Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Unbelievable!! Cruise Ship Passes Fishing Boat in Distress Without Stopping

The fishing boat Fifty Cents seen from aboard the Star Princess. Passengers on the cruise ship claim its crew ignored the boat. Photo courtesy: Jeff Gilligan via guardian.co.uk

Wow!! Cruise lines seem to be in the news a lot lately with sinkings, losing guests overboard; ship's captain and crew leaving a sinking ship without telling the passengers the ship was sinking; and, other tragedies; and, they have somehow managed to remain afloat. However, this might be the incident that sinks Carnival Cruise Lines.

One of the cardinal rules of the sea is that if a boat in distress is encountered, everything is stopped until all survivors have been rescued. The survivors are taken to an appropriate port and preparations are made to restore them to their families.

It would appear that this naval tradition was deliberately ignored resulting in the death of two fishermen. It would also appear that a false entry was made in the ship's log in an effort to disguise what truly happened.

The cruise line operator Carnival Corporation has launched an internal investigation after passengers claimed one of its ships ignored pleas to rescue three fishermen they spotted adrift in the Pacific ocean.

The story of the Panamanian teenage hotel worker who survived for 28 days adrift in a 10-foot boat made headlines around the world last month. His two friends died of dehydration before the boat was eventually rescued near the Galapagos Islands.

But now it has emerged that a cruise ship travelling from Ecuador to Costa Rica passed near the path of their fishing boat, the Fifty Cents, which was allegedly spotted in apparent distress by three birdwatchers on board. The passengers claim they alerted the crew of the Star Princess, but it failed to stop.

The Star Princess is owned by Princess cruise lines, part of Carnival, the owner of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the Italian coast in January.

Later on the night of 10 March, Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died of dehydration. The youngest fisherman, Fernando Osorio, 16, died on 15 March suffering from dehydration, sunburn and heat stroke. Another nine days elapsed before Adrian Vasquez, 18, was finally saved from his ordeal, having had to push his friends' bodies overboard.

One of the three passengers who claims to have spotted the small fibreglass boat, Judy Meredith, 65, from Bend, Oregon, told the Guardian: "Finding out later that the Fifty Cents continued at sea for over two more weeks was horrific news. And two of the men died and both could have lived, had the cruise ship responded to our urgent request."

Her story is supported by Don Winner, a Panama-based, English-language blogger who had covered the story of Vasquez's trials at sea. Winner, the publisher of panama-guide.com, subsequently tracked down Vasquez, who confirmed that he and his friends had seen the cruise ship and had signalled frantically with his red T-shirt and orange life vest, believing it would rescue them.

Vasquez also confirmed that a picture taken by the cruise passengers was of his boat, and Winner has published satellite tracking data appearing to show that the Star Princess was in the area at the time.

On Tuesday night a spokesman for the company said: "We're aware of the allegations that Star Princess supposedly passed by a boat in distress that was carrying three Panamanian fishermen on 10 March, 2012.

"At this time we cannot verify the facts as reported, and we are currently conducting an internal investigation on the matter. We were very saddened to learn that two lives were lost aboard the boat, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families involved."

The company said the British captain of the Star Princess, Edward Perrin, was not available for comment, but added: "Princess Cruises is dedicated to the highest standards of seamanship wherever our ships sail, and it is our duty to assist any vessel in distress. We have come to the aid of many people at sea, and we will continue to do so."

Meredith, a keen birdwatcher, was travelling on the Star Princess with two fellow birders, Jeff Gilligan, 61, from Portland, and Jim Dowdell, 54, from Ireland.

The three were on the promenade deck for most of the day scanning the ocean with powerful binoculars when Gilligan saw the small panga, a Panamanian fishing boat.

Gilligan said: "I saw an object that looked like a little house. We then used spotting scopes with a fixed tripod and I could see this strange little boat and at least one person standing up waving a piece of cloth high over his head, up and down.

Map shows route fishing boat took. Photo courtesy: guardian.co.uk

"We could see it was not moving – there were nets pulled on to the boat and apparently no nets in the water. So we soon questioned – is this a stranded, disabled boat, signalling us for help?"

Meredith said it was clear something was wrong. She informed a crew member in officer's uniform, who said he would relay their concerns to the bridge. But the ship sailed on.

Gilligan said: "We were convinced the bridge knew what was happening, and thought maybe it took a while to turn around. But after a while we realised it wasn't turning."

The three then decided to contact coastguards themselves, but slow internet access and problems finding a local site left them emailing the US authorities to alert them. The email appears not to have been received or logged.

Meredith said: "We all three wanted to believe over the next few hours that since the cruise ship hadn't turned around, they must have had to notify some authorities from some nearby country or agency's search and rescue to come to his aid."

The three continued to discuss the sighting with crew and local tour guides in Costa Rica. One of the guides later emailed Gilligan, on his return to the US, with a link to news of Vasquez's rescue, suggesting that this must have been his boat.

When Meredith heard the news, she pressed Carnival to find out what action had been taken. She claims the cruise line told her that the ship's log had recorded "contact" with nearby fishermen, who thanked them for avoiding their nets. Neither Meredith nor Gilligan recall seeing any other boats that day.

Gilligan had taken three photographs of the drifting boat before losing sight of it, which he sent to Winner. Winner said on Tuesday: "He [Vasquez] confirmed that the picture of the boat I received from the birdwatchers was theirs. I asked him if he had a red flag; he said, 'I had a red T-shirt and I was waving it over my head like this. My friend Fernando had an orange life vest he was waving over his head.' … He said that was definitely them. The two stories match up completely."

Satellite tracking data recorded by Winner seems to show that the Star Princess would have crossed the route taken by the ill-fated Fifty Cents, and did not deviate course after passing the location noted by the birdwatchers on 10 March.

Perrin, the captain of the Star Princess at the helm that day, is among Princess's most experienced sailors.

Vasquez had joined his friends on a fishing trip to earn some extra money. They set off from Rio Hato in Panama on 24 February, but the boat's motor failed as they were attempting to return home and their small vessel started to drift.

Panama's coastguards launched a fruitless search. The Fifty Cents was soon further out to sea than fishing boats ventured.

With only the fish they had caught to eat and no water, the trio's health started to decline. Betancourt, the oldest, died of dehydration on the night of 10 March. Osorio, 16, died on 15 March.

Vasquez's life was effectively saved when it started to rain a few days later, allowing him to fill containers with rainwater.

He was eventually spotted by fishermen near the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles from where the three set off.

Meredith said her concerns were with the families of the young men who died, and with Vasquez, "who endured miserable conditions for four weeks". She said the small, powerless Fifty Cents had looked so strange on the waves because of the nets, "strung up behind the boat – perhaps to create some shade. They only went out for a day."

Gilligan said: "I think about that incident a hundred times a day."

If this concerns you, you can email the Princess Cruise Lines Customer Relations Department at: customerrelations@princesscruises.com

Monday, January 30, 2012

Hope Fades for Oil Spill Cleanup in Nigeria

Some of the massive destruction that remains untouched after 8 years.

Last year, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) released a report outlining Shell's role in the oil-covered mess that Nigeria's Delta region has become and calling for the creation of a $1 billion cleanup fund. The report estimated that cleaning up Ogoniland would take up to 30 years, but if this massive undertaking were to be successful, it could become a model for bringing the rest of the region back to life.

