Blue Marble

Alaskan Erosion Creates Oil Spill Risk

| Mon Jul. 30, 2007 9:16 PM EDT

Arctic sea ice does more than provide habitat for polar bears and reflect sunlight. It also acts as a barrier between the rough ocean and delicate coastlines, like those of Alaska. With softening permafrost and disappearing sea ice, Alaska's coast is eroding faster than ever and may result in old oil wells actually slipping into the ocean.

In particular, the coast of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (a 23 million-acre area managed by the Bureau of Land Management and a plum drilling site, according to Bush) is eroding faster than ever, a new US Geological Survey study found. The BLM has identified more than 30 oil wells in danger of being reclaimed by the ocean, each of which will cost $20 million to clean to ensure that, if they do get sucked into the ocean, they won't spill even more oil into the state's ecosystem.

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Atlantic Hurricanes Doubled Over Last Century

| Mon Jul. 30, 2007 5:57 PM EDT

About twice as many Atlantic hurricanes form each year on average than a century ago. This according to a new analysis by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Warmer sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and altered wind patterns associated with global climate change are fueling much of the increase. The analysis identifies three periods since 1900, separated by sharp transitions, during which the average number of hurricanes and tropical storms increased dramatically and then remained elevated and relatively steady. SSTs have risen by about 1.3 degrees F in the last 100 years, and other studies indicate that most of the rise in Atlantic sea surface temps can be attributed to global warming. "Even a quiet year by today's standards would be considered normal or slightly active compared to an average year in the early part of the 20th century," says study author, Greg Holland.

By the way, the current period has not yet stabilized. So the average hurricane season could be even more active in the future. . . The planet lives and breathes in powerful ways. Here's an amazing video recap of some of the 2005 hurricane season. Stunningly beautiful. Terrifying. JULIA WHITTY

Big Squid In California Waters

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 8:58 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Times and others are reporting on the "voracious" jumbo squid "invading" California waters and "preying" on local anchovy, hake and other commercial fish populations. . . .Hmm. Sound a little hysterical? Could anything actually be more voracious, invasive, or predatory than one of our very own? JULIA WHITTY

You compare. This:


Or this:

Beijing To Build Windmills For 2008 Olympics

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 8:22 PM EDT

Beijing has started work on 33 windmills to supply clean energy in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. Reuters reports the $76 million power stations, situated on the outskirts of Beijing, are expected to produce an estimated 100 million kilowatts of electricity a year to reduce the city's reliance on polluting coal-fired generators. The windmill project, which China claims to be the 10th largest in the world, would also cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 10 million tons a year. . . So, how to harness the muscle power of those athletes with their Olympic-sized carbon footprints? JULIA WHITTY

Low Literacy Equals Early Death Sentence

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 7:44 PM EDT

Older people with poor health literacy have a 50 percent higher mortality rate over five years than people with adequate reading skills. Low health literacy is defined as the inability to read and comprehend basic materials like prescription bottles, appointment slips, and hospital forms, according to the study from Northwestern University. Low health literacy was the top predictor of mortality after smoking, surpassing income and years of education. Most of the mortality differential was due to higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease. "When patients can't read, they are not able to do the things necessary to stay healthy," said David Baker, M.D., lead author of the study. "They don't know how to take their medications correctly, they don't understand when to seek medical care, and they don't know how to care for their diseases." This is the likely reason they're much more likely to die. . . No Elder Left Behind, anyone? JULIA WHITTY

Air Pollution Link To Clogged Arteries

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 7:23 PM EDT

New research shows that air pollution plays a role in atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. This in turn contributes to heart attacks and/or strokes, according to a study published in the open access journal Genome Biology. The fats that clog arteries apparently work in conjunction with air pollution particles to trigger the genes behind inflammation, which leads to increased lesions in the clogged arteries, and the potential for thrombi, and resultant heart attacks or strokes. . . Listen up Dick Cheney, master of the clot. Clean air is good for you. JULIA WHITTY

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Bush/Cheney Threats To The Endangered Species Act

| Wed Jul. 25, 2007 5:27 PM EDT

Two government entities are investigating the Bush administration over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Christian Science Monitor reports the US Interior Department is reviewing the scientific integrity of decisions made by a political appointee, Julie MacDonald, who recently resigned under fire. Fish and Wildlife Service employees complained that MacDonald bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff to alter their biological reporting. The inspector noted that although she has no formal educational background in biology, she nevertheless labored long and hard editing, commenting on, and reshaping the endangered species program's scientific reports from the field. Last week Fish and Wildlife announced that eight decisions MacDonald made under the ESA would be examined for scientific and legal discrepancies.

