Saturday, June 30, 2007

"Saving Earth From the Ground Up"

From the Washington Post

Biologist Edward O. Wilson Warns of a Bleak World Without Bugs

You may have heard of the nematode, that microscopic gelatinous worm in your garden soil, but did you know that four out of every five living creatures on Earth is a nematode? The whole bloody planet is crawling.

A gram of soil might also contain 5,000 species of bacteria and untold fungi in a secret universe separated only by the soles of our shoes and our sad ignorance of our global home. These and other marvelous revelations come from the celebrated Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who was in town this week as lawmakers, government officials and scientists took a little time away from pressing matters of state to consider . . . the plight and the future of bugs. Laughable? No, don't dis bugs -- your very life depends on them, it turns out.

Wilson, winner of two Pulitzers for his books on invertebrate life, lectured to more than 200 like-minded bug lovers as part of National Pollinator Week events and celebrations...

If humans were to disappear -- he doesn't advocate this, for the record -- the effects on the insect world would be minimal. "It's unlikely a single insect species would go extinct except three forms of body and head lice," he said. Close relatives of the parasites could still live on gorillas. The primal, complex web of life would continue "minus all the species we have pushed into extinction." Ouch.

But reverse the tables, remove the insects, and what would happen? Wilson paints a Mad Max scenario, in which not only do the bees, flies, beetles, moths and butterflies disappear, but all the plants that rely on them to set fruit, nuts and seed vanish as well. No worries, you say, because two-thirds of the crops we eat are wind-pollinated. But insects, not earthworms, are the principal tillers of the soil, and without them this secret microbial universe in the soil would decline, too. Dwindling food sources and plunging human populations would bring out the beast in people, who would do what humans always do -- kill each other. Wilson speaks of "an ecological dark age" where "the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs."

This might be an amusing parlor game except for some alarming developments of late in our insect world. A National Academy of Sciences report released in October voiced fears that bees and other pollinators were in decline and that there has been insufficient scientific study to be able to measure their fortunes. Then came colony collapse disorder, or CCD, in one-quarter of the managed honeybee hives in the United States. Mostly affecting trucked hives used to pollinate crops such as apples and almonds, the phenomenon resulted in worker bees leaving hives and not returning. Wilson deferred to others on the topic. Kevin Hackett, of the federal Agricultural Research Service, said scientists are studying if the phenomenon is a product of "a perfect storm" of maladies, pests and environmental stresses, and are focusing research on the secondary effects of a parasitic mite called varroa as well as a disease called nosema. "We know varroa can transmit viruses," he said.

"It's a bad thing when any species is at risk," Wilson said of CCD. "But in a sense it's the Katrina of entomology." It has brought a public awareness to the plight of pollinators, which Wilson calls "the heart of the biosphere."

Uganda Bans Plastic Bags

From the BBC

This weekend Uganda joins the growing number of East African countries which have banned the plastic bag in an attempt to clean up cities and prevent environmental damage including blocked drains.

Before your eyes become accustomed to the sight and the stench, the Chitezi municipal dump - which serves the Ugandan capital, Kampala - is like a scene from a painting by Bosch, a premonition of the Apocalypse, or a vision of Hell.

High in the sky, great birds wheel around on the thermals. At first glance, they look like giant vultures, casting ominous shadows on the ragged human scavengers strewn around below.

But as they touch down on the grey, stinking moonscape, they seem to take on a ghastly sub-human form themselves. Like cowled priests bent over the rotting piles.

With their moth-eaten plumage, grotesque "alopecia-ed" heads, and sinister reptilian eyes, these are Africa's nightmare birds - marabou storks - fencing with their murderous bills over the carcass of a plastic sack they have ripped apart.

Flocking here in their hundreds, the ravenous birds are making a feast of Kampala's refuse, squabbling with their human competitors over the richest pickings...

Here they are called buveera, and they are everywhere.

Only a tiny fraction of them end up at Chitezi. Instead, once discarded, they are blown in the wind, washed into drains and water courses and eventually ground into the earth.

Uganda is blessed with some of the richest soil in Africa, but around the towns and villages it is laced with plastic.

New strata are forming - a layer cake of polythene and poisoned soil, through which Uganda's rains can never percolate.

Instead, dotted around Chitezi are stagnant pools where even the storks will not drink. Their fetid waters bubble with the methane brewing beneath them.

In the slums and shanties buveera are breeding grounds for disease.

With no mains water and no sewerage system, the bags are used as toilets. Flying latrines they are called, because when you have filled them, you throw them as far away as you can.

And when the rains come and wash them out there is a good chance that some little boy or girl sent on an errand will see a bag in the street and use it again, to carry firewood or maybe food...

After a fair amount of stalling, the government has just announced that from 1 July the manufacture, import and use of plastic bags thinner than 30 microns will be banned. All other polythene will be subject to a whopping 120% tax....

With disarming frankness, the country's environment minister, Jesca Eriyo, confessed to me that she was embarrassed by her capital city's lamentable standards of waste management; by Chitezi; by its sea of polythene, and its flying latrines.

Now, at last, they could all be headed for the exit door. And not just in Uganda. Neighbouring Kenya is introducing similar legislation. Tanzania wants to go even further and ban plastic drinks containers as well.

Despite its problems and its poverty, East Africa is blazing a trail which many in prosperous Middle England can only dream of following.

And the people I spoke to - the minister, the pop star, the shopkeepers of Kampala, or Ezekiel at the dump - all seemed happy to be pioneers in a post polythene age.

As one man in a corner shop put it: "Good riddance, who asked for all this plastic in the first place?"

Friday, June 29, 2007

Shipping Lanes Moved To Protect Whales

BOSTON -- Ships steaming into Boston harbor will soon shift course to avoid whales in the first change of U.S. shipping lanes to protect an endangered species.

Starting on Sunday, large vessels will travel roughly 4 miles north of their old path in new lanes, rerouted to avoid parts of the only whale feeding sanctuary in the United States, the Coast Guard and scientists said.

Electronic maps have been recalculated, navigational charts reprinted and mariners warned. Coast Guard cutters are patrolling the area to mark the new lanes with buoys in time for Sunday's shift, which adds 10 to 20 minutes of sailing.

"This is a dramatic step based on good science that makes the whales' home safer for them," said Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium.

Boston, a busy port since the early 17th century, receives at least three cargo ships carrying containers, oil or liquid natural gas each day, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Currently, ships cross the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary where humpback, minke, finback and North Atlantic right whales live from March to November.

Every year, commercial ships kill as many as three whales in the 842 square mile sanctuary that stretches from Cape Cod to Cape Ann, turning so-called vessel strikes into the top killer for whales, according to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, part of the U.S. government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Two whales have been hit in the last six weeks.

Only about 400 North Atlantic right whales swim in the Atlantic ocean now, compared with roughly 10,000 in the 17th century, so even one death is statistically significant, scientists said.

Alarmed by the deaths, biologist David Wiley asked the federal government and the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency, to consider moving the shipping lanes out of the busiest section of an area that also attracts about a million whale watchers a year.

"The data were compelling and people moved pretty quickly on this," said Wiley, research coordinator at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The new lanes reduce the chance of whales being hit by vessels by up to 80 percent, he said.
Commercial vessels will still sail through Stellwagen to reach Boston, but their new route separates them from the bulk of the whales.

Protests in Pakistan as Storm/flood toll hits 500

TURBAT, Pakistan

Pakistani police fired tear gas to disperse a protest by some of the 1.1 million victims of a cyclone Friday, as fresh storms hit India and flooded villages awaiting help in Afghanistan.

About 500 people have now been killed by more than a week of severe weather that has swept across the coastlines, plains and mountains of South Asia with the approach of the annual summer monsoon.

In Pakistan, 1,000 protesters smashed up the mayor's office in the largely-submerged southwestern town of Turbat, saying they had received no relief goods since tropical Cyclone Yemyin struck on Tuesday.

Six people were wounded including the local police chief when police launched tear gas shells and fired live bullets in the air, an AFP photographer said.

"Our homes have been destroyed, there has been no drinking water and no food for the last four days. There is water everywhere," said farmer Ghulam Jan, 27.

Blazing sun scorched people still sheltering on the rooftops of houses and mosques after the rain stopped in Turbat, but helicopters bearing aid were again grounded because of continuing downpours elsewhere.

Khuda Bakhsh Baloch, the relief commissioner for Baluchistan province, said 1.1 million people were now known to have been affected by the cyclone. About 250,000 of them are homeless, while at least 21 have died.