But now, eight months after the UNEP report was released, there is no cleanup effort, or even an update, to speak of. In a detailed and important post on Yale Environment 360, Fred Pearce illustrates why the silence from Abuja is ominous:
Last August, the current President Goodluck Jonathan set up a high-level committee to consider the UNEP report, chaired by the minister of petroleum resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke. She at least knows the delta. Born in Port Harcourt, she worked for Shell there for 15 years, rising to executive director, before joining the government in 2007. As part of her job as petroleum minister, Allison-Madueke also heads Shell’s partner in the delta, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Her committee is said to have reported to the president in November, but Slotte says UNEP has not been notified of any outcomes. Many fear her ministry will scupper the cleanup scheme. Its officials may be angry that the UNEP study criticized the ministry’s oversight of the oil industry and called for cleanup enforcement to be transferred to the ministry of the environment.

He also points out a disagreement over approach that may hinder the entire cleanup:
UNEP had noted in its recommendations that “until the land-based contamination has been dealt with, it will be futile to begin a clean-up of the creeks.” The point was a technical one, in a paragraph about “the sequence of remediation.” But Shell chose to interpret it as a political point. Shell said in its response that it “agrees with the UNEP finding that all sources of ongoing contamination, including activities such as crude theft and illegal refining [my italics], must be brought to an end before an effective widespread cleanup can begin.”

UNEP believes that pollution remediation can help end the war between the Ogoni people and Shell. But before it starts remediation, Shell wants the attacks on its facilities to end. If achieving that requires another law-and-order crackdown in Ogoniland, the delta’s inhabitants could easily see future cleanup teams as their enemies, not their saviors.

Pearce's piece is really worth reading in full — it provides more context to the ongoing mess in Nigeria than you're likely to see in most reporting.

For example, he sheds some light on the role that sabotage to pipelines plays in all of this. Shell blames the mess largely on sabotage to pipelines locally—even though it has been slow (as in, takes several weeks) to respond to major spills, and is responsible under Nigerian law for any spill of its oil, regardless of who is responsible. And there's no question that sabotage occurs, but to the extent that it does, Pearce explains it pretty well:
Villagers complained angrily that the oil poisoned their crops and emptied the creeks of fish, and handed me humble petitions asking for outside help.

Increasingly, the villagers have responded to their plight by taking hacksaws to the pipelines to steal oil and setting up makeshift refineries, where they distill the stolen crude to make diesel. This has compounded the delta’s devastation. Villagers say some local companies have even sabotaged pipelines as a way of extracting contracts to clean up the mess.

Let's hope Pearce is wrong and a cleanup starts soon. But history doesn't make that seem particularly likely.

There was widespread outrage when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon platform caused thousands of gallons of oil a day to spill into the Gulf of Mexico. Where's the anger for Nigeria, where a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez spill occurs every year?

To express your opinion on this outrage, contact either of the two Principal Government Officials: President--Goodluck Jonathan or Vice President--Namadi Sambo. You may send mail addressed to either to the following places.

Nigeria has an embassy in Washington, DC that may be contacted by:

Snail mail - 3519 International Place, NW
Washington, DC 20008

Telephone - 202-986-8400

Fax - 202-362-6552

Website: nigeriaembassyusa.org

OR: contact a Consulate General

New York Consulate General

Snail Mail - 575 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10022

Atlanta Consulate General

Snail Mail - 8060 Roswell Rd
Atlanta, GA 30350

Telephone - 770-394-6161


contact a Nigerian embassy or Consulate General in your own country.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Drinking Water Being Condensed Out of the Air

One of the wind turbines. Photo courtesy: Eole Water

A new concept, that many consider to "cool", being tested in the Abu Dhabi desert uses a wind turbine to condense water from the air and pump it into storage tanks for filtration and purification. The technology was created by Eole Water after its founder, Marc Parent, was inspired by the water he could collect from his air conditioner unit while living in the Caribbean. He began thinking of ways that water could be condensed from air in areas without access to grid power and the wind turbine concept was born.

The 30-kW wind turbine houses and powers the whole system. Air is taken in through vents in the nose cone of the turbine and then heated by a generator to make steam. The steam goes through a cooling compressor that creates moisture which is then condensed and collected. The water produced is sent through pipes down to stainless steel storage tanks where it's filtered and purified.

How the turbine works. Image courtesy: Eole Water

A prototype of the technology has been installed in Abu Dhabi since October and has been capable of producing 500 to 800 liters of clean water a day from the dry desert air. Eole Water says that volume can increase to 1,000 liters a day with a tower-top system. The system requires wind speeds of 15 miles per hour or higher to produce water.

This technology uses a simple process that has been experimented with in a variety of designs, but this is the first powered by a wind turbine. That component makes it able to produce large quantities of clean water in areas that don't have ready access to it without requiring grid power, which makes it especially promising for remote communities and disaster areas. Eole has already landed 12 industrial partners for manufacturing the turbines.

Now, call me a panic monger if you will; but, I have to wonder what kind of effect(s) this will have on the animals and plants that depend on the water in the desert air also.

Most desert species of lizards, skinks, scorpions and the like get their water requirements filled from the food they eat and/or drinking the tiny amounts of water that condense on plants overnight. If the turbines take the moisture out of the air before it condenses on the plants, there may no longer be enough moisture left in the air to support these fragile ecosystems as they are now. Then what happens?

The difficulty I have with all these projects is that distract people away from the only true, sustainable course of action. The way to clean water is to spend this money on upgrading sewer systems; putting "pitbull" aggressiveness and teeth into upholding environmental laws; beginning a massive cleanup of our rivers, beaches and oceans; immediate outlawing of all toxic chemicals; a world-wide massive clean-up of our environment...or...surely, we will spiral out of existance due to our own short-shighted idiocy.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Can Whales Predict Tsunamis?

Observers have watched whales vanish after an undersea earthquake. Photo courtesy: Andrew Sutton via guardian.co.uk

Do whales hear earthquakes long before humans? As tsunami warnings hit the Indonesian and Sri Lankan coasts last week, observers at sea watched as every species of cetacean – from massive blue whales to diminutive spinner dolphins – disappeared within five minutes. British photographer and film-maker Andrew Sutton, who took this remarkable shot last Wednesday off the southern tip of Sri Lanka, reports that he and his crew were mystified as the whales they were watching vanished in the space of a few minutes. The humans on the boat were unaware that the quake had happened, but the animals had evidently sensed the subsea seismic shocks, and fled.

Could cetaceans act as canaries in the sea, as advance alarms of potentially dangerous seismic activity? What a totally exciting concept. There is so much more to the whale and dolphin families than we give them credit for. Last year, both the Japan and New Zealand earthquakes were preceded by mass cetacean strandings on these islands' beaches. And a recent scientific report from Mexico appears to prove that a fin whale accelerated sharply away from the site of an underwater earthquake.

But having already exploited whales for centuries, perhaps we should not be so quick to enlist their services. Back in 1964, another erstwhile resident of Sri Lanka, the science-fiction writer, Arthur C Clarke, predicted that by the year 2000, "we will not be the only intelligent creatures. One of the coming techniques will be what we might call bioengineering – the development of intelligent and useful servants among the other animals on this planet, particularly the great apes and, in the oceans, the dolphins and whales". While I agree with Mr. Clarke that we are not the only intelligent species on the planet; and, haven't been for a very long time; I don't believe that animals should be domesticated against their wills.

Clarke thought it a scandal that man had neglected to domesticate any new animals since the Stone Age. But he also foresaw other issues, too: "Of course [they] would soon start forming trades unions and we'd be right back where we started."

Friday, January 27, 2012

Nestlé Removes Artificial Ingredients From Confection Line

Nestlé's Smarties will still have lots of colours but none of them artificial. Photo courtesy: Nestle/PA

Nestlé, manufacturer of KitKat, Aero and Smarties, has removed artificial colours, flavours and preservatives from its entire confectionery range. Nestlé Crunch is the last of 79 products to become free of artificial ingredients since the company began to replace more than 80 additives with alternatives six years ago, it said.