Meanwhile Congress is investigating evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney interfered with decisions involving water in California and Oregon resulting in a mass kill of Klamath River salmon, including threatened species. As the CSM reports, both episodes illustrate the Bush administration's resistance to the law. Earlier, the Washington Post ran the story of Cheney's personal interference in the water decision that killed the salmon in 2002:

In Oregon, a battleground state that the Bush-Cheney ticket had lost by less than half of 1 percent, drought-stricken farmers and ranchers were about to be cut off from the irrigation water that kept their cropland and pastures green. Federal biologists said the Endangered Species Act left the government no choice: The survival of two imperiled species of fish was at stake. Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in. First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers. Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

Or, in the words of Bruce Barcott in MoJo's piece, What's A River For?:

On the morning of September 19, 2002, the Yurok fishermen who set their gill nets near the mouth of the Klamath River arrived to find the largest salmon run in years fully under way. The fish had returned from the ocean to the Klamath, on the Northern California coast, to begin their long trip upstream to spawn; there were thousands of them, as far as the eye could see. And they were dying. Full-grown 30-pounders lay beached on shore-line rocks. Smaller fish floated in midriver eddies. Day after day they kept washing up; by the third day, biologists were estimating that 33,000 fish had been killed [since revised upward to 70,000] in one of the largest salmon die-offs in U.S. history. The Yurok knew immediately what had happened. For months they, along with state experts and commercial fishermen, had been pleading with the federal government to stop diverting most of the river's water into the potato and alfalfa fields of Oregon's upper Klamath Basin. But the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of federal irrigation projects, refused to intervene.

The CSM reports the House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing next week to investigate political influence on agency science and decisionmaking. As reported in the Blue Marble scientists are aware of the persistent unsciencing of their work. Thirty-eight prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists recently signed a letter protesting a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. They're concerned for the future of animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. If Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt has his way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to protect animals and plants only where they're actually battling for survival, not where they're in good shape. That means, for instance, that Bald Eagles would never have been protected decades ago since they were doing fine in Alaska, although practically extinct in the lower 48.

During Bush/Cheney, the listing of endangered and threatened species has slowed to a fraction the number the Bush senior made in only four years (58 new listings compared with 231), and most of those were court-ordered, according to the CSM. New funding has been cut as well, and only 278 candidate species are waiting to join the list of 1,352. Mother Jones' recent piece, Gone, detailed why the presence of many kinds of life on earth is important to the survival of life itself. Seven of 10 biologists believe the sixth great extinction currently underway is a greater threat to life on earth than even global climate change.

It's ephemerally comforting to think George W. Bush might go down in history as the worst of all U.S. presidents. More realistically, Dick Cheney will get the honor. . . Assuming there's a history to come. JULIA WHITTY

Weird Weather Watch: Deadly European Heat Wave

| Wed Jul. 25, 2007 11:54 AM EDT

Remember the '80s hit by Midnight Oil, "Beds Are Burning"? The Aussie song posits with some disbelief that the "western desert lives and breathes in 45 degrees." (That's Celsius, y'all.) Singer-turned-politician Peter Garrett would be even more stunned to learn that southern Europe lived, breathed, and tried to sleep in 45 degrees this week. That's 113 Fahrenheit, in a region where air conditioners are less common even than Oreos. Greece, Bosnia, and Macedonia suffered most. In Hungary, the mercury hit 107 degrees, causing at least 500 heat-related deaths. Sound like fun? Try adding in several deadly fires and another record-breaking heat wave last month. So next time you hear "next year will be the hottest on record," don't plan on summering it away in Greece.

Tibet Warming At Twice Global Average

| Tue Jul. 24, 2007 7:23 PM EDT

The Tibetan plateau is heating up by 0.3°C each decade. At more than twice the worldwide average, according to a new study from the Tibet Meteorological Bureau, as reported by New Scientist. The research reinforces a growing realization that high altitudes in tropical regions are experiencing dramatic temperature increases similar to those at the poles. Over the last 50 years, temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctica have risen by 0.2°C and approximately 0.5°C per decade, respectively, according to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The reason surface temperatures at the poles are warming so quickly is because the seawater temperature around them has risen faster there than anywhere else on Earth. Warming waters also play a role in the tropics. When the already warm tropical waters heat up further, due to global warming, they evaporate even more moisture, which rises straight to the upper atmosphere.

In 2000, researchers published a study looking at temperature changes on the Tibetan plateau since the 1950s, which found that temperature was not only increasing with time, but also with elevation across the plateau. They concluded the plateau is one of the most sensitive areas in the world in its response to global climate change. A study published in 2006 in Science found similar increases in air temperature at high-elevation weather stations in the Andes.

The Tibetan Plateau is also one of John Schellnhuber's tipping points, reported on in Mother Jones "The Thirteenth Tipping Point." Check out what happens when it tips. JULIA WHITTY

Rainfall Changes Linked To Human Activity

| Tue Jul. 24, 2007 5:56 PM EDT

Greenhouse-gas emissions have made the Northern Hemisphere wetter &mdash and climate models appear to have underestimated the changes. Research from the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, published in Nature, finds that human activity has made the weather wetter in a large slice of the Northern Hemisphere, while making the regions just south of the Equator wetter, and those just north of it drier. Agriculture and human health have already been affected. The proof that human activity has altered rainfall patterns was found in comparisons of observed changes with climate models. Specifically with observed rainfall during the twentieth century compared to rainfall predicted by 14 climate models. In the zone between 40 and 70 °N, which includes much of North America and most of Europe, rainfall increased by 62 millimeters per century between 1925 and 1999. The researchers estimate that between 50 and 85% of this increase can be attributed to human activity.

So how many British naysayers have been converted in these past wet weeks? JULIA WHITTY