protect and defend our ecosystems

Date: 16-Feb-10
Country: US
Author: Maggie Fox

WASHINGTON – The coastal fog that gives San Francisco its romantic ambiance is thinning out, a boon to drivers but a real threat to the giant redwoods there, researchers reported on Monday.

It in unclear if natural climate variations or human activity is to blame, but the result could be the loss of trees, they reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Fog prevents water loss from redwoods in summer, and is really important for both the tree and the forest,” biologist Todd Dawson of the University of California Berkeley said in a statement.

“The coast redwood is the tallest living tree species and notably long-lived, with some individuals exceeding 2,000 years in age,” the researchers wrote in their report, available here

“If the fog is gone, we might not have the redwood forests we do now.”

Dawson and colleagues estimated the frequency of fog by looking at weather records, especially airport records dating back to 1951.

“Since 1901, the average number of hours of fog along the coast in summer has dropped from 56 percent to 42 percent, which is a loss of about three hours per day,” said Berkeley’s James Johnstone, who led the study.

The fog is caused by cool surface waters of the Pacific Ocean meeting warm air from the interior of California. It is held in place by an inversion, caused when cooler air is trapped closer to the surface.

“The data support the idea that Northern California coastal fog has decreased in connection with a decline in the coast-inland temperature gradient and weakening of the summer temperature inversion,” Johnstone said.

“As fog decreases, the mature redwoods along the coast are not likely to die outright, but there may be less recruitment of new trees,” Dawson added. “They will look elsewhere for water, high humidity and cooler temperatures.”

The coast redwood, known scientifically as Sequoia sempervirens, is naturally found in a very narrow band along the northeast Pacific coast.

The researchers found changes all the way down the coast from northernmost California to San Diego.

“Fog is clearly a dominant climatic factor on the California coast, and long-term reductions likely have and may continue to impact the water and carbon economy of redwoods and other coastal endemic species,” they concluded.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

© Thomson Reuters 2010 All rights reserved


by Brian Merchant, Brooklyn, New York on 01.27.10

eats radioactive waste

Photo via Science Daily

// Nuclear waste is probably the most dreaded substances in existence, in part because it’s proved so difficult to effectively clean up and store. But a stunning new breakthrough has just surfaced that may make cleaning up radioactive waste easier and much more efficient–and the solution takes its inspiration from one of everyone’s favorite creepy plants. Researchers have developed a material that opens its pores to let in its intended prey–the radioactive ion cesium–then “snaps shut” to entrap it, according to Science Daily. It’s a Venus Flytrap that eats radioactive waste instead of flies.

The flytrap-like material is evidently a snythetic material made from “layers of a gallium, sulfur and antimony compound,” and was developed by researchers at Northwestern University.

The radioactive ion cesium, found in nuclear waste, is very difficult to clean up. And that’s because the ratio of harmless sodium ions to dangerous radioactive cesium ions is 1,000 to 1. There’s tons more sodium than cesium–one scientist on the project even said that looking for the radioactive material in nuclear waste is “like looking for a needle in a haystack.” But the material the scientists developed turned out to be extremely adept at removing the cesium from a sodium-heavy solution–thanks to its Venus flytrap-like qualities.

SD explains:

It is, in fact, cesium itself that triggers a structural change in the material, causing it to snap shut its pores, or windows, and trap the cesium ions within. The material sequesters 100 percent of the cesium ions from the solution while at the same time ignoring all the sodium ions.

Which is pretty amazing–a material that can selectively snag and confine only the radioactive ions in nuclear waste could be instrumental in nuclear waste cleanup. Especially since there are over a hundred nuclear power plants across the US keeping their radioactive waste in storage onsite.

excessive radioactivity

One of the most fascinating things about the discovery is how it can trap literally every single radioactive cesium ion without bothering to absorb any sodium ions–sort of like how a Venus Flytrap doesn’t bother with drops of rain or debris that falls into its ‘mouth’ and attacks only the flies. Again, SD explains how this works:

The snap-shut Venus flytrap mechanism occurs because ‘soft’ materials like to interact with each other. A cesium ion is big and soft, and the metal-sulfide material is soft, too. The cesium ions are attracted to the material, specifically the sulfur atoms, and together form a weak bond. This interaction causes the material to change shape, close its windows and trap the cesium — like a juicy insect in a flytrap. Sodium, which is clothed in water molecules, can’t trigger the response.

It will certainly be interesting to see how this develops, and if this can successfully be transformed into a major new way to cleanup nuclear waste.


More on Nuclear Waste Cleanup
E. Coli Can Be Used To Clean Up Nuclear Waste
Plan to Import 20000 Tons of Italian Nuclear Waste into Utah
Will South Carolina Become the Nation’s Premier Nuclear Waste Depository?

