Scientific American reports: Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from huge blasts of deadly solar radiation, has been weakening over the past six months, according to data collected by a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite array called Swarm.
The biggest weak spots in the magnetic field — which extends 370,000 miles (600,000 kilometers) above the planet’s surface — have sprung up over the Western Hemisphere, while the field has strengthened over areas like the southern Indian Ocean, according to the magnetometers onboard the Swarm satellites — three separate satellites floating in tandem.
The scientists who conducted the study are still unsure why the magnetic field is weakening, but one likely reason is that Earth’s magnetic poles are getting ready to flip, said Rune Floberghagen, the ESA’s Swarm mission manager. In fact, the data suggest magnetic north is moving toward Siberia.
“Such a flip is not instantaneous, but would take many hundred if not a few thousand years,” Floberghagen told Live Science. “They have happened many times in the past.”
Scientists already know that magnetic north shifts. Once every few hundred thousand years the magnetic poles flip so that a compass would point south instead of north. While changes in magnetic field strength are part of this normal flipping cycle, data from Swarm have shown the field is starting to weaken faster than in the past. Previously, researchers estimated the field was weakening about 5 percent per century, but the new data revealed the field is actually weakening at 5 percent per decade, or 10 times faster than thought. As such, rather than the full flip occurring in about 2,000 years, as was predicted, the new data suggest it could happen sooner. [Continue reading...]
Phys.org: Feeding a growing human population without increasing stresses on Earth’s strained land and water resources may seem like an impossible challenge. But according to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of 3 billion more people and decrease agriculture’s environmental footprint.
The report, published today in Science, focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption on a global scale. It proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that that have the greatest potential for reducing the adverse environmental impacts of agriculture and boosting our ability meet global food needs. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where nongovernmental organizations, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can target food-security efforts for the greatest impact. The biggest opportunities cluster in six countries—China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan—along with Europe.
“This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people,” said lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative. “By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.” [Continue reading...]
Jeff Ritterman, M.D. writes: For years, scientists have been trying to unravel the mystery of a chronic kidney disease epidemic that has hit Central America, India and Sri Lanka. The disease occurs in poor peasant farmers who do hard physical work in hot climes. In each instance, the farmers have been exposed to herbicides and to heavy metals. The disease is known as CKDu, for Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology. The “u” differentiates this illness from other chronic kidney diseases where the cause is known. Very few Western medical practitioners are even aware of CKDu, despite the terrible toll it has taken on poor farmers from El Salvador to South Asia.
Dr. Catharina Wesseling, the regional director for the Program on Work and Health (SALTRA) in Central America, which pioneered the initial studies of the region’s unsolved outbreak, put it this way, “Nephrologists and public health professionals from wealthy countries are mostly either unfamiliar with the problem or skeptical whether it even exists.”
Dr. Wesseling was being diplomatic. At a 2011 health summit in Mexico City, the United States beat back a proposal by Central American nations that would have listed CKDu as a top priority for the Americas.
“The idea was to keep the focus on the key big risk factors that we could control and the major causes of death: heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And we felt, the position we were taking, that CKD was included.”
The United States was wrong. The delegates from Central America were correct. CKDu is a new form of illness. This kidney ailment does not stem from diabetes, hypertension or other diet-related risk factors. Unlike the kidney disease found in diabetes or hypertension, the kidney tubules are a major site of injury in CKDu, suggesting a toxic etiology. [Continue reading...]
Scientific American: Overfishing and pollution have pushed life in the high seas to the brink of collapse, according to a new report from the Global Ocean Commission. “The oceans are a failed state,” David Miliband, co-chair of the commission, told Reuters. The commission has implored governments to set a five-year deadline to deal with threats to the health of the high seas, which are marine waters outside national coastal zones; these seas cover almost half the globe.
Fishermen catch around ten million tons of fish from the high seas every year, with a value of $16 billion dollars. It’s a vast ocean of resources only recently made accessible by advances in fishing technology. The report warns that a combination of technology and big fuel subsidies have enabled industrial fishing fleets to heavily exploit 87% of the fish species there. Eighteen countries hand out billions of dollars in subsidies; the United States bestows fleets with $137 million for a catch worth $368 million.