The company, which was responding to consumer demand, says it is the first big UK confectioner to remove all artificial products. Concentrates of fruit, vegetables and edible plants such as carrot, hibiscus, radish, safflower and lemon are among ingredients used to provide colour. David Rennie, managing director of Nestlé Confectionery UK, described the move as a significant milestone.

"Nestlé is proud to be the only major confectionery company in the UK to announce it is 100% free of artificial preservatives, flavours or colours across its entire portfolio," said Rennie.

"To achieve this, Nestlé Confectionery and our suppliers have worked very hard ensuring we don't compromise and we maintain the same quality and taste of all our brands."

The company has already removed all artificial products from all its beverages including Nesquik.

The company first began work on achieving artificial-free replacements for ingredients in Smarties and Milky Bar in 2005. The Nestlé Crunch bar is the final product to see natural flavourings replacing artificial ingredients, it said.

Now, if only we can get Nestlé to act as ethically in all their other business dealings...**sigh**

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Unregulated Asbestos Being Shipped to China and India

"Asbestos Kills" protest sign on inflatable coffin. Photo courtesy: gruntzooki

To hell in an asbestos hand basket Asia goes, led by unfettered global trade, greed, and a general inability to manage public health risks effectively. Growing asbestos exposures in India and China - the most heavily populated nations - are such a cluster fracking it makes me glad my children live in Canada.

Logic will soon rule again in the US, though I am not so sure about Brazil & Kazakhstan. Canada has run out of asbestos to export so it gets a free pass.

As reported on Mesothelioma.com in the story Experts Forecast Global "Catastrophe of Death and Disease" From Asbestos Use.
Asia is heading for a huge jump in asbestos-related diseases in the coming decades, according to numerous scientific studies and two of the world’s most prominent experts on public health and asbestos exposure. Not surprisingly, the consequences are expected to be felt most severely in India and China, two emerging economies and most populous countries in the world.

“What we can expect is very predictable – an absolute catastrophe of death and disease,” Dr. Arthur Frank, chairman of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University, said in a recent interview with this reporter. He added that the coming catastrophe is “all preventable.”

Canadian pipes and governance in this matter, though heavily insulated with hypocrisy, seem to have run out of steam since, as Lloyd reported, their asbestos mines are nearly depleted.
Canada, for example, has banned the use of asbestos domestically and is scheduled to begin a $1 billion renovation project to clean its parliamentary buildings of asbestos this summer.

Asian Scientist has the latest blame forensics, in which poor Canada has slipped to 5th place:
In 2010, almost half of asbestos production was in Russia (49 percent). Other big producers were China (20 percent), Brazil (13 percent), Kazakhstan (10 percent), and Canada (5 percent). Most of it was used in China (29 percent), India (17 percent), Russia (14 percent), Kazakhstan (7 percent), Brazil (7 percent), Indonesia (5 percent), Uzbekistan (5 percent), Thailand (4 percent), Vietnam (4 percent), Ukraine (3 percent), Sri Lanka (2 percent), and Iran (1 percent)...

Of the 12 top consumers worldwide of white asbestos, only Thailand and Vietnam have taken action to reduce or ban its use.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Climate Change Contributes to Drying Up of Lake in China

A plant is seen on the cracked bed of the dried area of Xieshan, which is part of Poyang lake in east China's Jiangxi province. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

For visitors expecting to see China's largest freshwater lake, Poyang is a desolate spectacle. Under normal circumstances it covers 3,500 sq km, but last month only 200 sq km were underwater. A dried-out plain stretches as far as the eye can see, leaving a pagoda perched on top of a hillock that is usually a little island. Wrapped in the mist characteristic of the lower reaches of the Yangtze river, the barges are moored close to the quayside beside a pitiful trickle of water. There is no work for the fisheries.

According to the state news agency Xinhua, the drought – the worst for 60 years – is due to the lack of rainfall in the area round Poyang and its tributaries. Poor weather conditions this year are partly responsible. But putting the blame on them overlooks the role played by the colossal Three Gorges reservoir, 500km upstream. The cause and effect is still not officially recognised, even if the government did admit last May that the planet's biggest dam had given rise to "problems that need to be solved very urgently".

"Every year, when the Three Gorges reservoir stores water – to power the dam's turbines during the winter – the flow rate in the Yangtze drops. This in turn increases the rate at which the level of Poyang lake falls, and the period of low water comes sooner," said Ye Xuchun, a researcher at China's Southwest University. In partnership with scientists at the Lake Science and Environment laboratory at Nanking University, he has published a comparative analysis of water levels in the Three Gorges basin and at the lake's northern extremity, near the city of Hukou, where the outflow from Poyang joins the Yangtze.

The authors conclude that the artificial regulation of the reservoir, which must be kept full to optimise electricity output, reduces the water level in the lower reaches of the Yangtze. This means that the big river no longer "plugs" the lake's northern outlet, so the other rivers feeding into Poyang simply pass through the dwindling lake and run on downstream. This was the case in 2006, a very dry year that coincided with the period when the Three Gorges reservoir was filling up. "When the depth of the reservoir was increased by 15 metres, to reach 155 metres in October, the lake dropped very low at Hukou," the scientists said.

The beginning of 2012 has proved even worse. The region's environmental balance was "seriously affected", said Dai Nianhua, deputy head of the Lake Poyang Research Centre in Nanchang, the provincial capital. When the water level is too low there are no fish, so there is no food for the migrating birds that usually break their journey at Poyang. The government has decided to drop fish and shellfish into the lake from helicopters.

The economic impact is just as disastrous. "Freighters can only cross the lake empty," said a worker at the shipyard in Xingzi, whereas usually the lake is a hive of activity in rural Jiangxi province. Some people are now suggesting that a dam should be built where the lake joins the Yangtze, but no one knows what side-effects that might have.

As for the fisheries, they have upturned their boats on the shore or abandoned them on the dried-out bed of Poyang. Guo Jintao, a resident of Yumincun, a village with about 100 fishers, has not been out on the water for over a year. He started fishing when he was 13 and in 50 years he has not seen the lake this dry. He and his wife have switched to casual labouring in the building trade.

"Next year we'll see. If there's enough water, we'll go fishing again, otherwise we'll carry on with our new work," Guo said. His wife, Zhang Jingzen, 55, finds stacking bricks hard work. "I prefer fishing. Our family's been fishing for four generations," she said.

The family used to earn $1,600 to $3,200 a year, but last year's earnings only amounted to $800. The local authorities offered them around $600 in compensation. Another fisherman, intrigued by the conversation, butted in to say that he only got $80 from the municipal council, whereas the province had allocated $160 for each member of the fishing community.

"The incomes in fishing villages are dropping as fast as the water in the lake. Some residents will have move on to other trades," said Xu Bin, the author of a thesis on the socio-economic consequences of the lake's environmental disorders. He warns: "The soil of China is dry, so the Yangtze is vital. Poyang is one of the key elements and its current predicament is a warning for the future."

This article originally appeared in Le Monde

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sumatran Tigers' Habitat Being Pulped for Paper

The incredibly beautiful and rare Sumatran tiger. There are believed to be no more than 300 left in the wilds in Indonesia. Photograph: Dave Watts/RSPB

In a previous blog, I discussed how Asian Pulp and Paper were destroying the habitat of endangered orangutans. Now it seems they have switched gears and are attacking the Sumatran tigers' habitat.

The habitat of the endangered Sumatran tiger is being rapidly destroyed in order to make tissues and paper packaging for consumer products in the west, new research from Greenpeace shows.

