Blue Marble

Breaking: Humpbacks Are Almost Home

| Tue May 29, 2007 11:36 PM EDT

The two lost whales have picked up the pace and are now within 10 miles of Golden Gate. The injured mother and her calf have made good time since we followed them last week, 90 miles up the river in Sacramento. They're nearly home to the Pacific Ocean.

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California's Open Space Program at Risk

| Tue May 29, 2007 10:41 PM EDT

The governor of California has done some very green things. But his latest budget proposal seems less green in that it might very well spur development on farmland. The Ethicurian alerts us to an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle pointing out that the governor wants the state to save $40 million by cutting funding for the WIlliamson Act, which reimburses counties for giving property tax breaks on agricultural land. The only problem with the Williamson Act is it doesn't do nearly enough. Read a good discussion here.

Public Health Officials Warn of Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis Strain

| Tue May 29, 2007 9:16 PM EDT

A man flew back and forth on commercial flights across the Atlantic before landing in an isolation ward, diagnosed with a particularly virulent and drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. The case is so serious that the director of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Julie Gerberding, announced the matter herself, and issued a federal quarantine order.

Interesting facts from the New York Times story:

Tuberculosis kills about 1.6 million people each year worldwide.... At any given time, one person in three worldwide is infected with dormant tuberculosis germs, according to the World Health Organization. People become ill when the bacteria become active, usually when a person's immunity declines, whether because of advancing age, HIV infection or some other medical problem.

That's why we called it "the Patient Predator." For more, read this terrifying essay by Kevin Patterson in Mother Jones. He writes:

Tuberculosis infection has been so prevalent that for most of human history it was an almost normal, if often lethal, part of the human bio-niche.... The most devastating infection in the world is not Ebola or Lyme disease, West Nile virus or even HIV, but tuberculosis.

How To Spare Polar Bears The Bullet

| Tue May 29, 2007 9:14 PM EDT

Polar bears are in trouble from global warming, melting ice, and toxins in the marine foodweb. Do they really need to be hunted too? No, says the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The three groups have called on the Senate to act on bipartisan legislation to close a loophole in the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This loophole currently allows wealthy American trophy hunters to bring the heads and hides of hundreds of imperiled polar bears into the United States from the Canadian Arctic.

The legislation, S. 1406, to close the loophole in the law was introduced by U.S. Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and by U.S. Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) as H.R. 2327 in the House of Representatives.

"The polar bear has become a tragic symbol of our threatened environment, and of the wildlife that pays the price for dangerous practices," Sen. Kerry said. "It's time to put the polar bear on the Endangered Species List, and give them a fighting chance at survival. But it also means that we must close the loophole that allows for trophy hunting by U.S. sport hunters in Canada. Not only must these bears contend with their home melting away, but they are also being hunted in the limited habitat they have left. It's time to take responsibility for their survival. We need to pick up the pieces and change our practices, before it's too late."

HSUS asks those who agree with this legislation to contact their reps in DC & urge them to close the loophole. --JULIA WHITTY

Fight Takes Shape at International Whaling Commission Meeting

| Tue May 29, 2007 8:43 PM EDT

The annual International Whaling Commission Meeting is underway in Anchorage, Alaska. Hardy Jones of Bluevoice reports in his blog what's at stake this crucial year.

The votes will be close. The Japanese have bought more than a dozen small nations and thus threaten to open the doors to legal whaling for the first time in twenty years. Since 1987 Japan and other nations like Iceland and Norway have only been able to conduct whaling under an article in the IWC treaty that allows for scientific whaling. Of course Japan has exploited that loophole to do pseudo-science and then sell the meat from the whales they have "researched" by harpooning and cutting them into steaks… The twenty-year moratorium on whaling, which went into effect in 1987 and was the cause of joyous celebration among those of us who love whales, is set to expire. And several nations, along with their prostitute allies, will be seeking to open the world to legal whaling.

The IWC is a perverse organization--a huge room full of men and a few women sitting down to determine the life or death of whales swimming thousands of miles away in the Antarctic or in the North Atlantic. The most odious plan Japan has brought forth is to kill humpback whales in the Antarctic. The issue will be raised Wednesday. We will follow this closely as it represents spitting in the face of tens of thousands of people around the world who not only love these whales in aggregate but know them personally, individually and marvel each year when the whales return on their migrations to Moorea, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Rurutu, Raritonga, New Caledonia and other areas of the Southern Ocean.

Fingers crossed, emails ready to fire… we'll be following closely. --JULIA WHITTY

Overseas Foods To Lose Organic Status in UK?

| Tue May 29, 2007 8:06 PM EDT

Food flown into the UK may be stripped of organic status because of concern about greenhouse gas emissions. The move is being considered by the Soil Association, which certifies what foods are organic, reports the BBC. Due to growing demands to cut the environmental impact of food distribution, the organization is considering five options to reduce the carbon footprint of air-freighted food, including an outright ban, or showing a product's country of origin, and/or carbon offsetting schemes.

