Friday, August 31, 2007

Acres of Webs

WILLS POINT, Texas— Most spiders are solitary creatures. So the discovery of a vast web crawling with millions of spiders that is spreading across several acres of a North Texas park is causing a stir among scientists, and park visitors.

Sheets of web have encased several mature oak trees and are thick enough in places to block out the sun along a nature trail at Lake Tawakoni State Park, near this town about 50 miles east of Dallas.

The gossamer strands, slowly overtaking a lakefront peninsula, emit a fetid odor, perhaps from the dead insects entwined in the silk. The web whines with the sound of countless mosquitoes and flies trapped in its folds.

Allen Dean, a spider expert at Texas A&M University, has seen a lot of webs, but even he described this one as “rather spooky, kind of like Halloween.”

Mr. Dean and several other scientists said they had never seen a web of this size outside of the tropics, where the relatively few species of “social” spiders that build communal webs are most active.

Norman Horner, emeritus professor of biology at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Tex., was one of a number of spider experts to whom a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist sent online photos of the web. “It is amazing, absolutely amazing,” said Dr. Horner, who at first thought it an e-mail hoax.

... “It’s beautiful,” said the park’s superintendent, Donna Garde.

...“We’ll try to protect it, with what little staff we have,” said Ms. Garde... “I’ll use the web-of-life analogy. If you break one part of the web, it affects us all.”

"Exxon Valdez plaintiffs want $5 billion award restored"

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Plaintiffs in the long-running case surrounding the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster this week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to restore a $5 billion punitive fine against Exxon Mobil Corp, a petition filed with highest U.S. court shows.

The petition, filed Tuesday, followed one filed last week by Exxon Mobil that asked the Supreme Court to overturn the $2.5 billion punitive fine assessed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals court had halved a $5 billion fine imposed in 1994 by a federal district court jury sitting in Anchorage. The class-action suit involves about 32,000 commercial fishermen, Alaska Natives, property owners and others harmed by the spill.

In perhaps the most infamous oil accident in U.S. history, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil that spread to about 1,300 coastline miles. It closed commercial fisheries in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska and killed thousands of marine mammals and hundreds of thousands of seabirds.

The plaintiffs will respond by September 20 to Exxon's effort to overturn the $2.5 billion fine, said David Tarshes, one of the plaintiff's attorneys.

The plaintiffs' petition argues that no Supreme Court review is needed, and that it "could prolong the case for many years to come."

Plaintiffs say the case has already dragged on too long.

They say that in the years that Exxon and its successor Exxon Mobil have challenged the jury's verdict, a fifth of the plaintiff class members have died while the oil giant has recouped the entire $5 billion though its internal corporate rate of return, the petition said.

And Exxon Mobil earned record profits recently, setting quarterly and annual highs for the most money made in corporate history...

If the Supreme Court does take up the case, it should restore the original verdict, the petition said. They say Exxon Mobil deserves the punitive fine because of its "reprehensible" conduct before the spill, and cited a pattern of bad behavior by Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who the plaintiffs say was drunk when the tanker hit a reef.

"Hazelwood was a relapsed alcoholic, and Exxon knew it," the petition said.

The plaintiffs' petition also dismisses claims by the oil company that it should be credited for its vigorous cleanup efforts.

The cleanup recovered only about 14 percent of the spilled oil, and tape-recorded comments from an Exxon official at the time suggested that it was mounted more for publicity than effectiveness, the petition said.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

"The end of civilization..."

From Guy McPherson's blog Nature Bats Last:

........As I wrote in one of my recent books, the problem is not that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions -- it's that the road to Hell is paved. We have, to the maximum possible extent allowed by our intellect and never-ending desire, consumed the planet and therefore traded in tomorrow for today. And we keep making these choices, every day, choosing dams over salmon, oil over whales, cars over polar bears, death over life. And when I say we keep making these choices, I do not mean you and me -- we have essentially nothing to do with it -- I mean the politicians and CEOs who run this country. They are killing the planet and, when they notice the screams, they turn up the volume on Fox News. Meanwhile, most Americans took the blue pill without really thinking about the consequences. In the wake of these endless insults to our only home, perhaps the biggest surprise is that so many native species have persisted, thus allowing for our continued use and enjoyment.

When I tell people about Peak Oil, the immediate response is something like, "C'mon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is setting records; the economy looks great."

Uh-huh. Never mind the asset bubble built by shaky investments. Never mind the manipulation of the money supply by the Federal Reserve Bank since the Fed's monetary policy was removed from public view by Ben Bernanke. Never mind that the Dow, which is based on a whopping 30 companies, is in free-fall when measured against any metric except the U.S. dollar, which is falling even faster. Never mind that serious stock-market investors represent a slim minority of the world's populace.

Ignore all that, and think about this: When you jump off a 100-story building, everything seems fine for a while. In fact, the view just keeps getting more clear as you get closer to the ground. What could possibly go wrong? Well, maybe one thing. It's not the fall that kills you. It's the sudden stop at the bottom...

It appears humanity will be restricted to a few thousand hardy scavengers living near the poles within a century or two. Shortly thereafter, Homo sapiens will join, in extinction, every other species to occupy the planet. Recent projections indicate that, by century's end, there will be no planetary ice. That's dinosaur days, and the end of the human experience. It's very small consolation to me that, as the home team, Nature bats last.

We will persist about 10% as long as the typical species of mammal, giving credence to Schopenhauer's view that the human experience is a mere blink of an eye bounded on either side by infinities of time. Despite our apparently brief stay on this most wondrous of planets, it has become clear we will take a large percentage of the planet's biological diversity along with us into the abyss....

Knowledge of Peak Oil and runaway greenhouse leads me, again, to the question of Schopenhauer: How to get through a life not worth living? I have struggled mightily with this question – much to the chagrin of my wife, I can assure you – and have turned to my intellectual predecessors and heroes for answers.

I start, as I often do, with Socrates. Socrates pursued a life of excellence by questioning those who would tolerate him and his many inquiries. He knew we were beings singularly tuned to quality. Within the next few minutes, I will mention each of the six primary questions of Socrates, the questions that represent the qualities he found so important to the human condition: What is good? What is piety? What is virtue? What is courage? What is justice? What is moderation? These questions are as vibrant and relevant today as they were more than two millennia ago....

Hope, then, rooted in friendship, is my response to Schopenhauer. Hope, in other words, rooted in friendship -- let's call it Platonic love -- rooted in the right-brained friendship expressed by honoring each other and hugging trees.

Will to live is no solution: It's a problem, as Schopenhauer himself admitted when he proclaimed, "to desire immortality is to desire the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake."

Our will to live – rooted in the evolutionary drive to survive – makes us shortsighted and self-motivated (or, in the case of many of us, self-absorbed)....

If Schopenhauer's Will to live offers no viable solution, Nietzsche's Will to power is even worse, for it reveals our darkest nature. It's small wonder Nietzsche abandoned the Overman late in his career. Or perhaps the Overman abandoned Nietzsche.

Maybe Said wasn't so far off the mark:

Said said "optimism" … I say "hope."

Said said "intellectual and political work" … I say "the common good."

But we seem not so far apart, Said and I. Just like, on close inspection, those of us in this room: Our intellectual and political work require, nay demand, optimism. For without it, hope is lost for both kinds of humanity:

Without optimism, hope is lost for the individual, personal variety of humanity that is themeasure of our character.

And without optimism, hope is lost for our entire species, and many others on this planet. That hope is lost, too, without big doses of courage, justice, moderation, and virtue...

Step 1: Expand our horizons beyond the question of how we will run the cars by means other than gasoline.
...It's time to abandon the car, time to make other arrangements for nearly all the common activities of daily life.

Step 2: We must produce food differently.
...say hello to locally grown food, recognizing that you might have to grow your own....

Step 3: We must inhabit the terrain differently.
...Our towns must be re-inhabited and the areas around them must be re-structured to accommodate small farms and the manufacture of goods to serve the towns....

Step 4: We must move people and things differently.
... we could restore public transit....then...move to the waterways and then restoring the piers and warehouses...

Step 5: We need to transform retail trade.
...there are plenty of career opportunities for energetic individuals interested in small, local businesses...

Step 6: We have to start making things again.
...We will have far fewer choices when we go to the store, but we still will need clothes and household goods....

Step 7: We need artists again.
...We're going to need playhouses and live performance halls, albeit without high-tech light and sound systems. And we'll need musicians and actors and playwrights and stagehands and theater managers. We'll need storytellers, too, to keep history alive ...

Step 8: We must reorganize the educational system.
...Yellow fleets of school buses are on their way out....

Step 9: Our medical system must be completely reorganized.
...Without power-hungry high-tech tools, we'll need real doctors again: people who understand how the body actually functions...

