Later On

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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Evolution eventually will exploit every niche of the physical world.

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Kevin Hartnett reports in Quanta:

It used to be that to find new forms of life, all you had to do was take a walk in the woods. Now it’s not so simple. The most conspicuous organisms have long since been cataloged and fixed on the tree of life, and the ones that remain undiscovered don’t give themselves up easily. You could spend all day by the same watering hole with the best scientific instruments and come up with nothing.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that when discoveries do occur, they sometimes come in torrents. Find a different way of looking, and novel forms of life appear everywhere.

A team of microbiologists based at the University of California, Berkeley, recently figured out one such new way of detecting life. At a stroke, their work expanded the number of known types — or phyla — of bacteria by nearly 50 percent, a dramatic change that indicates just how many forms of life on earth have escaped our notice so far.

“Some of the branches in the tree of life had been noted before,” said Chris Brown, a student in the lab of Jill Banfield and lead author of the paper. “With this study we were able to fill in many gaps.”

Life’s Finest Net

As an organizational tool, the tree of life has been around for a long time. Lamarck had his version. Darwin had another. The basic structure of the current tree goes back 40 years to the microbiologist Carl Woese, who divided life into three domains: eukaryotes, which include all plants and animals; bacteria; and archaea, single-celled microorganisms with their own distinct features. After a point, discovery came to hinge on finding new ways of searching.

“We used to think there were just plants and animals,” said Edward Rubin, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute. “Then we got microscopes, and got microbes. Then we got small levels of DNA sequencing.”

DNA sequencing is at the heart of this current study, though the researchers’ success also owes a debt to more basic technology. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2015 at 4:07 pm

Billions of people wonder what the hell is going on: They’ve never heard of climate change

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It’s happening, and whether we like it or not is irrelevant. But some are in for a big surprise.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 July 2015 at 3:02 pm

Robots Are Wandering Through Oil Pipelines That Have Never Been Inspected

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Of course oil companies don’t inspect their pipelines—what’s the worst that could happen? — Ah, well. Perhaps that’s why they’re now using robots to inspect the lines from the inside. Jordan Pearson reports in Motherboard:

Oil and natural gas are flowing through nearly 1 million kilometres of aging pipelineacross Canada at high pressure, and some of the pipes have never been inspected for defects—ever.

Robots could change this, but industry observers are skeptical about the possibility of mechanical safety technicians making a positive change in the often reckless oil industry.

Oil pipes are inspected by defect-detecting devices called “smart pigs,” named for the ultrasonic or magnetic sensors they carry. Uninspected lines are typically secondary pipes welded on to the main line at pumping stations. These lines are referred to as “unpiggable” because their geometry or small size makes them impossible for smart pigs to traverse.

“There are definitely pipelines in Canada that have not been inspected,” said Greg Zinter, manager of pipeline integrity assessment at inspection tech company Applus RTD. Seventy percent of TransCanada’s rural pipeline system is made up of small diameter pipe, according to a presentation last year, and at the time only 26 percent of it had been pigged.

The condition of these pipes is essentially unknown, and so they’re often considered a safety hazard. In 2014, after a spate of ruptures in TransCanada’s pipeline system, Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) ordered the company to reduce the pressure in unpiggable lines deemed to be high risk—based on factors like their proximity to a populated area, and the type of protective coating used on the pipe—to 20 percent of their normal levels.One company is proposing a possible solution. Diakont, a Russian company with offices in San Diego and Italy, built a robot that makes unpiggable lines piggable by rumbling along on tank-like treads connected to actuators that allow them to morph to the contours of the pipe.

A smart pig is normally carried through a main pipe by the flowing oil or gas itself. They tend not to do so well with 90 degree turns. Diakont’s robot can handle these obstacles because its form-fitting treads give it enough traction to pull off Spiderman-level stunts like climbing vertically.


The main issue with going with the flow is that the pigs can’t stop to inspect anything that looks sketchy. “The problem is that you’re not in control of where you are in the pipe,” said Brian Carlson, director of pipeline services for Diakont. “If you see an anomaly, you’re essentially just flying past it. Our system is very deliberate in the way it drives through the pipe, so you can stop and analyze anything as you’re going through.”