Pollution, largely from plastics, also endangers ocean health. The abundance of plastics in the marine environment has risen tenfold every decade in some locations, and poses a hazard to sea life when they eat it or get entangled in it. Habitat destruction, climate change, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss also pose a danger to ocean ecosystems. [Continue reading...]
AFP reports: Neurotoxic pesticides blamed for the world’s bee collapse are also harming butterflies, worms, fish and birds, said a scientific review that called Tuesday for tighter regulation to curb their use.
Analysing two decades of reports on the topic, an international panel of 29 scientists found there was “clear evidence of harm” from use of two pesticide types, neonicotinoids and fipronil.
And the evidence was “sufficient to trigger regulatory action”.
“We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment,” said Jean-Marc Bonmatin of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, co-author of the report entitled the Worldwide Integrated Assessment.
Far from protecting food production, these nerve-targeting insecticides known as neonics were “imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”
The four-year assessment was carried out by The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which advises the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s watchdog on species loss.
Neonics are widely used insecticides whose effects can be instant and lethal, or chronic. Exposure can impair smell and memory in some species, curb procreation, reduce foraging, cause flight difficulties and increase disease susceptibility.
Used for insect pest management in farming, but also in pet flea control, they have been fingered in the recent decline in bees — crucial pollinators of human food crops — in Europe, the Americas and Asia.
The latest study says these pesticides, absorbed by plants, are also harming other insect pollinators, fish and birds as they leach into soil and water.
The most affected species were terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms, which are crucial soil-enrichers, said a press statement.
Bees and butterflies were next, followed by aquatic invertebrates like freshwater snails and water fleas, then birds, and finally fish, amphibians and certain microbes. [Continue reading...]
Imidacloprid, primarily manufactured by Bayer CropScience, is not only the most widely used neonicotinoid pesticide but also the most widely used insecticide of any type in the world.
George Monbiot writes: Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.
Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.
Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth. [Continue reading...]
The Telegraph reports: Russia is launching a strategic drive to unlock its shale oil wealth as crude output stagnates and reserves run low in the West Siberian fields, aiming to replicate America’s technology leap in a near total reversal of policy.
The Kremlin has launched an “action plan” to master fracking methods and lure investors into the Bazhenov prospective, a shale basin the size of France to the east of the Urals. Officials are no longer dismissing shale’s promise as a mirage. “We are clearing away the administrative barriers to exploration. This is the urgent challenge we are now facing,” said Kirill Molodtsov, the deputy energy minister.
The US Energy Department estimates that Russia has 75bn barrels of recoverable shale oil resources, the world’s largest deposits. The Bazhenov field is 80 times bigger than the US Bakken field in North Dakota, which alone produces 1m barrels a day.
BP joined the scramble on Saturday by signing a deal to explore for shale in Volga Urals with Rosneft, even though Rosneft’s chairman Igor Sechin is on the US sanctions list. [Continue reading...]
Mother Jones reports: Early on the morning of July 6, 2013, a runaway freight train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, setting off a series of massive explosions and inundating the town in flaming oil. The inferno destroyed the downtown area; 47 people died.
The 72-car train had been carrying nearly 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields. While the recent surge in domestic oil production has raised concerns about fracking, less attention has been paid to the billions of gallons of petroleum crisscrossing the country in "virtual pipelines" running through neighborhoods and alongside waterways. Most of this oil is being shipped in what’s been called "the Ford Pinto of rail cars"—a tank car whose safety flaws have been known for more than two decades. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported on Monday. If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries.
Global warming caused by the human-driven release of greenhouse gases has helped to destabilize the ice sheet, though other factors may also be involved, the scientists said.
The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the 21st century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.
“This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research, said in an interview. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”
Two scientific papers released on Monday by the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters came to similar conclusions by different means. Both groups of scientists found that West Antarctic glaciers had retreated far enough to set off an inherent instability in the ice sheet, one that experts have feared for decades. [Continue reading...]
Justin E.H. Smith writes: There is a great die-off under way, one that may justly be compared to the disappearance of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, or the sudden downfall of so many great mammals at the beginning of the Holocene. But how far can such a comparison really take us in assessing the present moment?