Step 10: Our entire socio-economic and political system will become much more local.
...the worst possible outcome would be a battle to the death in a game of Last Man Standing. Our focus on the common good precludes a mentality of Us vs. Them; with the common good, there is no "Them."

There you have it: a thumbnail sketch of the agenda. I'm sure I've left out many important items, but take heart: any number can play, and there is so much to be done. We're sleepwalking into the future -- headed for a cliff of our own making -- and it's time to wake up....

During the time of Christ, in the Mediterranean region, the population of humans was viewed through the same lens as other populations. As such, human deaths often occurred in large numbers, as a result of war, conquest, famine, and pestilence -- these are the Four Horsemen ofthe Apocalypse, as described in the gospel of John....

Until very recently, large-scale die-offs were viewed as "normal," in much the same way we view as "normal" our K-12 system of education, or weekly shopping trips to Safeway, or using a cellular telephone. The description and management of human populations back in the days of the Greek Cynics was oriented along population lines, with relatively little societal regard for individuals. Contrast that perspective with our laser-like focus on individuals. Let's take a quick look at the Four Horsemen, one at a time. Famine's as good a place to start as any, considering that my limited understanding of public health tends toward eating … or, eating less....

Some countries have looked back to move forward. Ireland uses medical generalists in their communities to advance the public health. They preserve the good of the many at the occasional expense of the one, or of the few...But perhaps, in focusing on communities and therefore letting go of some individual lives, Ireland has preserved something we've lost: something economic, environmental, political, social … or moral...

Without the common good, and the struggle on its behalf, there can be no Aristotelian friendship. There can be no justice. And there can be no virtue.

Therefore, I am forced to conclude that: 5,000 generations into the human experience, with the end of humanity in clear view, our shared goal must be … the common good.

And I further conclude that: As friends, we reveal our differences, we appreciate our differences, and then we set them aside … for the common good.

"Invasive Algae Killing Costa Rican Coral Reef"

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica - A tropical algae thriving on fertilizers from hotel golf courses and badly treated sewage is killing one of Costa Rica's most important coastal reefs, scientists say.

The green, feather-like algae is spreading along the reefs of Culebra Bay in Costa Rica's northwestern Gulf of Papagayo, a popular scuba diving spot and home to a rare species of coral. The algae blocks the sunlight and suffocates the reefs.

A tourism and construction boom along the palm tree-lined beaches is creating nitrogen- and phosphate-rich waste that feeds the algae, known as Caulerpa sertularioides, and Costa Rica is only just becoming aware of the problem.

"It's an ecological disaster," said Cindy Fernandez, a marine biologist with the nonprofit MarViva Association, who alerted the Costa Rican government to the threat, which is now being taken on by the state-run University of Costa Rica.

Scientists say about 80 percent of the reef area, which stretches for about a mile and a half (2.4 km) along the coast line, is covered in the algae.

The aggressive algae spreads when even the smallest sliver comes loose, from the likes of strong currents or dive boats dropping anchor, to root itself in another part of the reef.

Even the sweep of a diver's hand or the kick of a diver's fin can send a fragment swirling away to start another patch.

That means experts cannot pull it up like weeds.

"If you pull it up it will reproduce faster," said Jenny Asch, coordinator of the government's marine conservation program, who is leading efforts to find a way to eradicate the algae.

If left unchecked, the algae could also severely damage the ecosystem of the bay, allowing non-native species of fish to come in and displace the native species.

"Planet Formation Mystery Solved"

A new computer-modeled theory shows how rocky boulders around infant stars team up to form planets without falling into stars.

"This has been a stumbling block for 30 years," said Mordecai-Marc Mac Low, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, of planet formation theories. "The reason is that boulders tend to fall into the star in a celestial blink of an eye. Some mechanism had to be found to prevent them from being dragged into a star."

The solution: Together, many boulders can join to fight a cosmic headwind that otherwise would doom them.

Truckin' boulders

The stuff of rocky planets originates in an accretion disk, or collection of gas and dust that circles around a newborn star. Over time the dust particles bunch together and form large boulders, but eventually they meet "wind" resistance from the disk's mist of gas.

"They see a headwind. It's deadly and drags them into the star," Mac Low told

Modeling the turbulence within the gas, however, showed that boulders can team up and form planets.

"Turbulence in the disk concentrates boulders in regions of higher pressure," Mac Low said, noting that such a disturbance is enough to enable the boulders to fight the dooming headwind. "If the gas is sped up, the boulders don't see a headwind. By getting the gas going with them they conserve energy and stay in orbit."

Mac Low compared the effect to a chain of semi-trucks driving down a highway. Each boulder is like a semi-truck "pushing" the gas in front of it, creating a friendly pocket of air behind it that other semis can travel in without using up as much fuel. "The end of the story is that enough boulders gather together, gravity takes over and they collapse into planet-like bodies," Mac Low said.

Mac Low and his colleagues' findings will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Nature.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The "Right To Dry" Movement is Growing


It started out innocently enough. Concerned about global warming and her family's energy consumption, Michelle Baker wanted to hang her wash outside. She scoured stores for a clothesline durable enough to withstand Vermont winters and classy enough for her Waterbury backyard. She came back empty-handed every time.

So Baker and her husband made their own -- a few lines of pristine white rope hung between two Vermont cedar poles. Soon, friends and neighbors were enviously asking where they got it. Born of enterprise, enthusiasm, and wet shirts flapping in the breeze, the Vermont Clothesline Codebuted in April.

And just in time, as a national clothesline -- or "Right to Dry" -- movement escalates. In fact, Vermont is the latest state to introduce a bill that would override clothesline bans, which are often instituted by community associations loath to air laundry even when it's clean. Now, clothesline restrictions may be headed the way of bans on parking pickup trucks in front of homes, or growing grass too long -- all vestiges of trim and tidy hopes that may not fit with the renewed emphasis on going green.

"This trend ... is about people making a little change to help the environment as opposed to something like solar panels which is much more of an investment," Baker says.

Baker's orders have steadily risen. While most initial buyers were fellow Vermonters, the company now receives orders from across the United States, including such places as Tennessee, Texas and Arkansas.

Over in New Hampshire, clothesline activists have asked for legislative advice from Project Laundry List -- the first U.S. clothesline activist group -- according to the group's founder, Alexander Lee. And North Carolina recently passed a law invalidating city or county limitations on "energy devices based on the use of renewable resources." In addition, the clothesline movement there is hoping to find a "test case" to legally establish clothesline rights in North Carolina, Lee says...

At last count, in 2005, there were 88 million dryers in the United States, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Annually, these dryers consume 1,079 kilowatt hours of energy per household, creating 2,224 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Besides the global-warming and cost-saving aspects of clotheslines, proponents say hanging out clothes requires exercise and time outside -- elements that are missing from many Americans' lives. "So much of our lives have become automated," Wentzell says. Plus, using a clothesline makes "your clothes last longer and smell better."

Despite clotheslines' purported benefits -- and a scent that can rival dryer sheets' "fresh rain" fragrance -- "the overwhelming majority" of community associations regulate or ban them, says Frank Rathbun, vice president of communications for the Community Associations Institute in Virginia. Sixty million Americans belong to one of 300,000 homeowners' associations, according to the institute, a national organization of community association leaders and management firms...

On Sept. 14, Project Laundry List will participate in an event at the energy company Hydro-Québec, protesting the diverting and damming of the Rupert River. Such damming would not have to occur, Lee says, if people adopted energy-saving methods like clotheslines. The group will display messages on T-shirts and sheets hung from -- what else? -- a 400-foot clothesline.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

"Crushed glass to be spread on beaches"

APPicture a beautiful beach spanning miles of coastline, gently lapped by aqua-colored water — and sprinkled with glass.

Ouch? Think again. It feels just like sand, but with granules that sparkle in the sunlight.

Faced with the constant erosion of Florida's beaches, Broward County officials are exploring using recycled glass — crushed into tiny grains and mixed with regular sand — to help fill gaps.

It's only natural, backers of the idea say, since sand is the main ingredient in glass.

"Basically, what we're doing is taking the material and returning it back to its natural state," said Phil Bresee, Broward's recycling manager.

The county would become the first in the nation to combine disposal of recycled glass with bolstering beach sand reserves, Bresee said.

"You reduce waste stream that goes to our landfills and you generate materials that could be available for our beaches," said Paden Woodruff of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Sand is a valuable commodity in South Florida, where beach-related business generates more than $1 billion a year for Broward alone.

Sand to replenish eroded beaches is typically dredged from the ocean floor and piped to shore — about 13 million tons of it since 1970 in Broward. That's enough sand to fill the Empire State Building more than 12 times over.

But with reef preservation restricting future dredge sites, sand is becoming scarce. And the price is rising as construction and fuel costs rise and dredge operations are pushed farther offshore.

