Blue Marble

Chimpanzees Are Like People Too

| Tue Apr. 17, 2007 9:24 PM EDT

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Knuckels has cerebral palsy. He's the chimp clowning around in this photo, the one on top. The disability makes him an easy target, but scientists have never seen any fellow apes taking advantage of him. That's pretty humane of them.

Some evolutionary psychologists have sought false connections between apes and human behavior. One psychologist, for example, found "evidence" that female monkeys have a fondness for pots and pans.(Chimps may use stones to crack open nuts, but do they have an innate grasp on the concept of stove-top cooking?) However, this New York Times story points out strikingly humane behavior that primatologists have noticed over the years of close observation:

•Chimps mourn. One chimp mom carried her her young daughter's corpse on her back for a few days.
•After fights between two chimps, scientists have seen other chimps consoling the loser and otherwise trying to restore peace.
•Chimps outperformed humans in some memory tasks.

For more on apes, check out the Great Ape Project, which seeks to extend basic human rights to chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. That includes "the right to life, the freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and protection from torture." In their eyes, it may be narrow-minded of me just to call chimpanzees "humane." However provocative, their concept makes more sense now than ever, with some great ape species on the verge of extinction, such as orangutans, known in Southeast Asia as "the people of the forest."

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Weird Weather Watch: Massive, Record-Setting Nor'easter

| Tue Apr. 17, 2007 4:44 PM EDT

I'm a little late to the punch on this one, but in case you haven't heard, on Sunday and Monday, most of New England was hit with a powerful storm that dumped 8 inches of rain and battered towns with winds of up to 156 miles an hour.

New York Times has a two-page article on the fallout. But just to make the point that global warming may well be as expensive as a solution for it:

• More than 800 flights were cancelled. Others operated with hours-long delays.

• Power was out at 328,000 homes and businesses in 9 states.

• National Guard troops—as if they don't have enough to handle—were called in to help evacuate homes.

• Commuter rails and scores of major roads were closed.

• At least 9 people died as a result of the storm.

This is just one storm. Think about 3-4 of these every year, year after year. Doesn't looking for a real solution (read: not ethanol) start to sound like the logical thing to do?

Are Cellphones Decimating Bee Colonies?

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 6:40 PM EDT

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Cell phone radiation may be messing with bees' navigation systems, throwing them off track on their way back to the hive. Via New Scientist, this latest explanation for the decimation of American bee colonies comes from Jochen Khun's team at Landau University in Germany. Bees disoriented by cell phones signals? It makes more sense to me than than an earlier theory reported by the New York Times: "It could just be that the bees are stressed out."

Reptiles Mysteriously Declining Alongside Amphibians

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 6:36 PM EDT

The catastrophic declines in frog and salamander populations may be spreading to reptiles. New Scientist reports that scientists reviewed data on ground-dwelling reptiles and amphibians collected over the past 35 years at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, finding a 75-percent decline in both reptiles and amphibians in native forest since 1970. The numbers of both increased in abandoned cacao plantations, by 4% annually for amphibians, and 2.7% per year for reptiles. Fungal diseases or pesticide contamination, blamed for amphibians' decline elsewhere, are unlikely to be behind the declines at La Selva, since they would affect abandoned plantations as well as native forest. The researchers suggest the cause may be a warmer, wetter climate that stunts tree growth, and reduces the leaf litter, where reptiles and amphibians live. --Julia Whitty

Plans To Restore Key Climate Sensor

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 6:13 PM EDT

You may not know that our ability to observe climate and atmospheric change has been declining in recent years. Just when we need it most. Another victim of too much money going to the wrong wars from the other NASA: the National Anti-Science Administration. Now NOAA and NASA (the real one) announce their plan to restore a key climate sensor designed to give researchers a more precise picture of the structure of the Earth's ozone layer. The NPOESS (National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project) will include the OMPS Limb sensor (Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite), set to launch in 2009. Restoring the OMPS Limb sensor addresses one of the recommendations of the recently released National Research Council's "Earth Science Applications from Space: National Imperative for the Next Decade and Beyond." In other words, it means we're stepping into the future with at least one eye squinting partially open. --Julia Whitty

Climate Change Brews An Extinction Paradox

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 5:38 PM EDT

Climate change could trigger boom-and-bust population cycles making animal species more vulnerable to extinction. Environmental conditions that produce abundant supplies of food and stimulate population booms set the stage for population crashes that occur when several good years in a row are followed by a bad year. "It's almost paradoxical, because you'd think a large population would be better off, but it turns out they're more vulnerable to a drop in resources," says Christopher C. Wilmers of the University of California, Santa Cruz, as reported by EurekAlert. Wilmers' powerful new mathematical model evaluates how climate and resources interact with populations, finding that dramatic population fluctuations make species more vulnerable to extinction due to disease, inbreeding, and other causes, with each crash reducing the genetic diversity of a species, lowering its ability to adapt and making it more prone to extinction. --Julia Whitty

