Blue Marble

The Deep Freeze Is Thawing. So's The Crap We Put There

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 7:27 PM EDT

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts wide-ranging thawing of the Arctic permafrost. This is likely to have significant implications for infrastructure including houses, buildings, roads, railways and pipelines. A combination of reduced sea ice, thawing permafrost and storm surges also threatens erosion of Arctic coastlines with impacts on coastal communities, culturally important sites and industrial facilities. One study suggests that a three degree C increase in average summer air temperatures could increase erosion rates in the eastern Siberia Arctic by up to 15 feet a year. But you've heard all this, right? What's worse is that in some parts of the Arctic, toxic and radioactive materials are stored and contained in frozen ground. Thawing will release these substances in the local and wider environment with risks to humans and wildlife. The report predicts significant clean-up costs. How optimistic. I predict no clean-up at all. Only a Super-Duper Fund. --Julia Whitty

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Using Niacin To Foil Drug-Screening Tests? Don't. Bad Medical Juju Follows

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 7:13 PM EDT

Taking excessive doses of niacin (vitamin B3) in an attempt to defeat drug screening tests could send you to the hospital. Or worse. Researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and The University of Pennsylvania reported that two adults and two adolescents suffered toxic side effects from taking large amounts of niacin. Both adults suffered skin irritation. Both adolescents suffered potentially life-threatening reactions, including liver toxicity and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), along with nausea, vomiting and dizziness. One teen also had disrupted heart rhythms. All four recovered after treatment in emergency rooms. The report appeared online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.--Julia Whitty

Say Good-By to Arctic Foxes?

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 6:52 PM EDT

Arctic foxes failed to retreat to cooler climes when global temperatures rose in the past. A new study dampens hope that species will be able to adapt to climate change by moving towards the poles this time around, reports Nature. Comparing DNA from living arctic foxes with DNA extracted from fossils indicates that, at the end of the last ice age, foxes that lived in mid-latitude Europe simply died out rather than move north. The same could be happening now. Today, Alopex lagopus, is restricted to northern tundra in Scandinavia and Siberia, while 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, it lived in what's now Belgium, Germany and southwestern Russia. So will Arctic foxes join polar bears and half of all Earth's species threatened by the mass global extinction already underway, and hugely amplified by global warming? Maybe, says the latest installment of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Will our species ever do one righteous thing about it? --Julia Whitty

Environmental Fact of the Day

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 2:14 PM EDT

Still unconvinced that your driving habits contribute to global warming? Americans consume more than a quarter of the world's oil but make up less than five percent of its population. Transportation accounts for more than 70 percent of the United States' oil consumption. Trucking accounts for a big chunk of that number, but non-essential individual trips do, too.

Clear Need for Integrated Climate/Human Behavior Models

| Mon Apr. 9, 2007 9:41 PM EDT

Adapting to global climate change will require humans to develop new tools. (Our specialty, right?) The new tools will need to integrate climate models with analysis of human behavior, reports the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, an international network of environmental scientists. "We need to continue discovering how the Earth system works in order to evaluate the numerous ways that humans can adapt to climate change," says Kevin Noone, executive director of the IGBP.

Human adaptation to a changing climate can take many forms, and can have both positive and negative environmental impacts. Small-scale, adaptation measures—for better or worse—might include more air conditioning, architectural changes for more efficient heating and cooling, better forecasting and warning systems for extreme events, and increased water usage. Large-scale adaptations might include switching to renewable energy sources or attempts at "geoengineering." Furthermore the large-scale migrations of refugees from frakked-up areas ruined by global warming and other environmental and socioeconomic stresses will also be a form of adaptation.

"The science needed to support decision making about adaptation requires a sophisticated understanding about how the Earth system works, but goes well beyond just that. We need new tools to help us develop robust 'what if' scenarios for different potential adaptation schemes, and their consequences," says Noone. He describes the new tools as new types of models that couple together active, predictive descriptions of human behaviour and choice with the kinds of models used to predict future climate. --Julia Whitty

Thirty-Two Mile Cable Installed for First Deep-Sea Observatory

| Mon Apr. 9, 2007 9:14 PM EDT

Oceanographers have completed an important step in constructing the first deep-sea observatory off the continental United States. Workers laid 32 miles of cable along the Monterey Bay sea floor that will provide electrical power to scientific instruments, video cameras, and robots 3,000 feet below the ocean surface. The link will also carry data from the instruments back to shore, for use by scientists and engineers from around the world, reports the National Science Foundation. The Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS) observatory, due to be completed later this year, will provide ocean scientists with 24-hour-a-day access to instruments and experiments in the deep sea. The project is managed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and funded by the National Science Foundation. Currently, almost all oceanographic instruments in the deep sea rely on batteries for power and store their data on hard disks or memory chips until they are brought back to the surface. With a continuous and uninterrupted power supply, instruments attached to the MARS observatory could remain on the sea floor for months or years.