In 2005, dredging brought in about 2.6 million tons of sand at a cost of $45 million. A similar operation in 1991 brought in about 1.3 million tons of sand for just $9 million.

The county would create only 15,600 tons of the glass material each year, not enough to solve its sand shortage, but enough to create a reserve for filling eroded spots before they can worsen, Bresee said.

Most of Broward County's 24 miles of beaches are considered critically eroded, and more than a quarter of Florida's 1,350-mile coastline falls into the same category. About $80 million is spent annually restoring Florida's beaches...

Recycled glass also has been used for beaches along Lake Hood in New Zealand and on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao.

It's unclear how much the project would cost Broward County, or if the project is even feasible. The state and county have so far spent about $600,000 just on tests and engineering.

The county tested a small patch of glass sand on a dry patch of beach last year, using sensors to measure effects of heat and moisture. Scientists have also conducted laboratory tests that show organisms and wildlife can thrive in the material just like natural sand, they said. The county is awaiting a permit to test glass sand in the surf zone.

Some people are raising caution flags.

"There's no way that you can predict all the environmental consequences of an action like this," said Dennis Heinemann, a senior scientist with the Ocean Conservancy. "There always will be unforeseen consequences."

One example sits just off shore.

The state and Broward County are spending millions to remove some 700,000 old tires that were placed on the ocean floor off Fort Lauderdale in the 1970s and fastened together to create an artificial reef. The tires came loose, moving around and scouring the ocean floor and wedging against natural reefs, killing coral.

"As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes"

By JOSEPH KAHN and JIM YARDLEY/ from The New York Times

No country in history has emerged as a major industrial power without creating a legacy of environmental damage that can take decades and big dollops of public wealth to undo.

But just as the speed and scale of China’s rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so its pollution problem has shattered all precedents. Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.

Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.

Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union...

Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem commonplace in China: industrial cities where people rarely see the sun; children killed or sickened by lead poisoning or other types of local pollution; a coastline so swamped by algal red tides that large sections of the ocean no longer sustain marine life.

China is choking on its own success. The economy is on a historic run, posting a succession of double-digit growth rates. But the growth derives, now more than at any time in the recent past, from a staggering expansion of heavy industry and urbanization that requires colossal inputs of energy, almost all from coal, the most readily available, and dirtiest, source.

“It is a very awkward situation for the country because our greatest achievement is also our biggest burden,” says Wang Jinnan, one of China’s leading environmental researchers. “There is pressure for change, but many people refuse to accept that we need a new approach so soon.”

...For the Communist Party, the political calculus is daunting. Reining in economic growth to alleviate pollution may seem logical, but the country’s authoritarian system is addicted to fast growth. Delivering prosperity placates the public, provides spoils for well-connected officials and forestalls demands for political change. A major slowdown could incite social unrest, alienate business interests and threaten the party’s rule.

But pollution poses its own threat. Officials blame fetid air and water for thousands of episodes of social unrest. Health care costs have climbed sharply. Severe water shortages could turn more farmland into desert. And the unconstrained expansion of energy-intensive industries creates greater dependence on imported oil and dirty coal, meaning that environmental problems get harder and more expensive to address the longer they are unresolved.

"Global Warning: Brutal lessons from an Antarctic summer"

by Meredith Hooper - extract from The Ferocious Summer: Palmer's penguins and the warnings of Antarctica

January 2002

...The news is shocking. The season, Bill says flatly, has gone to hell. Palmer's Adélie penguins are in crisis, barely holding on. The weather has been relentless, dire. The seabird work is under real pressure. "We are arriving to a catastrophe, walking into a bitter scenario produced by climate change," he says. "The Adélie penguins don't have the capacity to survive the drastic changes that are occurring. There's no doubt. "

The real penguin losses in Antarctica are happening on the Antarctic Peninsula, where the greatest warming is occurring. Bill describes landing on the low, ice-enclosed Dion Islands during last winter's cruise in Marguerite Bay. In 1948, 21-year-old Bernard Stonehouse, surveying for the British with a husky team over dodgy sea ice, discovered an emperor penguin colony on the Dions, the furthest north these penguins breed.

Bill arrived at dawn one August morning. Washed pink sky, pearly grey ice, soft-focus light. He found just nine lonely pairs. Since Bernard made the first studies of an estimated 500 birds, the colony has been little visited. Outside influences can't be discounted. There can be no protective fences around vulnerable bird populations to exclude helicopters or passing yachts. But for Bill, the sight of those remnant pairs of emperors at a critical period of their brooding phase was deeply symbolic. "It was the saddest sight. They won't survive. They were the only known emperor penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula."

...In Antarctica, penguins were considered "indicator species". The food chain involved was thought to be remarkably simple. Large animals at the top, such as whales and penguins, ate krill, the small shrimp-like Euphasia superba which fed on phytoplankton, the grass of the sea. The hypothesis was that, as krill-eaters, penguins could reveal if too many tons of krill were being hauled out of the southern seas by the proliferating Eastern European fisheries: declining numbers of penguins would indicate too much fishing. Research was being carried out on penguin numbers along the Antarctic Peninsula, focusing on the five inner-island Adélie study sites at Palmer and a mix of sites further north at King George Island in the South Shetland Islands, where Adélies, gentoos and chinstraps nested. Concerns about managing resources drove the research, as well as concerns about changing the ecosystem.

But there was also the whale population reduction hypothesis: not a krill deficit, but an abundance. So many krill-eating baleen whales had been hunted and killed since the 1920s that there must, it was argued, be a " krill surplus" now that hunting had declined. The problem was the figures. At King George Island, the data of American researchers Wayne and Susan Trivelpiece showed the numbers of chinstrap penguins increasing, while Adélie numbers seesawed. The chinstraps' range was expanding south down the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Abundant krill could account for the increase.

But Adélies were also krill eaters. And, at the Palmer study sites, Adélies were in decline. Their numbers had decreased from 15,202 breeding pairs in 1975, when the data set began...

Overwinter survival is crucial to penguins. Dead penguins can't come back to breed. Underweight penguins with insufficient blubber insulation cannot sustain the brooding fasts. Overwinter survival, to use scientist-speak, can play a key role in driving long-term populations. Central to Bill's argument was the quantity and extent of sea ice. Had it changed? Was it reducing?

3 February, Litchfield Island

There are no sounds but the wash of the sea, the occasional calls of skuas. Every penguin is gone. The nests are abandoned. Listen to the silence. The silence of absence. The sound of failure.

Bill stands tall, still, on the carefully sorted pebbles. Standing where it should not be possible to stand, in the centre of a penguin colony, in the middle of summer. This season, on Litchfield Island, only seven pairs of penguins managed to keep eggs until hatching. Eighteen days ago, Bill counted four pairs of penguins in one colony, one pair in another. Five days ago, seven penguins remained. This space was still theirs. Now they have gone. The sound of extinction is approaching. In two to three years, Bill says, Litchfield will be vacant.

The map drawn in 1957 at Base N, showing the locations of local bird colonies, marks six Adélie colonies on the south-east peninsula of Litchfield. When Bill first arrived at Palmer in 1975, those colonies were extinct; 884 breeding pairs of Adélies were nesting further to the west, but still in the shadow of the high central hills, still on the island's southern slopes. With temperature change, with increased snow, the sites proved lethal. Storms tracking west to east between South America and the peninsula scoured snow from north-facing surfaces and dumped it in the lee. Penguin numbers fell rapidly.

Here is climate change in action, Antarctica as a living experiment. Litchfield Island is a precisely located landscape, with just two key species, Adélies and brown skuas...

Data from Litchfield had already revealed that, whenever an Adélie colony dropped below a certain number, the chicks were vulnerable to predation by brown skuas. Litchfield has six brown skua pairs. They are birds with long histories, many of them tracked.

As the population declined, they destroyed their meal table. This season, Litchfield's Adélie penguins failed to hatch chicks and so failed to deliver brown skua meals. This season, Litchfield's brown skuas fed until there were no Adélie eggs left, and no chicks. Nothing. Bill needed proof. Now he has it.

Shifting weather patterns challenge the precisely balanced interconnectedness of living things, their dependence on established networks to find food, to reproduce – to survive. Litchfield is an indisputable case study of the impact...

Here on the Antarctic Peninsula, impacts of warming can be tracked. It's a clear, stripped-down preview of what could occur elsewhere...

Art, Ocean, Seals, Rocks, and Rock and Roll

I've been out visiting people in Connecticut. I also saw a lot of art, as well as a lot of the ocean. I visited the jellyfish at the Mystic Aquarium.

I found some cool rocks on the beach at Cape Cod - where a group of 3 dozen seals mosied by. There had been reports of Great White Sharks eating seals around there lately - and with an air temperature of 65 and a water temperature of 62 - I didn't exactly swim. I got in up to my knees getting some small rocks out of the surf.

