Blue Marble

Maybe We'll Win the War Against HIV After All

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 7:04 PM EDT

A new study published Tuesday in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases shows a HIV-prevention treatment may have been successful at preventing new cases of the disease.

The regimen, which is called preexposure prophylaxix (or PrEP), involves administering antiviral medication to those at-risk for contracting HIV—stopping infections before they become permanent. This is the largest evaluation of PrEP, administered daily as a single pill called Truvada, since the Food and Drug Administration approved the drugs in 2012. Also, it's the first study done outside a clinical setting.

During the course of the 32-month study, researchers at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center found no new cases of infection among the 675 patients taking Truvada, most of whom were gay men considered to be at higher risk for contracting HIV.

Critics of the drug have raised concerns that it will pave the way for unsafe sex—much like the accusations against early birth control users. However, health officials and gay rights advocates have overwhelmingly voiced support for its use, saying it may be a promising treatment for preventing the spread of HIV.

Previous studies, conducted in a clinical setting, showed that the drug could stop 92 percent of HIV infections in those taking the pills if they are taken correctly and consistently. Truvada is currently recommended by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization for at-risk groups, including drug-users, gay and bisexual men as well as anyone who has a HIV-positive partner.

Kaiser researchers, however, emphasized the treatment should be used more widely, and "underscored the need for outreach to others at risk for HIV, including transgender women, heterosexual men and women, and people using injection drugs."

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3 Hurricanes Are Hitting the Pacific at the Same Time, and the View From Space Is Amazing

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 1:05 PM EDT
Three hurricanes are churning across the Pacific right now.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are marveling at a particularly awesome view from orbit right now. This week marks the first time that three major hurricanes—dubbed Kilo, Ignacio, and Jimena—have been captured simultaneously churning across the Pacific Ocean, according to the United Kingdom's Met Office. (The National Hurricane Center agrees.)

The storms are being fueled by warmer waters caused by this year's El Niño, the global climate event that occurs every five to seven years, bringing drought to places like Australia, while heaping rain on the Western United States. The Met Office says temperature anomalies in this part of the world are currently at their highest since 1997-98.

According to the Met Office: "Hurricanes Kilo, Ignacio and Jimena were all at category 4 simultaneously in the Pacific east of the International Dateline—the first time three major hurricanes have been recorded at the same time in this region." The Met Office says tropical cyclone activity across the northern hemisphere this year is about 200 percent above normal. Six hurricanes have crossed the central Pacific, more than in any other year on record, the agency says.

The view from space is incredible:

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says manmade global warming is likely to drive up the number of intense hurricanes like these around the world—despite a predicted overall drop in all types of weaker, tropical storms. By the end of the century, hurricanes will likely produce substantially higher rainfall—up to 20 percent more—than present-day hurricanes.

So far, Hawaii appears to be safe, and no humans are in the paths of destruction, allowing us to enjoy the spectacular view.

New Study Finds That Humans Should Kill Smaller, Younger Animals

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 10:00 AM EDT
Don't worry, some small animals should be kept around as clickbait.

When it comes to food, humans gravitate to the biggest item on the menu: overstuffed turkeys, 1,000-pound sturgeons, the fattest burger. But a new study in Science shows how our obsession with taking down the biggest prey is damaging the world's wildlife.

Looking at 282 marine species and 117 terrestrial mammals, researchers at the University of Victoria found that human hunters and fishers overwhelmingly target adult animals over juveniles. Driven by the prestige and financial payoff of a trophy kill or gargantuan catch—and an aversion to killing young animals that might be seen as cute—humans consume up to 14 times the amount of adult animal biomass as other predators. And that's contributing to the swift decline of populations of large fish and land carnivores, the researchers say.

Thanks to advanced hunting tactics and tools that allow us to kill without getting too close, humans have long been able to take down massive prey (e.g., the Ice Age mammoths). But with modern advancements such as guns and the automated dragnets of industrial-scale fishing, we've turned into "super-predators," the researchers write. That's just one reason, along with the ravages of climate change and habitat destruction, we're currently in the process of losing one in six species on Earth.

