Blue Marble

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

Rising Temps Will Stunt Rainforests

| Mon Aug. 13, 2007 8:44 PM EDT

In case you think the climate naysayers trotting out their tired 10-year-old studies are in the forefront of science — this is for you. Just one example of the overwhelming quantity and quality of science being published on the many facets of climate change. A new study in the prestigious journal Nature finds that global warming could cut the rate at which trees in tropical rainforests grow by as much as half. This is based on more than two decades' worth of data from forests in Panama and Malaysia. The effect has so far been largely overlooked by climate modellers, and it could severely erode or even remove the ability of tropical rainforests to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Rising temperatures have reduced growth rates by up to 50% in the two rainforests, both of which experienced climate warming above the world average over the past few decades. If other rainforests follow suit, the pristine Amazon could conceivably stop storing as much carbon. This would be bad for all of us, no matter where we live. JULIA WHITTY

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Butterflies Suffering From Changing Climate

| Mon Aug. 13, 2007 8:10 PM EDT

Well, this is sad news. Expanding forests in the Canadian Rocky Mountains are slowly isolating groups of alpine butterflies from each other. A new study from the University of Alberta suggests this isolation may lead to the extinction of some species. Global warming is raising the altitude of treeline, and this problem is exacerbated by a policy not to initiate prescribed burns for forest management. Consequently, meadow-loving butterflies, such as the Apollo, are suffering, as forests encroach on mountain meadows. "The risk of local extinction and inbreeding depression will increase as meadows shrink, the population sizes decrease and the populations become more isolated," said Jens Roland, lead author. "The gene pool of this species is getting more and more fragmented, and gene flow is reduced, which means these populations are more vulnerable." One particularly cold winter or summer season may be enough to wipe out an entire meadow of Apollo. The paper appears in today's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. JULIA WHITTY

Finding The Leaders Among Us

| Fri Aug. 10, 2007 2:42 AM EDT

Think we're short on leaders? Then become one. Bill McKibben's put out the call through StepItUp.org for an event on Saturday November 3rd. Here's his letter:

If we're going to deal with global warming, then we need to go beyond politicians who say the right words and find champions who will actually do the tough work to transform our energy economy. This is an invitation to take one Saturday this fall and use it to build a movement, a movement strong enough to finally put this issue on the table where it can no longer be ignored. If everyone can do this work in their neck of the woods, it will create the momentum that we desperately need.

Here's the idea. On Saturday November 3, a year before the next election, we're asking people to organize rallies large and small in their communities. Each one should take place in some spot that commemorates great leaders of the past. Some of these will be nationally famous--people have already committed to climbing New Hampshire's Mt. Washington, gathering at the site of the Lincoln Douglas debates, even rallying outside the Rhode Island church where John F. Kennedy was married. Others will be locally celebrated leaders--there'll be a rally, for instance, honoring Navajo elder and activist Roberta Blackgoat, who inspired the fight against coal development on tribal land. But we need hundreds more, gatherings in places that bear the names of people who did the right thing in a moment of great need. You'll know the person that makes sense in your city or town—they don't need to be saints, just true leaders, the kind who, faced with the great issues of their day, didn't punt or compromise.

Once you've got your rally registered on www.Stepitup07.org we'll help you gather a crowd, and invite the politicians from your neck of the woods. We want to ask every Senator and Representative, and every candidate for those offices, to come to these rallies, along with state and local officials. Once they're there, we'll present politicians with the four "1 Sky" priorities prepared in the last few months by climate campaigners across the country. They are: an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and a Green Jobs Corps to help fix homes and businesses so those targets can be met. Basically, we want to find out who is simply a politician, and who's ready to be a leader.

We know these gatherings will be effective. In April, with the help of thousands of people (most of them brand new to organizing) from across the country, we organized 1,400 rallies in places that showed how climate change would affect our lives. Those events were key in putting the demand for real action--80% cuts in carbon emissions by 2050--square in the middle of the Washington debate. But a movement needs to keep moving, and calling for real leadership is the next step.

Don't worry if you've never organized anything before--you're not putting together a March on Washington, just a gathering of scores or hundreds in your town or neighborhood. It needn't be slick; homemade is just fine. Put your imagination to work: what would Lincoln do? How would Dr. King take on this challenge? This is a celebration of leadership, and a celebration should be joyful—as focused on the new economies and communities we can create as on the threats we must avoid.

These rallies will be local, but they'll also have national impact. The website will help draw people to your action, and then on Nov. 3, we'll be gathering pictures and video from around the country so that by nightfall we'll have a good online slideshow of how America feels. We'll do our best to make sure that every candidate is firmly on the record about their plans. By the time the day is done, you'll have helped change the political landscape.

The best science tells us we have barely a decade to start the fundamental transformation of our economy and to lead the world in the same direction or else, in the words of NASA's Jim Hansen, we will face a "totally different planet." (He went on to say that the "1 Sky" priorities "describe just the kind of trajectory we need" to start solving the problem). A decade's not very long—we've got to get going.

I know you've already done the obvious things, like changing some of the lightbulbs in your house. Screwing in a lightbulb is important; screwing in a new federal policy to deal with climate change is crucial, especially if we're ever going to regain enough credibility to help lead the world toward a stable climate. November 3 will be a powerful day, and you can play a vital role. Please sign up on the website to start an action—and thank you so much for caring enough to be a leader yourself.

McKibben also asks us to forward this email as far and wide as possible, to anyone who might possibly be interested. "We're not really an organization, and we don't have lists of names—we depend on people like you to take the initiative." Hope you can help. JULIA WHITTY

People Picks up on Hypermiling Guru

| Thu Aug. 9, 2007 5:23 PM EDT

The just-released August 13, 2007, edition of People magazine features stories on Star Jones' weight loss, Britney Spears' custody battle, and ... hypermiling?

To learn more on how People covers fuel efficiency, continue reading this post on MoJoBlog.

Ancient Frozen Microbes Return To Life

| Wed Aug. 8, 2007 4:16 PM EDT

The DNA of ancient microorganisms frozen in glaciers has the ability to return to life as the glaciers melt. A paper published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by scientists who melted five samples of ice ranging in age from 100,000 to 8 million years old found many microorganisms trapped inside. The younger ice contained more lifeforms, which grew fast when cultured, doubling every couple of days. By contrast, the microorganisms from the oldest ice samples grew slowly, doubling only every 70 days. The researchers calculated a DNA half-life of 1.1 million years in Antarctic ice, and warned that as warming melts the glaciers, the revived DNA could fuel a new wave of bacterial evolution. . . Blimey. Will nature's cryogenesis be the end of us? JULIA WHITTY