When we were first at the beach, there were masses of brown, dead, seaweed washing up on the beach. There was so much that the waves were brown as they came ashore. But after a couple of days - the seaweed was gone, and the waves were clear.

I had taken my oil painting supplies and made some paintings while I was out there. The biggest challenge was in creating a contraption to bring them home - whereas the painting wouldn't get messed up - and wouldn't get paint on everything else as well. Between dowel rods, some wood with holes drilled for the rods and a couple boxes - it worked out.

The Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton had some good stuff. It was not lost on me that app. half of the art in their collection of art since 1900 was created by women. I don't know why it takes a women's college to be able to do that - I'm sure other mainstream museums could manage to do the same - if they were a little more conscious in their collecting.

Other places where I found art of interest included "The Clark" and The Plum Gallery- both in Williamstown, MA.

And I saw lots of art in Provincetown - including The Provincetown Art Association and Museum, The Kobalt Gallery, The Tao Water Art Gallery, The Kiley Court Gallery, and The Julie Heller Gallery

We also stopped by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to see their exhibits and we saw lots of rocks at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Common Birds In Decline

Audubon's unprecedented analysis of forty years of citizen-science bird population data from our own Christmas Bird Count plus the Breeding Bird Survey reveals the alarming decline of many of our most common and beloved birds.

Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades.

The findings point to serious problems with both local habitats and national environmental trends. Only citizen action can make a difference for the birds and the state of our future.

Which Species? Why?

The wide variety of birds affected is reason for concern. Populations of meadowlarks and other farmland birds are diving because of suburban sprawl, industrial development, and the intensification of farming over the past 50 years.

Greater Scaup and other tundra-breeding birds are succumbing to dramatic changes to their breeding habitat as the permafrost melts earlier and more temperate predators move north in a likely response to global warming. Boreal forest birds like the Boreal Chickadee face deforestation from increased insect outbreaks and fire, as well as excessive logging, drilling, and mining.

The one distinction these common species share is the potential to become uncommon unless we all take action to protect them and their habitat.

BIrds on the list from my area of the country:

#1 Northern Bobwhite a chubby, robin-sized bird that runs along the ground in groups and is found in grasslands mixed with shrubs or widely spaced trees throughout much of the Eastern United States.

#6 Eastern Meadowlark: a robin-sized bird with a light brown back and brilliant yellow breast with a big, black "V", found in grasslands and open savannas in eastern Canada south through the eastern United States.

#9 Field Sparrow: a small brown songbird with a light rusty cap and a bright pink bill found in abandoned fields with scattered shrubs and trees in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and Canada.
#10 Grasshopper Sparrow: a fairly nondescript, small brown bird with a short tail and a flat head often found hiding in larger patches of grassland, usually with few shrubs or trees, in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and adjacent portions of southern Canada.

#14 Common Grackle: a dark bird longer than most blackbirds, slimmer than most crows, and very iridescent with long center-creased tail, found in a variety of open habitats with trees, including urban areas, parks, riparian areas, and a variety of woody wetlands in the United States and Canada.

#17 Whip-poor-will: a bird only active at night with mottled brown plumage, found in dry, open woodlands with little underbrush in most of the eastern United States, and parts of southeastern and south-central Canada, southwestern United States, Mexico, and into northern Central America.

#18 Horned Lark: a small grayish brown bird with dramatic black, yellow, and white facial and breast pattern, and small, feathered “horns” on its head, found in open, barren habitats in Canada, the United States (including Alaska), and northern Mexico outside of heavily forested areas.

What You Can Do:

Protect Local Habitat

Promote Sound Agricultural Policy

Support Sustainable Forests

Protect Wetlands

Fight Global Warming

Combat Invasive Species

"A Gift Offer for Artists in China: Museums"

From the New York Times

For years their work could not be exhibited in China, but now the country’s leading contemporary artists are being courted by major art collectors abroad and their paintings set records at international auction sales. A local government in Sichuan Province — the area in western China known for its natural beauty, spicy food and talented painters — is taking notice.

It has offered to give eight contemporary artists, all under 60, their own personal museums to operate. The group includes some of China’s best-known avant-garde artists: Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhou Chunya, He Duoling, Zhang Peili and Wu Shanzhuan. All have accepted, and Dujiangyan, a city near the provincial capital, Chengdu, will soon begin construction on an 18-acre plot of land. The museums are scheduled to open in October 2008.

In a country with no major museum of contemporary art — not even in Beijing, where most of the eight artists work — this is a novel development. But in China, everything is changing at warp speed: artists who sold works for $100 in the 1990s have become multimillionaires operating huge studios and driving BMWs. They are helping to transform the style of the country’s biggest cities.

“Modern art used to be neglected,” said Lu Peng, an associate professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, who selected the artists. “Then modern art became popular in the market.”

The new project, which will also include a public museum, is expected to bolster tourism and to benefit a group of real estate companies that are redeveloping the provincial area. In addition to providing the land, Dujiangyan’s government is investing around $13 million in the museums.

The eight artists, ranging in age from 42 to 59, include a few from Sichuan, but the others come from all over China. They rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s by producing paintings, installations and multimedia pieces that were often radical. Some of the work was viewed by the Chinese government as distasteful or antiauthoritarian.

But in recent years Beijing has significantly loosened restrictions on what can be exhibited in China as the global art market has fed a boom in new studios, galleries, museums and art districts in many of its cities. Today only the most controversial works — those with explicit sexual images or harsh depictions of high-ranking Communist Party officials — are banned...

"Fires sweep Greece turning villages to ash and killing 46 (+)"

With 46 dead yesterday afternoon and the toll expected to climb, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis declared a state of emergency, saying the forest fires 'can't be a coincidence'. He vowed that the arsonists would be found. Within hours police had arrested a suspect.

'All regions of the country are declared in a state of emergency in order to mobilise all means and forces to face this disaster,' he said in a televised address to the nation. 'We are living a national tragedy,' said Karamanlis.

He called an extraordinary cabinet meeting after visiting villages that had been reduced to cinders in the southern Peloponnese. With at least two tourists among the dead - and hundreds more holiday-makers threatened - Karamanlis urged Greece's EU partners to despatch more water-dropping planes and helicopters, saying it was a crisis Greece could not handle alone.

It was, he said, a day of 'national mourning' that would not be forgotten soon. All state buildings, including parliament, were ordered to fly flags at half-mast.

'These are very difficult times for all of us,' said Karamanlis, whose government has faced criticism for its handling of an unrivalled spate of forest fires that has wrought destruction across Greece this summer.

'I wish to express my deep grief over the lost lives. We are fighting against heavy odds, on many fronts and under particularly tough conditions.'

With new fires erupting almost hourly and authorities battling some 170 blazes from the Ionian Sea in the west, Ioannina in the north and the Peloponnese in the south, firefighting services have been stretched to the limit - despite the military being mobilised by the government. Gale-force winds known as the meltemi, which sweep across Greece in August, were also hampering efforts to extinguish the flames.

By late afternoon yesterday, as fires erupted on the fringes of Athens, threatening buildings, forcing the evacuation of monks from a monastery and closing the national highway, a wall of flames stretched across the Peloponnese with witnesses describing harrowing scenes.

Officials said the devastation was on a scale not seen in peacetime. Entire villages looked as though they had been vaporised, people and livestock incinerated. People who had tried to escape fires engulfing homesteads were found dead in their burnt-out cars. In one village near the Peloponnesian town of Zaharo, police discovered the bodies of a mother and her four children.

'There's absolute pandemonium here. It's like a war zone. In a single night everything we know has been destroyed,' Nikos Kakovessis, a resident of the town, said. 'People have lost their homes, their cattle, everything they own. May God cast his hand to stop this evil. May the worst be over.'

Frightened locals, authorities said, had been joined on the beaches of the peninsula by tourists forced to flee hotels and resorts at the peak of the holiday season. Many had fled the flames with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. With thousands expected to spend last night outside, nearby tavernas were providing tablecloths for evacuees to sleep on.

Greece has seen more than 300 fires in the past three months. The ecological disaster has dented the popularity of the ruling Conservatives, who have called early elections to take place on 16 September.

(Extra info)Arson is often suspected, mostly to clear land for development. No construction is allowed in Greece in areas designated as forest land, and fires could be set to circumvent the law by disputing the status of the area.


States, feds try to keep up with wildfires

With major fires burning in more than a dozen states and officials on high alert for more, authorities are scrambling to contain the blazes and keep new ones from igniting, despite unfavorable weather and strained resources.

The worst fires have hit the West, where stifling heat, drought conditions and frequent thunderstorms bringing wind and lightning have proven a disastrous natural combination. More than 1 million acres already have been torched in Idaho and Montana, where crews from around the country battled 36 large blazes as of Aug. 17, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Oregon, Washington and Wyoming also faced at least three major fires each, and conflagrations continued in states as far afield as Alaska and Hawaii.