The robot carries a video camera, ultrasonic sensors, and a laser scanner that measures the anomalies it detects. The robot sends the data back to HQ in real time through a tethered line. This means that it can do a decent job of inspecting a portion of a pipe, but not a whole line.

Diakont’s robot was used last year to inspect a part of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System after a 2011 leak shut down the entire pipeline for days, prompting federal regulators to order the company that manages the pipeline to replace hazardous pipes. According to Carlson, Diakont has customers across the US and Russia, but none in Canada. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2015 at 9:15 am

Pope Francis the radical reformer

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A very interesting report from Naomi Klein in the New Yorker:


When I was first asked to speak at a Vatican press conference on Pope Francis’s recently published climate-change encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” I was convinced that the invitation would soon be rescinded. Now the press conference and, after it, a two-day symposium to explore the encyclical is just two days away. This is actually happening.

As usual ahead of stressful trips, I displace all of my anxiety onto wardrobe. The forecast for Rome in the first week of July is punishingly hot, up to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. Women visiting the Vatican are supposed to dress modestly, no exposed legs or upper arms. Long, loose cottons are the obvious choice, the only problem being that I have a deep-seated sartorial aversion to anything with the whiff of hippie.

Surely the Vatican press room has air-conditioning. Then again, “Laudato Si’ ” makes a point of singling it out as one of many “harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more.” Will the powers that be make a point of ditching the climate control just for this press conference? Or will they keep it on and embrace contradiction, as I am doing by supporting the Pope’s bold writings on how responding to the climate crisis requires deep changes to our growth-driven economic model—while disagreeing with him about a whole lot else?

To remind myself why this is worth all the trouble, I reread a few passages from the encyclical. In addition to laying out the reality of climate change, it spends considerable time exploring how the culture of late capitalism makes it uniquely difficult to address, or even focus upon, this civilizational challenge. “Nature is filled with words of love,” Francis writes, “but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances?”

I glance shamefully around at the strewn contents of my closet. (Look: some of us don’t get to wear the same white getup everywhere…)


Four of us are scheduled to speak at the Vatican press conference, including one of the chairs of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. All except me are Catholic. In his introduction, Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See press office, describes me as a “secular Jewish feminist”—a term I used in my prepared remarks but never expected him to repeat. Everything else Father Lombardi says is in Italian, but these three words are spoken slowly and in English, as if to emphasize their foreignness.

The first question directed my way is from Rosie Scammell, with the Religion News Service: “I was wondering how you would respond to Catholics who are concerned by your involvement here, and other people who don’t agree with certain Catholic teachings?”

This is a reference to the fact that some traditionalists have been griping about all the heathens, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a roster of climate scientists, who were spotted inside these ancient walls in the run-up to the encyclical’s publication. The fear is that discussion of planetary overburden will lead to a weakening of the Church’s position on birth control and abortion. As the editor of a popular Italian Catholic Web site put it recently, “The road the church is heading down is precisely this: To quietly approve population control while talking about something else.”

I respond that I am not here to broker a merger between the secular climate movement and the Vatican. However, if Pope Francis is correct that responding to climate change requires fundamental changes to our economic model—and I think he is correct—then it will take an extraordinarily broad-based movement to demand those changes, one capable of navigating political disagreements.

After the press conference, a journalist from the U.S. tells me that she has “been covering the Vatican for twenty years, and I never thought I would hear the word ‘feminist’ from that stage.”

The air-conditioning, for the record, was left on.

The British and Dutch ambassadors to the Holy See host a dinner for the conference’s organizers and speakers. Over wine and grilled salmon, discussion turns to the political ramifications of the Pope’s trip to the United States this September. One of the guests most preoccupied with this subject is from an influential American Catholic organization. “The Holy Father isn’t making it easy for us by going to Cuba first,” he says.

I ask him how spreading the message of “Laudato Si’ ” is going back home. “The timing was bad,” he says. “It came out around the same time as the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, and that kind of sucked all the oxygen out of the room.” That’s certainly true. Many U.S. bishops welcomed the encyclical—but not with anything like the Catholic firepower expended to denounce the Supreme Court decision a week later.