"The situation is serious, we know that people are suffering," Baloch told AFP. "The more rain that comes, the worse it gets."

Devastating thunderstorms killed 235 people on Saturday in the sprawling southern port city of Karachi, hundreds of kilometres (miles) east of Turbat. Several more people are missing at sea.

Meanwhile along Pakistan's rugged northwestern border with Afghanistan at least 36 people died in rain-related accidents, federal relief chief Farooq Ahmed told a briefing.

Most of the dead in the area are Afghan refugees whose houses collapsed in Landikotal -- the main town in the semi-autonomous Khyber tribal district and the last before the famous Khyber Pass border crossing, officials said.

Another five people drowned when flood waters swept them away as they collected firewood in the Himalayan district of Diamer, police said...

In India, huge waves caused by a depression over the Bay of Bengal submerged at least two seaside villages in the eastern state of Orissa, affecting around 200 families, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

The waves up to 3.5 metres (12 feet) high also damaged a 1,200-year-old temple and a school, it said.

Monsoon rains claimed around 144 lives last weekend in western and southern India. The area suffered heavy downpours and flash floods.

However the Indian meteorological department said on Friday that this year's monsoon, which is crucial for hundreds of millions of farmers -- would deliver less rain than previously forecast -- 93 percent of the normal rainfall.

Peak Food and Population Overshoot

by John Rawlins / from

Before oil (and natural gas) humans used manual labor to grow food, and the amount of food determines an upper limit on population. The large-scale, increasing use of oil and natural gas in the industrial world’s food-growing enterprise has meant ever-increasing quantities of food — until now. Therefore, population increase over the past 150 years correlates very well with oil extraction.

By far the largest population increase in the history of humans occurred in the 20th century, and the resources making that possible were oil and natural gas. Now that we face a very near-term decline in both of these resources, it is time to start planning how we will continue to feed a population of over 6 billion humans. In about 100 years, when oil and gas are essentially gone, will it even be possible to provide enough food for six to 10 times as many people as populated the planet before oil and gas?

... From a few million years B.C. to around 10,000 B.C. world population was likely in the few million range, and the technologies that were important in that period included use of fire, tool-making, spears, and bow-and-arrow. During this period, humans were in hunter-gatherer-scavenger groups. They ate mostly what nature provided: fruits, nuts, berries and meat from other mammals. During this, the longest time period on the list, remember that a few million humans were matched with the available natural food supply.

The next great innovations were cultivation of plants for food and bronze metallurgy. Human diets changed dramatically during the next 6,000 years as a result, and people didn’t have to travel as far to find food since they had planted some of it. The use of grains began during this important period of human history, and population expanded to nearly 100 million humans.

From about 4000 B.C. until around A.D. 1800, humans invented the plow, iron tools and small firearms. Even with those innovations, the population only increased about 10-fold to around a billion people. Even though large population centers developed and persisted, most humans were in some way involved in food production. This 10-fold population increase took only about 6,000 years, comparable with the rate of population growth during the preceding period — a rate of increase of around 1 percent per generation.

Around 1800 the industrial revolution began with the use of fossil-fueled machinery — the beginning of the age of coal. Since it was tough to use coal to grow more food, the population by 1865 was still only about 1.4 billion people — but that represents a 14 percent per generation rate of increase.

With the discovery of the most convenient energy resource humans will ever know — oil — fossil fuels could power farm machinery and greatly expand world food production. In parallel, medical advances extended life expectancy and reduced risks of childbirth, and the rate of population increase blossomed to nearly 30 percent per generation.

...Even if we are currently near the present limit of planet Earth’s human capacity, remember one important fact — the dependence of our food supply on those very fossil fuels that will soon be available in declining amounts: oil and natural gas. So what are the numbers showing this oil/gas dependence in our farm sector?

Today, about 75 percent of direct farm energy use in the U.S. is from diesel (largest), gasoline, LPG (liquid petroleum gas) or natural gas. The remainder is electricity — which in the U.S. is on average mostly generated by fossil fuel — coal and natural gas primarily. The bottom line: the energy responsible for our nation’s food production is about 80 percent oil and natural gas or its derivatives. That just covers food production — but what about the rest of the food chain? Food production accounts for just 21 percent of the energy use in the entire food system.

The average distance that food travels in the U.S. from farm to platter is 1,500 miles. Transporting that food consumes 14 percent of the food system energy, and it’s almost all diesel fuel — an oil derivative. Processing, packaging, food retail, restaurants and home refrigeration and preparation make up the remaining 65 percent — and most of that energy is from electricity with its fossil fuel dependence. Clearly, we have built our food system on energy derived almost entirely from non-renewable sources...

An interesting result of the U.S. food production business is that only about 1 percent of U.S. residents work at farm-related jobs — down from around 50 percent in the pre-industrial age. So we live in a country in which very few have food-growing knowledge, and much of that is not even applicable to the post-carbon era that is rapidly approaching. Likewise, the knowledge required for food preservation is greatly diminished from pre-industrial times.

Since current industrialized nation food production is completely unsustainable, and is already experiencing oil/gas cost increases as peak oil/gas production approaches, it is time to begin planning for a very different world — one in which conventionally produced food will cost more, one in which total food supply will decrease, and one in which many more people must learn to produce and preserve food without the prodigious oil/gas requirements. Finally, we cannot learn from our present food production practices the answer to the original question posed: How many people can planet Earth support in year 2100?


Thursday, June 28, 2007

"How war was turned into a brand"

by Naomi Klein / from The Guardian , also

Gaza in the hands of Hamas, with masked militants sitting in the president's chair; the West Bank on the edge; Israeli army camps hastily assembled in the Golan Heights; a spy satellite over Iran and Syria; war with Hizbullah a hair trigger away; a scandal-plagued political class facing a total loss of public faith. At a glance, things aren't going well for Israel. But here's a puzzle: why, in the midst of such chaos and carnage, is the Israeli economy booming like it's 1999, with a roaring stock market and growth rates nearing China's?

Thomas Friedman recently offered his theory in the New York Times. Israel "nurtures and rewards individual imagination", and so its people are constantly spawning ingenious hi-tech start-ups, no matter what messes their politicians are making. After perusing class projects by students in engineering and computer science at Ben-Gurion University, Friedman made one of his famous fake-sense pronouncements. Israel "had discovered oil". This oil, apparently, is located in the minds of Israel's "young innovators and venture capitalists", who are too busy making megadeals with Google to be held back by politics.

Here's another theory. Israel's economy isn't booming despite the political chaos that devours the headlines but because of it. This phase of development dates back to the mid-90s, when the country was in the vanguard of the information revolution - the most tech-dependent economy in the world. After the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Israel's economy was devastated, facing its worst year since 1953. Then came 9/11, and suddenly new profit vistas opened up for any company that claimed it could spot terrorists in crowds, seal borders from attack, and extract confessions from closed-mouthed prisoners.

Within three years, large parts of Israel's tech economy had been radically repurposed. Put in Friedmanesque terms, Israel went from inventing the networking tools of the "flat world" to selling fences to an apartheid planet. Many of the country's most successful entrepreneurs are using Israel's status as a fortressed state, surrounded by furious enemies, as a kind of 24-hour-a-day showroom, a living example of how to enjoy relative safety amid constant war. And the reason Israel is now enjoying supergrowth is that those companies are busily exporting that model to the world.

Discussions of Israel's military trade usually focus on the flow of weapons into the country - US-made Caterpillar bulldozers used to destroy homes in the West Bank, and British companies supplying parts for F-16s. Overlooked is Israel's huge and expanding export business. Israel now sends $1.2bn in "defence" products to the United States - up dramatically from $270m in 1999. In 2006, Israel exported $3.4bn in defence products - well over a billion more than it received in American military aid. That makes Israel the fourth largest arms dealer in the world, overtaking Britain.

Much of this growth has been in the so-called homeland security sector. Before 9/11 homeland security barely existed as an industry. By the end of this year, Israeli exports in the sector will reach $1.2bn, an increase of 20%. The key products and services are hi-tech fences, unmanned drones, biometric IDs, video and audio surveillance gear, air passenger profiling and prisoner interrogation systems - precisely the tools and technologies Israel has used to lock in the occupied territories.

And that is why the chaos in Gaza and the rest of the region doesn't threaten the bottom line in Tel Aviv, and may actually boost it. Israel has learned to turn endless war into a brand asset, pitching its uprooting, occupation and containment of the Palestinian people as a half-century head start in the "global war on terror".