These findings go against the assumption that it's better to target mature animals and spare younger ones. "Harvesters typically are required by law to release so-called under-sized salmon, trout, or crabs, or to set their rifle scopes on the 6-point elk and not the calves," explained Chris Darimont, one of the study's authors, in a call with reporters. Those regulations are in line with the paradigm of "sustainable exploitation," the idea that killing off big adult animals that dominate a habitat will allow the young to flourish and reproduce.

Humans exploit large prey at far higher rates than other predators. P. Huey/ Science

The authors argue that this approach causes undesirable reverberations in the food web and, eventually, the gene pool. While the loss of the largest predators may be a boon to their prey in the short-term, ballooning populations of herbivores can devastate vegetation and have been linked to festering illnesses. While humans may raise increasingly large domesticated animals—whether by pumping cows with steroids or breeding only the fattest hogs—exploiting the largest animals in the wild can lead to tinier animals. For example, as bigger, stronger fish are plucked from the oceans, survival of the fittest undergoes a strange inversion: Smaller fish are more likely to reproduce in their absence, producing fewer, smaller offspring that are less resistant to further threats.

The authors suggest that human hunters start thinking small. In the case of fisheries, they suggest focusing on smaller catches—a process of narrowing entrances into traps and nets and using hooks to allow larger fish to evade capture. To preserve top carnivores on land, Darimont and coauthor Tom Reimchen say that tolerance—and a decreased emphasis on prized trophy kills—is the best way to bolster dwindling populations.

There Might Be Fracking Wastewater on Your Organic Fruits and Veggies

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in the USDA's organic food safety program.

The US Department of Agriculture's organics standards, written 15 years ago, strictly ban petroleum-derived fertilizers commonly used in conventional agriculture. But the same rules do not prohibit farmers from irrigating their crops with petroleum-laced wastewater obtained from oil and gas wells—a practice that is increasingly common in drought-stricken Southern California.

"No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater."

As I reported last month, oil companies last year supplied half the water that went to the 45,000 acres of farmland in Kern County's Cawelo Water District, farmland that is owned, in part, by Sunview, a company that sells certified organic raisins and grapes. Food watchdog groups are concerned that the state hasn't required oil companies to disclose all the chemicals they use in oil drilling and fracking operations, much less set safety limits for all those chemicals in irrigation water.

A spokesman for the USDA's National Organics Program confirmed that it has little to say on the matter. "The USDA organic regulations do not directly address the use of irrigation water on organic farms," said the spokesman, who asked to be quoted on background, "but organic operations must generally maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality."

Of course, that's easier said than done. USDA organic regulations do not require farms to perform water quality tests, and irrigation water is not evaluated as an input by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets products used on organic farms. Calls placed to California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies organic farms in California, were not returned.

Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in a food safety program that otherwise strictly controls what farmers can apply to their land. Notably, the organics program does prohibit the use of sewage sludge-based fertilizer, a product widely used on nonorganic farms that sometimes contains chemicals such as flame retardants and pharmaceuticals.

On Monday, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Glendale, introduced a bill that would require crops irrigated with wastewater from oil and gas operations to be labeled as such. "No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater," he explained in a press release.

That's especially true if their lettuce is labeled "organic," adds Adam Scow, the California director of the environmental group Food and Water Watch: "I think most people's logic would tell them that's not a practice consistent with organic standards."

The FDA Just Approved "Viagra for Women"

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 7:35 PM EDT
Flibanserin, a drug to treat low sexual desire in women.

More than 17 years after it ushered in Viagra, the Federal Drug Administration approved the first women's sex-drive drug, flibanserin, earlier today.  Sprout Pharmaceuticals will manufacture the drug, which they've named Addyi, and sell it to women with low libido, or hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).

While the pill has garnered much attention under monikers like "pink Viagra" or "Viagra for women," its purpose and mechanism have little in common with the famous blue pill for men. The drug will not physically bring blood to parts of the body to assist arousal, but instead will alter chemicals in the brain to increase sexual desire.

Is this a victory for women after decades of being ignored by biased pharmaceutical researchers?

Well, not necessarily. As we reported in June:

Women who took the drug in trials reported no more than one additional "sexually satisfying event" per month than women who received a placebo.