The NIFC, which coordinates firefighting efforts nationwide from its base in Boise, Idaho, last month raised the nation’s wildfire preparedness level to its highest degree, freeing up additional help from cooperating agencies at home and abroad. Canada, for example, is expected to send units to assist in Idaho and Montana. At least 6.1 million acres across the United States have burned so far this year, according to statistics compiled by the NIFC and updated daily.

“Every year the fire season is longer and worse than the year before, and we’re seeing that again this year,” says Steven Kline, director of federal forestry programs with the National Association of State Foresters in Washington, D.C.

Governors in at least 11 states, most of them in the West, have made emergency declarations this summer due to wildfires, and some states – most recently Michigan and Montana – announced burning bans in an effort to prevent uncontrolled blazes. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. asked localities across the state to ban the personal use of fireworks, but many local leaders ignored the request amid questions over whether they had authority to impose a ban.

Flood news

"North Korea Says 600 Dead From Floods"

Floods that swept across North Korea earlier this month killed at least 600 people...

"Thousands suffer in Sudan floods"

Sudan's worst floods in living memory have left left hundreds of thousands of people short of food, while more than 30000 homes have been washed away...

"At least 26 people have died in floods across the (US) Midwest "

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland declared a state of emergency in nine counties yesterday as the worst flooding in 100 years shut down streets and schools...

"Floods wreak havoc in China province, 7 dead"

Seven people died and another five went missing in the floods in the inland province...

"Dyer overcome by floods"

"Deaths mount despite ebbing floods in Bangladesh"

"Uganda: Floods Displace 50000 in East"

"Asian floods affect (20) millions"

The Law of the Sea Convention

From the New York Times

A solemn international treaty known as the Law of the Sea Convention will celebrate its 25th anniversary this December, and for 25 years the mere mention of its name has been enough to induce deep slumber. Yet for all kinds of reasons — not least growing fears about the availability of energy resources — people are finally paying attention. That includes the Senate, where right-wing scare tactics and official inertia have long blocked the treaty’s ratification, leaving America as the only major power standing on the sidelines.

That could change this fall, when the treaty will again be presented for Senate approval. One reason for optimism is that President Bush has added his voice to a diverse pro-treaty coalition that includes the environmental community, fishing interests, the oil and gas industry, the shipping industry, the State Department and the Navy.

But the main reason is this: unless the United States joins up, it could very well lose out in what is shaping up as a mad scramble to lay claim to what are believed to be immense deposits of oil, gas and other resources under the Arctic ice — deposits that are becoming more and more accessible as the earth warms and the ice melts.

The Law of the Sea will provide the forum for determining who gets what. The law gives each nation control over its own coastal waters — an “exclusive economic zone” extending 200 miles offshore. The rest is regarded as international waters, subject to agreed-upon rules governing fishing, protection of the marine environment, navigation and mining on the ocean floor. A country can claim territory and mineral deposits beyond the 200-mile limit, but only if it can prove that the seabed is a physical extension of its continental shelf. Claims and disputes will be resolved by arbitration panels established by the treaty.

The Russians, the Canadians and the Danes are all busily staking claims to thousands of square miles of the Arctic seabed beyond their 200-mile zones; the Russians have already planted a flag 15,000 feet under the North Pole. And two weeks ago, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, Healy, embarked on the third in a series of polar mapping expeditions to help strengthen the United States’ territorial claims to the seabed off Alaska.

But the United States will have a hard time pressing those claims unless it ratifies the treaty and gets a seat at the negotiating table. One of the main right-wing arguments over the years is that the treaty would threaten American sovereignty by impeding unfettered exploitation of the ocean’s resources — a “giant giveaway of American wealth,” in the words of one critic. The facts suggest just the reverse. By not signing, we could easily find ourselves out of the hunt altogether.

Friday, August 17, 2007

"Arctic sea ice hits record low"

There was less sea ice in the Arctic on Friday than ever before on record, and the melting is continuing, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported.

"Today is a historic day," said Mark Serreze, a senior research scientist at the center. "This is the least sea ice we've ever seen in the satellite record and we have another month left to go in the melt season this year."

Satellite measurements showed 2.02 million square miles of ice in the Arctic, falling below the Sept. 21, 2005, record minimum of 2.05 million square miles, the agency said.

Sea ice is particularly low in the East Siberian side of the Arctic and the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, the center reported.

Ice in the Canadian Archipelago is also quite low. Along the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean, sea ice extent is not as unusually low, but there is still less than normal, according to the center located in Boulder, Colo.

The snow and ice center is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado. It receives support from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

Scientists began monitoring the extent of Arctic sea ice in the 1970s when satellite images became available.

The polar regions have long been of concern to climate specialists studying global warming because those regions are expected to feel the impact of climate change sooner and to a greater extent than other areas.

Sea ice in the Arctic helps keep those regions cool by reflecting sunlight that might be absorbed by darker land or ocean surfaces. Exposed to direct sun, for example, instead of reflecting 80 percent of the sunlight, the ocean absorbs 90 percent. That causes the ocean to heat up and raises Arctic temperatures.

Unusually clear sky conditions have prevailed in the Arctic in June and July, promoting more sunshine at the time when the sun is highest in the sky over the region.

The center said this led to an unusually high amount of solar energy being pumped onto the Arctic ice surface, accelerating the melting process. Fairly strong winds also brought in some warm air from the south.

But, Serreze said in a telephone interview, while some natural variability is involved in the melting "we simply can't explain everything through natural processes."

"It is very strong evidence that we are starting to see an effect of greenhouse warming," he said.

The puzzling thing, he said, is that the melting is actually occurring faster than computer climate models have predicted.

Several years ago he would have predicted a complete melt of Arctic sea ice in summer would occur by the year 2070 to 2100, Serreze said. But at the rates now occurring, a complete melt could happen by 2030, he said Friday.

There will still be ice in winter, he said, but it could be gone in summer.

National Snow and Ice Data Center:

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"U.S. government to pay $80,000 settlement to pair arrested for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts"

A couple arrested at a rally after refusing to cover T-shirts that bore anti-President George W. Bush slogans settled their lawsuit against the federal government for $80,000, the American Civil Liberties Union announced.

Nicole and Jeffery Rank of Corpus Christi, Texas, were handcuffed and removed from the July 4, 2004, rally at the state Capitol, where Bush gave a speech. A judge dismissed trespassing charges against them, and an order closing the case was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Charleston.

"This settlement is a real victory not only for our clients but for the First Amendment," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech, among other rights.

"As a result of the Ranks' courageous stand, public officials will think twice before they eject peaceful protesters from public events for exercising their right to dissent," Schneider said...

The front of the Ranks' homemade T-shirts bore the international symbol for "no" superimposed over the word "Bush." The back of Nicole Rank's T-shirt said "Love America, Hate Bush." On the back of Jeffery Rank's T-shirt was the message "Regime Change Starts at Home."

The ACLU said in a statement that a presidential advance manual makes it clear that the government tries to exclude dissenters from the president's appearances. "As a last resort," the manual says, "security should remove the demonstrators from the event."

"Tolls, Congestion Pricing Face Drivers in Five U.S. Cities"

Getting around in New York City is about to become easier for pedestrians and transit passengers, but more expensive for drivers who want to enter Manhattan's downtown business district. On Monday, New York was awarded $354 million in federal funds to implement a congestion pricing program that aims to keep more cars and trucks out of the core downtown area.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters selected five metropolitan areas as the first communities to participate in a new $848.1 million federal initiative to fight traffic gridlock. As the nation's largest city, New York is receiving the lion's share of the funds.

Miami, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle also were chosen to receive smaller amounts for their traffic programs after a nationwide competition to select winners from among the 26 cities that applied to join the Department of Transportation's Urban Partnership program. The program aims to cut traffic congestion using approaches like congestion pricing, transit, tolling, and teleworking.

New York: 354.5 Million

The pilot would establish congestion pricing to manage traffic in the Central Business District. On weekdays from 6 am to 6 pm, trucks would be charged $21 a day and cars would be charged $8 to enter this area, in addition to premium parking fees charged by city and private lots...

If the State Legislature approves a pilot congestion pricing plan or an alternative pricing mechanism, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority will receive $184 million for new bus facilities and the city will receive $112.7 million to establish Bus Rapid Transit in all five boroughs.

The city will also receive $29.3 million for pedestrian and traffic signal improvements, $10.4 million in grant money to implement congestion pricing, $15.8 to improve ferry service, and $2 million to conduct research.

Minneapolis: $133.3 Million

The $133.3 million transportation award to Minneapolis is especially timely after the collapse of the I-35W Bridge on August 1 that killed nine people, with four others still missing and presumed dead...

