Blue Marble

Mickey Mouse Still Stricken With Measles, Thanks to the Anti-Vaxxers

| Thu Jan. 8, 2015 6:47 PM EST

Update (1/23/2015): At least 59 Measles cases have been confirmed in California this year, 42 of them linked to the Disneyland outbreak, according to the state health department. Public health officials around the state, but particularly in Southern California, where the outbreak is the worst, are practically begging parents to have their children immunized. The disease is highly transmissible by air—droplets from an infected person's cough can remain suspended for up to two hours, the CDC notes, and the virus can live for just as long on surfaces. The current outbreak is "100 percent connected" to the anti-immunization movement, Dr. James Cherry, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California-Los Angeles told the New York Times: "It wouldn't have happened otherwise—it wouldn't have gone anywhere," Cherry said. "There are some pretty dumb people out there."

Update (1/13/2015): The number of reported Measles cases linked to Disneyland has grown to 22, reports the Los Angeles Times. At least 12 of the infected people were unvaccinated, while four had had a Measles shot at some point. The vaccination status of the other six was unknown.

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Yesterday, instead of cherishing freshly made memories of mouse ears or trying to get the song "A Pirate's Life for Me" to stop looping in their heads, nine Disneyland visitors were left battling a potentially deadly disease. As The LA Times reports, the California Department of Public Health has confirmed nine cases and is investigating three others in California and Utah, all people who visited the Anaheim theme park last month.

The highly infectious disease, which is transmitted through the air, can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, and sometimes death in children. In 2000, the US Centers for Disease Control declared it eliminated in the United States, thanks in large part to an effective vaccine. But because of anti-vaccination hysteria, fueled by discredited claims about links between vaccines and autism, many parents have opted out of vaccinating their kids, leaving them—and others, including children too young to be vaccinated—vulnerable. And while some children do react badly to vaccines, it's important to remember that the diseases we vaccinate against are killers; the shots save countless lives.

Of the seven California cases, six hadn't been vaccinated—two because they were underage. (Doctors administer the vaccine twice after the child is 12 months old.)

This outbreak is part of an ongoing trend. Measles rates have risen dramatically over the past few years. As my colleague Julia Lurie pointed out last May, the CDC reported record numbers in 2014, due in large part to gaps in vaccinations. According to a CDC press release, "90 percent of all measles cases in the United States were in people who were not vaccinated or whose vaccination status was unknown. Among the US residents who were not vaccinated, 85 percent were religious, philosophical, or personal reasons."

In the video below, my colleague Kiera Butler interviewed a Marin County pediatrician who caters to anti-vaxxer parents:

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This Is Why You're So Damn Cold Right Now

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 5:59 PM EST

This story originally appeared in CityLab and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

To get an idea why wind chills will plummet to 45 degrees below zero in the US this week, look no farther than this unreal image of a colossal polar system cutting through the country like the icy scythe of a rancorous Norse god.

A NOAA satellite caught the coast-to-coast eyeball-freezer on Tuesday as it was revving up for an icy romp across America. Writes the agency:

The weather pattern over the next few days will feature a massive surface high settling southward from Canada to the Great Plains on Wednesday, following by another large surface high by the end of the week. Both of these features are of Arctic origin, and will bring bitterly cold weather from the western High Plains to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast US In addition to the frigid temperatures, the cold air advection over the Great Lakes along with upper-level shortwave energy moving over the region is expected to produce significant lake effect snow downwind from the Great Lakes through midweek.

Areas east of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are predicted to get the worst of the accumulations, which must be a comfort to Buffalo residents who are probably almost finished digging out from the last winter storm. NOAA says these regions will be served with snowfalls that "will easily exceed one foot."

As for the other weather misery afflicting the nation, take a peek at these expected wind chills. It's not a great time to be outside in the northern states, where the government is advising travelers to pack winter-survival kits.

NOAA

 

BREAKING: President Obama Will Veto Congress' Keystone XL Pipeline Bill

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 2:33 PM EST

President Barack Obama is planning to veto a bill that would force approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, according to the Associated Press:

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the president's position hasn't changed since November, when pipeline supporters in Congress last attempted to push through its approval—an effort that fell just one vote shy of the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. Obama was adamant then that approval for the pipeline come not from Congress, but from the State Department, which normally has jurisdiction over international infrastructure projects like this one. A final decision from State has been delayed pending the outcome of a Nebraska State Supreme Court case, expected sometime early this year, that could alter the pipeline's route.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McDonnell and other Republicans have vowed to make passage of a new Keystone XL bill a top priority for the new year, and they seem prepared to move forward with a vote later this week. The bill is likely to pass. But the challenge for Republicans is to garner enough support from Democratic senators to achieve the 67 votes required to override a presidential veto. Yesterday, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told reporters he had just 63 votes.