Not a great track record. Many health experts and academics doubt the existence of HSDD and believe Big Pharma is fabricating a disorder and exploiting gender imbalances to create a new market. Private investors staked some $50 million on flibanserin's approval, according to Forbes.

The FDA's decision came after two prior rejections of the drug because of side effects like dry mouth, fatigue, nausea, and fainting. On the bright side, consumers of Addyi ready to jump into bed will be relieved to hear that the side effects have apparently been diminished.

California Is on Fire. This Map Shows Where.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 6:21 PM EDT
A wildfire burning near Clearlake, California, earlier this month.

On August 17, 2013—two years ago today—a deer hunter near California's Yosemite National Park ignored a campfire ban and burned trash from his dinner. The embers blew into dry brush, starting the third worst wildfire in the state's history. All told, the Rim Fire, as it came to be called, burned 257,314 acres in and around Yosemite.

No wildfires of that scale have occurred since, but, thanks to drought and climate change, California is far from out of the woods. In fact, in 2015, 4,382 wildfires have already scorched a total of 117,960 acres, more than double the five-year average for this time of year. Firefighters have finally controlled the largest two fires, in Northern California's Jerusalem Valley, but not before the blazes razed nearly 100,000 acres. 

The map below, made by California's wildfire fighting agency, Cal Fire, gives a sense of where these fires are occurring. To read more details about each fire and how much of it is contained today, click on the map's fire icons or see Cal Fire's ongoing reports here

And California isn't even the state with the most acres burning right now. A blaze in Idaho has consumed more than 200,000 acres so far. In Alaska, wildfires have burned more than 5 million acres this year. This map from the research organization Climate Central shows where wildfires are occurring nationwide:

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Your Meat-Eating Habit Is Killing More Than Just Cows

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 5:15 AM EDT

The earth is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction, and die-offs are happening more quickly than ever before. In a little over a century, the world has said goodbye to more than 400 species—and many biologists believe this is just the beginning. Scientists predict that in the next 35 years, as many as 37 percent of the world's species could go extinct, if current trends continue.

While we know that climate change is a major culprit in the loss of biodiversity, some researchers now believe burgers might also be to blame. In a new report, a team from Florida International University cited the land degradation, pollution, and deforestation caused by rising global demand for meat as "likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions," and the problem is only expected to get worse.

The world's most biodiverse areas are also the places where meat production is most likely to increase in the coming years.

"It's a colossally important paper," Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, who studies how human diets affect the environment, told Science Magazine:

Researchers have struggled to determine the full impacts of meat consumption on biodiversity, Eshel says. "Now we can say, only slightly fancifully: You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot."

Meat consumption has increased globally by 24 percent since the 1960s, mostly fueled by high demand from wealthy countries like the United States. Each year the number of livestock—specifically cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo—increases by 25 million, requiring more space for both housing and feed production. Cattle, which require vast amounts of feed and produce the potent greenhouse gas methane, are expected to grow in number by more than 1 billion by 2050.

The world's "biodiveristy hotspots," areas biologists have identified where many species flourish, have already been reduced by nearly 90 percent in size and are now restricted to only 2 percent of the Earth's land surface. What's worse is that these biodiverse areas are the places where meat production is most likely to increase in the coming years. Researchers have predicted an additional loss of as much as 50 percent of land to livestock production.

Though Americans are already eating less meat than they used to, the researchers emphasized the continued need to cut back, especially because of how much meat ends up going to waste: Thirty percent of food—or $48 billion worth—is wasted in the United States each year, pushing up demand for meat production. "To support a future with lower animal product food demands," they write, "would drastically reduce habitat and biodiversity loss, fossil fuel energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, while providing highly nutritious diets that greatly improve human health."

Los Angeles Just Found an Awesome Way to Fight the Drought. It Involves Balls. Here Is a Video.

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 4:40 PM EDT

On Monday afternoon, the mayor of Los Angeles found a ballsy way to fight California's unprecedented drought:


LA just completed a project at the LA Reservoir to save 300 million gallons of water by deploying shade balls on its surface, saving our city over $250 million dollars while keeping our water clean & safe.

