Blue Marble

Wildfires Cause Nearly a Fifth of Manmade Carbon Emissions

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 3:27 PM EDT
A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in Oregon

Wildfires are raging around the western United States: As of yesterday, more than 10,000 firefighters were battling 20 fires in Oregon and California. Another fire in Washington state recently grew to cover more than 8,000 acres. While the immediate consequences of the blazes are obvious—scorched earth, destroyed homes, millions of dollars in damages—the longer-term consequences for the climate have, until now, been poorly understood.

In a study published at the end of July in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineer, says the burning of biomass like trees, plants, and grass—either by accident or deliberately (often to create room for agriculture)—creates 18 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions. Worse yet, that pollution kills people: Around the world, Jacobson writes, biomass burning may account for 5-10 percent of all air pollution deaths worldwide, or about 250,000 people annually.

Lightning strikes and lava flows can burn down forests just as effectively as campfires, cigarettes, and slash and burn agriculture. But worldwide, Jacobson notes, the proportion of wildfires that are caused by nature could be as low as 3.6 percent. The rest are started by humans.

Possibly the worst news of all: Wildfires are part of a vicious circle. Emissions from fires cause climate change, which leads to drier conditions—which make it easier for humans and nature to start fires and for those fires to spread.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A Picture of Your Leg Hair Can Give Away Your Identity

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 9:39 AM EDT

It's hard to forget Tom Cruise replacing his eyeballs in Minority Report. But in the future, that might not be enough to keep him hidden from the law.

A few days ago, scientists at MIT announced they can listen in on conversations by videotaping a potato chip bag sitting next to the speakers. They could even identify who was talking.

From your veins to your walk, sophisticated computer algorithms keep getting better at identifying you based on things there’s no way to password protect. This research, called “soft biometrics,” is making it into ATMs, courtrooms, and even passports. Here are five creepy ways scientists can figure out who you are.

 

Your Potato Chips

You might not see the objects around you vibrate when you talk, but cameras do. And those vibrations carry enough information to identify your voice, or even eavesdrop on your conversation.

With a regular digital camera pointed at a chip bag, a potted plant, or a glass of water, MIT researchers could tell how many people were in a room, as well as the gender of each speaker. If they knew enough about a speaker's voice, they could even pick them out of the crowd. Give the scientists a high speed camera, and they can turn the vibrations into a high-tech wiretap.

 

Your Body Hair

Roblan/Shutterstock

Your beach photos may give more away than you think. Chinese computer scientists have written a program that can take a low-resolution picture of a leg and identify it based on patterns in androgenic hair, which is hair you grow after puberty. It always grows in the same pattern, like a furry fingerprint. Other androgenic hair includes chest and pubic hair, beards, and even the coarse hair on your arms.

The scientists tested extremely grainy photos, between 25 to 6.25 dots of "ink" per inch—for reference, inkjet printers generally print between 300 and 700 d.p.i. So it might be possible to ID someone in a Facebook photo that doesn't show a face, or even a video screencap.

 

Your Veins

The pattern of blood vessels near the surface of your skin stays largely the same throughout your life. In Japan, many ATMs have you scan your palm before taking out cash, and several Swedish stores let you pay with your veins.

The technology isn't only good for commercial purposes, though. Someday soon, you might be identified in a courtroom by a color photo that shows only a patch of skin.

 

Your Ears

A few years ago, the internet lit up with news that airports might start snapping candids of all our ears as we walk through security. While ears still haven't taken the TSA by storm, there's certainly the technology to do it.

From birth on, our ears stay about the same shape, even as they get proportionally bigger. That gives ear shots a leg up over facial recognition, which will probably never be able to identify adults from childhood pictures.


The Way You Walk

Gait analysis is already in common use for forensics. Even in low-res security footage, everything from the way your head bobs to the length of your stride makes you unique. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the first courtroom use of this kind of biomechanics as 2000, when a jury convicted a burglar based on a grainy security video that showed the criminal's distinct walk.

Your House Is Killing You: Couch Edition

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 1:55 PM EDT

Couch potatoes take heed: Sofas and beds, like so many other household items we hear about these days, might be messing with our bodies.