Even if Congress fails to override Obama's veto, it still won't be the end of what has become the flagship issue for US climate activists; the possibility remains that the State Department could still approve the project. But the Obama administration may be leaning against approval. In December, the president said the pipeline is "not even going to be a nominal benefit to US consumers."

This post has been updated.

It's Official: 2014 Was the Hottest Year on Record

| Mon Jan. 5, 2015 6:31 PM EST

Update, January 16, 10:50 am, ET: NASA and NOAA announced on Friday that 2014 was indeed the warmest year on record. As NASA explained in a press release, "Since 1880, Earth's average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius), a trend that is largely driven by the increase in carbon dioxide and other human emissions into the planet's atmosphere. The majority of that warming has occurred in the past three decades."

For more on the new findings, watch the video from NASA above.

 

Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA)

For many Americans, 2014 will be remembered for its multiple blasts of Arctic air and bitter winters. And this week, another bout of freezing temperatures is marching east across the country, in the first major thermometer plunge of the season.

But as cold as you may have been last year, it's now official that 2014 was actually the hottest year globally since record-keeping began. So confirmed the Japan Meteorological Agency in preliminary data released Monday.

The Japanese government agency monitors and records the long-term change of the global average surface temperatures and found that 2014 was far warmer than previous years. How much warmer? 2014 exceeded the 1981-2010 temperature average by 0.27 degrees Celsius (or 0.49 degrees Fahrenheit). There was unusually warm weather all around the world, from a record-breaking heat wave in Australia to the hottest European summer in 500 years.

The data shows that four out of the five hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade: In second place is 1998, then 2010 and 2013 tied for third, and 2005 in fifth place. The new numbers reveal that the world has been warming at an average rate of 0.7 degrees Celsius (or 1.26 degrees Fahrenheit) per century since records began.

Two US government agencies, NOAA and NASA, are expected to confirm the results of the Japanese observations in the coming weeks.

How a 20-Minute Conversation Can Convince People With Anti-Gay Views to Change Their Mind

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 7:00 AM EST

A recent study suggests that a single conversation between a gay person and a same-sex marriage opponent may have the power to change the person's mind on the issue. 

The study, published last week in the journal Science, analyzed data collected by the Los Angeles LGBT Center after it sent pro-gay marriage canvassers to areas of southern California that had voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California in 2008 until the Supreme Court overturned it in 2013. Starting in 2009, canvassers—both gay and straight—engaged in over 12,000 brief one-on-one conversations with those precincts' registered voters about either gay marriage or, with a placebo group, recycling. The survey found that respondents who had discussed gay marriage showed less prejudice towards gay people following their chat with the canvasser than those who had discussed recycling.

But these conversations weren't equally effective across the board: At a certain point in the initial conversation, the gay canvassers had been instructed to reveal that they were gay and hoping to get married, but that the law prohibited it, whereas the straight canvassers spoke of a "friend" or "relative."

Only the gay canvassers' effectiveness proved enduring.

"Those who discussed same-sex marriage with straight canvassers," write the study's authors, Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green, "quickly reverted to their pretreatment baseline opinions, and 90% of the initial treatment effect dissipated a month after the conversation with canvassers."

Meanwhile, the respondents who spoke to gay canvassers remained just as enlightened nine months later.

"The data show that in 20 minutes, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s volunteer canvassers accomplished what would have otherwise taken five years at the current rate of social change," the center's David Fleischer said in a statement. "How did we do it? Our team had heartfelt, reciprocal and vulnerable conversations on the doorsteps of those who opposed marriage for same-sex couples, and volunteers who were LGBT came out during their conversations."

Researchers are hopeful their persuasion methods can produce similar results in reducing prejudices on other social issues as well. 

New York State Just Banned Fracking

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 2:01 PM EST
Anti-fracking activists at a rally in New York in October 2012.

After years of wrangling between environmentalists, lawmakers, and fossil fuel companies, New York's top public health administrator said he would ban fracking in the state, citing health risks.

From the New York Times:

The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.

"I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York," said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health.

That conclusion was delivered publicly during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany…The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo's first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.