The contrast is a vivid reminder of just how far Pope Francis has to go in realizing his vision of a Church that spends less time condemning people over abortion, contraception, and who they marry, and more time fighting for the trampled victims of a highly unequal and unjust economic system. When climate justice had to fight for airtime with denunciations of gay marriage, it didn’t stand a chance.

On the way back to the hotel, looking up at the illuminated columns and dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, it strikes me that this battle of wills may be the real reason such eclectic outsiders are being invited inside this cloistered world. We’re here because many powerful Church insiders simply cannot be counted upon to champion Francis’s transformative climate message—and some would clearly be happy to see it buried alongside the many other secrets entombed in this walled enclave.

Before bed, I spend a little more time with “Laudato Si’ ” and something jumps out at me. In the opening paragraph, Pope Francis writes that “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” He quotes Saint Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures,” which states, “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.”

Several paragraphs down, the encyclical notes that Saint Francis had “communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them ‘to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.’ ” According to Saint Bonaventure, the encyclical says, the thirteenth-century friar “would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’ ”

Later in the text, pointing to various biblical directives to care for animals that provide food and labor, Pope Francis comes to the conclusion that “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”

Challenging anthropocentrism is ho-hum stuff for ecologists, but it’s something else for the pinnacle of the Catholic Church. You don’t get much more human-centered than the persistent Judeo-Christian interpretation that God created the entire world specifically to serve Adam’s every need. As for the idea that we are part of a family with all other living beings, with the earth as our life-giving mother, that too is familiar to eco-ears. But from the Church? Replacing a maternal Earth with a Father God, and draining the natural world of its sacred power, were what stamping out paganism and animism were all about.

By asserting that nature has a value in and of itself, Francis is overturning centuries of theological interpretation that regarded the natural world with outright hostility—as a misery to be transcended and an “allurement” to be resisted. Of course, there have been parts of Christianity that stressed that nature was something valuable to steward and protect—some even celebrated it—but mostly as a set of resources to sustain humans.

Francis is not the first Pope to express deep environmental concern—John Paul II and Benedict XVI did as well. But those Popes didn’t tend to call the earth our “sister, mother” or assert that chipmunks and trout are our siblings.


In St. Peter’s Square, the souvenir shops are selling Pope Francis mugs, calendars, aprons—and stacks and stacks of bound copies of “Laudato Si’,” available in multiple languages. Window banners advertise its presence. At a glance, it looks like just another piece of papal schlock, not a document that could transform Church doctrine.

This morning is the opening of “People and Planet First: The Imperative to Change Course,” a two-day gathering to shape an action plan around “Laudato Si,’” organized by the International Alliance of Catholic Development Organisations and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Speakers include Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and a current United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Change, as well as Enele Sopoaga, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, an island nation whose existence is under threat from rising seas.

After an opening prayer led by a soft-spoken bishop from Bangladesh, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson—a major force behind the encyclical—delivers the first keynote. At sixty-six, his temples are grey, but his round cheeks are still youthful. Many speculate that this could be the man to succeed the seventy-eight-year-old Francis, becoming the first African pope.

Most of Turkson’s talk is devoted to citing earlier Papal encyclicals as precedents for “Laudato Si’.” His message is clear: this is not about one Pope; it’s part of a Catholic tradition of seeing the earth as a sacrament and recognizing a “covenant” (not a mere connection) between human beings and nature.

At the same time, the Cardinal points out that “the word ‘stewardship’ only appears twice” in the encyclical. The word “care,” on the other hand, appears dozens of times. This is no accident, we are told. While stewardship speaks to a relationship based on duty, “when one cares for something it is something one does with passion and love.”

This passion for the natural world is part of what has come to be called “the Francis factor,” and clearly flows from a shift in geographic power within the Catholic Church. Francis is from Argentina, and Turkson from Ghana. One of the most vivid passages in the encyclical—“Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?”—is a quotation from a statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 July 2015 at 6:52 am

The problem is not in our wheat, it is in ourselves

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Why have our immune systems become so sensitive that auto-immune diseases are on the rise? Moises Velasquez-Manoff has an interesting column in the NY Times:

AS many as one in three Americans tries to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten-free menus, gluten-free labels and gluten-free guests at summer dinners have proliferated.