A study on fire retardants written by scientists at the Environmental Working Group and Duke University and published this week in Environmental Science and Technology delivered some pretty disturbing news: Of the 22 mothers and 26 children tested, 100 percent showed exposure to a fire retardant called TDCIPP, a likely carcinogen, and the average concentration in children was nearly five times that of their moms. The study measured the concentration of fire retardant "biomarkers," or compounds produced when the fire retardants are broken down, in the participants' urine. In addition to finding TDCIPP, researchers found high levels of the chemicals used to make the popular fire retardant brand, FireMaster.

The Environmental Working Group report accompanying the study explains, "People end up with fire retardants in their bodies mainly by inhaling or swallowing dust." Many flame retardants are "additives," meaning that they are added to our furniture and other products instead of binding with chemicals through chemical reactions. This makes them a lot more likely to migrate out of the products in the form of dust.

The researchers suspected that kids had higher flame retardant levels than their mothers simply because they spend more time on the floor, where dust accumulates.

The researchers suspected that kids had higher exposure levels than their mothers simply because they spend more time on the floor, where dust accumulates, and because they put their hands in their mouths more. A study from earlier this year found that kids who wash their hands five or more times a day had fire retardants on their hands at concentration levels 30 to 50 percent lower than those who washed their hands less frequently.

Here's a rundown of four of the chemicals examined in the most recent study, their associated health effects, and where they are commonly found:

TDCIPP is a common flame retardant in couches, mattresses, and other cushioned furniture. A 2012 Duke University analysis of 102 couch cushion samples found evidence of TDCIPP in more than half of the couches purchased after 2005. The scientists also found traces of the retardant in over a third of the 101 car seats, baby carriers, portable mattresses, and other baby products sampled. Animal studies have shown TDCIPP to cause tumors in multiple organs, and TDCIPP is listed in California as a carcinogen and labeled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission as a "probable carcinogen." The TDCIPP biomarker was found in 100 percent of kids and 100 percent of mothers. The children's concentrations were, on average, nearly five times larger than those of their own moms.

FireMaster components: Three of the chemicals studied are components of FireMaster 550 and FireMaster 600, two products of a fire retardant brand produced by chemical manufacturer Chemtura and commonly used in mattresses and furniture cushioning. The 2012 study by researchers at Duke found evidence of FireMaster 550 in 18 percent of couches purchased after 2005 and 17 percent of baby products. The components:

  • TPhP is the second most frequently detected fire retardant in the foam of couches purchased after 2005 (after TDCIPP). In addition to being part of FireMaster 550, it’s a common plasticizer in rubber and vinyl, used in things like shower curtains, and rubber and plastic toys. Not much is known about the health effects of TPhP, but recent studies show that TPhP could be an endocrine disruptor, associated with decreased sperm count and increased estrogenic activity. The TPhP biomarker was found in 100 percent of kids and 95 percent of mothers, with children showing concentrations nearly three times that of their mothers.
  • ip-TPhP, an isomer of TPhP, is another component of FireMaster 550. Like TPhP, little is known about the long-term health effects of ip-TPhP exposure.
  • EH-TBB is a component of FireMaster 550 and 600. When combined with flame retardant TBPH in a 2008 study, it caused developmental and reproductive damage to lab animals.  EH-TBB biomarkers were found in 70 percent of kids and 27 percent of mothers.

Amy Lamott, a representative Chemtura, acknowledged that these chemicals are in FireMaster products, but wrote, "We rigorously test our products to ensure the risk of health effects is low and the fire protection benefits are real. Our products have been approved by an EPA review process, and we review any study that might offer new information. In a real world environment, exposure levels of flame retardants are low—and the fire safety benefit outweighs any potential risk that has been found."

In 1975, California passed a law requiring the foam of all furniture sold in the state to withstand the ignition of a small flame for twelve seconds.

The recent studies on flame retardants still beg the question: why are we putting these chemicals in furniture to begin with? Back in 1975, California passed a law requiring the foam of all furniture sold in the state to withstand the ignition of a small flame for twelve seconds. One cheap and easy way for furniture manufacturers to live up to the standard was apply large amounts of fire retardants to the foam—of the 102 couch foams sampled in the 2012 study referenced above, 85 percent of them contained at least one fire retardant, and the chemicals accounted for as much as 11 percent of the weight of couch foam. Many furniture companies douse all of their foam in retardants in order to avoid making California-specific furniture, but because there are no federal labeling laws, consumers often can't tell what's in their furniture. The same 2012 study found that 60 percent of unlabeled couch foam samples contained fire retardants.

