Blue Marble

The Scoop on the Future of America's Wetlands

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 11:20 PM EDT

A staffer with the environmental public interest law firm, Earthjustice, has seen a draft of the Supreme Court's latest guidance on wetlands development and tells me "it will be confusing as hell." That's probably bad news for some 20 million acres of the nation's wetlands--20 percent of the total--which in 2003 were opened to development by the Bush Administration. The court's guidance might lead to more protections, but it could very likely open the floodgates even wider to developers. This is what we know:

One group of four judges led by Justice Antonin Scalia wants to protect--and I'm quoting Earthjustice's paraphrase here--"continuously flowing waterways and waters with a continuously flowing connection to navigable waters." That could rule out some 60 percent of America's wetlands, Earthjustice estimates. The other judges, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, are proposing a "significant nexus test," which would be broader, and would require that protected wetlands be connected to navigable waters in some way that might be chemical, physical or biological. But he hasn't specified how the nexus would be measured, which might leave the Bush EPA with a lot of leeway.

What all of this means, in short, is that saving America's wetlands will probably fall to Congress, where next month Democrats plan to introduce a bill called the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act, which languished last year under the Republicans. It would restore wetland protections to the way they were before a 2001 Supreme Court gave Bush's Army Corps of Engineers an excuse to dramatically scale back protections. The question, of course, is whether Bush will veto it.

Back in 2003, you might recall, Bush planned to gut wetland protections in the Clean Water Act, but pulled back after meeting with the NRA, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Since then, the alliance between hunters and greens has only strengthened as sportsmen have seen their stomping grounds ravaged by oil drilling in the mountain west. So in my view a Bush veto is somewhat unlikely. Look at it this way: it pays to have people with guns on your side.

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Grab Your Rifle: It's Open Season on Grizzlies in Yellowstone

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 8:53 PM EDT

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As I noted last week, the Department of the Interior just issued an opinion on how the Endangered Species Act should be interpreted. And already we're seeing the results: Yellowstone's grizzly bear population just got kicked off the endangered species list.

The grizzly will still continue to be classified as "endangered" in four other geographical areas. The Department of Interior declares that the delisting of Yellowstone's 500 grizzlies is a success. Hunters would agree: In February, Montana approved a bill that would allow grizzlies to be hunted (along with wolves) once they were delisted. Hunting permits are available by lottery and cost $19 for wolves, $50 for grizzlies.

Are 500 animals enough to ensure the genetic diversity and continued growth of an entire species? (Remember there were 100,000 of the creatures roaming the land when Lewis and Clark came through.) Nature thinks no, but apparently our government thinks yes. Happy hunting.

—Jen Phillips

France Opens UFO Files but Remains Skeptical of "the Lady Who Reported Seeing an Object that Looked like a Flying Roll of Toilet

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 8:41 PM EDT

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This month has been big for UFO enthusiasts. France last week unveiled its own X Files, and so many people logged on that the server crashed. The site is back up now but so slow that it feels like traveling back in time to 1996.

You can comb through 1,600 UFO sightings over the past thirty years. Not every vision made the cut. "Cases such as the lady who reported seeing an object that looked like a flying roll of toilet paper" were not worth investigating, Jacques Patenet, head of the office for the study of "non-identified aerospatial phenomena," told New Scientist.

On the other hand, burn marks and radar trackings of flight patterns that defy the laws of physics are taken very seriously. For example, a man working in a field heard a strange whistling sound and saw a saucer-like object about eight feet in diameter land nearby. "It stayed for a few seconds then took off into the blue yonder without making a sound," says Patenet.

UFO buffs are pleased and UFO scoffs may be amused. But Patenet wants scientists to get involved: "We also want to send a message to more scientists, inviting them to help us analyse these phenomena, when otherwise they might feel uneasy about these issues."

How would science explain the sight of a flying roll of toilet paper?

—Rose Miller

Melting Ice Reveals Riches: Canada and Denmark Duke it Out

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 7:10 PM EDT

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Canada and Denmark aren't known for being particularly rapacious, war-hungry nations. But neither country is backing down when it comes to the oil, fish, and shipping paths now available thanks to melting icecaps.

The Arctic contains an estimated 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas supply. Which is why both Canada and Denmark have planted their flags (literally) on the barren, 1/2 sq mile rock called Hans Island. Besides being near potential oceanic drill sites, Hans Island is conveniently located at the mouth to the Northwest Passage, an increasingly iceless Arctic channel that would make freight shipping from Europe to Alaska 60 percent faster than through the Panama Canal.

Americans are also getting in on the land rush: OmniTrax, a US shipping company, bought the northern Manitoba Port of Churchill, for $10 Canadian. It's already pushed 500,000 tons of grain through the tiny harbor.

This is all good and fine for capitalism, but environmentalists are not so happy. The more oil tankers use Arctic shipping lanes like the Northwest Passage, the greater the chance of oil spills. And as Arctic traffic increases, there are more chances of non-native species jumping ship and colonizing the newly warm waters and lands.

Plus there's the fact that, well, people already live there. These peoples, with their long-standing traditions and customs, might just have something to say about other nations rushing to drill their land for oil, or plunging cargo ships through their waters.

One is reminded of British and Dutch colonists ignoring native people's rights, territories, and resources in their rush to reap the booty of a "new" and "uncivilized" land. Will Americans, Danes, and Canadians do the same thing?

—Jen Phillips

Moving Mountains Just Got Harder

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 6:36 PM EDT

Moving mountains may not sound so bad until, that is, you realize you have to put them somewhere. So say detractors of mountaintop removal, a commonly practiced technique for mining coal in the Appalachian Mountains.