Posted by Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday, August 10, 2015

There are now 96 million "shade balls" floating on the surface of the LA Reservoir. They're made of plastic, the same kind of polyethylene that gallon-sized milk jugs are made of, so they don't pose a threat to the drinking water, according to the LA Times. They're designed to keep water from evaporating and are expected to conserve 300 million gallons per year. And at a cost of $35 million, they're about $250 million cheaper than the alternative, a tarp-like covering.

So, saving California from the drought just takes leadership from someone with a pair of…sorry I'll just stop now.


Here's Another Vital Conversation That Donald Trump Is Ruining

| Tue Aug. 11, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Donald Trump
Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Over at Vox, David Roberts investigates Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's views on climate change and finds that they are thoughtful, nuanced, and carefully grounded in science.

Kidding, kidding. Trump's proclamations on climate change are as sweeping, bombastic, and asinine as his shocking claim that Mexican immigrants are a bunch of rapists. Here are a couple of typical tweets:

Trump thinks cold weather in the US in winter disproves the demonstrable fact that global average temperatures have been steadily rising since the Industrial Revolution. Roberts' pithy conclusion is that Trump's opinions are wrong, but, "They are, for the most part, mainstream Republican positions." That depends on how you look at it. Rejecting climate science is the norm among Republican politicians. (Republican voters are more evenly split between climate science acceptance and denial.) But Trump's specific approach to climate change represents a more rare and particularly disturbing species of climate science denialism.

Most other Republican presidential candidates do not actually deny that the Earth is getting warmer. Rather, they hem and haw about whether humans and greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of it, and to what extent. Here are some examples:

Jeb Bush: "I think global warming may be real…It is not unanimous among scientists that it is disproportionately manmade."

And Rick Perry: "I don't believe man-made global warming is settled in science enough."

And just yesterday, John Kasich: "I think that man absolutely affects the environment, but as to whether, what the impact is…the overall impact—I think that's a legitimate debate."

They argue that the science of human-induced climate change is incomplete, but they accept that warming is measured by data and that NASA's temperature readings are accurate.

Some more extreme conservatives, like Ted Cruz, question whether the data actually even shows the Earth is warming. The more mainstream way of doing this, which Cruz did in his appearance at the Koch brothers' recent confab in California, is to selectively and misleadingly present very specific facts in order to create a false impression. The more fringey, conspiracist approach, which Cruz also engaged in at that event, is to claim that the temperature measurements are being manufactured by scientists with an agenda. Cruz said, "If you look at satellite data for the last 18 years, there's been zero recorded warming…They're cooking the books. They're actually adjusting the numbers."

That's pretty out there, but less so still than Trump because Cruz does accept that one would establish warming by measuring the temperature, and by doing so not just on one day in one place, but all over the Earth for years. Trump doesn't selectively present the data or assert that it's been rigged, he just ignores it. If it's cold outside in New York in the winter, Trump says, then there is no global warming. His problem is twofold: He does not understand the difference between weather (still often cold in New York in the winter) and climate (gradually warming on average over the entire Earth), and he does not respect the difference between data and anecdote. Trump is hardly unique in this regard—remember Senate Environment Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and his snowball—but Trump is the only top-tier Republican presidential candidate who subscribes to it.

So the fact that Trump is in first place in the GOP presidential polls, with more than twice as high a percentage as his nearest competitor, Jeb Bush, reveals some alarming things about a large segment of the Republican voter base (not smart) and the prospects for reaching consensus on the need for climate action (not good).

Trump isn't merely another extremist who rejects climate science. Trump isn't really a conservative at all. He's a reactionary populist who has elevated ignorance to a political philosophy. Call it ignorantism.

Even if Trump hadn't said anything about climate change in particular, his dismissiveness toward objective fact-finding processes would bode ill for the environment. Government policies—economic, public health, environmental—require an accurate measurement of data to inform policymakers who write laws and regulators who enforce them. And a plurality of the Republican electorate currently supports a presidential candidate who does not accept that data, rather than personal anecdote, is how one measures empirical fact.

Despite the widespread opinion that Trump performed poorly in the first Republican debate last week, the only poll to come out since shows him still in the lead with 23 percent of Republican voters. The same poll shows 29 percent of respondents saying Trump did worst in the debate. But a lot of Republicans find his buffoonery and belligerent ignorance compelling.