As part of Minnesota's plan, High Occupancy Toll lanes will replace High Occupancy Vehicle lanes along I-35W from 66th Street to Burnsville Parkway, speeding commutes into the Twin Cities while giving drivers new options for getting home faster.

Shoulder lanes will operate as toll lanes during congested periods and will charge tolls based on the levels of traffic.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation will use $13.2 million of the funding to purchase new buses and equipment, Secretary Peters said...

Seattle: $138.7 Million

A different bridge figures prominently in the federal grant to Washington state.

The federal government will provide $138.7 million if Washington will impose a toll on the old Highway 520 floating bridge, Secretary Peters said. Spanning Seattle's Lake Washington, it is the longest floating bridge in the world.
Tolls would be part of a comprehensive effort to reduce congestion and to raise money toward a replacement bridge, she said.

The grant includes $86 million for toll equipment, enforcement cameras, message signs and telecommute programs.

There would be $41 million for new King County Metro Transit buses, plus two park-and-ride lots at south Kirkland and Redmond. An additional $12 million is included to add passenger-ferry service from Vashon Island to Seattle.

San Francisco: $158 million

This grant centers on the San Francisco Doyle Drive congestion pricing program. It will use tolling to manage congestion on Doyle Drive, the elevated access road connecting the Golden Gate Bridge to downtown San Francisco.

Drivers on Doyle Drive will be charged a fee according to the level of congestion on the road. The fee would be collected electronically through overhead sensors, not at a separate toll plaza, says the San Francisco Transportation Authority.

The revenues will be used to rebuild the roadway to earthquake safety standards, improve parking access to Golden Gate Transit ferry services, and provide better transit service.

Miami: $62.9 Million

With its award of $62.9 million, the state of Florida intends to begin converting the underused and unpopular High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on Interstate 95 into an electronic High Occupancy Toll highway.

The Florida Department of Transportation will reconstruct and restripe the 21 mile stretch of I-95 between Interstate 395 in downtown Miami and Interstate 595 near Fort Lauderdale to allow 12 total lanes of traffic.

Two lanes in each direction will have tolls, while four lanes in each direction will still be free of charge. Toll prices will vary depending on the volume of traffic in the express lanes.

While I think it's good to come up with ways to reduce traffic - it seems that these sorts of things are quite a bit more of a burden on people with less money. I suppose that must be part of the plan. It wouldn't make much difference to those with a large disposable income.

7.9 Earthquake in Peru

A powerful earthquake struck Peru's central coast at 18:40 local time Wednesday, shaking buildings in the capital, prompting a tsunami warning, killing hundreds of people and injuring at least 1,000 others. More deaths and injuries are being reported hourly.

Peru's Health Minister Carlos Vallejos said in a radio broadcast early Thursday that the quake has claimed at least 115 lives and injured more than 1,000 other people.

But the nation's civil defense agency, which is in charge of rescue efforts, said on its website that more than 330 people have died.

The quake caused cars to jump and shattered windows of some downtown Lima buildings. People fled into the streets of Lima, and communities closer to the epicenter, near the hardest hit city of Ica, a city of 650,000 people located 165 miles southeast of the capital.

Many Lima residents chose to bed down outside after the quake shook their homes. (Photo credit unknown)

The quake measured magnitude 7.9, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and four strong aftershocks were felt following the main quake.

The epicenter was placed at about 90 miles southeast of Lima at a depth of about 25 miles, according to the Geophysics Institute of Peru.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"A Star with a Comet's Tail"


Astronomers using a NASA space telescope, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, have spotted an amazingly long comet-like tail behind a star streaking through space. The star, named Mira after the Latin word for "wonderful," has been a favorite of astronomers for about 400 years, yet this is the first time the tail has been seen.

Galaxy Evolution Explorer--"GALEX" for short--scanned the popular star during its ongoing survey of the entire sky in ultraviolet light. Astronomers then noticed what looked like a comet with a gargantuan tail. In fact, material blowing off Mira is forming a wake 13 light-years long, or about 20,000 times the average distance of Pluto from the sun. Nothing like this has ever been seen before around a star...

Astronomers say Mira's tail offers a unique opportunity to study how stars like our sun die and ultimately seed new solar systems. Mira is an older star called a red giant that is losing massive amounts of surface material. As Mira hurtles along, its tail sheds carbon, oxygen and other important elements needed for new stars, planets and possibly even life to form. This tail material, visible now for the first time, has been released over the past 30,000 years.
"This is an utterly new phenomenon to us, and we are still in the process of understanding the physics involved," says co-author Mark Seibert of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Pasadena. "We hope to be able to read Mira's tail like a ticker tape to learn about the star's life."...

" The Puzzle of Hidden Ability"

By Sharon Begley / Newsweek

Even their parents struggle to draw the tiniest hint of emotion or social connection from autistic children, so imagine what happens when a stranger sits with the child for hours to get through the standard IQ test. For 10 of the test's 12 sections, the child must listen and respond to spoken questions. Since for many autistics it is torture to try to engage with someone even on this impersonal level, it's no wonder so many wind up with IQ scores just above a carrot's (I wish I were exaggerating; 20s are not unknown). More precisely, fully three quarters of autistics are classified as having below-normal intelligence, with many deemed mentally retarded.

It's finally dawning on scientists that there's a problem here. Testing autistic kids' intelligence in a way that requires them to engage with a stranger "is like giving a blind person an intelligence test that requires him to process visual information," says Michelle Dawson of Rivière-des-Prairies Hospital in Montreal. She and colleagues therefore tried a different IQ test, one that requires no social interaction. As they report in the journal Psychological Science, autistic children's scores came out starkly different than on the oral, interactive IQ test—suggesting a burning intelligence inside these kids that educators are failing to uncover.

That failure has lifelong implications. "If we label these children as below-normal in intelligence, that is how they're treated," says Laurent Mottron, who led the study. The disparity between scores on the two IQ tests also makes you wonder who else the tests, which are used for everything from screening military recruits to filling "gifted" classes, are mislabeling.

For the study, children took two IQ tests. In the more widely used Wechsler, they tried to arrange and complete pictures, do simple arithmetic, demonstrate vocabulary comprehension and answer questions such as what to do if you find a wallet on the street—almost all in response to a stranger's questions. In the Raven's Progressive Matrices test, they got brief instructions, then went off on their own to analyze three-by-three arrays of geometric designs, with one missing, and choose (from six or eight possibilities) the design that belonged in the empty place. The disparity in scores was striking. One autistic child's Wechsler result meant he was mentally retarded (an IQ below 70); his Raven's put him in the 94th percentile. Overall, the autistics (all had full-blown autism, not Asperger's) scored around the 30th percentile on the Wechsler, which corresponds to "low average" IQ. But they averaged in the 56th percentile on the Raven's. Not a single autistic child scored in the "high intelligence" range on the Wechsler; on the Raven's, one third did. Healthy children showed no such disparity.

The Wechsler measures "crystallized intelligence"—what you've learned. The Raven's measures "fluid intelligence"—the ability to learn, process information, ignore distractions, solve problems and reason—and so is arguably a truer measure of intelligence, says psychologist Steven Stemler of Wesleyan University.

That presents a puzzle. If many autistics are more intelligent than an IQ test shows, why haven't their parents noticed? Partly because many parents welcome a low score, which brings their child more special services from schools and public agencies, says one scientist who has an autistic son (and who fears that being named would antagonize the close-knit autism community). But another force is at work. "We often think of intelligence as what you can show, such as by speaking fluently," says psychologist Morton Ann Gernsbacher of the University of Wisconsin. "Parents as well as professionals might be biased to look at that" rather than dig for the hidden intellectual spark.

The challenge is to coax that spark into the kind of intelligence that manifests itself in practice. That is something autism researchers are far from doing. Worse, much of the expert advice might be counterproductive. Many experts dismiss autistics' exceptional reading, artistic or other abilities as side effects of abnormal brain function, "not a reflection of genuine human intelligence, which it is likely to be," says Mottron. They advise parents to steer their child away from what he excels at and obsesses over, such as letters and words and details, and toward what he struggles with, such as faces and the big picture. Dawson, who is autistic, thinks that's a prescription for intellectual failure; autistics should be encouraged to build on their strengths, as everyone else is. The problem of a lurking intelligence that won't be coaxed out by the usual education and parenting methods is not necessarily unique to autistics. It makes you wonder how many other children, whose intellectual potential we're too blind to see, we've also given up on.

"Australia discovers ocean current "missing link"

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian scientists have discovered a giant underwater current that is one of the last missing links of a system that connects the world's oceans and helps govern global climate.

New research shows that a current sweeping past Australia's southern island of Tasmania toward the South Atlantic is a previously undetected part of the world climate system's engine-room, said scientist Ken Ridgway.

