Blue Marble

Weird Weather Watch: Bone Dry Spring Means No Flowers or Berries

| Tue May 8, 2007 5:02 PM EDT

I've blogged in the past about the severe drought in Southern California, which has kicked fire season off early. It's also putting a serious damper on spring flora and fauna activity. The L.A. Times reports:

Seasonal ponds are cracked dry, leaving no haven for some frog eggs or fairy shrimp to hatch. Some flower-dependent butterflies are staying dormant for another season. Plants aren't bearing berries; some oak trees aren't sprouting acorns. Bees are behaving strangely.

Ranchers are sending a stronger signal to the economically-minded: The grass is too dry for cattle to graze, and ranchers are selling cows cheap or moving them out of state.

Not only are bees "behaving strangely"—their numbers are way down around the globe—but they have no flowers to pollinate, and no pollination means no honey. So it's official: California is not the land of milk or honey.

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Hospitals Fleece the Uninsured

| Tue May 8, 2007 2:36 PM EDT

Going without health insurance really wouldn't be so bad if independent patients could pay the same per procedure as insurance companies do. But U.S. hospitals charge patients without health insurance an average of 2.5 times more for services than fees paid by health insurers, and 3 times more than Medicare does. According to a new study, that gap has more than doubled in two decades. It effectively excludes the uninsured from the system. "Fifty years ago, the poor and uninsured were often charged the lowest prices for medical services," according to one author of the study, Gerard F. Anderson, director of the Center for Hospital Finance and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "The markups on care for those who can least afford it have got to end."

In other bad news, the Senate yesterday killed a move to allow patients to buy prescription drugs from abroad at a significant savings. They killed it by adding an amendment to require U.S. officials to certify the safety and effectiveness of each drug first, which would not be funded or feasible. To check for your own senator's vote, here's the roll call. A yes vote on the amendment meant they opposed drug imports. Obama, Brownback, and McCain didn't vote. Clinton voted no. Hagel, Kerry, and Kennedy voted yes to the amendment.

Premature Births Linked to Pesticides

| Tue May 8, 2007 2:21 PM EDT

Premature births vary with the season, but there's nothing natural about it. Preterm birth rates peak when pesticides and nitrates measurements in surface water are highest, from April through July, and bottom out when nitrates and pesticides were lowest, in August and September, a new study found. A previous finding was that birth defects peak from April through July, the same months as pesticides and nitrates reach their maximum concentrations in surface water. The rate of premature birth in the United States has risen almost a third since 1981. Here's more on the effect of endocrine disruption in child development.

Seeding the Seas with Iron

| Mon May 7, 2007 7:54 PM EDT

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Could sprinkling iron across the oceans prevent global warming? Sadly, it appears not. Since phytoplankton are the largest carbon dioxide sink on earth, larger than even all terrestrial plants, one idea was to dust the oceans with iron to feed phytoplankton. Scientists hoped the little organisms would quickly sink to about 300 meters, beyond the reach of that zooplankton, one level up on the food chain. Unfortunately, small-scale tests found that instead of sinking to the sea floor, the extra phytoplankton get quickly eaten by zooplankton, who metabolize and re-emit the carbon. Too bad. Still, a research ship is seeding waters around Galapagos anyway, just to bring attention to the role of phytoplankton in climate change.

Weird Weather Watch: Another Town Bites the Dust

| Mon May 7, 2007 9:05 AM EDT

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This weekend, as residents of the Foggy City dusted off their bikinis and Speedos in record-breaking 80-degree heat, the town of Greensburg, Kansas, became the second U.S. city to be destroyed by climate change. A series of tornados massacred the small town west of Wichita, destroying 95 percent of its buildings. (Miraculously, only 10 died.) The big one was a mile and a half wide with winds over 200 miles an hour (it was a class F-5 tornado, the most severe). Is there online betting for how many cities will be demolished before the federal government gets serious? Change may not be as painful as we think, as April blogged. And even if it does mean giving up cars and some air travel, it can't be as bad as the alternative.

Friday Ape Blogging: Activists Want Human Rights for a Chimp

| Fri May 4, 2007 6:42 PM EDT

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This is Hiasl. He's 26, fairly artistic, and very hairy. Born in Sierra Leone, he was captured and smuggled out but intercepted by customs agents in Austria, a country with strict laws against animal cruelty, where he wound up in a shelter.

Now the shelter has gone bankrupt, and to protect him, advocates say he needs basic human rights. "We're not talking about the right to vote here," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer leading the challenge. "We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions."

It's part of the Great Ape Project. Not all animal rights activists agree with the strategy. Michael Antolini, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Austria, "I'm not about to make myself look like a fool" by getting involved.