It's no coincidence that the class projects at Ben-Gurion that so impressed Friedman have names like Innovative Covariance Matrix for Point Target Detection in Hyperspectral Images, and Algorithms for Obstacle Detection and Avoidance. Thirty homeland security companies have been launched in Israel during the past six months alone, thanks in large part to lavish government subsidies that have transformed the Israeli army and the country's universities into incubators for security and weapons start-ups - something to keep in mind in the debates about the academic boycott.

Next week, the most established of these companies will travel to Europe for the Paris Air Show, the arms industry's equivalent of Fashion Week. One of the Israeli companies exhibiting is Suspect Detection Systems (SDS), which will be showcasing its Cogito1002, a white, sci-fi-looking security kiosk that asks air travellers to answer a series of computer-generated questions, tailored to their country of origin, while they hold their hand on a "biofeedback" sensor. The device reads the body's reactions to the questions, and certain responses flag the passenger as "suspect".

Like hundreds of other Israeli security start-ups, SDS boasts that it was founded by veterans of Israel's secret police and that its products were road-tested on Palestinians. Not only has the company tried out the biofeedback terminals at a West Bank checkpoint, it claims the "concept is supported and enhanced by knowledge acquired and assimilated from the analysis of thousands of case studies related to suicide bombers in Israel".

Another star of the Paris Air Show will be Israeli defence giant Elbit, which plans to showcase its Hermes 450 and 900 unmanned air vehicles. As recently as last month, according to press reports, Israel used the drones on bombing missions in Gaza. Once tested in the territories, they are exported abroad: the Hermes has already been used at the Arizona-Mexico border; Cogito1002 terminals are being auditioned at an unnamed American airport; and Elbit - also one of the companies behind Israel's "security barrier" - has set up a deal with Boeing to construct the Department of Homeland Security's $2.5bn "virtual" border fence around the US.

Since Israel began its policy of sealing off the occupied territories with checkpoints and walls, human rights activists have often compared Gaza and the West Bank to open-air prisons. But in researching the explosion of Israel's homeland security sector, a topic explored in greater detail in my forthcoming book, it strikes me that they are something else too: laboratories where the terrifying tools of our security states are being field-tested. Palestinians - whether living in the West Bank or what the Israeli politicians are already calling Hamastan - are no longer just targets. They are guinea pigs.

So in a way Friedman is right, Israel has struck oil. But the oil isn't the imagination of its techie entrepreneurs. The oil is the war on terror, the state of constant fear that creates a bottomless global demand for devices that watch, listen, contain and target "suspects". And fear, it turns out, is the ultimate renewable resource.

"Say goodbye to gas guzzlers"

...In Nova Scotia / from the Halifax News (

If you want a gas guzzler, better buy it fast. The province is adopting emissions standards that will require new vehicles to be increasingly fuel efficient, starting in 2009. Environment Minister Mark Parent predicted consumers will notice the change quickly.

"In two years, I think they're going to be buying cars that are substantially different from what they have now," he said yesterday.

Nova Scotia promised Tuesday to join with other eastern provinces and New England states in adopting California's vehicle-emission rules. By 2016, car manufacturers will have to cut greenhouse-gas pollution by 30 per cent.

The province is joining a low-emissions market of about 65 million, including British Columbia, which signed on last month. Parent said car makers will have no choice but to build to the new standard.

Halifax car salesman David Burke agrees cars will be different, thanks to the new rules. They will be more efficient and less polluting. They will also be a lot more expensive.

"The technology is there now," Burke said. "This is just going to cost the consumer, because he's going to have to buy a car that meets the standard."

Burke works for Carroll Pontiac Buick GMC Hummer. As the name indicates, the dealership sells Hummer SUVs, including the huge H2. General Motors does not publish the vehicle's fuel efficiency rating, but reviews peg it at about 10 miles per gallon (about 23.5 litres per 100 kilometres).

Even that vehicle can be made more efficient, for a price. Burke pointed out that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was recently photographed driving an experimental model outfitted with a hydrogen-powered engine.

The auto industry has argued the new emissions rules target the wrong vehicles. Older cars create far more pollution than the vehicles that are currently coming off assembly lines.

The Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association says the average car built before 1987 creates the same "regulated emissions" as 37 cars built today.

That statistic reflects smog-fighting technology. Manufacturers have made many improvements in reducing pollutants like nitrous oxide over the last 20 years. But gasoline and diesel engines produce as much climate-changing carbon dioxide as they ever did.

"Wildlife, Crops Hit by Southeast Europe Heatwave"

ATHENS -- A heatwave that has killed more than 30 people in parts of southeast Europe has hit wildlife and crops, from the humble toad in Greek lagoons to grain across the region, while fruit is ripening weeks early in Italy.

Greece is experiencing its worst heatwave in 110 years that has already killed seven people, with temperatures reaching 46 Celsius (114.8 Fahrenheit) during a scorcher that has lasted five days and showed no signs on Wednesday of letting up.

In southern Italy, after the hottest spring in nearly two centuries, this year's harvest of grapes and other fruit and vegetables is expected to be as much as a month earlier than usual, at the beginning of August.

The heat is "literally cooking" Sicilian lemons on the trees, said farmers' group Coldiretti, while watermelons, peppers, courgettes, peaches and tomatoes are also at risk.

Greece's flora and fauna are suffering and environmentalists warned the sweltering temperatures could have a long-term effect on animal populations and plants.

"Birds, now in their nesting period, laying eggs in exposed nests are at a very high risk," Martin Gaethlich of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature said.

"The eggs are overheating if left uncovered so birds have to remain on the eggs for much longer."
Several other nature groups have also raised the alarm.

Swallows are having problems finding mud for their nests, forcing them to travel further in search for their building material while frogs, toads and salamanders are seeing their habitats dry up, shortening their life span and affecting in turn those animals who feed on them.

"These are all linked to each other. With the frog and toad populations dropping, birds who feed on them have problems finding food as they stay in Greece until the autumn," Gaethlich said.

Gaethlich said Greece's unusually mild winter, coupled with a warmer than normal May and the current June heatwave, has already triggered changes that could be here to stay.

Fish stocks in rivers and lakes are dropping as water is pumped out for agricultural use due to a lack of rain, threatening a rare Greek otter which feeds on them.

"Flowers above the treeline on Mount Olympus that start blossoming in May have already competed their cycle, far too early. Among those are several rare, indigenous flowers."

He said a spate of forest fires in recent days triggered by dry weather and high temperatures exacerbated nature's problems.
"This weather creates a web of problems that will have long-term effects if it persists or if it reoccurs in the coming years," Gaethlich said.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"House Democrats Boosting Funding for Parks, Environmental Protection"

The House put spending hikes for the environment, national parks and global warming research center stage Tuesday as lawmakers worked through the Interior appropriations bill.

Democrats argue such programs have gotten short shrift for years under President Bush's leadership, but their resulting increases for items such as Environmental Protection Agency clean water grants have incited the White House into threatening to veto the bill as "irresponsible and excessive."

The measure represents the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between the White House and Democrats over the 12 annual spending bills doling out the approximately one-third of the federal budget passed each year by Congress.

Democrats almost doubled funding for research into climate change and trumpeted an 11 percent increase to operate and maintain national parks in advance of a major 100th-anniversary celebration in 2016.

"Our national parks have been shortchanged for far too long," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., as the House opened debate on the Interior appropriations measure. The bill is expected to be completed Wednesday.

In most other accounts, the increases are typically small and are generally focused on run-of-the-mill operating accounts that for years have had to absorb costs from inflation and higher pay for federal workers. But they add up, and the resulting measure is almost 9 percent over Bush's budget request and 4 percent over funding approved last year...

"Spit on Polish"

I got my first manicure recently. And maybe my last.

I never did think much about the smell of nail polish remover, esp.

"Community advocates focus on dangers of nail salons"

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, and the rising tide of eco-awareness is now lifting ... nail salons. The fume-filled shops are getting attention from groups eager to expose their health risks, which can include cancer and birth defects.

The U.S. EPA has given two Seattle-area nonprofits a $100,000 grant for a three-year "Toxic Beauty" project that will educate owners and consumers about the downsides of pretty paints, as well as looking into alternative products and equipment. And in Oakland, Calif., the Participatory Research, Organizing, and Leadership Initiative for Safety and Health -- or POLISH, like you didn't see that coming -- educates cosmetology students about industry regulations and plans to partner with the University of California-Berkeley to research air quality in local salons.

Environmental-justice advocates in both areas note that most local salon owners are Vietnamese, so polish poses disproportionate dangers based on race. And you thought it was just a beauty aid.

