Archive for the ‘news’ Category

Dept. of Edible Spin-Offs


To all ye faithful scribble readers: First you had to accept infrequent (to nonexistent) updates when I started blogging for the Smithsonian over at the Gist. Bless you for following me over there, those of you who did.

And now the Gist has dried up – what’s next? Well, I seem to have found myself in the middle of a new blog about food, science, and culture, also hosted at Smithsonian. So please check in over there for twice-weekly yumminess from me, plus some extras every day by co-blogger Amanda Bensen.

The blog is called Food & Think. Just recently, we’ve learned about where turkeys came from, why your stomach is like a bagpipe, and the last meal of an ancient iceman. Check it out – and thanks for reading.

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It’s time for the debut of Homo sapiens in cute baby pictures… And to mark the occasion, we’re providing it in video, courtesy of the mysterious “chen canagica.” On Vimeo for maximum cuteness.

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I’m in Portland, Oregon all week, blogging from the American Ornithologists’ Union meeting. A thousand scientists and 800 presentations covering pretty much everything: from 200 years of Darwin’s finches to the fate of species in a warming future. Read about it at Cornell’s blog.

It’s not exactly all birds, all the time, I guess. The Gist has the story of the folks who ID birds found on the insides of pythons.

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Turning the tide on pollution

Turning the tide on pollution

Cheers to Surfrider Australia for a photo op that basically says it all about water quality. Although if you’re hankering for a few more specifics, check out their State of the Beach report.

(And thanks for bearing with me, everyone who still is. It’s been a jampacked couple of months. Have I mentioned that you can turn to the Gist for your twice-weekly Scribblings?)

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Inside Scoop: Antarctica

I’m still working the Antarctica angle. I just wrote two stories about my time on a windswept, icebound lava plain for the most recent issue of Woods Hole’s magazine, Oceanus. Editor Lonny Lippsett said he thought this might be an opportune time to get into the audio slideshow business, and did I want to give it a try?

One thing led to another and I found myself combing through 1,600 of Chris Linder‘s photos from that week (Dec 10-18, 2007). At first we were talking about maybe a dozen pictures and a short caption spoken by me. But there was so much to say – Chris’s photos caught so much, and reminded me of all the things I didn’t get to write about while I was there. Eventually, I had five and a half minutes of Quicktime video assembled using iMovie. Give it a look and watch me work the Ken Burns effect!

(The version on YouTube loads faster, but the resolution is a lot worse.)

(Image: Chris Linder/WHOI)

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As you may have noticed, everybody’s going batty about gas prices (neat map of prices here). Well, here at s.b.s., we think it’s about time somebody started talking about the rising cost of lobster lines. In Maine, lobstermen returning heaps of salty rope scored $1.40 a pound. And I’m all for it.

The program, sponsored by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, is part of a last-ditch effort to save the lives of whales without bankrupting lobstermen. Lobster lines and other submerged fishing lines are second only to monster ship traffic in killing whales along the East Coast. And no, the whales aren’t cramming themselves into the little lobster pots – they’re getting ensnared in the miles and miles of submerged crochetwork that connects a fisherman’s many traps.

Like the problem with ship collisions, this is another matter of tragic coincidence: whales finding themselves wedged mutely between survival and commerce. Fishermen keep their hundreds of traps organized by threading them together with lines. And they design the rope to be slightly buoyant, so that it floats a little ways above the bottom, where it won’t get hopelessly snagged on rocks.

Trouble is, it does tend to get hopelessly snagged on whales – wrapped around their flippers or wedged in between their baleen plates like pieces of corn stuck between your teeth. As the whale tries to escape, the situation just gets more hopeless and its bindings tighten around it. The whale may manage to break the lines free, only to limp away and starve to death later.

Entanglement is frightfully common – about 75 percent of all living North Atlantic right whales (plus plenty of other species, like humpbacks) carry scars from fishing gear. Many are still carrying gear with them right now, trailing lines behind them as they try to get on with their lives. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies maintains a whale disentanglement team ready to scramble at any moment, armed with an inflatable boat and a pair of snippers on a very long pole (as above).

One seemingly simple solution is to replace much of that fishing line with a heavier variety that will lie along the seafloor and be much harder for a whale to swim through. The fishing industry, looking out for its own interests, has complained that the new lines are too expensive and that they’ll snag on rocks, depriving lobstermen of their catch and of valuable equipment. It’s a valid concern, but similar to the shipping industry’s complaints that tight schedules mean they just can’t afford to slow down and dodge whales.