The hard data tell us that what is happening to animals right now is part of the same broad historical process that has swept up humans: We are all being homogenized, subjected to uniform standards, domesticated. A curiosity that might help to drive this home: At present, the total biomass of mammals raised for food vastly exceeds the biomass of all mammalian wildlife on the planet (it also exceeds that of the human species itself). This was certainly not the case 10,000 or so years ago, at the dawn of the age of pastoralism.
It is hard to know where exactly, or even inexactly, to place the boundary between prehistory and history. Indeed, some authors argue that the very idea of prehistory is a sort of artificial buffer zone set up to protect properly human society from the vast expanse of mere nature that preceded us. But if we must set up a boundary, I suggest the moment when human beings began to dominate and control other large mammals for their own, human ends.
We tend to think about history as human history. Yet a suitably wide-focused perspective reveals that nothing in the course of human affairs makes complete sense without some account of animal actors. History has, in fact, been a question of human-animal interaction all along. Cherchez la vache is how the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard argued that the social life of the cattle-herding Nuer of southern Sudan might best be summed up — “look for the cow” — but one could probably, without much stretching, extend that principle to human society in general. The cattle that now outweigh us are a mirror of our political and economic crisis, just as cattle were once a mirror of the sociocosmic harmony that characterized Nuer life. [Continue reading...]
Mongabay.com: It could be the plot of a horror movie: humans wake up one day to discover that chemical changes in the atmosphere are dissolving away parts of their bodies. But for small marine life known as sea butterflies, or pteropods, this is what’s happening off the West Cost of the U.S. Increased carbon in the ocean is melting away shells of sea butterflies, which are tiny marine snails that underpin much of the ocean’s food chain, including prey for pink salmon, mackerel, and herring.
“We did not expect to see pteropods being affected to this extent in our coastal region for several decades,” said William Peterson, Ph.D., an oceanographer at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who co-authored the findings in a paper for the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Sampling sea butterflies in the species Limacina helicina off California, Washington, and Oregon in the summer of 2011, researchers found that over 50 percent of onshore sea butterflies suffered from “severe dissolution damage,” according to the paper. Offshore, 24 percent of individuals showed such damage.
The shells of sea butterflies are dissolving due to increased acidification in the oceans caused by society’s CO2 emissions. [Continue reading...]
Richard Louv writes: A few years ago, I visited Southwood Elementary, the grade school I attended when I was a boy growing up in Raytown, Missouri. I asked a classroom of children about their relationship with nature. Many of them offered the now-typical response: they preferred playing video games; they favored indoor activities—and when they were outside, they played soccer or some other adult-organized sport. But one fifth-grader, described by her teacher as “our little poet,” wearing a plain print dress and an intensely serious expression, said, “When I’m in the woods, I feel like I’m in my mother’s shoes.” To her, nature represented beauty, refuge, and something else.
“It’s so peaceful out there and the air smells so good. For me, it’s completely different there,” she said. “It’s your own time. Sometimes I go there when I’m mad — and then, just with the peacefulness, I’m better. I can come back home happy, and my mom doesn’t even know why.” She paused. “I had a place. There was a big waterfall and a creek on one side of it. I’d dug a big hole there, and sometimes I’d take a tent back there, or a blanket, and just lay down in the hole, and look up at the trees and sky. Sometimes I’d fall asleep back in there. I just felt free; it was like my place, and I could do what I wanted, with nobody to stop me. I used to go down there almost every day.” The young poet’s face flushed. Her voice thickened. “And then they just cut the woods down. It was like they cut down part of me.”
I was struck by her last comment: “It was like they cut down part of me.” If E. O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis is right — that human beings are hard-wired to get their hands wet and their feet muddy in the natural world — then the little poet’s heartfelt statement was more than metaphor. When she referred to her woods as “part of me,” she was describing something impossible to quantify: her primal biology, her sense of wonder, an essential part of her self.
Recently I began asking friends this question: Does a child have a right to a walk in the woods? Does an adult? To my surprise, several people responded with puzzled ambivalence. Look at what our species is doing to the planet, they said; based on that evidence alone, isn’t the relationship between human beings and nature inherently oppositional? I certainly understand that point of view. But consider the echo from folks who reside at another point on the political/cultural spectrum, where nature is the object of human dominion, a distraction on the way to Paradise. In practice, these two views of nature are radically different. Yet, on one level, the similarity is striking: nature remains the “other.” Humans are in it, but not of it. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: A train carrying crude oil partly derailed and then caught fire on Wednesday along the James river in Lynchburg, Virginia, with three leaking tankers ending up in the water. It is latest in a series of fiery accidents involving oil transported on North America’s rail network.