"U.N. report: Desertification a threat"

BANGKOK, Thailand - Desertification represents one of the "greatest environmental challenge of our times" and could set off mass migrations of people fleeing degraded homelands, a United Nations report warned Thursday.

The report called on governments in arid regions to revise rules on land use to halt overgrazing and unsustainable irrigation practices. It also urged better coordinated policies to address the problem of desertification.

"It is imperative that effective policies and sustainable agricultural practices be put in place to reverse the decline of drylands," says Hans van Ginkel, a professor at the United Nations University, which produced the report.

"Addressing desertification is a critical and essential part of adapting to climate change and mitigating global biodiversity losses," Van Ginkel said.

The report said about 2 billion people, a third of the Earth's population, are potential victims of desertification, which is defined as land degraded by human activities like farming and grazing.

If the problem is left unchecked, some 50 million people could be forced from their homes over the next decade, the report said.

The report, the work of more than 200 experts from 25 countries, said policies on preventing desertification are often inconsistent, frequently not implemented at local levels or inadvertently fuel conflict over land, water and other resources.

Funding is also a problem, with major donor nations cutting funding by 29 percent at the last Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 2005, the report said.

"What is happening is that policy makers and politicians are not aware of the gravity of the situation. They are not putting in adequate resource to meet the challenge," said Zafar Adeel, lead author of the analysis and director of the United Nation University's International Network on Water, Environment and Health...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Flat-Screen TVs Sucking Down the Power"

I thought this was as an especially vivid visual of the problem -> "In the UK, experts say the emerging problem could require another two nuclear power plants just to power the country's big TVs."

If it would require 2 nuclear power plants for the UK - I wonder what it is for the US. I didn't know the flat screens are such energy guzzlers.

It all adds up.

Back when LCD panels were first introduced as replacements for CRT computer monitors, they were heralded as not just a way to save space but a way to save energy as well: They used far less power and produced less heat than CRTs of the same size, which means buildings would spend less on air conditioning, too.

But as flat-panel technology moved to the television market, things started to change. Namely, LCDs and plasmas started to get a lot bigger than the largest CRTs available. Now you hear very little about power consumption of flat panels. I thought I'd take a look at how things have changed in recent years.

First off, it's actually quite difficult to find power consumption information for television sets. Very few vendors report the stats on their websites, and many bury them pretty heavily. (Tip: If you want to find the information reliably, look in the user manual on the specifications page, usually one of the last pages in the manual. Many manuals are online in PDF format now.)

So how do CRTs, LCDs, and plasmas stack up? Here's some data on roughly similar size sets offered by the same vendors.

Philips has some of the most open power-consumption reporting, so let's start there. The company's 19-inch LCD consumes 60 watts, while its 20-inch CRT consumes 120 watts. Sounds good for LCD so far. But jump up to a 26-inch LCD and you're now at 120 watts, while the 27-inch CRT... still consumes just 120 watts. Whoa! JVC's 32-inch CRT consumes "140 to 150 watts" while its 32-inch LCD eats 159 watts.

Beyond this level, things really start to get hairy. Of course, you can't find CRTs beyond this size any more, but Philips' 47-inch LCD consumes a whopping 290 watts and its 50-inch plasma eats up a mind-bending 400 watts! If you replaced a 26-inch CRT with that 50-inch plasma, you more than tripled your power bill on that outlet.

There's also the not-so-small issue of other equipment: No one likes a big picture without big sound. I realized I had no idea what my killer receiver's power consumption was, so I looked it up. The cost of 5.1 surround sound? 630 watts! A big plasma and a good receiver can easily eat up a full 1000 watts of power. In the UK, experts say the emerging problem could require another two nuclear power plants just to power the country's big TVs.

It's a big problem with few solutions aside from downscaling your home theater. But there's one decent option for those who want a big TV without a big power bill: Rear projection sets. JVC offers two 56-inch projection TVs with power consumption of just 215 to 240 watts. The technology may not be as exciting as the latest flat panels, but your wallet may be worth listening to on this one.

Monday, June 25, 2007

"CO2 aids poison ivy growth, potency"

I've been working in a garden with a lot of poison ivy lately - so this bad news is esp. worrisome....

This year's warm winter weather enjoyed by people in many parts of the country has come with an itchy side-effect, as experts believe that the mild temperatures, coupled with rising levels of carbon dioxide, could raise the potency of poison ivy.

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide (greenhouse gases) are causing poison ivy to become more abundant and grow faster -- and even more potent as levels of the plant's itch-and-rash-causing urushiol oil increase, according to a Duke University study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Also, according to Rich Patterson, director of the Indian Creek Nature Center in Iowa, the warm winter will help the poisonous plant to grow more potently and will encourage vines, such as poison ivy, to grow rapidly.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, up to 50 million people each year suffer the itchy, oozing red rash caused by contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac, and more than 80 percent of the population is allergic.

In fact, 350,000 cases are reported each year, as unsuspecting individuals trek through the wilderness, reorganize last year's outdoor gear or gardening equipment (with urushiol oil still on the material), set up camp next to the poisonous plants or pick up a wrong weed or two while gardening.

Winter, spring, summer or fall -- the risk for contact with itch-causing urushiol never completely goes away, even with long sleeves, pants and other cover-up gear.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Young Hummingbird

The other day we noticed this hummingbird lying on the deck near the sliding glass door. There is a hummingbird feeder nearby.

Right away along came another hummingbird that seemed to give it "heart to heart resusitation". At least that is how it looked to me. The one hummingbird seemed frantic that the one lying there get up and fly. It seemed to put it's chest against the immobile one and was applying some kind of rythmic pressure. Later I decided that that was probably the hummingbird's mother.

My husband set the hummingbird on the table outside - we were worried about various animals getting it. I got a box and lined it with a plain cloth. We set the hummingbird in there (with some sugar water) and I watched it from a distance. It sat like a statue for hours. Didn't move. It got late so I took it inside and put a screen over the box in case it decided to start flying around.

It never did. It died. Such a lovely bird.

Other people apparently have noticed that there seem to less hummingbirds around this summer. They aren't going through the sugar water like they normally do. But we've seem them around - some at the feeders and some feeding from the various flowers around.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Freshwater Jellyfish

by Sandy Engel / from Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine

It’s a good thing they are considered harmless and “friendly.” The Department of Homeland Security would be no match in keeping out tiny exotic plants and animals that periodically find a foothold in waters across Wisconsin. One of the small ones is a freshwater jellyfish that is less than one-inch long at full size. It has an interesting, if sporadic, history here.

Freshwater jellyfish (Craspedacusta sowerbii) are thought to be native to China. They were first reported in North America as early as 1884 and the first sightings in Wisconsin date to 1969. The freshwater jellyfish exhibit a varied life cycle comprising three stages: egg, polyp and medusa. Two kinds of larvae and a cyst stage also form, so open up those biology books for a short remedial lesson.

The jellies start as eggs produced by female medusae. If fertilized, each egg hatches into a tiny, flat larva called a planula that is hard to see with the naked eye. It swims for a few days among zooplankton before settling down on an underwater plant, log, rock or piece of sediment. The planula then becomes a polyp that looks like a miniature hydra, sort of a bitty little bud without tentacles that has stinging cells to stun equally small prey. The tiny polyp soon forms a bud near its base that stays attached and develops into a second polyp. These two polyps are identical twins since they formed asexually. Soon, the twins form yet more fixed buds and expand into a polyp colony of perhaps 2-12 buds. Don’t expect some massive colony here. You’d still need a hand lens or microscope to study them.

Now and then the jellyfish polyps form a second kind of detachable bud that develops into a tiny, cigar-shaped larva. This larva frees itself from its parent polyp and either crawls a few inches away or is carried off by flowing water before it settles down to start forming polyps of its own.

So far, our life cycle involves asexual reproduction: polyps forming buds that either attach or float before settling down to form new polyps. In some years, especially during hot summers in Wisconsin, the polyp colony produces medusa buds. Each of these top buds becomes either a male or female medusa...

You may recall the mythical Greek maiden Gorgon Medusa whose long hairs became writhing serpents and who petrified anyone foolish enough to glance at her. (How’s that for a “perm!”). When polyps develop into medusae they develop a mass of really tiny wriggling hairlike tubes on top.

After a week or two, and still quite small, the medusa leaves home to become free swimming. In another five weeks, the medusa matures into a nearly transparent body called a bell, that dangles with long, hairlike tentacles we all associate with jellyfish.