A year-long investigation by the campaigning group has uncovered clear evidence, independently verified, that appears to show that ramin trees from the Indonesian rainforest have been chopped down and sent to factories to be pulped and turned into paper. The name ramin refers to a collection of endangered trees growing in peat swamps in Indonesia where the small number of remaining Sumatran tigers hunt.

Chopping down these trees is illegal under Indonesian law dating back to 2001, because of their status as an endangered plant species. But Greenpeace alleges that its researchers found ramin logs being prepared to be transported for pulping. The company tested logs in lumber yards belonging to the paper giant Asian Pulp and Paper, on nine separate occasions over the course of a year, and sent them to an independent lab to be tested. Out of 59 samples, 46 tested positive as ramin logs.

Asian Pulp and Paper denied wrongdoing. The company said in a statement: "Asia Pulp & Paper group (APP) maintains a strict zero-tolerance policy for illegal wood entering the supply chain and has comprehensive chain of custody systems to ensure that only legal wood enters its pulp mill operations. APP's chain of custody systems are independently audited on a periodic basis. This ensures that we only receive legal pulpwood from areas under legal license that have passed all necessary ecological and social assessments.

"APP's chain of custody system traces the origin of raw material, evaluates its legal and environmental status, to minimise the risk of contamination and to ensure that endangered species are protected – in accordance with the laws of Indonesia."

The same hardwoods that grow in the Sumatran peat swamps where the tiger lives have also been independently verified to exist in paper products found on supermarket shelves, including photocopying paper, packaging for consumer products such as tissue paper.

Because the amounts of this pulp found in the paper samples are so small, it is impossible to say that they also contain ramin. However, independent lab tests confirmed the presence of "mixed tropical hardwoods" in paper samples from a wide variety of consumer outlets in the west. This shows that valuable rainforest trees are being turned into everyday items bought by unsuspecting consumers.

These fibres are highly likely to come from the same log yards examined by Greenpeace, because once pulped these rainforest trees are widely disseminated to packaging suppliers.

Greenpeace said the links showed that APP should submit to more independent auditing. John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, told the Guardian: "We are really hoping for a positive response from APP. We want to see an end to the destruction of this incredibly important habitat."

Greenpeace's researchers visited APP lumber yards on nine occasions over the course of a year. Each time, they took samples of logs they suspected could be ramin, and recorded the sample-taking on video. They also recorded their exact location via GPS, and bagged the samples in tamper-proof containers. These were then sent to an independent laboratory in Germany where they were tested and most of them found to be ramin.

The same German laboratory also found significant levels of mixed tropical hardwood in consumer products from various companies, which Greenpeace believes came from the same forests.

APP's statement continued: "A recent independent report confirmed that no protected tree species are entering our supply chain. However, APP accepts that no system in the world, no matter how rigorous, is 100% failsafe. We welcome the recent report from Greenpeace International and will study it carefully – to ensure that we identify and act on any weaknesses in our chain of custody systems. It is APP's desire to work with Greenpeace and other like-minded NGOs to improve our responsible sourcing policies and practices."

The company did not provide further details of its audits.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Found in Ancient Cave

A researcher is shown in Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad Cavern National Park with calcite formations shown in the background. Deep inside the cave in New Mexico, researchers have made a startling discovery — bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, even though they have been pristinely isolated from human contact for more than four million years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - McMaster University/Max Wisshak via Yahoo!News

Deep inside a cave in New Mexico, researchers have made a remarkable discovery — bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, even though they have been pristinely isolated from human contact for more than four million years.

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics — the infection-killing wonder drugs that began with mass-produced penicillin in the early 1940s — was long thought to have arisen because of wholesale and indiscriminate use of the medications to treat and prevent disease in both people and animals.

Over time, more and more disease-causing bacteria have become immune to most antibiotics now in use, including the superbug MRSA (multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). And the growing number of bugs mutating to dodge the killing effects of the drugs has researchers and pharmaceutical companies scrambling to find new agents.

But the discovery of strains of naturally resistant bacteria in the Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad Cavern National Park represents a major leap in the understanding of resistance threatening the treatment of infectious diseases around the world.

The conclusion: it isn't just man made.

"Our study shows that antibiotic resistance is hard-wired into bacteria. It could be billions of years old, but we have only been trying to understand it for the last 70 years," said co-principal investigator Gerry Wright, scientific director of Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"This has important clinical implications," Wright said. "It suggests that there are far more antibiotics in the environment that could be found and used to treat currently untreatable infections."

That's because a particular bacterium creates its own antibiotic as a means of fighting off other bacteria, said co-author Hazel Barton, a cave microbiologist at the University of Akron who helped recover the micro-organisms within the New Mexico cave.

One way to think of it is the bacterial version of the "Hunger Games" — kill or be killed.

"They're carrying out germ warfare, so it's like an arms race," said Barton, explaining that the bacteria are competing for scarce food resources in their environment, whether in backyard soil or deep within a cavern.

"These chemical weapons that they make are antibiotics," she said Wednesday from Akron, Ohio.

"So these organisms have adapted by developing resistance to those chemical weapons. So even though somebody comes along and spits this weapon at them, they can defend themselves and that's where resistance comes from."

While most of us think of antibiotics as pills from a bottle, most in fact originated in nature, like the mould identified by Briton Alexander Fleming in 1928 that gave rise to penicillin.

"If you look at it in the soil, you've got one bacterium next to another bacterium," Barton said. "That bacterium is squirting out the same drug that you have in that pill."

The Lechuguilla Cave seemed an ideal place to seek bacteria that could not have developed resistance to antibiotics through human or other environmental contact with the drugs.

Discovered in 1986, access to the more than 200-kilometre-long cave has been limited to a few expert cavers and researchers each year. It is also surrounded by an impermeable layer of rock, meaning infiltration of water into the cave can take up to 10,000 years to reach its deepest recesses, an age well beyond the discovery of antibiotics.

The researchers sampled bacteria from so far into the cave — involving a laborious hike of about seven kilometres — that Barton and other researchers had to camp inside its depths during the collection process.

In never-before-visited recesses, they collected strains of bacteria, scraping them off the surfaces of rock. An analysis showed none are capable of causing human disease, but almost all are resistant to at least one antibiotic, with some able to fend off up to 14 of the drugs.

In all, resistance was found to virtually every antibiotic that doctors currently use to treat patients, say the researchers, whose work is published in this week's edition of the journal PLoS One.

The good news is that where there is resistance among bacteria in the environment, there must also be natural antibiotics that other micro-organisms have created.

"What it means is that there's also a broad range of antibiotics we've yet to discover," said Barton, noting that the researchers have already isolated one and are working with a pharmaceutical company to develop it into a drug.

"So we're just hunting them down now."

Naowarat Cheeptham, a cave microbiologist at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., said the implications of the study are "really significant."

"With this study, it has re-emphasized the importance that, you know what, maybe it's already there ... Maybe they already exist in the environment," she said of drug-resistant bacteria and as yet undiscovered antibiotics.

Cheeptham, who was not involved with this research, is also searching for new antibiotic agents in a number of B.C. caverns, including the Helmcken Falls Cave in B.C.'s Wells Gray Provincial Park.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Did You Know That...

If you chew gum when you study a subject; and, then chew the same flavour gum when taking the test, it will help you remember.

A condition exists that is the opposite of paranoia. It is called pronoia. It is the delusion that a vast conspiracy exists to aid you.

Doritos were originally created because there were too many unused tortillas in Disneyland.

