Blue Marble

188 More Species Deemed Near Extinction

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 5:51 PM EDT

Today the World Conservation Union (also known, for reason too arcane to go into, as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources or IUCN) came out with its "Red List" of species threatened with extinction. There are 188 additions to the list, bringing the total up to 16,306. There's particularly bad news about great apes and coral reefs, but across taxonomic board, the news is "quite bleak," said Jane Smart, who heads the group's species program.

As Mother Jones' Julia Whitty wrote in Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth's Vanishing Biodiversity:

1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 3 conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction. The peril faced by other classes of organisms is less thoroughly analyzed, but fully 40 percent of the examined species of planet Earth are in danger, including up to 51 percent of reptiles, 52 percent of insects, and 73 percent of flowering plants.
By the most conservative measure—based on the last century's recorded extinctions—the current rate of extinction is 100 times the background rate. But eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson and other scientists estimate that the true rate is more like 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. The actual annual sum is only an educated guess, because no scientist believes the tally of life ends at the 1.5 million species already discovered; estimates range as high as 100 million species on Earth, with 10 million as the median guess. Bracketed between best- and worst-case scenarios, then, somewhere between 2.7 and 270 species are erased from existence every day. Including today.
We now understand that the majority of life on Earth has never been—and will never be—known to us. In a staggering forecast, Wilson predicts that our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by the year 2100.
You probably had no idea. Few do. A poll by the American Museum of Natural History finds that 7 in 10 biologists believe that mass extinction poses a colossal threat to human existence, a more serious environmental problem than even its contributor, global warming, and that the dangers of mass extinction are woefully underestimated by most everyone outside of science. In the 200 years since French naturalist Georges Cuvier first floated the concept of extinction, after examining fossil bones and concluding "the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some sort of catastrophe," we have only slowly recognized and attempted to correct our own catastrophic behavior.

The rate of extinction is due to a variety of factors, but nearly all are human induced, including climate change, habitat loss, invasive species (transported by us), the plight of the oceans, and so on. As Julia notes:

All these disappearing species are part of a fragile membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin, writes E.O. Wilson, that it "cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered." We owe everything to this membrane of life. Literally everything. The air we breathe. The food we eat. The materials of our homes, clothes, books, computers, medicines. Goods and services that we can't even imagine we'll someday need will come from species we have yet to identify. The proverbial cure for cancer. The genetic fountain of youth. Immortality. Mortality.
The living membrane we so recklessly destroy is existence itself.

Read Julia's article. It will haunt you. As will the accompanying photo essay by Richard Ross.


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Presto Chango, It's H2O

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 4:56 PM EDT

According to an article in the UK's Telegraph, a British inventor has developed a plastic bottle that converts even the rankest sludge into tasty drinking water almost instantly.

The bottle, which looks a lot like the refillable types carried on bikes everywhere, can scrub virtually any water, even samples containing viruses or fecal matter. It promises to be useful to soldiers, as well as refugees and disaster victims.

Said Michael Pritchard, the brainiac behind the invention, "Something had to be done. It took me a little while and some very frustrating prototypes but eventually I did it."

Are Babies Causing Global Warming?

| Wed Sep. 12, 2007 4:06 PM EDT

Yes. Yes, they are.

In the Arctic, Chemicals Disrupt Gender Balance

| Wed Sep. 12, 2007 2:05 PM EDT

We already knew that our greenhouse gases were causing problems for the Inuit. Now, we find out that some other little "presents" we've given the Arctic Circle—chemicals from our electronics—are wreaking havoc, too.

In many Inuit communities these days, twice as many girls as boys are born. Scientists recently traced the trend to a buildup of chemicals present in common electronic devices (like televisions and computers). When the chemicals enter the bloodstream of a pregnant woman, they can, scientists believe, act like hormones, causing a fetus to undergo a sex change in the earliest stages of development.

This is not a good thing. In one community in Greenland, only baby girls were born during the course of the study. And if that's not alarming enough, consider the wider implications:

The sex balance of the human race - historically a slight excess of boys over girls - has recently begun to change. A paper published in the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences earlier this year said that in Japan and the US there were 250,000 boys fewer than would have been expected had the sex ratio existing in 1970 remained unchanged. The paper was unable to pin down a cause for the new excess of girls over boys.

This does not bode well for humanity. Not to mention lines for the ladies' room.

