Blue Marble

Elephant Herds Found On Isolated Sudanese Island

| Tue May 29, 2007 6:32 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

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

| Tue May 29, 2007 5:58 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 8:22 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 4:36 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

One In Six European Mammals Threatened With Extinction

| Thu May 24, 2007 2:39 PM EDT

The first assessment of European mammals finds nearly one in six mammal species threatened with extinction. According to the World Conservation Union, 27% of all mammals have declining populations. Only 8% are increasing, including the European bison, thanks to successful conservation measures. Europe is now home to the world's most threatened cat species, the Iberian Lynx, and the world's most threatened seal, the Mediterranean Monk Seal, both classified as critically endangered. --JULIA WHITTY

Global Warming's Effect on Whales And Dolphins

| Thu May 24, 2007 2:23 PM EDT

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are facing increasing threats from climate change. A report published by the World Wildlife Fund and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, released in advance of the 59th meeting of the International Whaling Commission, finds many populations to be vulnerable to global warming. Cetaceans that rely on polar waters-–belugas, narwhals, and bowhead whales-–are likely to be dramatically affected by the reduction of sea ice. Less sea ice will allow more commercial shipping, oil, gas and mining exploration and development, and military activities in previously untouched areas.

Other impacts of global warming include less habitat for river dolphins, the acidification of the oceans as they absorb CO2, more cetacean disease epidemics, and lower reproductive success and survival rates. Climate change could also be the nail in the coffin for the last 300 or so endangered North Atlantic right whales. The survival of their calves has been directly related to the effects of climate variability on prey abundance.

Check out why we need all these species. --JULIA WHITTY

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Alarming Acceleration In CO2 Emissions Worldwide

| Thu May 24, 2007 1:54 PM EDT

Worldwide CO2 emissions have increased at more than three times the rate of the 1990s. Between 2000 and 2004, the rate increased from 1.1 % per year to 3.1% per year—as alluded to in an earlier post. The Carnegie Institution reports that not only is no region is decarbonising its energy supply, but a long-term trend toward greater energy efficiency and reduced carbon intensities is being reversed.

"Despite the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are affecting the world's climate, we are not seeing evidence of progress in managing those emissions in either the developed or developing countries. In many parts of the world, we are going backwards, " remarked co-author of the study Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. The research also shows that the actual global emissions since 2000 grew faster than the highest of the scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The acceleration is greatest in the exploding economies of developing regions, particularly China.

Of course, by refusing to tackle our own emissions (the largest in the world), we in the U.S. paralyze whatever superpower muscle might be brought to bear on the issue worldwide. Another casualty of six years in the Bush leagues. --JULIA WHITTY

Hydrogen Breakthrough Could Open the Road to Carbon-Free Cars

| Wed May 23, 2007 1:54 PM EDT

Here's good news on the hydrogen storage front. UK scientists have developed a compound of the element lithium that may make it practical for hydrogen fuel cell cars to drive more than 300 miles before refuelling. Fuel cells produce carbon-free electricity by harnessing electrochemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. Today's prototype HFC cars have a range of only 200 miles, and a 300-mile range would require storage the size of a double-decker bus.

But the UK research has focused on a different approach enabling hydrogen to be stored at a much higher density within acceptable weight limits. The option involves a well-established process called 'chemisorption', in which atoms of a gas are absorbed into the crystal structure of a solid-state material and then released when needed. This could tip the balance in favor of a truly marketable technology.

Fuel-cell technology could assist the emergence of a hydrogen economy rather than a carbon economy. A 2004 report concluded that hydrogen vehicles alone would enable the UK to meet its Kyoto targets for CO2 reductions.

Let's hope this technology gets on the road fast. --JULIA WHITTY

Predicting Catastrophe

| Wed May 23, 2007 1:32 PM EDT

What makes a tipping point finally tip? New research reveals a fascinating mechanism. Complex systems, like the earth's climate, coral reefs, oceans, and social-economic systems, often react in a surprising way to change. When conditions change gradually, the system may respond little until a critical tipping point is reached, after which the system may collapse completely. After collapse, it's nearly impossible to restore the original state of the system. Yet managers have had difficulty predicting catastrophic transition without a deep knowledge of the underlying mechanisms.

But now, Egbert van Nes and Marten Scheffer have analyzed models concluded there's a simpler way to predict a catastrophic transition. Their work, in the June issue of The American Naturalist, shows that after small disturbances the system recovers much more slowly if a collapse is near. They argue that this slower recovery serves as an early warning signal for upcoming shifts. In practice, the recovery rate can be determined from small experiments, or by analyzing the natural variations in a time series.

So, will we do it? It's kind of like taking a DNA test to see if you're going to inherit a fatal disease or not. Few at risk do. --JULIA WHITTY

Finally, New York City Greens Its Taxicabs

| Tue May 22, 2007 6:57 PM EDT

Guess how many miles per gallon those yellow Crown Victorias get? About 10 to 15 mpg. That's on par if not worse than an SUV. But things are changing. Bloomberg proposed this morning to require all new vehicles entering the fleet to get at least 25 mpg, then 30 mpg the year after. One complaint: it won't take effect for another year and a half, not until October 2008. Still, it's a great, long-awaited move.