The slogan on New Hampshire license plates is 'Live Free or Die'. These license plates are manufactured by prisoners in the state prison in Concord.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tuur van Balen Tries to Get Pigeons to Defecate Soap With Aid of Special Bacteria

Photo courtesy: Tuur van Balen

Every once in a while, I run across an idea that makes me wonder what the "creator" of this epiphany was smoking just before inspiration hit. This experiment to change the diet of pigeons so they defecate soap is lunacy. And to aid him with his repurposing of pigeons, he received a grant from both the Flemish Architecture & Design Committee and Ministry of Culture which adds an air of legitimacy to an idea that I find deeply disturbing.

The pigeon is widely regarded as a scourge of the city - the rat's flying cousin, dropping poop on residents, tourists, statues and buildings. But what if that poop could be useful instead of a nuisance? In one of the stranger projects to grace our pages, a Belgian designer-cum-scientist is working on a pigeon diet that would turn the birds' feces into soap - so they clean up our cities instead of dirty them.

Tuur van Balen calls the project "Pigeon d'Or" - French for "golden pigeon." It's a two step process: 1) make pigeons poop soap. 2) Build specially designed coops to house the pigeons where they can be fed, and direct their feces onto car windshields. Understandably, the first part hasn't been easy.

Photo courtesy: Tuur van Balen

In March 2010, van Balen began working with synthetic biologist James Chappell to create a special bacteria that, when fed to pigeons, would make the birds metabolize and defecate soap. The fact that they were funded by a grant from the Flemish Architecture & Design Committee and Ministry of Culture adds credence to what seems like an idea that could easily be complete nonsense.

In an e-mail this month, van Balen wrote:
I did not manage to make pigeons defecate soap (yet). In collaboration with a scientist, I designed and created a bacteria that could theoretically produce a biological soap inside the pigeon's gut. However, taking this bacteria out of the lab and testing it on pigeons is complicated ethically and legally.

Photo courtesy: Tuur van Balen

On the project site, he notes: "the project explores the ethical, political, practical and aesthetic consequences of designing biology." He's right about that - if the project were ever successful, it would raise a lot of objections. He describes the process as "add new functionality" to the birds. What right do humans have to turn wild animals into free flying cleaners?

On the other hand, we domesticate (some say enslave) plenty of animals, often to the mutual benefit of both species. If the new diet doesn't harm the pigeon, why not turn something gross into something useful?

Either way, it's unlikely those questions will have to be answered in the near future, unless van Balen and Chappell have a real breakthrough. But you never know.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Britain in Midst of Severe Drought

Keeping water restrictions forefront in the public's mind even comes by way of bus advertisement. Photo courtesy: Bonnie Alter

I was sitting in my livingroom this afternoon watching the tradesperson power wash my balcony. Our complex has chosen to clean up the building and remove algal growth by the use of highly-pressurized water. As I watched the copious amounts of water being used drain off the balcony, I realized our complex had used enough water to supply a small village for one year for this one single purpose.

How totally wasteful when other countries are suffering through droughts with barely enough clean drinking water to satisfy the peoples' thirst.

It's the driest spring since 1976 and the south east part of England is under watering restrictions. They will affect 20 million people and there is a £1,000 ($1,500) fine for flouting the rules.

The cause is two years of very low rainfall and unseasonably dry weather. Reservoirs are well below normal levels and some tributaries of the Thames River have been reduced to mere trickles.

Water is precious and we should all be trying to use less of it in everyday life. During the last drought there was a 10% reduction in demand for water, so people can do it. The funny thing about the ban is that the restrictions are things that we should be doing all the time, not just during a drought.

For example, using grey water, which is recycled household water, to water plants.

One way around water restrictions is to collect rain water in a rain barrel or butt. Photo courtesy: crocus

--Getting a rainwater barrel (called butts in the UK) for the garden and collecting rain water in it. This can then be used to water plants. In fact, many people are doing this--so far three times the amount sold last year have already been snatched up by eager gardeners. Rain water is actually healthier for your plants than tap water as it does not have all the additives we put in our drinking water.

--Use a watering can to water plants: double the number of these have also been sold to date.

--Using a trickle irrigation system in the garden--they release the water gradually and are more efficient. Trickle irrigation systems can use approx. 50% less water than traditional irrigation systems.

--No filling the wading pool with a hose, although buckets of water are allowed.

--No filling up the swimming pool either.

--Washing your car with a bucket and elbow grease, not with the hose.

So how bad is it to use a hose? Apparently "hosepipes typically use 225 litres in 15 minutes – that's 900 litres in an hour. When used they tend to be left on for long periods of time, so a hosepipe ban is seen as a relatively effective way to cut down on excessive water usage."

The Trafalgar Square fountain. Photo courtesy: Mike Fleming

The glorious fountain in Trafalgar Square is going to be switched off as part of the ban. So will 29 other fountains in the London area. But not the Diana Memorial Fountain as it has its own borehole supply.

But even if everyone behaved and followed the ban, the problem would not be solved. Despite the best intentions, the real issue is the water companies: they lose 3.36 billion litres of water a day in leaks. If the leaks were fixed there would be more than enough water. Thames Water was the worst; losing more than 600 million litres a day.

The ban is crucial to saving wildlife which has suffered since the winter in some areas. One official explained "This hosepipe ban is an essential part of dealing with a crisis which could be devastating for wildlife in our countryside. Reducing demand now will help keep more water in the environment, keeping rivers flowing for longer and protecting their precious wildlife."

As for enforcing the ban...the seven water companies have said that they won't be because they've "got better things to do with our money, like fixing leaks."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bhutan: Home to Gross National Happiness and Other Splendors

Who wouldn't look happy in the middle of that natural splendor. Photo courtesy: mandy

If you haven't already read, in the run-up to the Rio+20 environmental conference the UN has been highlighting the importance of moving beyond GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as the end-all-be-all measurement of national progress. Towards that it's highlighting the World Happiness Report, with the research done by the folks at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

Hidden away at the end of that report (the entirety of which is worth reading, for those of the appropriately wonky inclination), is a case study of Bhutan and its development of the Gross National Happiness metric.

Over at TreeHugger they've mentioned this many times, in cataloguing all the better and greener ways of measuring the economy than GDP, and GNH has a certain cache within the green movement and social justice movement more broadly. But I'm willing to bet that for every hundred people who know that Bhutan has been prioritizing national happiness more highly than national product, perhaps only one actually knows how they've been calculating this.

So here we go, the quick version. The full case study is available on the report link above, starting on page 108. (Appropriate enough, if likely coincidentally, considering the significance of the number 108 within Buddhism.)

The concept of national happiness being supremely important has a long history in Bhutan, at least back to the legal code of 1729, which says "if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist." How enlightened those early Bhutan scholars were! Gross National Happiness, phrased such, is much newer, dating to the early 1970s and statements by the Fourth King of Bhutan. As an actual index, and not just a policy notion, GNH is newer still. The first pre-pilot index being conducted in 2006, followed by a 2008 national survey, and then followed by the 2010 GNH Index, the subject of the case study here.

As far as how GNH is defined, the report says that though there is no single definition, the most widely used definition is:

Gross National Happiness measures the quality of a country in a more holistic way and believes that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other.

A decent notion for sure, and one which hints at just one of the differences between GNH and some other Western-based studies of happiness.

Included in Bhutan's national measurement of happiness is that spiritual component, community and cultural involvement, and concern for nature.

As Bhutan's prime minister puts it, GNH attempts to get at a deeper level of happiness than "the fleeting, pleasurable 'feel good' moods so often associated with the term."

All told, there are 33 indicators included in GNH, covering a lot of ground, but given different weights. These include measures of: Psychological wellbeing, living standards, education, health, ecological diversity and resilience, good governance, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, and community vitality.