By Ashley Halsey III

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

safety = lost time + lost income

On Tuesday, the federal government formally barred truckers and bus drivers from sending text messages while behind the wheel, putting its imprimatur on a prohibition embraced by many large trucking and transportation companies.

“We want the drivers of big rigs and buses and those who share the roads with them to be safe,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This is an important safety step, and we will be taking more to eliminate the threat of distracted driving.”

LaHood has made the effort to curtail driver distractions a centerpiece of his tenure as the nation’s top transportation official. Some saw his announcement as a step that might ultimately fuel a push to ban cellphone use by all drivers.

LaHood’s announcement followed a study released in July by Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute that found that when truckers text, they are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or close call.

Also Tuesday, a group of senators unveiled legislation that seeks to bar all texting while driving.

“This is a giant step forward for safety on our roads, but we must do more,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of LaHood’s action. “We need the administration to support our ban, which does the same thing for cars and mass transit that they are now doing for trucks and buses.”

Although both houses of Congress are considering bills restricting texting and 19 states have banned the practice, LaHood said that existing rules on truckers and bus drivers give him the authority to issue the prohibition. LaHood said drivers of commercial vehicles caught texting could be fined up to $2,750.

“It’s an important first step,” said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a coalition of state highway safety directors. “It’s will start a cultural shift away from texting and cellphone use. We’d like to see a ban on all cellphone use by drivers of commercial vehicles.”

Enforcement of LaHood’s ban is so problematic, however, that it might prove more symbolic than practical.

“The enforcement problem here is enormous,” said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “It’s not clear this is going to make any difference on the road in terms of crashes.”

Last year, President Obama banned federal employees from texting while driving government vehicles and from texting in their own cars if they use government-issued phones or are on official business.

With LaHood leading the effort, supported by mounting evidence of the dangers, Adkins said that an effort to ban cellphone use by all drivers could be proposed this year.

“At some point, we’ll have to address that issue,” Adkins said. “We think 2010 will be the year when we do something about distracted driving. We can’t remember a secretary ever taking the issue of highway safety so seriously.”

In announcing the ban, LaHood mentioned data compiled last year by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The agency said that texting drivers take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 out of every six seconds. At 55 mph, he said, that means a texting driver travels the length of a football field, including the end zones, without looking at the road.

by John Laumer, Philadelphia on 01.21.10

big suv photo
Big ol’ Chevy Tahoe. Image credit:AutoWeek.

The Star-Telegram is reporting that “The health effects of air pollution are a major topic in Texas because the state is one of the most polluted in the country. A recent survey by Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth found that 1 in 4 children in North Texas has asthma, which can be both caused and aggravated by air pollution.” This in the context of a recent study which documented Texas kids are “more likely to miss school when certain types of air pollution increase.”

There’s no one source to point the finger of blame at. It’s about a predilection for big smoggy vehicles, refinery and petrochemical emissions, coal-burning power plants, ships and barges, and so on. The point is….

Environmental quality impacts school performance (my inference based on the correlation reported). I’m betting it’s not just in Texas that this potential correlation could be found.

Clearly, many US elected officials do not yet ‘connect the environmental dots’ linking air quality to quality of life and to learning, nor are some powerful corporate constituents wanting them to. For a clear demonstration of the latter effect, look no further than Alaskan Senator Murkowski , who is sponsoring an amendment that prevents USEPA from regulating greenhouse gases. To see who’s got the most horses in that rodeo read Senator Who Hopes to Block EPA from Regulating Greenhouse Gas Pollution is Top Fundraiser from Utility Companies

Who needs that permafrost anyhow?

Failing to have much trust in the sciences and still stuck on libertarian romanticism, it takes exploding underpants to get attention to the business of ‘dot connecting.’ How long before a Texas congress-critter tacks an amendment onto a Federal budget bill, preventing EPA from regulating smog causing emissions? Not long is my guess.

Who needs that book learnin’ anyhow?

Three more dots.

  • I wonder how many corporations pay big-time health care benefits for employee family asthma treatments while giving money to lobbyists who want to slow down air quality regulation enforcement?
  • China bears some of the responsibility for Texas AQ degradation.
  • As reported in an AFP release on Yahoo News.

Pollution from Asia is boosting levels of ozone in the skies above the western United States, a trend that could hamper US efforts to meet tougher smog standards,…The findings are important, as previous research suggests pollution at the altitude monitored in the study can descend and mix with surface air.If so, a long-standing question may be answered. There has been a rise in ozone levels in parts of the rural western United States, but there is little road traffic or industry in these regions to explain the increase.