The Southern Ocean, which swirls around Antarctica, has been identified in recent years as the main lung of global climate, absorbing a third of all carbon dioxide taken in by the world's oceans.

"We knew that they (deep ocean pathway currents) could move from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean through Indonesia. Now we can see that they move south of Tasmania as well, another important link," Ridgway, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, told Reuters.

In each ocean, water flows around anticlockwise pathways, or gyres, the size of ocean basins.

The newly discovered Tasman Outflow, which sweeps past Tasmania at an average depth of 800-1,000 meters (2,600 to 3,300 feet), is classed as a "supergyre" that links the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic southern hemisphere ocean basins, the government-backed CSIRO said in a statement on Wednesday.

The CSIRO team analyzed thousands of temperature and salinity data samples collected between 1950 and 2002 by research ships, robotic ocean monitors and satellites between 60 degrees south, just north of the Antarctic Circle, and the Equator.

"They identified linkages between these gyres to form a global-scale 'supergyre' that transfers water to all three ocean basins," the CSIRO said.

Ridgway and co-author Jeff Dunn said identification of the supergyre improves the ability of researchers to more accurately explain how the ocean governs global climate.

"Recognizing the scales and patterns of these subsurface water masses means they can be incorporated into the powerful models used by scientists to project how climate may change," Ridgway said in a statement.

The best known of the global ocean currents is the North Atlantic loop of the Great Ocean Conveyer, which brings warm water from the Equator to waters off northern Europe, ensuring relatively mild weather there. Scientists say if the conveyor collapsed, northern Europe would be plunged into an ice age.

Earlier this year, another CSIRO scientist said global warming was already having an impact on the vast Southern Ocean, posing a threat to myriad ocean currents that distribute heat around the world.

Melting ice-sheets and glaciers in Antarctica are releasing fresh water, interfering with the formation of dense "bottom water," which sinks 4-5 kilometers to the ocean floor and helps drive the world's ocean circulation system.

A slowdown in the system known as "overturning circulation" would affect the way the ocean, which absorbs 85 percent of atmospheric heat, carries heat around the globe, Steve Rintoul, a senior scientist at the CSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research, said in March.

Friday, August 10, 2007

"Origins Of Life: New Approach Helps Expand Study Of Living Fossils"

The origin of life lies in unique ocean reefs, and scientists from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science have developed an approach to help investigate them better. A new article published in the November issue of Geology reveals how Dr. Miriam Andres' stromatolite investigation — the first of its kind — has begun to “fingerprint” ancient microbial pathways, increasing the understanding of how these reef-like structures form and offering a new way to explore the origins of these living records, which are considered to be the core of most living organisms.

Modern marine stromatolites are living examples of one of the earth's oldest and most persistent widespread ecosystems. Although rare today, these layered deposits of calcium carbonate are found in shallow marine seas throughout 3.4 billion-year-old geologic records. Ancient stromatolites represent a mineral record of carbonate chemistry and the evolution of early life. In the Geology paper, Dr. Andres and colleagues point out that incorrect assumptions have been made in interpreting stromatolite data: phototrophs, or oxygen-producers, were actually dominated by heterotrophs, or oxygen-consumers, in their contribution to stromatolite formation.

“The motivation for this study is that in ancient stromatolites, direct evidence of microbial activity is lacking,” Dr. Andres explained. “Stable isotopes have provided a powerful tool to ‘fingerprint’ microbial pathways and better understand the sedimentary structures we see in the geologic record. Surprisingly, no study to date has documented this process for modern marine stromatolites.”

Stromatolites are the oldest known macrofossils, dating back over three billion years. Dominating the fossil record for 80 percent of our planet's history, stromatolites formed massive reefs in this plane's primitive oceans. While stromatolites look much like coral reefs, they are actually formed from living microorganisms, both animal and plant-like. These microorganisms trap and bind sand grains together and/or produce calcium carbonate to form laminated limestone mounds.

“We knew that the stromatolite ecosystem was dominated by photosynthetic cyanobacteria, and expected to see this reflected in a positive carbon isotopic value. However, we saw the exact opposite.” Andres said.

“We still don't understand how stromatolites calicify,” Dr. Andres said, referring to her research plans. “This information will be key to understanding how organisms form skeletons and when this process — leaving lasting impressions of historical biological data — first began.”

More information on stromatolites can be found at

"Global Warming: A Real Solution"

I haven't read all of this - by ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR. - but I may want to come back to it (this is page one of 6). It looks like it's about what corportations are doing/can do:

In early May, 100 of the nation's top business leaders gathered for a summit at a private resort nestled on 250 acres in California's Napa Valley. The attendees, gathered at the invitation of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, included CEOs and other top executives from such Fortune 500 corporations as Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble and BP. They had been invited to discuss ways to end America's fossil-fuel addiction and save the world from global warming. But in reality they had come to make money for their companies ? and that may turn out to be the thing that saves us.
For three days, the executives listened as their colleagues and business rivals described how they are using new technologies to wean themselves from oil and boost their profits in the process. DuPont has cut its climate-warming pollution by seventy-two percent since 1990, slashing $3 billion from its energy bills while increasing its global production by nearly a third. Wal-Mart has installed new, energy-efficient light bulbs in refrigeration units that save the company $12 million a year, and skylights that cut utility bills by up to $70,000 per store. The company, which operates the nation's second-largest corporate truck fleet, also saved $22 million last year just by installing auxiliary power units that allow drivers to operate electric systems without idling their vehicles. In a move with even more far-reaching potential, Wal-Mart has ordered its truck suppliers to double the gas mileage of the company's entire fleet by 2015. When those trucks become available to other businesses, America will cut its demand for oil by six percent.

The executives gathered at the retreat weren't waiting around for federal subsidies or new regulations to tilt the market in their direction. Business logic, not government intervention, was driving them to cut energy costs and invest in new fuel sources. "We haven't even touched the low-hanging fruit yet," Kim Saylors-Laster, the vice president of energy for Wal-Mart, told the assembled CEOs. "We're still getting the fruit that has already fallen from the trees."

As the discussions at the summit demonstrated, America's top executives know something that the Bush administration has yet to realize: America doesn't need to wait for futuristic, pie-in-the-sky technologies to cut its reckless consumption of oil and coal. Our last, best hope to stop climate change is the free market itself. There is gold in going green, and the same drive to make a buck that created global warming in the first place can now be harnessed to slow the carbon-based pollution that is overheating the planet.

And green investment will not just enrich a few corporations. We know from past experience that it will strengthen America's economy, not to mention our national security, our economic independence and the effectiveness of our world leadership. During the oil crisis sparked by OPEC in the 1970s, American business and government went into overdrive to promote conservation and develop alternatives to Middle Eastern oil....

The Venice Biennale

Their outfits remind me of some of my costume stuff. Snips from a NYT blog:

A city where, at least for a few months, art is everywhere. You cannot escape it if you try. Of course, there is a lot of public art in New York, but during the Biennale, Venice becomes indistinguishable from art. Even the owners of the 287-year-old Caffè Florian in St. Mark’s Square commission contemporary art every two years. This time, one of their gilded rococo middle parlors was turned into what looked like a municipal garage, courtesy of two artists from Turin, Gianfranco Botto and Roberta Bruno. There’s even a table in the parlor for customers, although people tend to stare in, look distressed and search for another place to sit.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"Coral reef loss at unprecedented levels"

By Paul Eccleston / from the UK's telegraph

Pacific coral reefs are dying at an unprecedented rate, scientists have found. Almost 600 square miles of reef have disappeared every year since the late 1960s - twice the rate of rainforest loss.

Coral loss had become a global phenomenon caused mainly by climate change, rising sea temperatures and man-made nutrient pollution.

The study's lead author, John Bruno, said: "We have already lost half of the world's reef-building corals."

The results of the study in the central and western Pacific are published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. It provides the first regional-scale and long-term analysis of coral loss in the region where relatively little was known about patterns of reef loss.

The Indo-Pacific contains 75 per cent of the world's coral reefs and has the highest coral diversity in the world. High coral cover reefs in the Indo-Pacific ocean were common until a few decades ago, researchers found.

The study, which analysed a database of 6,000 quantitative surveys performed between 1968 and 2004 of more than 2,600 Indo-Pacific coral reefs revealed that reefs are disappearing at a rate of one per cent a year, a decline that began decades earlier than expected.

Historically, coral cover, a measure of reef health, hovered around 50 per cent. Today, only about two per cent of reefs in the Indo-Pacific have coral cover close to the historical baseline.

"Pollution Prompts Record Number of Beach Closings Nationwide"

The water at American beaches was unsafe for swimming a record number of days last year, according to the 17th annual beach water quality report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Using data just collected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” tallied more than 25,000 closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2006. The number of no-swim days caused by stormwater more than doubled from the year before.