Since we've covered plenty of Western studies on life satisfaction and happiness before, let's just look at those things Bhutan includes that others often exclude.

Spirituality is measure on four factors: Self-supported spirituality level, how much they consider karma, how much they pray, and how often they meditate. 53% of the population of Bhutan in 2010 have reached an "adequate" level here.

Underneath the Culture category, Bhutan considers people's Artisan Skills — consisting of thirteen different traditional handicraft skills (such as weaving, painting, blacksmithing, carpentry) and whether people have attained skill with any of them. A person passes the sufficiency threshold if they have one of the traditional skills. 62% of Bhutanese meet the sufficiency, with the most common skills being masonry, carpentry, or textile weaving.

In Time Use, Sleeping Hours are considered. With eight hours being considered sufficient sleep, 66.7% of Bhutanese are consistently well rested.

In Ecological Diversity and Resilience, Pollution, Environmental responsibility, Wildlife, and Urban use are the sub-categories. Pollution is measured on subjective concern about pollution (69% think things are alright). Environmental responsibility tries to gauge people's concern for the environment (84.4% pass the "highly responsible" threshold). Wildlife looks at not, as you might guess, concern for wildlife, but how much people feel like animals are damaging crops (57.9% are not inconvenienced by crop damage). Urban use tries to gauge how well people are dealing with issues of urban life such as traffic congestion, urban sprawl, pedestrian conditions (84.4% feel the situation is well handled, though the report notes this is skewed because anyone not living in a city is defaulted to hitting the sufficiency).

So what's the tally? How happy is Bhutan? As of 2010, 41% of Bhutanese are identified as happy, with the rest of the population hitting sufficient levels of satisfaction in 57% of the surveyed categories.

In other words, there's definite room for improvement.

(A lot of room for improvement, I imagine, for Bhutan's under-publicized refugee problem with its Hindu minority. Again, nowhere is perfect, even if there is much good intent involved.)

All told, however, Bhutan is on to something in terms of developing a truly holistic measurement for development. Bhutan's specific measurement may not be directly portable to other nations, but with local-specific tweaks, Gross National Happiness is a beacon marking where we should be heading.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Unprecedented Death of Hundred of Dolphins After BP Oil Spill

A dead dolphin washed up on shore. Photo courtesy: NRDC

It has now been nearly two full years since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, loosing a massive geyser of oil into the marine ecosystems. Since then, biologists have been working diligently to understand the full impact that the disaster has wrought on the region's wildlife — even as the spill and its fallout slide further from the public's view.

Of course, much of that fallout still has conservationists deeply concerned. One of the most worrisome phenomena to emerge in the wake of the spill is the mass die-off of hundreds of bottlenose dolphins, which the NRDC calls "unprecedented". Since the spill, over 600 dolphins have stranded themselves in the region hardest hit by oil, and 95% of them have died.

In a fact sheet it just released on the topic, the NRDC elaborates:
Over the last two years, an unusually high number of bottlenose dolphins have beached along the shores of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and western Florida, raising enormous concern; and, for good reason. Even in a species known to experience mass mortalities — from brevetoxin and disease — the current die-off is unprecedented in its duration and magnitude.
And when they say "unprecedented," they mean it: "Never before have the dolphins in the Gulf experienced a die-off that has 1.) lasted as long, 2.) involved as many animals, or 3.) afflicted as many calves." The die-off has lasted a staggering 25 months now.

A larger than normal amount of breached, or "stranded", dolphins began washing up on the shores around the Gulf even before the spill began. But the mass die-off continued throughout the year, and worsened dramatically in 2011. A primary concern of this die-off—the species is known to be prone to occasional events of this nature — is the unusual number of stillborn calves showing up.

Chart showing rise in dolphin deaths. Image courtesy: NRDC

During the spill, dolphins were spotted swimming in the middle of the slick — they're not well-equipped to detect toxins on surface water. But most of the die-offs didn't take place during the event itself, when the sheens were thickest, "meaning that the vast majority of known mortalities cannot be attributed to the immediate, acute effects of exposure."

Theories abound. # 1: "We know that some coastal areas in the northern Gulf were degraded by the BP spill, and when storms come, toxics that have accumulated in the bottom sediment could reenter the water column, as has been observed decades after the Exxon Valdez disaster." And dolphins don't ditch even highly degraded habitats.

#2: "... dolphins feed high on the food chain, and toxins absorbed through fish consumption can bioaccumulate in their tissue. Some toxic compounds found in oil such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons have been shown to cause birth defects in humans; it is conceivable that they are responsible for some of the recent stillbirths in dolphins."

Or maybe, #3:
"perhaps dolphins’ exposure to oil or dispersants compromised their immune response and left them susceptible to the bacteria. Or perhaps the impact was indirect. Loss of prey can also undermine the immune system and can deplete the energy that mothers need to calve and nourish their babies, resulting in reproductive failure, lower birth weights, and smaller chances of survival."

The NRDC admits that any causal links between the mass die-offs and the BP spill are still largely inconclusive, but maintains that there is now enough evidence to suggest that the oil disaster is probably a contributing factor to the dolphins' calamity. The report makes a strong case for continued vigilance, especially by government agencies tracking fallout from the spill, and for looking carefully for other long-term impacts on ecosystems. After all, it notes, it took decades for the oil from the Exxon Valdez to work its way fully into the food chain, and for the gravest impacts to be made manifest. The same may be true with the BP spill — and on an even larger scale.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Scientists Try to Give Plants Emotions

Photo courtesy: DigInfo/screen grab

Having worked with plants most of my life, I know that plants respond to emotions. When I worked for a plant company that supplied offices with plants and maintenance, it was easy to see at a glance, the employees who truly loved plants. The plants besides or over their desks were always the healthiest, greenest plants in the office. Never failed!

We know that office plants can make us healthier and happier and that reconnecting with nature improves our mental and physical health. But what if we could create plants that actually physically react to our emotions and express them right back at us? What if that house plant sitting on your desk could nod in sympathy as you vent your frustrations about a client, or do a little leap for joy when you successfully pull off a big contract?

That seems to be the thinking behind a research project at Keio University which aims to "make living plants seem even more alive, and give them a greater presence" by reacting directly to what we are thinking and feeling.

At first I assumed it was a freaky experiment in biotechnology/telepathy, but it seems that it is more akin to puppetry — with a series of sensor-controlled motors being attached to plants by a series of wires.

Photo courtesy: DigInfo/screen grab

Now, I have to wonder who was the mind behind trying to get plants to move in concert with our emotions. Does this mean that if I am depressed, my plant would languish over the rim of its pot until I feel better?

The researchers say they want to make the plant seem "even more alive" than it is now. How does one make a living thing seem more alive? I think what they mean is, they want to create plants that seem to be a bit more human.

Either way, it's very strange. As for researcher Furi Sawaki's intent to explore "how plants could be utilized as content", I confess to being intrigued. Perhaps we'll soon be able to watch the entire works of Shakespeare being performed on our desks by a small troop of cacti. Now that would actually be pretty cool...

A quick peek at how researchers are progressing with this.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Man Plants Forest Single-Handedly

Photo courtesy: PhBasumata/CC BY 3.0

I am pleased to blog about another man who didn't let anything get in the way to accomplishing his dream. Despite the odds, the setbacks; and, alone, this man created a forest which is now host to a plethora of wildlife.

A little over 30 years ago, a teenager named Jadav "Molai" Payeng began burying seeds along a barren sandbar near his birthplace in northern India's Assam region to grow a refuge for wildlife. Not long after, he decided to dedicate his life to this endeavor, so he moved to the site where he could work full-time creating a lush new forest ecosystem. Incredibly, the spot today hosts a sprawling 1,360 acres of jungle that Payeng planted single-handedly.