Even though Trump will not be the GOP nominee, whoever it is will need to keep Trump's supporters on board. And all those climate hawks hoping the GOP will stop being "the party of stupid" will be disappointed.

9 Supermarket Staples That Were Created by the Military

| Thu Aug. 6, 2015 5:05 AM EDT

Go down an aisle in your supermarket and pick up a packaged item. Chances are, the contents of that can, bag, box, or pouch were designed in a US military building in the suburbs of Boston.

According to Anastacia Marx de Salcedo's insightful new book, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat (Current), the effort to nourish faraway GIs with portable, nonperishable, and edible (if not tasty) food has shaped the landscape of our modern food system. How so? Since World War II, the US military's well-funded food science lab in Massachusetts, the Natick Center, has dominated the development of new food science and technology to create meals with longer shelf life, better flavor and texture, and more convenient packaging. But the Natick Center doesn't keep its findings to itself. It partners with private corporations (à la ConAgra, General Mills, Hershey, Hormel, Tyson, and Unilever, to name a few) to produce this food for the general public, as well. It's a win-win for both sides: Corporations get a leg up on the latest and greatest processing and packaging techniques, and the military is ensured a massive supply of rations if war ever breaks out.

If you are feeling queasy about eating food originally created for soldiers, you better watch out: Just about any processed food with a shelf life of more than a couple of days probably has its origins in the Natick Center. Below we outline a few of the biggest military food breakthroughs that you can find in your local grocery store or bodega:

  • Canned food: The effort to preserve meat for troops in combat began in the United States in earnest during the Spanish-American War, but it took years before the military understood the science of germs, bacteria, and how food spoils, and could successfully can meat and other perishables.
  • Energy and granola bars: After trying trying in vain during World War II to create a chocolate bar that wouldn't melt, the army developed a fortified fruit bar that was sweet and of "intermediate moisture." The "fruit bar" evolved into the granola bars and energy bars found in every grocery store and gas station today.
  • Packaged, boneless meat: Meat is expensive, especially when you need to feed an entire army. Thus the development of restructured meat: taking the ignored meat chunks and scraps and creating a new, longer-lasting meat. Now many Americans prefer restructured nuggets, patties, and slices over fresh meat from the bone.
  • Sliced bread: Making bread is labor-intensive, and the product goes stale and moldy quickly, which is a problem for feeding soldiers who spend days and weeks far from kitchens with ovens. So military food scientists came up with anti-staling additives to make shelf-stable bread, which, after World War II, entered households everywhere, becoming the best thing since, well…
  • Dehydrated cheese: Soldiers had such a huge appetite for cheese during the world wars that suppliers had difficulty packaging and shipping enough to meet demand. So the Natick Center went to work to find a better way process cheese for troops. The result? Dehydrated cheese powder. Now it's found everywhere from the cheese packets in our mac 'n' cheese to the Cheeto dust stuck to our fingers.
  • TV dinner packaging: In its search for more flexible packaging resistant to changes in temperature and pressure, the Natick Center had a breakthrough when it combined the flexibly of plastic and the vapor-resistance of foil. This led to the plastic and foil "retort pouches" used for everything from heat-and-serve TV dinners to juice pouches, sauce packets, squeeze yogurts, and pet food.
  • "Fresh-squeezed" juice and smoothies*: Ever wonder why the "fresh-squeezed," unpasteurized bottles of fruit and vegetable juice in supermarket coolers last so long without spoiling or making you sick? It turns out their long shelf life owes itself to a military-invented food technology called high-pressure processing. Essentially, pressure is applied to foods at such a high volume that it breaks the bonds holding together bacteria molecules. This process is also used for salsa, guacamole, and "100 percent natural, no preservatives" cold cuts.
  • Packaged, prewashed salad: To transport fresh greens to troops, the military developed a way to package produce that controlled oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, slowing down ripening and spoilage.
  • Instant coffee: A freeze-drying process initially used for transporting blood and vaccines to battlefield medics during World War II was repurposed as a way to make familiar foods long-lasting and lightweight. That's how we got instant coffee, as well as the fruit bits in your cereal, the vegetables chunks in your instant noodles, and cake mix—convenient, long lasting, tasty, and brought to you by the US military.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the kind of juice that undergoes high pressure processing.