The paper says the phenomenon could have repercussions for efforts in the United States to roll back its smog problem with tougher car-exhaust measures and other initiatives.

    Are you still with me on this?

  • Taking a leadership role in climate action enables the USA to add more pressure on China to clean up the emissions of both greenhouse cases and the associated smog causing emissions that float over rural Texas.

Mike’s adjacent post on the Chinese smog effect on Western USA is worth a look:

That’s all the dots I have for now.

More posts about Texas air quality.
Texas Coal Fired Utility Building ‘Alamo of Coal’
Texas PTA Partners With Government for Cleaner School Buses
Texas Board of Ed Neuters Science Textbooks’ Global Warming

61 Views, Comments (0)

Last Modified 3:35 PM, January 20, 2010

earthquake faults

The three different types of faults: subduction faults are normal or reverse faults

January 20, 2010—

As the world focuses on the heart-wrenching losses and unbelievable devastation of the recent earthquake in Haiti, researchers at Michigan Technological University, discuss what happened there and why.

“Every disaster situation is different,” says Bill Rose, professor of petrology in the geological and mining engineering and sciences department. “Haiti sits on a major strike-slip fault, where one side moves one way, and one moves another.”

“The Caribbean plate is moving eastward relative to the North American plate,” explains Wayne Pennington, professor and chair of the department.

“In Hispaniola, the island containing Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the plates are further split into one or two little plate slivers, with a northern boundary near the northern shore of the island and a southern boundary along what is called the Enriquillo fault.” Pennington says. “It is this southern fault that ruptured during the earthquake. Stress had been building up here since the last large earthquake along that fault, in 1751.”

“As geologists, we think in different time-frames,” Rose says. “An occurrence of every 200-plus years is not long, when we talk in terms of millions of years.”

The fault is actually similar to the San Andreas Fault in California, Rose says. And one unique characteristic of quakes like this is that they may occur in “timed clusters” where, when one part releases, others close by may follow.

“El Salvador had a major quake in 2001 and a second quake one month later was actually worse than the first,” Rose says.

Following Haiti’s quake, the same fault could release within the Dominican Republic to the east or perhaps in Jamaica to the west, says Rose. Another fault going through the island nation could release in Cuba. Any of these events could happen “soon.”

It has also been reported that the quake was a shallow one. The rupture of the Enriquillo fault began only eight miles (13 kilometers) below the surface, and that, too, has immense ramifications, according John Lyons, a PhD candidate in geology.

“Shallow earthquakes transfer substantially more energy to the surface than do deep quakes. This translates into more violent ground motion capable of producing the damage we are seeing across Haiti.” he says.

In addition to the lack of depth and high magnitude, which was 7.0, the type of earthquake is also important, both Rose and Lyons say. The earthquake in Haiti occurred at a strike-slip fault, which has a different motion than a subduction zone fault, where tectonic plates collide, sending one over the other. The latter “can lift or lower a huge volume of water, generating a tsunami” Lyons says. A recent example was the devastating Sumatran earthquake in 2004.

The need for research is now, the geologists agree.

“We need to do geological fieldwork,” Rose says, “to measure where the fault is and where it has moved or not moved.

“In the past couple of decades, there had been some debate about whether or not we should expect an earthquake along that fault,” Pennington notes. “But modern GPS measurements have demonstrated that the stress has been accumulating, and scientists published a paper in 2008 showing that a magnitude 7.2 event could be expected there at any time.”

He added that earthquake prediction has not yet shown precisely when, where, and how large an earthquake is expected.

“But we do know which areas, in general, are more hazardous than others, and this earthquake, as tragic as it is, was not unexpected. The same is true of many areas. In some parts of the world, preparation for large earthquakes is standard practice.”

In California, for example, Pennington says that building standards are strictly enforced, and civil defense authorities have stockpiled supplies to be used if necessary. “Communication procedures are practiced for use in disasters, and the people have at least a general notion of what to do in the case of a large seismic event,” he says. And earthquake drills have been organized in each of the past two years.

“All of these seismic-safety practices are absent in Haiti,” he says, “where widespread disregard for whatever building codes may exist resulted in unstable structures that crumbled during the shaking. A lack of infrastructure that could survive the earthquake resulted in the chaos we now see hampering the rescue effort.”

Of course, the initial requirement for the international aid community is to save lives and relieve the massive suffering being experienced by the Haitian people, Pennington adds.

“But, within a few weeks, the task of rebuilding or recovery will begin,” he says. “As in many cases, a serious effort will be made to ‘build back better’ and incorporate practices of infrastructure development that can be sustained by the local population and will prove safer in the future. The goal will be to create resilient communities: ones that can survive and bounce back from disasters or other shocks to the system.”

It will not be easy.