Sometimes just female medusae form, sometimes just males form. Only rarely in North America and Europe do both male and female medusae appear together. Why jellyfish produce swarms of same-sex medusae, a seeming waste of energy, still remains a mystery. If female medusae produce eggs that are fertilized by a male, they hatch into planula larvae and the whole jellyfish life cycle starts over again.

The medusae live but a few weeks, release eggs and die. The polyps can live from spring until fall, when they into cysts that are covered with a chitinous “skin” enclosing fairly dry cells. The cysts are able to survive drought and cold. In Wisconsin, the cysts survive on the bottoms of ice-covered ponds, lakes, and quiet river pools where the water is slightly above freezing. But the cysts are more than a winter resting stage. They are a vehicle for jellyfish to spread north of their home range and invade new waters.

The freshwater jellyfish found here is one of two species of Craspedacusta believed to be native to China. Both species (C. sowerbii and C. sinensis) live in the Yangtze River, the world’s third longest river that is so vast it makes the Wisconsin River seem like a trout stream! Here, male and female medusae form from spring until fall and congregate in quiet reaches of the river.

Freshwater jellyfish were unknown outside of China until June 1880 when William Sowerby (1827-1906) found jellyfish medusae swimming in a large, water-lily tank at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Regent’s Park just outside London, England. Sowerby was the director of these private botanical gardens and in charge of their indoor and outdoor exhibits. He found the medusae, all males, among sediment and pickerelweeds only three weeks after filling the water tank. What a surprise to find the first freshwater jellyfish known to science! Thinking they came in from South America on the plants, he dubbed them “Amazon jellyfish.” The discovery came with much publicity and fanfare. Then, six weeks later, the curator’s worst nightmare struck: all the jellyfish medusae vanished!

In 1884, mature jellyfish polyps were again found in a water tank at Regent’s Park. That same year, immature polyps were also found in a stream in Pennsylvania. More than 40 years would pass before the two polyps—the bigger ones from England and the newly budded ones from America—would be classified as one species.

How did these freshwater jellyfish get to London and Pennsylvania? The jellyfish probably landed at both locations as polyps or cysts attached to sediments, water plants or fishes. The 1880s were the heyday of water gardens and carp stocking. Garden clubs and aquarium societies in this Victorian Era were busy gathering the world’s exotic plants and fishes for proud display and study.

Soon the jellyfish made their way to other botanical societies, as well as to public and private aquariums in England, Europe, North America, South America and Australia. Once again, plants and fishes likely provided a vehicle to move these polyps and cysts. Other jellyfish were flushed into lakes and rivers when aquariums were emptied, perhaps for cleaning or restocking with fish. Polyps and cysts, attached to river sediments, were swept downstream to new waters. Others may have arrived on the backs of turtles or the feet of water birds. Perhaps they even stuck to boats and boat motors...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"Ugly fish is seen as aphrodisiac"

The hagfish is a bottom feeder so repulsive it had a cameo on TV's "Fear Factor." It slimes its enemies, has rows of teeth on its tongue, and feeds on the innards of rotting fish by penetrating any orifice.

But cooked and served on a plate, it is considered an aphrodisiac in South Korea.

And the overseas appetite for the hagfish — also known as the slime eel — is creating a business opportunity for struggling West Coast fishermen confronted with tough restrictions on the catching of salmon and other fish.

California's annual catch jumped from practically nothing to 150,000 pounds over the past four years. Oregon and Washington state last year reported around 1 million pounds of hagfish caught.

The 14- to 18-inch hagfish looks like an eel. In fact, there is debate over whether it is really a fish. The 300 million-year-old creature has no jaws and one nostril. Essentially blind, it dwells in the dark more than 1,000 feet down.

"The average person would be disgusted just by looking at them," said Mark Crossland, a state Fish and Game warden. "The product is difficult to deal with and handle — it's a little eel that once it gets stressed it excretes this slime."

...Hagfish has a modest following among older Korean men who savor it as an appetizer broiled in sesame oil, sprinkled with salt and accompanied by a shot of liquor.

Peter Chu, a seafood exporter in Eureka, Calif., said the fish sells for as much as $20 a pound in South Korea, which he estimates consumes 9 million pounds a year.

"There's a myth there that it's an aphrodisiac. It gives you energy like Viagra," Chu said. "It's like oysters here."

Fisherman Mark Tognazzini, who used to catch hagfish in the early 1990s, said it is relatively inexpensive to get into hagfishing. They are caught in five-gallon barrels fitted with trap doors and baited with rotting fish.

In April, California officials encountered a fishing boat near Morro Bay carrying more than 15,000 pounds — approximately 45,000 writhing hagfish — that were to be loaded on jumbo jets live and flown to South Korea. The Washington-based crew was cited for violations that included fishing without permits and having oversized traps as big as wine barrels.

The hagfish's predators include whales, seabirds and seals. There are no catch limits for hagfish, and the species is in no immediate danger. But some experts worry it could be threatened if the boom continues, because hagfish do not reproduce quickly.

Tognazzini said they are an important part of the marine ecosystem whose job is to clean up the ocean floor. "The thing is, they're not cute — they don't hit people's hearts," he said....

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"China passes US as world's biggest CO2 emitter"

From the

But according to figures released yesterday by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which advises the Dutch government, soaring demand for coal to generate electricity and a surge in cement production have helped to push China's recorded emissions for 2006 beyond those of the US.

The agency said China produced 6,200m tonnes of CO2 last year, compared with 5,800m tonnes from the US. Britain produced about 600m tonnes. But per head of population, China's pollution remains relatively low, about a quarter of that in the US and half that of the UK.

China's surge to 8% more than the US was helped by a 1.4% fall in the latter's CO2 emissions during 2006, which, analysts say, is down to a slowing US economy.

Jos Olivier, a senior scientist at the agency who compiled the figures, said: "There will still be some uncertainty about the exact numbers, but this is the best and most up to date estimate available. China relies very heavily on coal and all of the recent trends show their emissions going up very quickly."

China's emissions were 2% below those of the US in 2005.

The new figures include only CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production. They do not include sources of other greenhouse gases such as methane from agriculture and nitrous oxide from industrial processes.

They exclude other sources of CO2 such as aviation and shipping as well as deforestation, gas flaring and underground coal fires.

Dr Olivier said it was difficult to find reliable estimates for such emissions, particularly from developing countries. But he said including them would be unlikely to topple China from the top spot. "Since China passed the US by 8% [last year] it will be pretty hard to compensate for that with other sources of emissions," he said.

To work out the emissions figures, he used data issued by the oil company BP earlier this month on the consumption of oil, gas and coal across the world during 2006, as well as information on cement production published by the US Geological Survey.

Cement production, which requires huge amounts of energy, accounts for about 4% of global CO2 production from fuel use. China's cement industry, which produces about 44% of world supply, contributes almost 9% of Chinese CO2 emissions....


Seems to have been more floods than usual recently - worldwide. A google of "floods" brings up these news stories:

Residents of 15 provinces warned of flash floods
Nation Multimedia, Thailand
The Meteorological Department Wednesday issued a warning for residents of 15 provinces to brace themselves for heavy rains and possible flash floods. ...

Mexico City Faces Threat of Floods
Washington Post, United States
"A failure ... could cause severe floods reaching five meters in the city's historic center, the international airport" and other boroughs on the city's ...

Floods kill five in Texas
Gulf Times, Qatar
WASHINGTON: Floods killed five people in Texas including a five-year-old girl and her grandmother who were swept away after torrential rain lashed the north ...

Floods provide test of endurance
Hawkesbury Gazette, Australia
While the majority of sporting events over the Queen's Birthday long weekend were cancelled due to the intense rain, a small group of hardy endurance riders ...

Flash floods drown India's northeast, South Africa - 15 hours ago
Close to 150 000 people are sheltering in schools, government buildings and makeshift tents after being hit by flash floods in India's northeast, ...

Floods destroy wading birds' eggs
Cambridgeshire Times, UK - 16 hours ago
Floods in the nesting season have caused the washes' breeding population of black-tailed godwits, one of the UK's rarest breeding waders, to collapse. ...

Devastating floods hit six Chinese provinces
World Socialist Web Site, MI - 23 hours ago
By Dragan Stankovic Annual torrential rains, river overflows, floods and landslides are beginning to hit China, bringing devastation to millions of people. ...

Monsoonal floods hit Bangladesh, trapping thousands in villages
ReliefWeb (press release), Switzerland - 14 hours ago
Dhaka_(dpa) _ Monsoonal torrents touched off the summer's first floods in Bangladesh, wiping out scores of villages and trapping thousands of farming ...