Some of the anti-glutenists argue that we haven’t eaten wheat for long enough to adapt to it as a species. Agriculture began just 12,000 years ago, not enough time for our bodies, which evolved over millions of years, primarily in Africa, to adjust. According to this theory, we’re intrinsically hunter-gatherers, not bread-eaters. If exposed to gluten, some of us will develop celiac disease or gluten intolerance, or we’ll simply feel lousy.

Most of these assertions, however, are contradicted by significant evidence, and distract us from our actual problem: an immune system that has become overly sensitive.

Wheat was first domesticated in southeastern Anatolia perhaps 11,000 years ago. (An archaeological site in Israel, called Ohalo II, indicates that people have eaten wild grains, like barley and wheat, for much longer — about 23,000 years.)

Is this enough time to adapt? To answer that question, consider how some populations have adapted to milk consumption. We can digest lactose, a sugar in milk, as infants, but many stop producing the enzyme that breaks it down — called lactase — in adulthood. For these “lactose intolerant” people, drinking milk can cause bloating and diarrhea. To cope, milk-drinking populations have evolved a trait called “lactase persistence”: the lactase gene stays active into adulthood, allowing them to digest milk.

Milk-producing animals were first domesticated about the same time as wheat in the Middle East. As the custom of dairying spread, so did lactase persistence. What surprises scientists today, though, is just how recently, and how completely, that trait has spread in some populations. Few Scandinavian hunter-gatherers living 5,400 years ago had lactase persistence genes, for example. Today, most Scandinavians do.

Here’s the lesson: Adaptation to a new food stuff can occur quickly — in a few millenniums in this case. So if it happened with milk, why not with wheat?

“If eating wheat was so bad for us, it’s hard to imagine that populations that ate it would have tolerated it for 10,000 years,” Sarah A. Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies lactase persistence, told me.

For Dr. Bana Jabri, director of research at the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, it’s the genetics of celiac disease that contradict the argument that wheat is intrinsically toxic.

Active celiac disease can cause severe health problems, from stunting and osteoporosis to miscarriage. It strikes a relatively small number of people — just around 1 percent of the population. Yet given the significant costs to fitness, you’d anticipate that the genes associated with celiac would be gradually removed from the gene pool of those eating wheat.

A few years ago, Dr. Jabri and the population geneticist Luis B. Barreiro tested that assumption and discovered precisely the opposite. Not only were celiac-associated genes abundant in the Middle Eastern populations whose ancestors first domesticated wheat; some celiac-linked variants showed evidence of having spread in recent millenniums.

People who had them, in other words, had some advantage compared with those who didn’t.

Dr. Barreiro, who’s at the University of Montreal, has observed this pattern in many genes associated with autoimmune disorders. They’ve become more common in recent millenniums, not less. As population density increased with farming, and as settled living and animal domestication intensified exposure to pathogens, these genes, which amp up aspects of the immune response, helped people survive, he thinks. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 July 2015 at 10:48 am

California’s Drought Is Part of a Much Bigger Water Crisis. Here’s What You Need to Know

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Abrahm Lutgarten, Lauren Kirchner, and Amanda Zamora report at ProPublica:

Why do I keep hearing about the California drought, if it’s the Colorado River that we’re “killing”?

Pretty much every state west of the Rockies has been facing a water shortage of one kind or another in recent years.  California’s is a severe, but relatively short-term, drought. But the Colorado River basin — which provides critical water supplies for seven states including California — is the victim of a slower-burning catastrophe entering its 16th year. Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California all share water from the Colorado River, a hugely important water resource that sustains 40 million people in those states, supports 15 percent of the nation’s food supply, and fills two of largest water reserves in the country.

The severe shortages of rain and snowfall have hurt California’s $46 billion agricultural industry and helped raise national awareness of the longer-term shortages that are affecting the entire Colorado River basin. But while the two problems have commonalities and have some effect on one another, they’re not exactly the same thing.

Just how bad is the drought in California right now?