“For generations, Haitians have suffered from lack of opportunity,” Pennington says. “In addition to building ‘things’—roads, buildings, water treatment and supply systems—it will be necessary to build an economic system that can provide ongoing support for maintenance, and education for the people who will provide that maintenance. This is our next challenge.”

Michigan Technological University ( is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 130 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.

by Christine Lepisto, Berlin on 01.17.10

Wreckfish at Lost City thermal vents  photo
Image: D. Kelley of University of Washington, IFE, URI‑IAO, UW, Lost City science party, NOAA

Lost City of Atlantis
The Lost City is so named because it juts from an Atlantic undersea mountain named Atlantis and was coincidentally discovered by the scientific expedition aboard the research vessel Atlantis. Scientists who noticed the white columns growing 65 to 200 feet up from the ocean floor were soon credited with finding a completely new type of hot spring environment. Previously, the only hot springs known derived their heat from the hot magma below the earth’s crust.

But the Lost City represents a remarkable chemical process that may now be providing the best empirical evidence for the widely believed theory that when conditions change, relatively rare indigenous species may quickly take over and dominate a biosphere at the expense of previously successful species.

The Remarkable Chemistry of Life
The Lost City Hydrothermal Field benefits from a fantastic chemistry that some scientists believe may point to the origin of life on earth. The mere contact of seawater with the underlying rock suffices to drive a series of processes that provide three essential criteria for a microbial Garden of Eden:

  1. It is a unique type of rock, peridotite, which is normally found only much deeper in the earth, but which juts up to the mantel in the Atlantic massif. Peridotite reacts with seawater, generating heat: ingredient number one for the success of life. Even more important, the heat raises the surrounding waters to only moderate temperatures (around 200°F), as opposed to the scorching hot waters vented from magma-heated springs.
  2. The reaction results in a reduced form of the metal iron, which can use the power of chemical reduction to turn carbon in the nearby rock into hydrocarbons. These carbon and hydrogen chains are the raw material for cell walls and the starting material for the creation of amino acids, the alphabet of proteins.
  3. Finally, the reaction leaves behind a highly alkaline warm solution, between pH 9 and 11, which when vented precipitates carbonate from the seawater, building white carbonate limestone-like “chimneys” that can grow to great heights. The tallest chimney, named Poseidon, is 18 stories tall.

Thus, a beautiful white and cream domicile grows where, even if life did not originate from the unique chemical soup at the hydrothermal vents, microbes find themselves perfectly at home. It is this 30,000 year old home-sweet-home that has yielded the proof of the ‘rare biosphere’ hypothesis.

Winning the Genetic Race
Invasive species hint at what is possible in evolution’s race. Benefiting from a lack of competition or predation, invasive species are increasingly proliferating in environments where they are quite unwelcome. Asian carp in the Mississippi and African rock pythons eating goats in Florida come to mind.

But the ‘rare biosphere’ model being tested in the undersea Lost City has a different premise: an environment is dominated by the successful species, but important genetic material is preserved in rare members of the biosphere — genetic memory that may be exactly what is needed to win the survival race if conditions change.

Scientists initially thought that traces of odd DNA found when analyzing microbial communities were simply artifacts of the DNA sequencing process. But the evolution of DNA sequencing techniques has now made it clear that a large number of microbes exist that are represented only by rare, remaining members of their type. What are so many almost-extinct microbes doing hanging about in otherwise thriving communities?

That is the question that authors of a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences believe they have answered. Led by William Brazelton, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, the team showed that microbes that are quite rare in some vents are the dominant population in other vents. The “winning genes” depend on the temperature and other conditions that change over time as the vents age and grow. The authors conclude:

The rare biosphere of the Lost City microbial community represents a large repository of genetic memory created during a long history of past environmental changes. The rare organisms were able to rapidly exploit the new niches as they arose because they had been previously selected for the same conditions in the past.

Genetic Memories of Warmer Climes
There is a branch of denialism in the face of global warming studies that responds by pointing out that even if global warming is occurring, and even if it is anthropogenic (caused by man), it doesn’t matter. The earth will survive, life will go on; it always does. Studies like this confirm the robustness of life in the face of inevitable change. But it sure would be nice if some of the fun species could stick around: like dogs and dolphins, toads and tigers, hummingbirds and humans. How will the genetic memory locked in the cells of all species steer the future of life as conditions change? Which are the rare species among us that will dominate the world after warming?

More on Genetic Diversity:
TreeHugger Forums: “2010- International Year of Biodiversity”
What Happens to Cold Blooded Animals in a Warming World (Slideshow)
The World’s Most Lovable Invasive Species

Why You Exist – Finding and Defining Your Major Purpose