Galileo Oman comes to the rescue as Cyclone Gonu floods local ...
AME Info (press release), United Arab Emirates - 21 hours ago
Galileo, a leading global distribution system (GDS) and subsidiary of Travelport, last week came to the rescue of Galileo agents in Oman when two local ...

"Millions of Missing Birds, Vanishing in Plain Sight"

By VERLYN KLINKENBORG (New York Times editorial)

Last week, the Audubon Society released a new report describing the sharp and startling population decline of some of the most familiar and common birds in America: several kinds of sparrows, the Northern bobwhite, the Eastern meadowlark, the common grackle and the common tern. The average decline of the 20 species in the Audubon Society’s report is 68 percent.

Forty years ago, there were an estimated 31 million bobwhites. Now there are 5.5 million. Compared to the hundred-some condors presently in the wild, 5.5 million bobwhites sounds like a lot of birds. But what matters is the 25.5 million missing and the troubles that brought them down — and are all too likely to bring down the rest of them, too. So this is not extinction, but it is how things look before extinction happens.

The word “extinct” somehow brings to mind the birds that seem like special cases to us, the dodo or the great auk or the passenger pigeon. Most people would never have had a chance to see dodos and great auks on their remote islands before they were decimated in the 17th and 19th centuries. What is hard to remember about passenger pigeons isn’t merely their once enormous numbers. It’s the enormous numbers of humans to whom their comings and goings were a common sight and who supposed, erroneously, that such unending clouds of birds were indestructible. We recognize the extraordinary distinctness of the passenger pigeon now because we know its fate, killed off largely by humans. But we have moralized it thoroughly without ever really taking it to heart.

The question is whether we will see the distinctness of the field sparrow — its number is down from 18 million 40 years ago to 5.8 million — only when the last pair is being kept alive in a zoo somewhere. We love to finally care when the death watch is on. It makes us feel so very human.

Like you, I’ve been reading dire reports of declining species for many years now. They have the value of causing us to pay attention to species in trouble, and the sad fact is that the only species likely to endure are the ones we humans manage to pay attention to. There was a time when it was better, if you were a nonhuman species, to be ignored by humans because we trapped, shot or otherwise exploited all of the ones that got our attention. But in the past 40 years, we have killed all those millions of birds or, let us say, unintentionally caused a dramatic population loss, simply by going about business as usual.

Agriculture has intensified. So has development. Open space has been sharply reduced. We have simply pursued our livelihoods. We knew it was inimical to wolves and mountain lions. But we somehow trusted that all the innocent little birds were here to stay. What they actually need to survive, it turns out, is a landscape that is less intensely human.

The Audubon Society portrait of common bird species in decline is really a report on who humans are. Let me offer a proposition about Homo sapiens. We are the only species on earth capable of an ethical awareness of other species and, thus, the only species capable of happily ignoring that awareness. So far, our economic interests have proved to be completely incompatible with all but a very few forms of life. It’s not that we believe that other species don’t matter. It’s that, historically speaking, it hasn’t been worth believing one way or another. I don’t suppose that most Americans would actively kill a whippoorwill if they had the chance. Yet in the past 40 years its number has dropped by 1.6 million.

In our everyday economic behavior, we seem determined to discover whether we can live alone on earth. E.O. Wilson has argued eloquently and persuasively that we cannot, that who we are depends as much on the richness and diversity of the biological life around us as it does on any inherent quality in our genes. Environmentalists of every stripe argue that we must somehow begin to correlate our economic behavior — by which I mean every aspect of it: production, consumption, habitation — with the welfare of other species.

This is the premise of sustainability. But the very foundation of our economic interests is self-interest, and in the survival of other species we see way too little self to care.

The trouble with humans is that even the smallest changes in our behavior require an epiphany. And yet compared to the fixity of other species, the narrowness of their habitats, the strictness of their diets, the precision of the niches they occupy, we are flexibility itself.

We look around us, expecting the rest of the world’s occupants to adapt to the changes that we have caused, when, in fact, we have the right to expect adaptation only from ourselves.

From the Audobon site:

What You Can Do:

Protect Local Habitat...

Promote Sound Agricultural Policy...

Support Sustainable Forests...

Protect Wetlands...

Fight Global Warming...

Combat Invasive Species ...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

"Oceans expert foresees dire straits"

by Joe Amarante, New Haven Register

Enjoy sardines and anchovies? How about jellyfish? Because that's all that may remain soon in our oceans and waterways, a renowned oceanographer said in a li ely speech and "Q&A" Wednesday evening in

Jeremy Jackson, 64 and ponytailed, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, rode into town for an International Festival of Arts & Ideas forum like a modern-day Paul Revere, with what he called "a really depressing talk, with a little bit of hope at the end."

His message, delivered at the Thomas E. Golden Center to a receptive crowd of about 80: The oceans are dying, and little is being done to save them.

Overfishing of large fish, nutrient runoff, mercury, PCBs, global warming and acidification are creating a real-life horror movie that is bringing about dead zones, coral bleaching and "the rise of slime."

"What we're doing, in terms of our human impact ... is we're taking all the good stuff out and putting all our crap back in. That's what we're doing to the oceans."

After showing one toxic algae cloud that hit one shore area in Florida, Jackson said, "They closed schools; they closed stores. It's unbelievable and it's real. It's happening."

Nature's filters (oyster shells in the Chesapeake Bay, for example) have been removed and not replaced. Only the jellyfish are thriving in many waters, he said.

Jackson's talk was hosted by Michael Donoghue, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, who said diminished biodiversity around the globe (caused by man and climate change) is depressing overall but there is less awareness of the "crisis in the ocean."

Jackson provided examples of that, from the drop in the number of sea turtles over the past century from 90 million to some 300,000, to photos showing how trawling has left most of the continental shelf looking like a plowed field. Just "minnows and mud," he said.

Jackson urged holding political candidates' feet to the fire to reduce carbon emissions, more aquaculture to stop overfishing and that we "green the green revolution" (since the miracle of new food production was accomplished with overuse of fertilizers that end up in the water).

"It's up to you," he said. "You can decide if there's going to be an ocean you want to take your grandkids to in the next 20 years."

The "little bit of hope" he promised? Jackson showed evidence that in some islands north of Hawaii, sporting coral reefs did recover somewhat from the heat-caused bleaching. The islands that did the best were the ones without people around them.

Jackson said of carbon emissions, "We have to fix that on a massive scale. ... It's about politics and citizenship ... and having the will to make social change of profound importance."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

"Drowning in Plastic"

By Kera Abraham / from the MontereyCountyWeekly

LIFE ON EARTH depends on little specks floating in the ocean. Tiny plankton convert sunlight to energy to form the base of the marine food chain, sustaining all seafaring creatures, from anchovies to whales and the land-based animals that eat them.

But increasingly, researchers are peering through their microscopes at the specks in seawater samples and finding miniscule bits of poisonous garbage instead of life-sustaining mini-critters.

It’s plastic— broken by sunlight and water into itty bitty pieces, but still intact. And now scientists are discovering the implications of one troubling attribute of petroleum-based plastic, known since its invention, but ignored under the assumption that technology would eventually resolve it: Every plastic product that has ever been manufactured still exists.

Only 50 years since we began mass-producing it, our plastic waste has built up into a poisonous mountain we have never really learned how to deal with. It makes up 10 percent of California’s garbage, is toxic to burn and hard to recycle.

Out in the Pacific Ocean a vortex of trash swirls and grows, forming a garbage dump twice the size of Texas.

Sea turtles choke on plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Albatross parents ingest lighters and plastic shards along with squid and small fish, regurgitating them into their chicks’ open throats, eventually killing them.

Shrimp, jellyfish and small fish eat the particle-sized plastic debris that look a lot like plankton, and which, in some places, are three times more abundant than the real thing.

A 2004 report from the congressional Commission on Ocean Policy identifies synthetic marine debris as “a serious threat to wildlife, habitat, and human health and safety,” calling for a set of immediate measures to address the crisis. A growing number of decision-makers are finally paying attention, positioning California to lead the world in staunching the flow of plastic to sea.

~ ~ ~

CAPTAIN CHARLES MOORE stands in a business suit before an audience of about 50 California district attorneys attending an environmental law-enforcement conference at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, giving his pitch about just how abundant and dangerous marine debris has become. The mass of plastic already in the sea is so big that researchers with his nonprofit, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, have found it throughout the water column in every sample they’ve ever taken from the Pacific Ocean. Most of it is so small and so abundant that it would be nearly impossible to filter out.