Most of California is experiencing “extreme to exceptional drought,” and the crisis has now entered its fourth year. This month, signaling how serious the current situation is, state officials announced the first cutback to farmers’ water rights since 1977, andordered cities and towns to cut water use by as much as 36 percent. Those who don’t comply with the cuts will face fines, but some farmers are already ignoring the new rules, or challenging them in court.

The drought shows no sign of letting up any time soon, and the state’s agricultural industry is suffering. A recent study by U.C. Davis researchers projected that the drought would cost California’s economy $2.7 billion in 2015 alone.

In addition to the economic cost, the drought has subtle and not-so-subtle effects on flora and fauna throughout the region. This current drought may be contributing to the spread of the West Nile virus, and it’s threatening populations of geese, ducks and Joshua trees. Dry, hot periods can exacerbate wildfires, while water shortages are making firefighters’ jobs even harder.

And a little bit of rain won’t help. NOAA scientists say it could take several years of average or above-average rainfall before California’s water supply can return to anything close to normal.

What about a lot of rain? Couldn’t that end the drought in California and across the West?

Not necessarily. A half-decade of torrential rains might bail California out of its crisis, but the larger West’s problems are more structural and systemic.  “Killing the Colorado” has shown that people are entitled to more water from the Colorado than has flowed through it, on average, over the last 110 years. Meanwhile much of the water is lost, overused or wasted, stressing both the Colorado system, and trickling down to California, which depends on the Colorado for a big chunk of its own supply. Explosive urban growthmatched with the steady planting of water-thirsty crops – which use the majority of the water – don’t help. Arcane laws actually encourage farmers to take even more water from the Colorado River and from California’s rivers than they actually need, and federal subsidies encourage farmers to plant some of the crops that use the most water. And, as ProPublica has reported, it seems that “the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential” — meaning that even the big dams and canals we built to ferry all this water may now be causing more harm than good.

Water use policies—perhaps more than nature—have caused the water crisis in the West. As the former Arizona governor and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told ProPublica: “There is enough water in the West‚ [but] there are all kinds of agriculture efficiencies that have not been put into place.”

While there are mixed views on whether climate change can be blamed for California’s drought, a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reportfound climate change was not the cause. Global warming has caused excessive heat that may have worsened the drought’s effects, but it isn’t necessarily to blame for the lack of rain. It’s true that recent years have yielded much less rain and snow than previous times in history, the NOAA report explains, but that’s just a result of “natural variance” and not necessarily because of man-made pollution. But in both California and the larger Colorado River basin, mismanagement of the water supply has left the West more vulnerable to both short and long-term changes in climate.

What do you mean by mismanagement?

When officials divvied up rights to Colorado River water nearly a century ago, it happened to be a wetter period than usual. The result? The states vastly overestimated the river’s annual flow. Today, the river’s reserves are especially low and states are stillclaiming the same amount of water from the Colorado River that they always have — which is 1.4 trillion gallons a year more than the river actually produces. This sort of oversubscription is similar in California, where historic water rights give many farms first rights to California’s streams and rivers, and haven’t been adjusted as the state’s population has increased and its cities have grown.

Wait — don’t we all have equal water rights? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2015 at 2:40 pm

Worst foods for pesticide residue—and foods with the least pesticide residue

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From EWG, the foods with the worst pesticide residue—so buy these foods from the organic section:

  1. Apples
  2. Peaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry tomatoes
  11. Snap peas – imported
  12. Potatoes
  13. Hot Peppers
  14. Kale / Collard greens

And the foods lowest in pesticide residue, so safe to buy from the conventional section:

  1. Asparagus
  2. Avocado
  3. Cabbage
  4. Cantaloupe
  5. Carrots
  6. Cauliflower
  7. Eggplant
  8. Grapefruit
  9. Kiwi
  10. Onion
  11. Mango
  12. Mushroom
  13. Papaya
  14. Pineapple
  15. Sweet corn
  16. Sweet peas
  17. Sweet potatoes (I prefer Jewell)
  18. Watermelon

Broccoli is another safe one. Check the link.

Nice touch: they offer a mobile phone app so you can get food’s score as you shop.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2015 at 3:40 pm


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