Nearby buildings were temporarily evacuated but officials said there were no injuries. The city of Lynchburg said firefighters on the scene made the decision to let the fire burn out. Three or four of the tankers were breached on the 15-car train that train company CSX said had been on its way from Chicago to unspecified destination.
Photos and videos posted online showed large flames and thick black smoke immediately after the crash. Later photos showed the fire mostly out.
In July 2013 a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in Canada near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3m gallons of light sweet crude released in Lac-Megantic was comparable to gasoline.
In all there have been eight significant oil train accidents in the US and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in large fires, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
“This is another national wake-up call,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman said of the Lynchburg crash. “We have these oil trains moving all across the United States through communities and the growth and distribution of this has all occurred, unfortunately, while the federal regulators have been asleep.
“This is just an area in which the federal rulemaking process is too slow to protect the American people.” [Continue reading...]
Is the rulemaking simply too slow or are there more nefarious forces at play? Every time there’s another rail accident, I have little doubt the XL Keystone lobbyists jump at the opportunity to underline how oil transportation through pipelines is so much “safer.”
Barbara J King writes: Living in the Upper Amazonian forest around the village of Ávila, Ecuador, are jaguars, monkeys, white-lipped peccaries, giant anteaters, tapirs, and a variety of birds including cuckoos and antbirds. The Runa people living in Ávila hunt some of these animals for food. Yet they also understand them as beings with souls who make up a forest that teems with thoughts and meaning.
Eduardo Kohn, an anthropologist at McGill University in Canada, who conducted fieldwork among the Runa there from 1996–2000, describes, in How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human, the surrounding forest as inhabited by “unparalleled kinds and quantities of living selves”. “Tropical forests”, Kohn writes, “amplify and thus can make more apparent to us, the ways life thinks.”
Kohn’s central concern in this often brilliant book is not to take up the role of ethnographer, describing from afar to the world’s curious scrutiny an exotic system of thought among the Runa. Instead, his aim is to invite all of us to see, as he himself learns how to see, what he has come to understand as the forest’s real nature. Kohn coaxes us to strip away the anthropocentric layers of our own, symbol-based systems of understanding, in order to consider that forest creatures without language do think, represent the world, and make meaning on their own. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Nearly 60% of China’s underground water is polluted, state media has reported, underscoring the severity of the country’s environmental woes.
The country’s land and resources ministry found that among 4,778 testing spots in 203 cities, 44% had “relatively poor” underground water quality; the groundwater in another 15.7% tested as “very poor”.
Water quality improved year-on-year at 647 spots, and worsened in 754 spots, the ministry said.
“According to China’s underground water standards, water of relatively poor quality can only be used for drinking after proper treatment. Water of very poor quality cannot be used as source of drinking water,” said an article in the official newswire Xinhua, which reported the figures on Tuesday.
The Chinese government is only now beginning to address the noxious environmental effects of its long-held growth-at-all-costs development model. While authorities have become more transparent about air quality data within the past year, information about water and soil pollution in many places remains relatively well-guarded. [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: As head of his village, Prajob Naowa-opas battled to save his community in central Thailand from the illegal dumping of toxic waste by filing petitions and leading villagers to block trucks carrying the stuff — until a gunman in broad daylight fired four shots into him.
A year later, his three alleged killers, including a senior government official, are on trial for murder. The dumping has been halted and villagers are erecting a statue to their slain hero.
But the prosecution of Prajob’s murder is a rare exception. A survey released Tuesday — the first comprehensive one of its kind – says that only 10 killers of 908 environmental activists slain around the world over the past decade have been convicted.
The report by the London-based Global Witness, a group that seeks to shed light on the links between environmental exploitation and human rights abuses, says murders of those protecting land rights and the environment have soared dramatically. It noted that its toll of victims in 35 countries is probably far higher since field investigations in a number of African and Asian nations are difficult or impossible. [Continue reading...]