Yet the state’s current response to the proliferating debris, Moore tells the prosecutors, wrongly puts the most emphasis on cleanup, followed by control and prevention. He argues that it would be much more effective for the state to flip priorities and dedicate a majority of resources to preventing plastics from reaching the ocean in the first place. The DAs, here to discuss environmental crime prosecution, listen attentively.

After his keynote, Moore changes into a Hawaiian shirt for our lunchtime interview. He seems more comfortable this way, like he’d rather be playing on the beach than giving presentations. The founder of the Long Beach Surfrider chapter briefly considers catching a few waves with Monterey chapter chair Ximena Wiassbluth before heading back to the airport, but there’s no swell. He tells me that just a few weeks ago, on his 60th birthday, he surfed 30 waves in 90 minutes. “It’s a way to stay in contact with Mother Ocean,” he says.

Moore stumbled into his career as an environmental pioneer 10 years ago. In the summer of 1997, while steering his catamaran home from a sailing competition in Hawaii, he ventured into the North Pacific Gyre, a 10-million-square-mile, slow-moving vortex that sailors usually avoid. What he saw there shocked and disgusted him: truck tires, disposable utensils, shopping bags, buoys, toys, a mountain of trash spread across hundreds of miles— the world’s largest garbage dump, circling unceremoniously in the open sea.

Upon his return to the mainland, Moore took up his cause through the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which he’d founded in 1994 to do restoration work on kelp forests and wetlands. The nonprofit has since become the West Coast’s go-to organization on the topic of synthetic marine debris. “The ocean is still beautiful,” he says. “We’re really taking on this issue because we’re mad as hell that the most common thing that we find in the ocean now is plastic.”

Algalita researchers have found that the amount of micro plastics in the Central North Pacific has tripled in the last decade. Their colleagues on the other side of the Pacific concluded that off the coast of Japan it has shot up by a factor of 10 every two to three years.

A recent study found that plastics now make up 90 percent of all floating marine debris.

Plastic is not biodegradable, but rather photodegradable. Sunlight makes plastic brittle and breaks it down, but leaves its molecular structure intact. The little plastic shards disperse throughout the ocean, with buoyant pieces floating and denser bits sinking to the sea floor, in so many shapes and textures that hundreds of marine species mistake it for food. It can travel thousands of miles across the sea and wash up on remote uninhabited islands, whose beaches are beginning to look more trash-strewn than LA’s worst. The rate of trash accumulation is greatest at the poles, with Antarctica’s shores becoming the industrial world’s junkyard.

~ ~ ~

THE MOST DRAMATIC accumulations of trash are found in “gyres” such as the one Moore sailed into— these sort of giant toilet bowls where atmospheric pressure weakens currents and winds, causing marine debris to idly swirl toward the gyre’s eye. Researchers know of six such gyres, including the one in the Pacific north of Hawaii that Moore is credited with discovering.

Researchers dubbed it the Eastern Garbage Patch, a neighbor to the Western Garbage Patch off the coast of Japan. In 1999, Algalita’s samples from the eastern patch contained six times more plastic than plankton by weight, roughly 400,000 particles per square mile— triple the amount counted in 1990.

The expanse of trash is estimated to be 540,000 square miles, but Moore says it’s growing so fast it’s nearly impossible to give it dimensions. When he sampled water 600 miles from the center of the gyre in November 2006— an area that had contained relatively low debris levels six years earlier— Moore was horrified to find nearly as much plastic as he’d found in the center of the gyre in 2000.

He now thinks the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches have merged into a mega-garbage patch stretching across the Pacific Rim, like sprawl connecting New York and Boston into a megacity of continuous development.

“It’s a single strip of polluted ocean,” he says. “Huge increases in production are making the whole ocean this plastic soup. Every creature in the ocean is eating plastic.”

~ ~ ~
The worst effects are seen in a sea-going bird that lives on Midway Atoll in the north Pacific. Researchers estimate that 40 percent of the albatross chicks that die on the atoll are killed by the plastic filling their guts, fed to them by their parents. The plastic contaminates their blood and blocks their digestive tracts, leaving them dehydrated and undernourished.

~ ~

“Huge increases in production are making the whole ocean this plastic soup.” —Charles Moore
~ ~

Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer of Beachcombers Alert says that plastic debris is taking a toll on hundreds of marine species. Baby sea turtles who get stuck in six-pack rings grow distorted shells; birds choke on plastic shards that mimic fish and krill; and sea lions are caught in nylon nets abandoned by fishing vessels.

Ebbesmeyer believes that plastic marine debris is also hurting people. Because plastic accumulates up the food chain, be says, some level of plastic is present in all of the seafood we eat.

In addition to the physical impacts, plastics are wreaking biological havoc on both marine and land-based animals, including humans. Virtually every kind of petroleum-based plastic leaches chemicals into the substances it encounters. Some of the chemicals added to make plastic products more flexible, durable and flame-retardant are suspected endocrine disrupters and hormone mimickers that can affect the development of creatures exposed to them. For example, recent research has linked bisphenol-A exposure with early breast development and menstruation in girls, feminine characteristics in boys, and decreased fertility in both sexes.

Tim Shestek, a spokesman for plastic industry group the American Chemistry Council (ACC), argues that the studies are misleading— that the effects of high concentrations of plastic additives on lab animals don’t translate to humans exposed to chronic low doses.

“The scientific consensus is that these compounds are safe in the current applications that they’re being used for,” Shestek says.

Moore counters that industry is on a mission to confuse consumers with biased science. He notes that of 149 government-funded studies on bisphenol-A, 93 percent found that the compound is harmful, but all 12 industry-funded studies concluded that it is benign.

Plastics also can absorb hazardous synthetic chemicals such as PCBs and pesticides. Researchers are finding that plastic debris pick up these compounds from the sea water, carry them for hundreds of miles, and then leach them out elsewhere, leading Algalita staff to dub them “poison pellets.”

~ ~ ~

MANUFACTURERS make 60 billion tons of plastic every year, the majority of it for products that will be used once and thrown away....

STROLLING NEAR the Municipal Wharf, Moore shifts into research gear. Along the dock he finds a chip bag, a plastic water bottle and a broken-up Styrofoam cup floating in a mass of twigs and dirt near a sunken orange traffic cone. “What are the fish eating underneath that?” he asks. “Some of it is mimicking food.”

A few hundred yards down the shore, he discovers plastic cups and nylon rope wedged into the cracks between some boulders. He nabs a drifting plastic bag, which he calls “the modern tumbleweed,” and shakes his head at sheets of black plastic laid under the rocks, likely intended to stabilize the slopes: they’re already tearing, broken down by the sun. “That’s all becoming part of the ocean environment right now,” he says.

After combing Monterey State Beach for a half hour, Moore peers into our bag of collected litter and does an impromptu analysis. He concludes that cigarette butts, whose filters are made from cellulose acetate, are the most common plastic debris, followed by Styrofoam and bottle caps. He finds a few broken-up, brittle plastic pieces that he says have floated in from afar, but he estimates that roughly 90 percent of the beach’s litter is local. “That means that you can do something about it through local enforcement.”

Eras of human history are defined by their most prominent materials, Moore theorizes. Throughout the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, societies have followed a pattern of extracting a resource, expanding its industry, and recycling only when it begins to run out. He says that since 1979, when the tonnage of plastic exceeded the tonnage of steel produced, we’ve been in the midst of the Plastic Age. We don’t recycle much of it now; only when oil becomes more scarce will we begin “mining our landfills.” And that, Moore asserts, is the central contradiction of our times: the popularity of disposable products made from a material that lasts forever. “Plastic is the lubricant of globalization,” he says. “That’s what facilitates all this junky stuff making it to all the corners of the earth.”

He’s quick to point out that he’s not an enemy of petroleum-based plastics per se; it’s just the temporary-use stuff that gets to him. “We really have to start thinking about plastics being forever,” he says. “The world needs to wake up for the potential of plastics to be what we wanted when we got into this thing: durable. It could be OK to have something you got when you were young and lasted you your whole life. But that is bad for an economy based solely on growth and waste. That’s the same paradigm as a cancer cell.”

“It’s like when you break your leg— it never heals totally,” Moore says. “There’s no such thing as complete recovery from an environmental insult.” But that’s not to say we shouldn’t try.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


From the National Farmer's Union in Saskatoon, Sask, Canada:

SASKATOON, Sask.—Today, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its first projections of world grain supply and demand for the coming crop year: 2007/08. USDA predicts supplies will plunge to a 53-day equivalent—their lowest level in the 47-year period for which data exists.