“Vacations are being ruined. Families can’t use the beaches in their own communities because they are polluted. Kids are getting sick – all because of sewage and contaminated runoff from outdated, under-funded treatment systems,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s water program.

In addition to compiling data on 3,500 U.S. beaches, the report this year takes an especially close look at the nation’s highest risk beaches – those that are either very popular, very close to pollution sources, or both. Of those highest risk beaches, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Minnesota ranked the worst for failing to meet national health standards. This new area of focus is the result of a peer review process NRDC undertook with five professionals from local and state health agencies, academia, and the research community. Click here for the full report.

Aging and poorly-designed sewage and storm water systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution. The problem was compounded by record rainfall, which added to the strain on already overloaded infrastructure. The authors also say that careless urban sprawl in coastal areas is devouring wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that would otherwise help filter out dangerous pollution.

“A summer rainstorm should not have to mean that endless amounts of pollution are washed down to the beach, or that sewers will overflow. We can fix leaky pipes; we can require costal developers to maintain vegetation to absorb rain. The solutions are out there,” Stoner said.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Denial Machine

Article in Newsweek

Sen. Barbara Boxer had been chair of the Senate's Environment Committee for less than a month when the verdict landed last February. "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," concluded a report by 600 scientists from governments, academia, green groups and businesses in 40 countries. Worse, there was now at least a 90 percent likelihood that the release of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels is causing longer droughts, more flood-causing downpours and worse heat waves, way up from earlier studies. Those who doubt the reality of human-caused climate change have spent decades disputing that. But Boxer figured that with "the overwhelming science out there, the deniers' days were numbered." As she left a meeting with the head of the international climate panel, however, a staffer had some news for her. A conservative think tank long funded by ExxonMobil, she told Boxer, had offered scientists $10,000 to write articles undercutting the new report and the computer-based climate models it is based on. "I realized," says Boxer, "there was a movement behind this that just wasn't giving up."

...outside Hollywood, Manhattan and other habitats of the chattering classes, the denial machine is running at full throttle—and continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion.

Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. "They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry," says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration. "Both figured, sow enough doubt, call the science uncertain and in dispute. That's had a huge impact on both the public and Congress."

Just last year, polls found that 64 percent of Americans thought there was "a lot" of scientific disagreement on climate change; only one third thought planetary warming was "mainly caused by things people do." In contrast, majorities in Europe and Japan recognize a broad consensus among climate experts that greenhouse gases—mostly from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas to power the world's economies—are altering climate. A new NEWSWEEK Poll finds that the influence of the denial machine remains strong. Although the figure is less than in earlier polls, 39 percent of those asked say there is "a lot of disagreement among climate scientists" on the basic question of whether the planet is warming; 42 percent say there is a lot of disagreement that human activities are a major cause of global warming. Only 46 percent say the greenhouse effect is being felt today.

As a result of the undermining of the science, all the recent talk about addressing climate change has produced little in the way of actual action. Yes, last September Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a landmark law committing California to reduce statewide emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent more by 2050. And this year both Minnesota and New Jersey passed laws requiring their states to reduce greenhouse emissions 80 percent below recent levels by 2050. In January, nine leading corporations—including Alcoa, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, Du Pont and General Electric—called on Congress to "enact strong national legislation" to reduce greenhouse gases. But although at least eight bills to require reductions in greenhouse gases have been introduced in Congress, their fate is decidedly murky. The Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives decided last week not even to bring to a vote a requirement that automakers improve vehicle mileage, an obvious step toward reducing greenhouse emissions.......

"UN climate chief calls on rich nations to cut emissions "

PARIS -- The UN's top official on climate change on Friday called on wealthy countries to emulate the European Union (EU) and Japan by offering to slash their carbon emissions at a conference to be hosted by the US next month.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said the talks for long-term emissions reductions in Washington on September 27-28, announced by the White House earlier, offered an exceptional chance to break the deadlock for tackling greenhouse gases.

"I view it with a lot of hope and expectation. This is the next step in the process and I am very keen to see where it takes us," de Boer said in an interview from Bonn with AFP.

"I would like to see a serious commitment from industrialized countries that they will go much further [in offering to cut greenhouse-gas pollution] than what they have already proposed."

De Boer singled out as a model the EU, which has committed itself to cutting its own emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and promised to deepen this to 30 percent if other big polluters follow suit, and Japan which wants the world to halve emissions by 2050.

The Washington conference, gathering major emitters in the rich and developing world as well as representatives from other big emerging economies, will be hosted by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and be addressed by President George W. Bush.

The goal is to agree on "a detailed contribution for a new global framework by the end of 2008" and this in turn would feed into a global deal under the UNFCCC, Bush said in his invitation, announced on Friday.

Under Bush, the United States has refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which requires rich countries to curb greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

The absence of the world's No. 1 polluter has nearly crippled the treaty, and its future beyond 2012, when its present commitment period runs out, is also uncertain.

Negotiations on the post-2012 treaty take place in Bali, Indonesia, in December under the UNFCCC, which is Kyoto's parent.

The process has been dogged by two problems -- how far big developing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, will pledge to tackle their own pollution, and the unwillingness of the United States to embrace the Kyoto principle of mandatory cuts.

Bush unveiled his initiative ahead of the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, in June.

His scheme stirred anxieties among Kyoto's European champions that he sought to subvert the UNFCCC and exclude poor countries by limiting the deal to rich countries.

De Boer said he did not feel any concern on that score, as the G8 summit made clear that the multilateral process was paramount.

"I would describe President Bush as taking climate change by the horns, but I want to see where he and the bull go," he admitted, however.

Bush has always opposed the Kyoto Protocol, arguing its binding caps on emissions would be too costly for the oil-dependent US economy.

He also said it was unfair, as its present format only requires industrial countries, and not fast-growing emerging economies such as China and India, to make such pledges.

These countries reply that they will tackle their pollution as much as they can, provided it does not hurt their rise out of poverty and rich countries, which are historically to blame for global warming, shoulder the main burden.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Urban Photographer Michael Wolf


I saw one of Wolf's images on the Reclusive Leftist's blog. Mostly straight on details of buildings.

Some photos show a building where there is no evidence of people - it may appear more pristene, new. In others the residents and/or their belongings are more and less obvious. The sense of those is people trying to cope in a small space without air conditioning, perhaps. A building in decline.

"Russians Plant Flag on the Arctic Seabed"

By C. J. CHIVERS / from The New York Times

MOSCOW — A Russian expedition descended in a pair of submersible vessels more than two miles under the ice cap on Thursday and deposited a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. The dive was a symbolic move to enhance the government’s disputed claim to nearly half of the floor of the Arctic Ocean and potential oil or other resources there.

The expedition, covered intensely by Russian news organizations and state-controlled television, mixed high-seas adventure with the long Russian tradition of polar exploration. But it was also an openly choreographed publicity stunt.

Inside the first of the mini-submarines to reach the sea floor were two members of Russia’s lower house of Parliament. One of them, Artur N. Chilingarov, led the expedition to seek evidence reinforcing Russia’s claim over the largely uncharted domain. That claim, which has no current legal standing, rests on a Russian assertion that the seabed under the pole, called the Lomonosov Ridge, is an extension of Russia’s continental shelf and thus Russian territory.

At least one country with a stake in the issue registered its immediate disapproval of the expedition. “This isn’t the 15th century,” Peter MacKay, Canada’s foreign minister, said on CTV television. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”

Russia submitted its claim in 2001 to an international commission, which has ruled that the available data is not sufficient to support it. But Russia has pressed on.

“We must determine the border, the most northerly of the Russian shelf,” Mr. Chilingarov said on national television before the dive, which was billed as the first of its sort — a descent into the inky darkness far beneath a large window cut into the ice sheet by a nuclear-powered ice breaker.

After resurfacing more than eight hours later, Mr. Chilingarov spoke as if he had been the first to the moon. “If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag,” he said. The flag is reproduced in titanium. He later added, “Our task is to remind the world that Russia is a great Arctic and scientific power.”

The day’s events underscored both Russia’s restored sense of confidence and the international competition for access, influence and extraction rights in the far north, which has intensified as oil and gas prices have surged and as trends in global warming have encouraged speculation that the region could become more navigable...

Five countries — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States — have territory in the Arctic Circle and under international convention have rights to economic zones within 200 miles of their borders. Denmark has sent its own scientific expeditions to study the opposite end of the ocean-spanning ridge and to seek proof that it is torn from the continental shelf north of Greenland, which is a Danish territory.

Several other countries seek to extend their influence in the circle, seeing the mostly unpopulated region’s potential for providing a hydrocarbon and mineral rush. The ultimate demarcation, if geologists’ estimates of its deposits prove true, could be a key to future national wealth and power...