When studies started suggesting that PBDE, a class of common flame retardants, was associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children, chemical manufacturers phased out PBDE chemicals between 2004 and 2013. The Duke/EWG study released this week was the first study to test exposure levels to flame retardants that have become popular since the phase out of PBDE.

Despite all this glum news, things may be looking up. In 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown revised the flame law due to health concerns about flame retardants and the inefficacy of applying retardants to foam rather than to the surface of furniture. The new law, effective January 1st of this year, requires furniture manufacturers to meet a "smolder test" instead of the 12-second test. The flame retardants listed above aren't prohibited—they're simply not required to meet the new standards. Old furniture dispenses dust long after it's bought and it's too soon to tell how much the new law will affect chemical treatment of furniture, but for now, we can keep our (recently washed) fingers crossed.

The Minnesota Vikings' New Stadium Will Be a "Death Trap" for Birds

| Sat Aug. 2, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

The Minnesota Vikings' new football stadium was supposed to be a point of pride for fans. The $1 billion state-of-the-art facility in the heart of downtown Minneapolis is set to be completed in 2016, and will put the crumbling Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome out of its misery. But a number of groups are getting angrier about a darker side to this dream project: The stadium's shiny glass walls, which are almost certain to pose a lethal hazard to migrating birds.

Watch Drought Take Over the Entire State of California in One GIF

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

California, the producer of half of the nation's fruits, veggies, and nuts, is experiencing its third-worst drought on record. The dry spell is expected to cost the state billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, and farmers are digging into groundwater supplies to keep their crops alive. We've been keeping an eye on the drought with the US Drought Monitor, a USDA-sponsored program that uses data from soil moisture and stream flow, satellite imagery, and other indicators to produce weekly drought maps. Here's a GIF showing the spread of the drought, from last December 31—shortly before Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency—until July 29.

LA's Crappy Old Pipes Mean More Epic Floods Are Coming

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 5:38 PM EDT
Workers respond to the broken water main in Los Angeles.

Yesterday at around 3:30 pm, a water main burst near the campus of UCLA in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. It gushed for nearly three hours, sending water as high as 30 feet into the air and flooding campus—cars' wheels were submerged, the brand-new basketball court was covered in standing water, eager students brought boogie boards. As much as 10 million gallons are estimated to have been lost, at a rate of 38,000 gallons per minute.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

US Coal Exports Have Erased All The CO2 Savings From the Fracking Boom

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 5:37 PM EDT

The domestic fracking boom has been widely celebrated as a godsend in the fight against climate change. In 2007, cheap natural gas began replacing dirtier coal as the fuel of choice in US power plants. By 2012, the switchover was annually saving an estimated 86 million tons of CO2, the carbon equivalent of taking 21 million cars off the road. That's obviously a huge accomplishment, but it comes with a lesser known catch: All of that coal we're no longer using is still getting dug up, sold off, and spewed into the atmosphere.

The carbon pollution savings from our switch from coal to gas has been more than canceled out by an increase in our coal exports, according to a recent study by Shakeb Afsah of the group CO2 Scorecard. After the domestic market for coal dried up in 2007, US exports of steam coal increased by 83 million tons, resulting in the release of an additional 149 million metric tons of CO2. That's 73 percent more CO2 than Americans have saved so far by ditching the black stuff.

The study is mentioned today in a great story by AP's Dina Cappiello, who looks at whether the coal exports will ultimately increase carbon emissions. Coal companies point to studies suggesting international demand for coal is fairly inelastic, meaning that if US coal exports suddenly disappeared, they would simply be replaced by coal from somewhere else. Yet other studies conclude that the US exports depress prices, driving up demand and delaying a switch to cleaner options.

As I've previously noted, huge new coal export terminals proposed on the West Coast have become the latest flash points in the climate wars. Cappiello points out that a single ship full of Appalachian coal, exported from Virginia to South America, contains enough greenhouse gas to match the annual emissions of a small American power plant.

UPDATE: Cappiello's story has spawned new debate over whether coal exports increase emissions. Andrew Revkin weighs in, and CO2 Scorecard responds.

