Science Shots: Snake Oil, Corn Oil, Partying Elk

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


An idiosyncratic sampling of the latest science papers: Oil and corn don’t mix (at least for the Gulf of Mexico); How snakes climb ropes (and why they climb ropes); Energy not housing crashed the economy. Plus a bonus video of elk partying in Yellowstone.

  • One hundrd seventy million gallons of oil was bad for the Gulf of Mexico. But so are biofuels. A new study by the USGS finds that converting fields from cotton to corn increased the nitrogen load in parts of the Gulf watershed by 7 percent, adding to the Gulf’s seasonal hypoxia woes. The problem stems from the USDA Biofuels Initiative, which promotes corn over cotton and has reduced cotton acreage by 47 percent, while increasing corn acreage by 288 percent, between 2006 to 2007. Furthermore, cultivated corn uses 80 percent more water than cotton and is acclerating the depletion of the Mississippi River Valley aquifer, which is currently being drawn down faster than rain can replenish it.

 

Credit: Pratheepps, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Pratheepps, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology reveals the secrets of rope climbing by snakes. The researchers enticed the snakes to climb by placing a dark refuge at the top, then filmed the ascents, while measuring the rope tension as the animals coiled and uncoiled their grip on thin (3 millimeter/0.11 inch) and thick (6 millimter/0.23 inch) rope. All ascents were extremely slow, ranging from 0.5 to1 cm s–1, and the snakes only reached their top speeds on the thickest, tensest ropes. Check out the video:
  •  

      

  • Declining energy quality could be root cause of the current recession, according to a new paper in Environmental Research Letters. Yes, the real estate bubble burst, but that’s because everyone paid more for electricity, gasoline, and heating oil, leaving less  for mortgages. The paper outlines a new way to measure energy quality—the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR), which calculates how much profit is obtained by energy consumers relative to energy producers. The higher the EIR, the more economic value consumers get from their energy. Analysis of past recessions showed the longest and deepest downturns since World War II were preceded by sustained declines in EIR for all fossil fuels. The author suggests that to grow the economy again, Americans need to produce and use energy more efficiently—as happened after the last energy crisis, when fuel efficiency standards were raised, more natural gas was used for electricity, and new technologies coaxed more oil from the ground.

 

The worst recessions of the last 65 years were preceded by declines in energy quality for oil, natural gas and coal. Energy quality is plotted using the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR) for each fuel. Recessions are indicated by gray bars.The worst recessions of the last 65 years were preceded by declines in energy quality for oil, natural gas and coal. Energy quality is plotted using the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR) for each fuel. Recessions are indicated by gray bars.

 

 

 

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.