The Times of India recently caught up with Payeng in his remote forest lodge to learn more about how he came to leave such an indelible mark on the landscape:
It all started way back in 1979 when floods washed a large number of snakes ashore on the sandbar. One day, after the waters had receded, Payeng , only 16 then, found the place dotted with the dead reptiles. That was the turning point of his life.

"The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover. I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage . I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. It was painful, but I did it. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested," says Payeng, now 47.

While it's taken years for Payeng's remarkable dedication to planting to receive some well-deserved recognition internationally, it didn't take long for wildlife in the region to benefit from the manufactured forest. Demonstrating a keen understanding of ecological balance, Payeng even transplanted ants to his burgeoning ecosystem to bolster its natural harmony. Soon the shadeless sandbar was transformed into a self-functioning environment where a menagerie of creatures could dwell. The forest, called the Molai woods (after its creator), now serves as a safe haven for numerous birds, deers, rhinos, tigers, and elephants -- species increasingly at risk from habitat loss elsewhere.

There are a variety of flora and fauna which moved onto the sandbar, including endangered animals like the one-horned rhino and Royal Bengal tiger. "After 12 years, we've seen vultures. Migratory birds, too, have started flocking here. Deer and cattle have attracted predators," claims Payeng.

Despite the conspicuousness of Payeng's project, Forestry officials in the region first learned of this new forest in 2008 -- and since then they've come to recognize his efforts as truly remarkable, but perhaps not enough.

"We're amazed at Payeng," says Assistant Conservator of Forests, Gunin Saikia. "He has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Honeybees Capable of Self-Medicating

Beeswax and propolis on top of a frame. Photo courtesy: mattprice

News today of yet more evidence linking neonicotinoid pesticides to Colony Collapse Disorder in bees was notable not just because it showed that insecticides harm bees. What is really interesting about this, and previous studies on honeybee exposure to neonicotinoids, is that the chemicals don't appear to just kill bees overnight, but rather they disrupt natural behaviors like navigation, queen rearing and the ability to ward off parasites.

We already knew that bees have a remarkably sophisticated social system and a robust set of defenses against numerous threats (check out this remarkable video, for example, on how honeybees clean house). But we're learning just how remarkable with every new study.

Jennifer Welsh reported over at Huffington Post recently on new research showing that bees self-medicate against fungal threats by collecting plant resins and wax to create propolis, a glue-like substance with strong anti-fungal properties:
The researchers found that when facing a fungal threat the bees brought in 45 percent more of the waxy creation to line their hives, and physically removed fungally-infected larvae from their area. Interestingly, that means they have a better grasp of the germ theory of disease than humans did before the 19th century — things that come into contact with microbes tend to cause further infection, the researchers noted.

"The colony is willing to expend the energy and effort of its worker bees to collect these resins," Simone-Finstrom said in a statement. "So, clearly this behavior has evolved because the benefit to the colony exceeds the cost."

As Welsh notes, the study may have implications for recommended beekeeping methodologies. After all, beekeepers have tended to favor hive designs and bee strains that produce less propolis, and often remove the substance when it is made, because it sticks hive parts together and makes the bees tough to work with.

Any time we post on alternative methods like tough love beekeeping or top-bar hives, one of the common criticisms is that regular intervention is needed to stop bees gluing up their hives.

Maybe this is just one more reminder that the bees may just know what they are doing, at least better than we do.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Europe to go GMO Free

Image courtesy: GMO-Free Europe

News broke this week that Monsanto has threatened to sue Vermont if it passes a law requiring labeling of genetically-modified foods.

I think the question here remains: IF there is nothing shameful or harmful with genetically-modified foods; then, why is Monsanto so eager to avoid labelling them as such?

But look outside the U.S., and opposition to the company and the biotech model it represents gets a lot stronger — and more effective. We saw that in a new report showing how much people around the world hate Monsanto. And now, following anti-Monsanto activism in other countries, Poland has announced plans to completely ban the growth of Monsanto’s genetically-modified strain MON810. Kudos to Poland for refusing to allow Monsanto's GM corn in their country.

Natural Society has more:
The announcement, made by Agriculture Minister, Marek Sawicki, sets yet another international standard against Monsanto’s genetically modified creations.

In addition to being linked to a plethora of health ailments, Sawicki says that the pollen originating from this GM strain may actually be devastating the already dwindling bee population.

And AFP explains more about recent news on GMOs in Europe:
On March 9, seven European countries — Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland and Slovakia — blocked a proposal by the Danish EU presidency to allow the cultivation of genetically-modified plants on the continent.

Seven days after that, France imposed a temporary ban on the MON810 strain.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Denver Zoo Tuk Tuk Runs on Human Trash and Animal Droppings

The tuk-tuk at Denver Zoo. Photo courtesy: Denver zoo via TreeHugger.com

It's for real and it made the news yesterday at the Denver Zoo: a tuk tuk powered by human trash and animal droppings is believed to be the first hybrid-electric gasified tuk tuk. The fuel source is gasified pellets made from animal droppings and trash generated by zoo visitors and employees.

The three-wheeled motorized tuk tuk will be part of a larger innovative energy system, expected to be complete by the end of the year, that will convert more than 90 percent of the zoo's waste — 1.5 million pounds annually — into energy.

The Denver Post has more on the history of the project:

This idea — which is now patent pending — began eight years ago during the early planning for the Elephant Passage. Cutting down energy use was a priority, and as a result, a three-person engineering team was commissioned to develop alternative options. It started with consumption analysis.

"These guys spent a lot of time in Dumpsters figuring out what kind of trash we produce," Barnhart said.
And more straight from the Denver Zoo:
"We wanted an innovative energy solution that would help us eliminate our landfill waste. We immediately considered ways to create energy from animal poop and human trash. The result is astounding - an energy solution that can create clean energy from trash," says VP for Planning and Capital Projects George Pond.

This unique technology developed by the zoo, designed and built by three full-time staff, is under provisional patent protection and will be the first to utilize a diverse on-site waste stream, a breakthrough that could change how the world manages waste and creates energy.

The zoo expects to offset 20 percent of its overall energy consumption using the system, but the possibilities are much broader than just Denver or just zoos.

"This is not just a zoo thing," said zoo sustainability manager Jennifer Hale, according to the Denver Post. "It can be applied on campuses, in communities and many other environments."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Spiders Detachable Penis Finishes Sex Act Without Him

"Guess what, honey? You're what's for dinner tonight!" Photo courtesy: CREDIT: Daiqin Li via LiveScience.com

Sex can be dangerous, even deadly if your partner has plans to eat you. When the male orb-web spider has its first, and sometimes last, sexual encounter it has a trick up its sleeve: detachable genitalia which keep pumping even after their owner's moved on.

The orb-web spider Nephilengys malabarensis is sexually cannibalistic and the male has detachable genitals. These spiders have at most two chances to mate: They have a pair of sperm-transferring organs, actually called their "palps" but analogous to a penis, which detach from their bodies when they disengage from mating — either when the female pushes them away and possibly eats them or they successfully run away to risk death another day.

For spiders this breakage of male’s sperm-transferring organ is common, says researcher Daiquin Li, of the University of Singapore, but it's usually just the tip.

"However, some spider species exhibit extreme genital mutilation or the 'eunuch phenomenon,' where males castrate their entire pedipalp(s) during copulation," Li, author of a new study on this process, told LiveScience.