Obama Is About to Give You the Right to Unlock Your Phone

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 4:26 PM EDT

Ever wondered why you can't transfer your old phone to a new carrier? The practice, known as cellphone unlocking, is illegal. It probably won't surprise you that in the '90s, wireless carriers—who, for obvious reasons, wanted everyone to buy new phones and plans—lobbied for a ban.

As I wrote last year, this ban isn't just annoying and expensive for consumers, it's also wasteful. We only keep our phones for an average of 18 months , and when we get a new one, the old one seldom makes it to a recycling facility. Many languish in desk drawers; some end up in the garbage. That means a lot of electronic waste in landfills, not to mention the environmentally hazardous materials such as rare earths required to make all those new phones.

So it's great news that today the House unanimously passed a law that would finally make phone unlocking legal. The Senate approved the measure last week. Now President Obama just needs to sign off, which he has pledged to do.

After that, if you unearth that old phone from the desk drawer, someone might actually be able to use it.

PETA's Five Most Tone-Deaf Stunts

Fri Jul. 25, 2014 3:23 PM EDT

Proving once again PETA is unfamiliar with how to a deliver meaningful publicity campaign, the animal rights group is now looking to score a win off poor people's thirst.

Some background: The bankrupt city of Detroit has been shutting off its tap water to thousands of poor residents in order to force them to pay for nearly $90 million in overdue water bills. Advocates have slammed the move, calling out the city for eliminating a basic human right. The NAACP recently filed a lawsuit calling the shut down discriminatory, as most of Detroit's low-income residents are overwhelmingly black.

It takes a certain type of callousness to look at this situation and see anything other than misfortune. PETA saw an opportunity! The animal rights group has made an offer to poor Detroit residents: Be one of 10 families to denounce meat and they'll put an end to your family's thirst. PETA will even throw in a basket of vegetables for the effort.

"Vegan meals take far less of a toll on the Earth’s resources," PETA wrote in a recent press release. "It takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce just a pound of meat but only about 155 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat."

This seems like as good a time as any to look back on PETA's misguided and often times exploitative PR campaigns of the past:

1. "Boyfriend went vegan and knocked the bottom out of me." (2012)

Enhance your sex life by encouraging your boyfriend to go vegan. He'll transform into a "tantric porn star," breaking your neck and causing your body to go limp. The sex will be so mind-blowing, in fact, you'll wander aimlessly in just a bra, as you reflect on the violent sex you had the pleasure of subjecting yourself to the evening prior.

2. "Holocaust on your plate." (2003)

Here the group matches photos of factory farms with Holocaust inmates. The display was promptly banned in Germany—a move PETA found absurd considering a Jewish PETA member happened to fund the campaign.

3. Too fat for Plan B? Try "Plan V." (2013)

Jumping on news Plan B may not work as well for women over 165 pounds, PETA urges women to shed a few pounds by going vegan.

4. Dog breeding is for Nazis. (2014)

Again conjuring up the atrocities of the Holocaust, which lets keep in mind systematically killed 11 million people, the group equates dog breeding to Hitler's plan to bring about a pure Aryan race.

5. Don a fur coat and you'll be beaten. (2007)

The disturbing video above even seems to justify senseless violence.

Detroit has already severed off the tap water supply to nearly 125,000 people, with thousands more likely to have their resources shut down in weeks to come. And anyone with a remote interest in current events understands most Detroiters are low-income residents, many of whom could not afford to have a vegan diet.

Nice going, PETA.

You'd Scream, Too, If You Were This Close to a Collapsing Iceberg

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 12:54 PM EDT

Climate change is melting ice at both ends of the planet—just ask the researchers who published two papers in May saying that a major expanses of antarctic ice are now undergoing a "continuous and rapid retreat" and may have "passed the point of no return."

As the poles melt, icebergs are breaking off and drifting with greater ease, creating a world of problems for humans and animals alike. In Antarctica, warmer winters mean icebergs aren't held in place as they once were, and are now colliding with the ocean floor more frequently, laying waste to a complex ecosystem. In Greenland, summer icebergs— like one twice the size of Manhattan that broke off 2012—can clog up shipping lanes and damage offshore oil platforms.

But whether climate change set it free or not, even a single 'berg can be dangerous if you get too close, as this couple discovered when they took a look at one floating off the coast of Newfoundland, in eastern Canada.

h/t to Minnesota Public Radio News for finding this one.