Introducing BK's Apple Fries, Healthy Food Their Way

| Wed Sep. 12, 2007 11:29 AM EDT

bk-applefries091107.jpgBurger King announced today that they're going to offer healthier food for kids this fall. Their new "Kids Meal" will offer low-fat milk, flame-broiled chicken strips, and "Apple Fries"—red apples sliced (via BK's patented cutting process) and packaged, you guessed it, to look like fries. Although, leave it to Burger King to leave out the most nutritious part of the apple—the skin.

Burger King's attempt to provide healthier food could be in the interest of public health (or pressure?), but to me it sounds like just another marketing ploy which is par for the course for the fast food industry these days. But what's BK up to with these apple fries? Are they shaped like fries to trick children into eating them, or to have kids associate healthiness with french fries? Why not just give the kids a whole apple, skin and all?

After all, a recent Washington Post survey of DC fourth graders showed that kids actually do like fruit. Minimally processed mandarin orange segments, applesauce, and pineapple receive as high a kid's review as processed, sweetened treats. But I guess kids can't have it their way at Burger King.

Good News from Ground Zero

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 4:16 PM EDT

On the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Grist has an interesting post about Manhattan's financial district. The community's struggle to rebound has given rise to something the area hasn't seen in a long time: a residential neighborhood.

The Twin Towers were not a good addition to the financial district from a livability point of view; one of the main goals of the reconstruction there has been to "recreate the grid"; that is, the various smaller blocks that used to be there, the kind that make up the vibrant street life that Jane Jacobs first discussed in her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Grist's Jon Rynn points out that this project probably wouldn't have been possible without billions of dollars in federal aid. But now that the ball is rolling the community is beginning to take care of itself.

Wouldn't it be nice if the same thing happened in other places?

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40 Percent of Deaths Linked to Environment

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 3:53 PM EDT

Hmmm... Maybe it's not so bad to drink Dr. Pepper after all. A recent Cornell University study has found that nearly half of deaths worldwide are caused or exacerbated by environmental pollution, including water pollution.

David Pimentel, the Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who conducted the research, links 62 million deaths each year to organic or chemical pollutants, placing these factors alongside long-known killers such as heart disease.

Increasing rates of Malaria, E. coli, Salmonella, AIDS, and Tuberculosis all are linked to environmental degradation, according to Pimentel. "In the United States alone, 76,000 people are in the hospital each year, with 5,000 deaths, just due to pollution of air, food, or water," he said. "Cancers are increasing in the U.S., and AIDS is on the rise."

Free Fruit for U.K. Kids Contains Pesticides (Wait, U.K. Kids Get Free Fruit?)

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 3:39 PM EDT

When I learned that most free fruit for schoolchildren in the U.K. contains residue from pesticides, I didn't know quite how to react. I mean, pesticides in food is always bad news for sure. Yet I can't help but think that free fruit for kids is a pretty good idea (and one that we haven't managed to pull off in the U.S.).

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. From a Child Health News article on the topic:

Critics say the scheme was always unlikely to work because making fruit and vegetables available at school break time has no place in a culture in which healthy food is considered 'uncool' and they say stories abound of children forlornly wandering around the school playground with a bucket of fruit, trying to dispose of it.

Conclusion: Even if the free fruit were organic, it would still need some serious PR work.

Polar Bears Mostly Extinct by 2050

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 12:56 PM EDT

Sad news. A recent U.S. Geological Survey claims that 2/3 of the world's polar bears will be extinct by 2050 due to Arctic warming. Ice up North is melting so fast that the large predators likely won't have enough ice on which to hunt and breed during the summers. The Secretary of the Interior has suggested making polar bears a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act, entitling the animals to federal protections. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is giving a final recommendation on the bear's addition to the list to the Interior in January 2008. The Interior's suggested protection of the polar bear, though not finalized, is an encouraging move, given the Bush administration's history of active opposition to wildlife conservation.

Though the polar bears are disappearing, there is hopeful news on the other side of the globe. In a steamy Indian rainforest, tigers have been spotted 30 years after they were assumed extinct in the area. A local official estimates there are now about 20 of the big cats living in the wet, mountainous region of Maharashta. India is home to about 1,500 tigers, half of the world's tiger population.

Pope Issues Plea for the Earth at First-Ever 'Green' Youth Rally

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 6:03 PM EDT

Yesterday, The Catholic Church's first eco-friendly youth rally featured a plea from Pope Benedict for humans to make "courageous choices" that will help save the earth "before it is too late."

The rally, held in Italy, lasted through the weekend and attracted nearly half a million attendees. Usually a crowd of that size would create a huge amount of environmentally unfriendly garbage, but not so in this case. Participants were issued kits including a recyclable backpack and color-coded trash bags to organize personal recyclables, and meals were served on biodegradable plates.