Photo courtesy: Nephilengys malabarensis female with a severed male palp (in the red box) still lodged in her sexual organs. Her half-eaten mate lies next to her (the smaller of the two spiders). Photo courtesy: Joelyn Oh via LiveScience.com

This eunuch behavior is a pretty confusing concept to most researchers: They (like most men reading this) really couldn't think of a way that having a break-off penis could be a good thing. They previously thought that this full breakage was just a mistake (since what good, evolutionarily speaking, is a male unable to have sex?), but Li believes it must have some advantage for the male — possibly storing or transferring more sperm.

The researchers collected 50 virgin orb-web spiders — 25 each, male and female — from Singapore and raised them in the lab until they reached sexual maturity. They were mated in pairs by placing the smaller males into the female's web. The researchers recorded how long they mated, who stopped the mating, and how much palp broke off. Eighty eight percent of the time the spiders left the whole palp in the female.

After mating they left the palp in the female for different amounts of time (up to 20 minutes), then measured how much sperm was left in the palp and in the female's sexual organs. The researchers found that the detached genitalia continued to transfer sperm after sex ended.

"About 30 percent of sperm were transferred to the females before the palp breakoff, and about 70 percent of sperm were still left in the broken palp," Li said. "In our experiments, it took about 20 minutes to transfer about 85 percent of [the] sperm."

This means that after the female frightens the male away, or eats him, his genitalia remain in place and can continue sending sperm her way, even long after sex is over — in the lab it took the females about seven hours to get the palp out. This elongated sperm transfer doesn't happen if they just break off the tip of the palp.

"This mate-plugging can partially serve as a plug to prevent other males" from mating with the female, Li said. "In addition, the eunuch males [if they survive] become more aggressive and guard the female so that this can make sure the sperm left in the severed palp can be transferred to the female after breakage," probably leading to better success at becoming a father, even in the afterlife.

Spiders aren't the only species to Lorena Bobbit their own genitals, and Li thinks the same sperm-transfer bonus may apply in other species, as well: "This may apply to other spider species and other animals in which males castrate their genitals, for example, in fire ants, ground beetles, scorpions and cephalopods," he said.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Light Beam From a Mayan Temple or iPhone Glitch?

"El Castillo," a Mayan temple on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, with a mysterious "light beam" emerging from the top. Photo courtesy: Hector Siliezar via lifeslittlemysteries.com

When Hector Siliezar visited the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza with his wife and kids in 2009, he snapped three iPhone photos of El Castillo, a pyramid that once served as a sacred temple to the Mayan god Kukulkan. A thunderstorm was brewing near the temple, and Siliezar was trying to capture lightning crackling dramatically over the ruins.

In the first two images, dark clouds loom above the pyramid, but nothing is amiss. However, in the third photo, a powerful beam of light appears to shoot up from the pyramid toward the heavens, and a thunderbolt flashes in the background.

Siliezar, who recently shared his photographs with occult investigators, told Earthfiles.com that he and his family didn't see the light beam in person; it appeared only on camera. "It was amazing!" he said. He showed the iPhone photo to his fellow tourists. "No one, not even the tour guide, had ever seen anything like it before."

The photo has surfaced on several Mayan doomsday discussion forums. But was the light beam a sign from the gods — a warning about Dec. 21, 2012, the date that marks the end of the Mayan calendar cycle, and when some people fear the world will end? Or is it simply the result of an iPhone glitch?

According to Jonathon Hill, a research technician and mission planner at the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University, which operates many of the cameras used during NASA's Mars missions, it is almost definitely the latter. Hill works with images of the Martian surface taken by rovers and satellites, as well as data from Earth-orbiting NASA instruments, and is fully versed in the wide range of potential image artifacts and equipment errors.

He says the "light beam" in the Mayan temple photo is a classic case of such an artifact — a distortion in an image that arises from the way cameras bounce around incoming light.

It is no mere coincidence, Hill said, that "of the three images, the 'light beam' only occurs in the image with a lightning bolt in the background. The intensity of the lightning flash likely caused the camera's CCD sensor to behave in an unusual way, either causing an entire column of pixels to offset their values or causing an internal reflection [off the] camera lens that was recorded by the sensor." In either case, extra brightness would have been added to the pixels in that column in addition to the light hitting them directly from the scene.

Evidence in favor of this explanation is the fact that the beam, when isolated in Photoshop or other image analysis software, runs perfectly vertical in the image. "That's a little suspicious since it's very unlikely that the gentleman who took this picture would have his handheld iPhone camera positioned exactly parallel to the 'light beam' down to the pixel level," Hill told Life's Little Mysteries.

It's more likely that the "light beam" corresponds to a set of columns of pixels in the camera sensor that are electronically connected to each other, but not to other columns in the sensor, and that this set of connected pixels became oversaturated in the manner described above.

"That being said," Hill said, "it really is an awesome image!"

Any opinions, readers?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Air Pollution Will Kill More People Than Dirty Water by 2050

No idea where this is located; but, I just couldn't pass it up. Photo courtesy: wallpaperseek.com

Urban air pollution is set to become the biggest environmental cause of premature death in the coming decades, overtaking even such mass killers as poor sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water, according to a new report.

Both developed and developing countries will be hit, and by 2050, there could be 3.6 million premature deaths a year from exposure to particulate matter, most of them in China and India. But rich countries will suffer worse effects from exposure to ground-level ozone, because of their ageing populations – older people are more susceptible.

Even the Big Apple (New York, NY) is barely visible under a cloak of smog. Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

The warning comes in a new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is a study of the global environmental outlook until 2050. The report found four key areas that are of most concern – climate change, loss of biodiversity, water and the health impacts of pollution.

If current policies are allowed to carry on, the world will far exceed the levels of greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are safe, the report found. "I call it the surrender scenario – where we would be if governments do nothing more than what they have pledged already?" said Simon Upton, environment director at the OECD. "But it could be even worse than that, we've found."

The view of smog covering central London, UK from Hampstead Heath in April 2011. Photo courtesy: Matt Dunham/AP via guardian.co.uk

The report said that global greenhouse gas emissions could increase by as much as half, as energy demand rises strongly, if countries fail to use cleaner forms of energy. Water demand is also likely to rise by more than half, and by 2050 as much as 40% of the global population is likely to be living in areas under severe water stress. Groundwater depletion would become the biggest threat to agriculture and to urban water supplies, while pollution from sewage and waste water – including chemicals used in cleaning – will put further strain on supplies.

However, the OECD study also said that there are some actions that governments can take quickly to tackle some of the key problems. For instance, many governments treat diesel fuel for vehicles differently than petrol for tax purposes, with tax breaks that encourage the take-up of diesel. But although diesel vehicle fuel produces lower greenhouse gas emissions than petrol, it is far worse for spewing out small particulate matter, which is bad for urban pollution. "In environmental terms, there is no reason to give diesel tax breaks over petrol," said Upton.

Beijing, China, which is one of the countries likely to be worst hit by pollution-triggered deaths in coming decades. Photo courtesy: David Gray/Reuters via guardian.co.uk

Governments could also remove other environmentally harmful subsidies, such as fossil fuel subsidies and subsidies for water that encourage irresponsible use of the resource. Biofuels are another potential danger area, because although they can emit less carbon than conventional fossil fuels, they also contribute to reducing biodiversity and put further strains on water use, so governments should consider carefully whether to go down the biofuels road, Upton warned.

Upton said that if governments took action now, and developed long-term views of these environmental problems, it would give them a much greater chance of avoiding the worst outcomes. "The key thing is that these four biggest problems are interconnected – biodiversity is affected by climate change and land use, water is linked to health problems, for instance. You can't solve any one of these in isolation. So to be effective, governments have to focus on all of these four and look very closely at the connections between them," he said.