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Julie MacDonald's Legacy: Fewer Endangered Species

| Thu May 3, 2007 6:59 PM EDT

Good bye and good riddance to Julie MacDonald of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She was forced to resign because documents she leaked to industry lobbyists surfaced later in lawsuits against the federal government. Quite embarrassing, you can imagine.

But there were a ton of even better reasons for her departure. For example, "she demanded that the determined nesting range of the Southwest Willow Flycatcher be shrunk from a 2.1 mile radius to 1.8 miles, so that it would not cross into the state of California, where her husband's family owned a ranch."

As a henchman for the Bush Administration's ungreening of America, MacDonald's work is behind the seeming-miraculous comeback of so many species delisted as endangered in the past few months. To name a few in different states, grizzlies, gray wolves, crocodiles, flying squirrels, and manatees.

It's not that they suddenly bounced back to normal populations. It's that the feds, as Jen blogged, changed the definition of "endangered."

Unfortunately, take out one fool, and there's another standing by to replace her. It appears that her successor, Todd Willens, earned his creds spearheading former California Rep. Richard Pombo's anti-endangered species agenda.

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You're on you're own, manatee.

Orwellian Language Obscures the Health Care Debate

| Thu May 3, 2007 5:37 PM EDT

Healthcare is complicated enough without doublespeak like this in the Wall Street Journal: "Too much government support risks crowding out private-sector insurance alternatives Mr. Bush wants to promote." That's the Bush Administration's spin on scrimping on a federal grant program that boosts medical care for poor children by insuring their parents. Obviously, private insurance is not an "alternative" for families who can not afford it. Or maybe the reporter means "alternatives" for the government, like subsidizing private insurance?

The Bush Administration may believe that market forces make health care more efficient. But the market doesn't always its magic everywhere. (The invisible hand has students at the top of their medical school classes going into dermatology. They can make easier money injecting Botox and Restylane than saving lives).

The truth is, the private insurance maze makes health care more expensive. It's the reason why Americans spend 50 percent more per capita than any other country does on medical care. How so? Private medical insurance actually takes up a dollar out of every three spent on health care in this country. If only this money went straight to the hospitals that serve the poor, it would pay for a lot more care and medicine.

But no. So we still have tragedies like the 12-year-old in February who died of a tooth infection that spread to his brain before his mother could find a Medicaid dentist to extract the tooth.

Weird Weather Watch: Last Month Was Britain's Warmest April on Record

| Thu May 3, 2007 5:29 PM EDT

Last month was the warmest April since records began in 1659 in the UK. Temperatures peaked at more than 79F. That heat means 2007 is likely to surpass 2006 as the warmest year on record, according to forecaster Paul Knightley.

Pepsi's Good For You, Miracle-Gro Grows Greedy

| Wed May 2, 2007 8:00 PM EDT

PepsiCo, makers of soda and beef jerky and Funyuns, may not be the healthiest company you could buy from, but it is one of the greenest. Earlier this week, the EPA issued its top 25 Green Power Partners list, and PepsiCo was top dog. The EPA attributes the company's position to its "commitment to purchase 100 percent green power," which would be enough to power nearly 100,000 homes.

Green power is great, but wouldn't it be better if they didn't use so much power to begin with? Or if they didn't use so much packaging for their products? At least PepsiCo's 20 oz. plastic bottles are lighter than before (by 13%) and contain 10% post-consumer material, so they cost less in transportation costs and use less plastic. The company says that 48 million of its drink containers are recycled every day.

Some of those old Pepsi bottles head to a small New Jersey organic plant food company, TerraCycle, which reuses many of the bottles to package their totally organic fertilizer. Now TerraCycle, with 33 employees and a measly $1 million in revenues, is being sued by Scotts (makers of Miracle-Gro), a mega-company that owns 59% of the plant food market. Scotts is outraged TerraCycle is using yellow and green packaging with pictures of flowers, similar to Miracle-Gro. Thus, their lawyers say, TerraCycle MUST be trying to trick gullible people into thinking the products are the same. Both products even use the same label: "all purpose plant food." Egads!

The pictures of the products should give any person with common sense the answer as to whether or not the lawsuit is warranted. And besides, pictures of plants on plant food? Who'd a thunk? My question: Miracle-Gro launched its "Organic Choice" line of products a year before TerraCycle was created, and is very publicly trying to make more environmentally-friendly packaging. Is it coincidence that they're suing an organic, sustainably-packaged product, not one of the 81 other plant and lawn products with green-and-yellow labels, or is it just a paranoid attempt to secure their monopoly?

You decide.

—Jen Phillips