New York is the second state to ban fracking, after Vermont did so in 2012. That move was largely symbolic, since Vermont has no natural gas to speak of. New York, by contrast, would have been a prize for the fracking industry, thanks to its massive share of the Marcellus shale formation.

"This is the first state ban with real significance," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in New York for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My head is still spinning, because this is beyond anything we expected."

The fracking battle in New York isn't quite over yet, Sinding said. Now the attention of activists will turn toward proposed infrastructure projects in the state—like a gas storage facility by Lake Seneca and an export facility on Long Island—that would handle natural gas from fracking projects in neighboring states like Pennsylvania.

This post has been updated.

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These Are the Cutest Animal Videos of 2014, According to the World's Leading Science Journal

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 12:08 PM EST

Nature is one of the world's flagship peer-reviewed scientific journals, a venue for some of our best new ideas about the world. Sometimes, those ideas are about animals that also happen to be outrageously, unconscionably cute. I'm talking baby-penguins-and-pomeranians-and-monkeys-cute. This morning the ingenious folks in Nature's video department rounded them all up into one face-melting video.

Here's how to put a YouTube video on endless loop. You're welcome.

Here's How Much the Storm Is Helping California's Epic Drought

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 7:21 PM EST
People canoeing and kayaking in a flooded parking lot in Healdsburg, California.

In the midst of the most intense drought in hundreds of years, Northern California is being bombarded with rain (here are some crazy photos). In a state that produces roughly half of the country's fruits and veggies, the water is more than welcome. The storm is expected to dump 2-8 inches of water in the Bay Area, and 2-5 inches in Southern California. But California would need 18-21 more inches of rain over the next six months in order to make up for the drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The state usually gets about 23 inches of rain per year.

Check out the similarity between a drought intensity chart from two weeks ago, when California was still pretty dry, and two days ago, after several days of rain.

Compared with the levels two weeks ago, there's been a small but noticeable increase in the state's reservoir water; California's two largest reservoirs, Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, have both seen a three percent rise. The image below, updated on December 10th, compares how much California's reservoirs can hold (in yellow) with how much they're currently holding (in blue).

California Department of Water Resources

Some experts are worried that the rain will make people forget about the fact that California's still in a drought. "Thursday it'll rain, and people will say, 'Oh, I'm very excited,' and Saturday it'll rain, and 'Oh, drought’s over.' Not even close," Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with Public Policy Institute of California focused on water, told KQED. "This has been three consecutive years of extreme dryness, and that extreme dryness translates to much lower groundwater levels, and very dry soils. It’s going to take a lot of rain to break this drought."

There's a Big Coal Giveaway in the Cromnibus Bill

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 3:17 PM EST

This story originally was originally published by The Huffington Post and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The 1,000-page omnibus spending package released Tuesday night is reigniting a fight over rules for U.S. financing of coal plants abroad.

In October 2013, the Treasury Department announced that it would stop providing funding for conventional coal plants abroad, except in "very rare" cases. And in December 2013, the Export-Import Bank announced a new policy that would restrict financing for most new coal-fired power plants abroad. The bank, often called Ex-Im, exists to provide financial support to projects that spur the export of U.S. products and services. The change in coal policy aligned with President Barack Obama's June 2013 call to end US funding of fossil fuel energy projects abroad unless the products include carbon capture technology.

But the language in the omnibus blocks both Ex-Im and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the US's development finance institution, from using any funds in the bill to enforce these new restrictions on coal projects.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, touted this prohibition in his statement on the spending package. He said the measure would help "to increase exports of US goods and services." Rogers told The Hill that coal exports "are just about the only bright light in the coal business these days."

Environmental groups have fought for years to get the government's financial institutions to stop funding fossil fuel projects abroad, including a number of coal-fired power plants, mines, pipelines and natural gas export terminals. Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said in a statement that including this rider in the omnibus "undercuts one of the most important contributions President Obama has made to climate policy internationally."

"This continued desperate attempt by Republicans to prop up the moribund coal industry is a fools errand," Justin Guay, associate director of the international climate program at the Sierra Club, told The Huffington Post. "The coal industry is a dead man walking; it's time to align our economy with an industry that actually has a future."

These Photos of Flooding in San Francisco Are Insane

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 2:02 PM EST

A huge rain storm is battering Northern California right now. The photos are bonkers.

(Disclaimer: These are all from social media so maybe some are fake because some people get off making fake weather photos whenever these things happen, but they all look pretty legit to me.)