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Giant Storm Slams The East

| Sun Apr. 15, 2007 4:08 PM EDT

A friend from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts emails me Sunday morning to say the snow is piling up outside and it's sleeting sideways. I'm supposed to be en route to New York City but the biggest nor'easter in 20 years has cancelled 300 flights to the right coast. Guess I'm staying in California. I love big weather and it would be fun to be in this, but more than likely I'd be stuck in some airport for days. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg called a press conference Saturday to warn of the coming storm. Jesse Ferrell of AccuWeather points out this is a likely first for an "unnamed" storm except possibly major blizzards. Ferrell also points out that AccuWeather meteorologist Dale Mohler was quoted by Bloomberg.com as saying "The storm will really set in Sunday afternoon. By April 16, the system may be as strong as a Category 1 hurricane, with winds above 74 miles per hour and stretch from Maine to Florida and as far west as the Mississippi River." Wow. A new species of storm. Who says all we're doing is cause the sixth great extinction? We're breeding new meteorological monsters. --Julia Whitty

Today is National Day of Climate Action

| Sat Apr. 14, 2007 1:32 PM EDT

Many of you likely know that today is the National Day of Climate Action. There are lots and lots of cool events around the country, which you can search by zip code at the Step It Up 2007 website. Got some free time on a spring Saturday? Try saving the planet for a little bit.

Carbon Confusion

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 8:27 PM EDT

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Two steps taken this week to combat global warming, IMO, are not all that.

For one, the EPA relaxed emissions standards yesterday for corn milling plants that make ethanol fuel. Ethanol might just be "the biggest greenwash ever," as Tom Philpott blogged at Grist. Without huge long-term subsidies and government intervention, "no market for corn ethanol would exist." "If ethanol delivers any net energy gain at all over petroleum gasoline, it's razor thin." Bill McKibben writes, "By the time you've driven your tractor to tend the fields, and your truck to carry the crop to the refinery, and powered your refinery, the best-case 'energy output-to-input ratio' is something like 1.34-to-1. You've spent 100 Btu of fossil energy to get 134 Btu." Hardly impressive, "compared to the ratio for oil, which ranges from 30-to-1 to 200-to-1, depending on where you drill it." The best that can be said for ethanol as fuel is that it "gives the farmers something to do." Unfortunately, it's not the little farmers but the industrial farmers, some as big as Cargill, that get most of the subsidies.

Two, Australia vowed today to set up a national system of carbon trading by 2010. A cap-and-trading system is a lousy second-best to taxing emissions, which would also stimulate technological innovation. The best that can be said for cap-and-trading is that it's experimental. The EU is running that experiment, and so far hasn't worked. Actually, the system collapsed. So many carbon credits were doled out that they when people discovered that supply outstripped the demand, the market crashed. "The ETS [emissions-trading-scheme] has had a rough ride. Nations have issued more permits to pollute than required in the first phase, which runs until the end of 2007. This has resulted in carbon prices falling as low as eight euros (£5) per tonne. This means that it has been cheaper for firms to buy spare permits than pay the 40-euro fine, or take steps to reduce their emissions," reported the BBC in December. There are simpler effective means for tackling climate change, for one, shifting subsidies away from fossil fuels. Gore has faith that a cap-and-trading system would create economic incentives for technological innovation. It's worth experimenting with while keeping the pitfalls and alternatives in mind.

Sundance Channel's Green Living Show Debuts Tonight

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 1:38 PM EDT

If you're going to use electricity tonight, you may as well do it watching Sundance Channel's new green living show, "Big Ideas for a Small Planet" (9 p.m. E/P).

In true Sundance tradition, "Big Ideas" is a series of short documentaries. But they're not the drab, depressing kind. Instead, they feature cutting-edge technologies and brilliant inventors bent on saving the earth.

Each episode has a theme, and tonight's is alternative fuels. You'll meet a couple who'll retrofit your gas-guzzling vintage ride into a clean machine, see an Indy 500 driver get better torque and pull using ethanol, and feel the rush with a monster trucker who fries chicken and then uses the grease as gas. These are people who don't just "talk the talk" about being green; they "drive the drive," as one quips. (That this first episode is about alternative fuels and a later one is about green vehicles is probably no coincidence: the show is "sponsored by Lexus," who has a new hybrid SUV on the market.)

The series doesn't end when you click off the TV. "Big Ideas" is just part of a larger line of programming, web features, and blogs called "The Green." Viewers can check out easy tips for green living, watch video clips, or learn more about environmental issues on "The Green" section of Sundance Channel's site, for which TreeHugger provided much of the content.

But lest you think Sundance the only cable channel targeting green viewers, the Discovery Channel is launching an entire network devoted to everyday green living next year.

—Jen Phillips