“The USDA projects global grain supplies will drop to their lowest levels on record. Further, it is likely that, outside of wartime, global grain supplies have not been this low in a century, perhaps longer,” said NFU Director of Research Darrin Qualman.

Most important, 2007/08 will mark the seventh year out of the past eight in which global grain production has fallen short of demand. This consistent shortfall has cut supplies in half—down from a 115-day supply in 1999/00 to the current level of 53 days. “The world is consistently failing to produce as much grain as it uses,” said Qualman. He continued: “The current low supply levels are not the result of a transient weather event or an isolated production problem: low supplies are the result of a persistent drawdown trend.”

In addition to falling grain supplies, global fisheries are faltering. Reports in respected journals Science and Nature state that 1/3 of ocean fisheries are in collapse, 2/3 will be in collapse by 2025, and our ocean fisheries may be virtually gone by 2048. “Aquatic food systems are collapsing, and terrestrial food systems are under tremendous stress,” said Qualman.

Demand for food is rising rapidly. There is a worldwide push to proliferate a North Americanstyle meat-based diet based on intensive livestock production—turning feedgrains into meat in this way means exchanging 3 to 7 kilos of grain protein for one kilo of meat protein. Population is rising—2.5 billion people will join the global population in the coming decades. “Every six years, we’re adding to the world the equivalent of a North American population. We’re trying to feed those extra people, feed a growing livestock herd, and now, feed our cars, all from a static farmland base. No one should be surprised that food production can’t keep up,” said Qualman.

Qualman said that the converging problems of natural gas and fertilizer constraints, intensifying water shortages, climate change, farmland loss and degradation, population increases, the proliferation of livestock feeding, and an increasing push to divert food supplies into biofuels means that we are in the opening phase of an intensifying food shortage.

Qualman cautioned, however, that there are no easy fixes. “If we try to do more of the same, if we try to produce, consume, and export more food while using more fertilizer, water, and chemicals, we will only intensify our problems. Instead, we need to rethink our relation to food, farmers, production, processing, and distribution. We need to create a system focused on feeding people and creating health. We need to strengthen the food production systems around the world. Diversity, resilience, and sustainability are key,” concluded Qualman.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

7M pounds of trash pulled from waterways

By BRIAN SKOLOFF, Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Smokers are littering shorelines and waterways worldwide with millions of cigarettes, and their filters topped the list of trash items culled during last year‘s annual international coastal cleanup, according to a new report.

Sixty-eight countries participated in the daylong cleanup last September. This year‘s cleanup is set for Sept. 15.

"A plastic sandwich bag floating in the ocean may look like a jellyfish, a favorite food of sea turtles," said Sonya Besteiro, the cleanup project manager. "If a sea turtle ingests a plastic bag it may feel full and stop eating, which results in starvation. Or the bag could block the animal‘s digestive system and cause death."

Discarded fishing gear and plastic debris kill an average of more than 1 million sea birds and more than 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles each year, the conservancy estimates.

"With only 1,200 monk seals left, this is such a terrible loss," said Christine Woolaway, who coordinates the coastal cleanup in Hawaii, the state with the most threatened and endangered species at 329.

The United States had the most participants in 2006, according to the report, with 182,100 people cleaning about 4.1 million pounds of trash from 10,550 miles of waterways and coastlines.

California and Florida saw the most participation in the U.S., with about 56,000 and 28,000 people participating, respectively. The two states collectively removed about 1.5 million pounds of debris over 4,600 miles of shorelines and waterways.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Noctilucent Clouds

Last night, a wide expanse of electric-blue noctilucent clouds (NLCs) appeared over Europe. "It was a beautiful display," says Martin McKenna of Maghera, N.Ireland. "Wonderful twisting bands and waves were begging for attention."

Noctilucent clouds are a mystery. They were first reported in the 19th century after the eruption of super-volcano Krakatoa. In those days the clouds were confined mainly to high latitudes, but they have intensified and spread with sightings in recent years as far south as Colorado and Utah. What causes NLCs? A NASA spacecraft named AIM is in orbit right now on a mission to find out.

One thing is known: Summer is the season for NLCs. Sky watchers in Europe have seen hints of NLC activity in recent weeks, but "this is the finest display so far," says Evans. The cloud was approximately 25o high x 100o wide." Consider it official: NLC season has begun.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

In Antarctica - the accelerated movement of glaciers

Fears that global sea levels this century may rise faster and further than expected are supported by a study showing that 300 glaciers in Antarctica have begun to move more quickly into the ocean.

Scientists believe that the accelerated movement of glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula indicates a dramatic shift in the way melting ice around the world contributes to overall increases in global sea levels.

Instead of simply adding huge volumes of meltwater to the sea, scientists have found rising temperatures are causing glaciers as far apart as Alaska, Greenland and now Antarctica to break up and slip into the ocean at a faster rate than expected.

The findings will raise concerns within the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which, earlier this year, downplayed the so-called "dynamic" nature of melting glaciers - when rising temperatures cause them to break up quickly rather than simply melt slowly.

Using radar images taken between 1993 and 2003, scientists at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge mapped a 12 per cent increase in the average rate of movement of more than 300 glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula over the period.

The scientists believe that their findings are among the first to suggest that as glaciers being to melt they experience a physical transformation that causes an acceleration in their movement into the sea.

"We're only just now getting to grips with just how big these dynamic processes may be. There are still a lot of surprises out there," said David Vaughan, a glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey and a co-author of the study.

"It is yet another example of how subpolar glaciers are responding very quickly to climate change because they are close to the temperature transition from ice to water," Dr Vaughan said.

"Scientists want to know why these things are happening because that's the route to the prediction of future sea levels."

In its fourth report published in February, the IPCC said sea levels this century could rise by between 20 cms and 43cms but it accepted that this could be a serious underestimate if ice sheets and glaciers undergo the sort of dynamic changes that existing computer models do not take fully into account.,,,

"Global warming 'is 3 times faster than worst predictions'"

Global warming is accelerating three times more quickly than feared, a series of startling, authoritative studies has revealed.

They have found that emissions of carbon dioxide have been rising at thrice the rate in the 1990s. The Arctic ice cap is melting three times as fast - and the seas are rising twice as rapidly - as had been predicted.

News of the studies - which are bound to lead to calls for even tougher anti-pollution measures than have yet been contemplated - comes as the leaders of the world's most powerful nations prepare for the most crucial meeting yet on tackling climate change.

The issue will be top of the agenda of the G8 summit which opens in the German Baltic resort of Heiligendamm on Wednesday, placing unprecedented pressure on President George Bush finally to agree to international measures.

Tony Blair flies to Berlin today to prepare for the summit with its host, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. They will discuss how to tackle President Bush, who last week called for action to deal with climate change, which his critics suggested was instead a way of delaying international agreements.

Yesterday, there were violent clashes in the city harbour of Rostock between police and demonstrators, during a largely peaceful march of tens of thousands of people protesting against the summit.

The study, published by the US National Academy of Sciences, shows that carbon dioxide emissions have been increasing by about 3 per cent a year during this decade, compared with 1.1 per cent a year in the 1990s.

The significance is that this is much faster than even the highest scenario outlined in this year's massive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - and suggests that their dire forecasts of devastating harvests, dwindling water supplies, melting ice and loss of species are likely to be understating the threat facing the world.

The study found that nearly three-quarters of the growth in emissions came from developing countries, with a particularly rapid rise in China. The country, however, will resist being blamed for the problem, pointing out that its people on average still contribute only about a sixth of the carbon dioxide emitted by each American. And, the study shows, developed countries, with less than a sixth of the world's people, still contribute more than two-thirds of total emissions of the greenhouse gas...

Monday, June 04, 2007

"..Weather; All of a Sudden, It’s Controversial"

“The weather is not controversial, but people are very engaged with it,” Debora J. Wilson, the president of the network, said in a recent interview in her office.

The daily weather forecast is rarely controversial, but the broader topic of climate change has generated no end of debate.

As the network has seen its primary subject turn into a hot-button issue, it has had to grapple with how it wants to address it — and has decided not to tread gingerly.

The issue started influencing the network’s coverage in a new way after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, and has been shaping its programming decisions.

“If The Weather Channel isn’t talking about climate change and global warming, who is?” said Kaye Zusmann, the vice president for program strategy and development for the network. “It’s our mandate.”

The network, which had been gearing up for the opening of hurricane season on Friday, sees the engagement with the issues surrounding climate change as important for content and for business.

“We have a point of view, and we think it’s really important to articulate why it’s happening. Secondarily, it’s good business,” said Ms. Wilson, the network president. “Many consumers want to know, ‘What should I do?’ ”