Between 1985 and 2001, a federal study estimated that more than 1,200 miles of streams in the Appalachians were buried or severely impacted as a result of mountain top removal, and environmentalists have long decried the Army Corps of Engineers for okaying ditches that have been constructed to replace the waterways—an ecological tradeoff on par with ordering free-range Cornish game hen and getting chicken McNuggets.

On Friday, a District Court Judge in West Virginia agreed, rescinding permits at four state mines, and by ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers' environmental impact assessments fail to meet the requirements of Clean Water Act. The judge called [PDF] portions of the Corps' assessments "no more than lip service," pointing out that despite the Corps' claim that ditches could be connected and made to perform the same function as destroyed streams, the Corps' own witnesses did "not know of any successful stream creation projects in the Appalachian region."

Environmental attorney Steve Roady, with Earthjustice, sees the court's decision as a major victory.

"The federal government has been illegally issuing such permits...The Corps has had every opportunity to prove its claim that mountaintop removal mining can be done without destroying entire watersheds and landscapes."

And until it does, the court's ruling could impact as many as 60 new coal mines pending permits in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Monsters of the Deep Rise and Attack

| Mon Mar. 26, 2007 6:14 PM EDT

squid.jpgJumbo squid live at depths of at least 650 feet, so humans have rarely had contact with them. We still know little about them, although the first specimen was landed 3 years ago, and a larger (colossal) specimen followed last month. Ignorance, it seems, has been bliss. These things are flesh-sucking monsters, as this account of a diver's life-and-death battle with several squid propelling themselves at him at speeds up to 25 miles per hour and grabbing at his exposed flesh with their "tooth-lined tentacles" and "raptor-like beaks" makes all too clear. Unfortunately, though, the squid are showing signs of making Northern California's waters their own. Once there, they will likely attack more divers and devour the catch of the day at many regional fisheries.

A result of human-caused climate change? We don't know enough about the animals to know, which just proves the point that nature is way too complicated to f-ck with.

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Global Warming Bad For Allergy And Asthma Sufferers

| Sat Mar. 24, 2007 1:45 PM EDT

Global warming may be bad for asthma sufferers. Longer plant growing seasons are leading to weeds scattering vast amounts of pollen and conquering new territory, according to Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent for Reuters. By spring, pollen has been in the air for months in the northern hemisphere even in countries where snows normally bring a winter respite for allergics. In southern Sweden hazel trees have been flowering since December. "In the United States the incidence of asthma is up nearly four times since 1980," said Paul Epstein, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. "No one has really been looking at the aerobiology dimension (such as pollen). But I think it helps account for it," he said. Any further warming will make things worse.

Epstein ran a study showing that ragweed produced 60 percent more pollen when grown under twice normal concentration of carbon dioxide. At the same time, the stalks grew only 10 percent more. "Warming is touted as good for agriculture, but weeds may be reacting disproportionately fast," he said. "This is an issue with great importance for human health and agricultural yields."

Sneezing my way through this blog, I kid you not. Julia Whitty

Weird Weather Watch: Winter Sunbathing in Colorado

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 6:08 PM EDT

Temperatures in Grand Junction, Colorado, hit record highs for five days in a row last week. Sunday's balmy 75 degrees topped an 86 year-old high by nearly 20 degrees.

Global Warming Could Reverse Trend Toward Bigger Human Brains

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 5:02 PM EDT

Early humans developed larger brains as they adapted to colder climates. A warming climate might reverse that trend. Imagine that, while you still can.

This is the result of an analysis by University at Albany researchers to be published in the spring edition of Human Nature, according to a press release from the University of Albany. The research suggests that human cranial capacity as an indicator of brain size grew dramatically during our evolution. The authors suggest a key environmental trigger to the evolution of larger brains was the need to devise ways to keep warm and find food in cold climates.

In other species, problems of cold are solved by hibernating or migrating, and/or by growing fur and fat. During human evolution, however, the authors surmise that solutions to the problems of cold produced progressively "smarter" strategies, such as the development of cooperative hunting techniques and more sophisticated tools and weapons. Increased brain capacity also brought with it the use of fire as a means to keep warm and cook, adaptations in clothing and shelter, and the development of more refined social skills.

So, if our smarts have caused all the trouble with global warming in the first place, will getting dumber help?

Passing the Urine-or-Tea Test

| Thu Mar. 22, 2007 11:00 PM EDT

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Chinese hospitals thought they were testing urine samples, but they were really being tested. Reporters passed the lab warm tea in place of their urine samples. Out of ten hospitals, six diagnosed an infection, and five prescribed expensive medicine.

It's not the first health care scandal to piss everyone off. Ha. The health minister has come out calling hospitals greedy. The problem is, "In China, most village doctors make their income solely by selling drugs," reports Nicholas Zamiska in the Wall Street Journal.

The numbers: In rural areas, almost two thirds of prescriptions for the flu were unnecessary, according to the journal Health Policy and Planning. Prescription drugs markups are as high as 80%, according to the World Health Organization.

Unfortunately, such problems are not all so foreign. In the United States, fully a third of our medical spending goes to insurance overheads, which is why our health care costs exactly 50 percent more than any other industrialized country. And pharmaceutical lobbies keep drug prices how much higher than in Canada?

For more, read "Is it Prozac? Or Placebo?: New research suggests that the miracles promised by antidepressants may be largely due to the placebo effect. Too bad there's no money to be made in sugar pills."