107 in Memphis yesterday—an all-time high. The heat that has gripped most of the South for the past week and a half has killed at least 37 people.

Riffing the massive earthquake yesterday in Peru (which left almost 450 people dead), Memphis' mayor said, "This is pretty akin to a seismic event in the sense that there is no remedy, no solution that we here in this room can come up with that will take care of everybody."

Meanwhile, Americans presided over the deaths of 250 people in Iraq, where we are busily fighting for the fossil fuel we need to fight.

Perhaps our efforts would be more constructively directed at halting climate change.

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Court Denies FTC Injunction Against Whole Foods Merger

| Thu Aug. 16, 2007 7:24 PM EDT

The proposed merger between Whole Foods and Wild Oats is back on the table. The Federal Trade Commission's recent injunction to stop the merger under anti-monopoly laws was denied today, and the merger may take place as early as Monday, August 20. That is, if the FTC does not file a stay for an appeal by then. Stay tuned for more Whole Foods news Monday. Until then, though, you can browse Michael Pollan's feature on why eating organic isn't necessarily sustainable.

'Cool Farms' Mask Global Warming

| Thu Aug. 16, 2007 12:25 AM EDT

You've heard of urban heat islands that generate pockets of hot air. Now researchers confirm the existence of their opposite: cool farm patches that tend to cool things down, reports New Scientist. These have been felt in California for more than a century, in areas of intensive irrigation, like the Central Valley, where "cool farms" have counteracted global warming. Researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, extrapolating back to when irrigation began in 1887, calculate that intensively irrigated parts of the Central Valley are ~3.0 to 5.75°F cooler than they would otherwise have been. The cooling happens because much of the solar energy hitting irrigated ground during the day goes to evaporate the extra water in the soil and plants instead of heating the air. The cool farms could explain why minimum and maximum winter temperatures steadily rose in California between 1915 and 2000, while maximum summer temps did not. The warmer winters can only be explained by the greenhouse effect, and the authors speculate the cool-farms effect may have masked the impact of global warming on summer temps — since irrigation is mostly carried out during the summer.

But the cool times may not last. A rollback of the cooling effect of irrigation in the face of continued global warming could mean that California will be hit by substantial warming. This could also mean that irrigated regions around the world, which now provide about 40% of global food production, will feel more than their share of warming in the future, with the obvious impact on food security. . . So, plant your water gardens now. JULIA WHITTY

Indians Predated Newton 'Discovery' By 250 Years

| Wed Aug. 15, 2007 11:51 PM EDT

Okay, geek that I am, I love this stuff. So I'm going to post long here. A school of scholars in southwest India discovered one of the founding principles of modern mathematics hundreds of years before Newton. According to new research by George Gheverghese Joseph from The University of Manchester, the 'Kerala School' identified the 'infinite series' — one of the basic components of calculus — in about 1350. The discovery is currently, and wrongly, attributed to Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz at the end of the seventeenth centuries. The team reveals the Kerala School also discovered what amounted to the Pi series and used it to calculate Pi correct to 9, 10 and later 17 decimal places. And there is strong circumstantial evidence that the Indians passed on their discoveries to mathematically knowledgeable Jesuit missionaries who visited India during the fifteenth century. That knowledge, they argue, may have eventually been passed on to Newton himself. Joseph made the revelations while trawling through obscure Indian papers for a yet to be published third edition of his best selling book The Crest of the Peacock: the Non-European Roots of Mathematics.

According to Joseph: "The beginnings of modern maths is usually seen as a European achievement but the discoveries in medieval India between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries have been ignored or forgotten. The brilliance of Newton's work at the end of the seventeenth century stands undiminished — especially when it came to the algorithms of calculus. But other names from the Kerala School, notably Madhava and Nilakantha, should stand shoulder to shoulder with him as they discovered the other great component of calculus — infinite series. There were many reasons why the contribution of the Kerala school has not been acknowledged — a prime reason is neglect of scientific ideas emanating from the Non-European world — a legacy of European colonialism and beyond. But there is also little knowledge of the medieval form of the local language of Kerala, Malayalam, in which some of most seminal texts, such as the Yuktibhasa, from much of the documentation of this remarkable mathematics is written. For some unfathomable reasons [actually, pretty easily fathomable…], the standard of evidence required to claim transmission of knowledge from East to West is greater than the standard of evidence required to knowledge from West to East. Certainly it's hard to imagine that the West would abandon a 500-year-old tradition of importing knowledge and books from India and the Islamic world. But we've found evidence which goes far beyond that: for example, there was plenty of opportunity to collect the information as European Jesuits were present in the area at that time. They were learned with a strong background in maths and were well versed in the local languages. And there was strong motivation: Pope Gregory XIII set up a committee to look into modernising the Julian calendar. On the committee was the German Jesuit astronomer/mathematician Clavius who repeatedly requested information on how people constructed calendars in other parts of the world. The Kerala School was undoubtedly a leading light in this area. Similarly there was a rising need for better navigational methods including keeping accurate time on voyages of exploration and large prizes were offered to mathematicians who specialised in astronomy. Again, there were many such requests for information across the world from leading Jesuit researchers in Europe. Kerala mathematicians were hugely skilled in this area.

Never too late to set history straight. Can't wait to read Joseph's new edition. JULIA WHITTY

Headless Walruses Appear in Droves on Alaskan Shores

| Wed Aug. 15, 2007 8:39 PM EDT

Dozens of decapitated walruses have washed up on the beaches of western Alaska this summer, but a particular surge in Norton Sound, a bay of the Bering Sea, has called for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation.

The heads have likely been taken because of the walruses' valuable ivory tusks. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the use of at least the heart, liver, flippers, chest meat, and red meat. The only people allowed to hunt walruses for subsistence purposes are Alaska Natives who reside in Alaska. As of now, it is unclear if these beheadings were carried out by Alaskans and whether crimes were committed. But something seems fishy.

Authorities have counted 79 carcasses between Elim and Unalakleet, which is the largest number of walruses in the area in 10 years. Besides this wasteful disposal of walruses, the carcasses can be very disturbing to people visiting the beach not only by being aesthetically barbaric, but by also omitting a terrible stench.

—Anna Weggel