Let's hope the UK gives this overdue boost to local foods (check out more on this movement in "No Bar Code," Mother Jones, May/Jun 2006)… And for some really interesting developments on this much-needed front, Mark Heffernan in Wisconsin tells me of some community-based food systems in his area, as well as fascinating developments in the field of vertical farming, designed to feed urban populations… Wow. Food never looked so sci-fi. --JULIA WHITTY

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Elephant Herds Found On Isolated Sudanese Island

| Tue May 29, 2007 7:32 PM EDT

Wildlife experts have located hundreds of wild elephants on a treeless island in the swamps of south Sudan. The herds have avoided unchecked hunting in this isolated sanctuary during more than 20 years of war, reports Reuters. "We flew out of a cloud, and there they were. It was like something out of Jurassic Park," said Tom Catterson, working on a US-funded environment programme in south Sudan. Environmentalists are keeping the location of the island secret to prevent poachers from killing the animals… Life is resilient. Hopefully more than we ever get to know. --JULIA WHITTY

The Case of the Missing Bees: It's the Flowers, Dummy

| Tue May 29, 2007 6:58 PM EDT

Today's Salon features a round-table discussion that's the real bees' knees on the disappearing bee problem. The scientists seem to agree that the precipitous drop-off in domesticated honeybee populations (no one keeps track of wild bee populations) was likely caused, at least in part, by the unavailability of nutritious pollen. (The theory that cellphones are doing it didn't get much traction.) Jeffery Pettis, who heads the research program at the USDA's honeybee lab, observes that "all pollinators -- which rely on a diversity of flowers -- are in decline." Eric Mussen, of the Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California at Davis, explains:

Honeybees rely on pollen for protein, vitamins, fats and minerals. …If we are having a typical year, and the rains come, there aren't too many places in the United States where the bees cannot find their mix of pollens to meet their dietary needs. …What happens when…you get this blast of hot temperature [at] about the time the flower buds are forming and the pollen grains are beginning to form[?] …You get sterile pollen.

Lack of sufficient food leaves honeybees with compromised immune systems, making them vulnerable to parasites. Honeybees play a major role in the agricultural production of fruit and nuts. Mussen puts it this way:

Bees are a necessary part of our food production. If we don't grow our own cherries and apples, can't we just buy them somewhere else? The answer is yes. But do we want to become as dependent on foreign nations for our food as we are dependent on them for fuel?

The disappearing bees also point to another problem, explains Wayne Esaias, a NASA climatologist and amateur beekeeper. We don't have any idea how climate change will affect blooming trees:

[E]cologists in general have not paid attention to the timing of blooming and nectar availability and quality of pollen.… As a kind of a climatologist, I'm getting paid to study the impact of potential global warming scenarios on our ecology. There's a lot of research being done on carbon cycling, but without information about when the plants bloom and how the quality of the flora changes, we are in a poor position to assess the effect of changes in temperature and rainfall on our ecosystems.

In other words, the models, which are already predicting disaster, aren't even accurate because we have immense gaps in our knowledge of the interconnectedness of plants and animals. That spells serious trouble.

New Elephant Arrives At Tennessee Sanctuary

| Fri May 25, 2007 9:22 PM EDT

Enjoy this latest news from the excellent people at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Dulary, an Asian elephant caged in a quarter-acre yard at the Philadelphia Zoo for 43 of her 43.5 years, has been given a second life on 2,700 acres in Hohenwald. She joins a small herd of other Asian elephants offered retirement from circuses, roadside zoos, and just plain abuse—many of them crippled or ill. The Sanctuary is home to a small herd of African elephants, as well. Dulary has taken to a natural elephant lifestyle like, well, an elephant.

May 5th, 2007: This was a good day for a grand adventure, and after only three full days of Sanctuary life Dulary was ready for more exploring. Her curiosity got the best of her as caregivers and dogs headed out towards the lake. Dulary dusted, grazed and played in a mud puddle as she made her way down the road that leads to the lake. She hesitated for a moment (but only a moment) as she passed through the open gate. She may have wondered why these people keep leaving all the gates open, but she did not waste any time; instead, she walked through the open gate and right up the hill. She loves the new grasses growing alongside the road and the mud was good enough to cover her body with, completely. When she reached the top of the hill the vegetation was more than she could resist, and that is where she stayed all afternoon and into the night.

Check out this video made in memory of Jenny, who arrived, crippled, at the sanctuary in 1996, whereupon her life improved exponentially--though no one could predict her incredible good fortune when Shirley arrived three years later. The two had lived in a circus together more than 20 years earlier, where they'd been as close as mother and daughter. Once reunited at the Sanctuary, they were inseparable for the next 7 years, until Jenny's death last October.

This place reconfirms my belief that elephants are simply incredible, and that people are capable of incredible good. --JULIA WHITTY

Gold Rush To The Deep Seafloor

| Thu May 24, 2007 5:36 PM EDT

Deep-Sea News' 18-month-old reports on the rush to mine the deep oceans is finally making the news. Well, the science news, at least.

Hydrothermal vents have given us many things…. But the fact that seafloor massive sulfides can precipitate a king's ransom in gold, silver, copper, and zinc was an unexpected boost to the cauldron-like charisma of hydrothermal vent ecosystems. Deep Sea News first started reporting on Vancouver based company Nautilus Minerals' intention to mine extinct hydrothermal vents in Papua New Guinea back in November of 2005. Big-time scientific weeklies Science and Nature finally caught up to our meticulous coverage of vent mining just this week, reporting on the new gold rush to the deep seafloor.

Deep-Sea News has at least four stories on hydrothermal vent mining. MoJo's current cover story Gone describes something of the wonders far below. --JULIA WHITTY