Robert L. Nadeau and Donald A. Brown write: When scientists make presentations at meetings or conferences on the existing and projected impacts of climate change, they describe in jargon laden language and in emotionally neutral terms what their research has revealed about these impacts. But during informal conversations over a few beers during the evening or late at night, these scientists no longer feel obliged to divorce their scientific heads from their human hearts. On these occasions, they use colorful and often profane language to express their disdain and contempt for the small number of scientists known as global warming skeptics who are well compensated by conservative think tanks for misinterpreting and abusing scientific knowledge.
The scientists involved in these conversations also vent their anger toward the oil and energy companies that sponsor massive disinformation campaigns on radio and television designed to convince Americans that their security, peace and economic well-being are utterly dependent on the consumption of increasing amounts of “clean and plentiful” fossil fuels. They say unkind things about the mangers of the American news media for running endless stories about the human suffering and financial losses caused by extreme weather events and saying nothing about the fact that climate change is contributing to the frequency and intensity of these events. But if the conversation goes on long enough and the hour is late, one or more of these scientists will say what the others firmly believe but are reluctant to admit—the fate of the Earth is sealed by the ignorance, lack of compassion, and inexhaustible greed of its human inhabitants and life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival.
The reasons why these empirically oriented rational thinkers have come to this dire conclusion are abundantly obvious in recent scientific research on the existing and projected impacts of climate change. This research has not only shown that massive reductions in worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases over the next two decades will be required to prevent the most disastrous impacts of climate change. It has also revealed that if we fail, as now seems likely, to accomplish this feat, there is a high probability that life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival. (Hansen et al. 2013) But as the scientists involved in the late night conversations know all too well, this research is largely ignored by the mainstream media, rarely discussed by political leaders and economic planners, and conspicuously missing in the rancorous public debate about climate change.
The usual explanation why this insane situation exists, as climate scientist Michael Mann put it in a recent article in the New York Times, is that there is a “violent strain of anti-science” in this country which “infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on television.” (Mann, 2014) What Mann did not say in this article but knows very well is that the primary source of this infection is the well-financed, highly coordinated, and very effective campaign of the climate change contrarians.
This campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists that had been paid by the tobacco industry to challenge the scientific evidence that smoking is harmful to human health were hired by oil and energy companies to challenge the scientific evidence about climate change. [Continue reading...]
Jeffrey Kaplan writes: Private cars were relatively scarce in 1919 and horse-drawn conveyances were still common. In residential districts, electric streetlights had not yet replaced many of the old gaslights. And within the home, electricity remained largely a luxury item for the wealthy.
Just ten years later things looked very different. Cars dominated the streets and most urban homes had electric lights, electric flat irons, and vacuum cleaners. In upper-middle-class houses, washing machines, refrigerators, toasters, curling irons, percolators, heating pads, and popcorn poppers were becoming commonplace. And although the first commercial radio station didn’t begin broadcasting until 1920, the American public, with an adult population of about 122 million people, bought 4,438,000 radios in the year 1929 alone.
But despite the apparent tidal wave of new consumer goods and what appeared to be a healthy appetite for their consumption among the well-to-do, industrialists were worried. They feared that the frugal habits maintained by most American families would be difficult to break. Perhaps even more threatening was the fact that the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people’s sense that they needed them.
It was this latter concern that led Charles Kettering, director of General Motors Research, to write a 1929 magazine article called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” He wasn’t suggesting that manufacturers produce shoddy products. Along with many of his corporate cohorts, he was defining a strategic shift for American industry—from fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones.
In a 1927 interview with the magazine Nation’s Business, Secretary of Labor James J. Davis provided some numbers to illustrate a problem that the New York Times called “need saturation.” Davis noted that “the textile mills of this country can produce all the cloth needed in six months’ operation each year” and that 14 percent of the American shoe factories could produce a year’s supply of footwear. The magazine went on to suggest, “It may be that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days’ work a week.”
Business leaders were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a society no longer centered on the production of goods. For them, the new “labor-saving” machinery presented not a vision of liberation but a threat to their position at the center of power. John E. Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, typified their response when he declared: “I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance. The emphasis should be put on work — more work and better work.” “Nothing,” he claimed, “breeds radicalism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.”
By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption” — the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough. [Continue reading...]