That’s why I was so glad to see the actual results of the buy-back-your-lobster-line program. Regardless of industry positioning or regulatory strong-arming, it seems that many regular fishermen thought enough of the plan to turn in 270,000 pounds of gear so far, with more on the way. At $1.40 a pound, I’d say everybody comes out ahead. Except, I guess, the lobsters.

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Brother blows up, again

This time, in the New York Times… Congratulations, Owen/ SGT Roy Batty! I hope Natalie is listening.

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I don’t know if you’re sick of the subject by now, but iron fertilization of the oceans is back in the news – this time on CNNmoney.com. This is a good sign, if only because it signals that people with money are beginning to hear that we need to put some major resources into reducing the amount of carbon that’s in the atmosphere (not just reducing the amount that is still going in).

Yes, yes, this is that issue I keep bringing up owing to having recently written a bunch of articles about the subject. (If you want a return to the varied and occasionally witty posts of old, I’m sorry, my brain is fried. Go read the Gist.) But finally it looks like Climos is edging out from the somewhat disreputable shadow of Planktos and getting a bit of attention on its own merits.

The CNN article sums up the appeal of iron fertilization soberly and without fanfare, but in language that might get the attention of investors:

Like other potential solutions to the climate crisis that carry risks – think nuclear power or the idea of burying CO2 in the ground near coal plants – ocean iron fertilization deserves a close look.

In case you haven’t finished reading the five Oceanus articles yet, the CNN piece does a nice job of summarizing them, and offers a link, even going so far as to call them “lively” – a gratuitous adjective that it must be said occasioned a small thrill on the part of Yours Scribbly.

So anyhow, Climos CEO Dan Whaley sounds appropriately level-headed, too:

“This is no silver bullet,” [he said] “It’s not going to fix the problem of climate change. But it’s a significant lever.”

A better way to say it would be “it might be a significant lever if it’s still as promising after we’ve worked out the maze of methods and monitoring obstacles still out there.” But at least it’s more level headed than Planktos sounded last year (NYT):

“This is organic gardening, not rocket science,” said Russ George, the chief executive of Planktos, the company behind the WeatherBird II project. “Can it possibly be as easy as we say it is? We’re about to find out.”

Put it this way: last month, the company fired its CEO, put its ship up for sale, laid off most of its employees, closed its Foster City, Calif., office, started looking into farming trees, and posted this on its website:

The Company’s Board of Directors has decided to abandon any future ocean fertilization efforts that were once intended to restore marine plant life and generate ecological offsets for the global carbon credit market.

(Image: Theodore Gray/periodictable.com)

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north atlantic right whale mother and calf / NOAADetect. Transmit. Analyze. Notify. Avoid.

Sounds like a pretty straightforward way to keep ships from plowing into whales. It’s just in the knick of time then, as collisions are an all-too-frequent occurrence along the busy Atlantic seaboard.

The Boston Globe has the story of the new system, just installed in Massachusetts Bay. Here’s the project website itself, complete with maps of the action, plus multimedia so you don’t have to do any pesky reading.

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There are laws about how close a nosy tourist can sneak up on a whale, and most people assume that’s to keep the whales safe from the people. So imagine this couple’s surprise at learning the law also keeps people safe from whales.

Through some combination of whale movements and people movements, the kayakers got closer to this mother humpback and her calf than she approved. First she thwacked the water with a humongous flipper. A moment later she launched out of the water for a full-body layout to encourage the couple to put on a little more distance. Great picture of the splashdown here.

As a totally unexpected bonus, we get an eye-opening comments board at the Times Online’s version of the story. Comments aren’t about whale conservation or close calls with wildlife. They’re about how annoying the metric system is. Amazingly, almost all the comments are pro-Imperial units. And they seem serious! You almost think one of the commenters is Grandpa Simpson (“My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!”).

I’m still in shock from hearing recently about some U.S. undergraduates fighting to comprehend the metric system – one in particular whose preferred way to get from centimeters to meters was to convert to inches, then to feet, then back to meters. When did powers of 10 become arcane?

Maybe we should just measure everything in elephants, a la this Onion story. My favorite line:

We saw a rat in the street the other day and he kept going on and on about how huge it was, saying, ‘That thing must’ve been at least .074 elephants long!’

For the record, a full-grown humpback whale is only about 2 full-grown elephants long. But thanks to the power of allometry, it weighs in at 4 elephants. Probably only around 1 elephant of lifespan. Top speed? Just 0.5 elephant (but here the system breaks down: though slower on land, a humpback can surely outswim an elephant. Vice versa is just not worth contemplating.)

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