The cable itself contains a copper electrical conductor and strands of optical fiber. The copper conductor will transmit up to 10 kilowatts of power from a shore station at Moss Landing, California, to instruments on the sea floor. The optical fiber will carry up to 2 gigabits per second of data from these instruments back to researchers on shore, allowing scientists to monitor and control instruments 24 hours a day, and to have an unprecedented view of how environmental conditions in the deep sea change over time. "After 5 years of hard work, we are thrilled to bring the age of the Internet to the deep ocean, so we can understand, appreciate and protect the two-thirds of our planet that lies under the sea," said MBARI director Marcia McNutt. --Julia Whitty

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Trees Offset Carbon Footprint, But Which Trees?

| Mon Apr. 9, 2007 8:47 PM EDT

Trees trap and absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. That's how they help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, mitigating or reducing global warming. But a new study from the Carnegie Institution and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggests the effectiveness of this strategy depends heavily on where these trees are planted. Because tropical forests store large amounts of carbon and produce reflective clouds, they are especially good at cooling the planet. In contrast, forests in snowy areas can warm the Earth, because their dark canopy absorbs sunlight that would otherwise be reflected back to space by a bright white covering of snow. "Tropical forests are like Earth's air conditioner," says Ken Caldeira of Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology. "When it comes to rehabilitating forests to fight global warming, carbon dioxide might be only half of the story; we also have to account for whether they help to reflect sunlight by producing clouds, or help to absorb it by shading snowy tundra." --Julia Whitty

Natural Wonders Of The World Face Destruction from Climate Change

| Sat Apr. 7, 2007 2:39 PM EDT

Ten of the world's greatest natural wonders face destruction if the climate continues to warm at the current rate. The endangered wonders, warns the World Wildlife Fund, include the Amazon, Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs, Chihuahua Desert in Mexico and the US, hawksbill turtles in the Caribbean, Valdivian temperate rainforests in Chile, tigers and people in the Indian Sundarbans, Upper Yangtze River in China, wild salmon in the Bering Sea, melting glaciers in the Himalayas, and East African coastal forests. "From turtles to tigers, from the desert of Chihuahua to the great Amazon – all these wonders of nature are at risk from warming temperatures," says Dr Lara Hansen, Chief Scientist of WWF's Global Climate Change Programme. "While adaptation to changing climate can save some, only drastic action by governments to reduce emissions can hope to stop their complete destruction." --Julia Whitty

Good Behavior, Religiousness May Be Genetic

| Sat Apr. 7, 2007 2:25 PM EDT

A new study shows that selfless and social behavior is not a product of religious environment. After studying the behavior of adult twins, researchers found that, while altruistic behavior and religiousness tend to appear together, the correlation is due to both environmental and genetic factors. The Journal of Personality, via Blackwell Publishing, reports that the popular idea that religious individuals are more social and giving because of behavioral mandates set for them is incorrect. According to study author Laura Koenig, religiousness occurs beside altruistic behaviors because there are genes that predispose them to it. "There is, of course, no specific gene for religiousness, but individuals do have biological predispositions to behave in certain ways," says Koenig. --Julia Whitty

Weird Weather Watch: Apocalypse, Soon

| Fri Apr. 6, 2007 8:23 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Times reports that the same U.N. body that released the sense-knocking report in January, released a second part of the study, which enumerates the likely consequences of global warming, if it continues at its current pace.

Not good news, people. Not at all:

North America can expect more hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires, the report said, and the coasts will be flooded by rising sea levels. Crop production will increase initially as the growing season gets longer, but climbing temperatures and water shortages will ultimately lead to sharp reductions...

Africa will suffer the most extreme effects, with a quarter of a billion people losing most of their water supplies. Food production will fall by half in many countries and governments will have to spend 10% of their budgets or more to adapt to climate changes…

Rising temperatures and drying soil will replace the moist rain forest of the eastern Amazon with drier savannah, eliminating much of the habitat that now supports the greatest diversity of species in the world.

At least 30% of the world's species will disappear if temperatures rise 3.6 degrees above the average levels of the 1980s and 1990s...

Honestly, I don't know what to say, and will just repeat to you what Al Gore says at the end of An Inconvenient Truth: Stop driving, and start making environmental regulations your top political—and personal—priority.