Archive for the ‘news’ Category

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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I returned from Antarctica nearly two months ago to find it considerably busier ’round these northern parts. Among the things that almost slipped past:

Dumping iron in the ocean to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It’s premature to do it commercially, and it may never turn out to be a good idea. But we could learn a lot about how the ocean works if we do some more experiments in that direction. That’s the gist of a special issue of Oceanus on the subject, in which I got to write five of the articles. Also covered: It’s become quite common to ridicule the idea for various appalling but unspecified side-effects; here are some details. Also, could it ever work? Why are economists and carbon traders interested? And what makes us think it might work in the first place?

Apparently, way more water has been dragged into the bowels of the Earth under Costa Rica than anyone ever thought before. Time was you could just dig up a handful of olivine crystals and spin the story any way you wanted – but that was before Jenn Wade got ahold of some clinopyroxenes and squeezed from them the truth. The verdict: Throw away your boron, your beryllium. Cast out your futile barium/lanthanum assays. Stop clinging to the illusions conjured in your strontium-neodymium dens. There are two kinds of magma beneath Costa Rica, and I, for one, am not going to pretend otherwise any longer. Questions? Ask the magmatic maverick herself (and check out her dancing skills) at Danger Bay.

There’s a fascinating story about whether chickens came to South America in Spanish galleons, via the Atlantic, or Polynesian outriggers, via the Pacific, here. (Thanks to El Nuthatchenyo for the tip.)

And thanks to the New York Times for keeping tabs on kimchee‘s inexorable expansion around the globe… and into outer space.

p.s. Hands up who wants to hear the best parts from Bleak House?

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Every once in a while the New York Times runs an article just to see how many jokes it can slip under the radar; today is just such a day.

How else do you explain the most revered newspaper in America dedicating valuable paper (ca. $1,200 a column inch, if I’m not mistaken) to news about the punctuation on a city train? Siccing their reporters on the likes of Louis Menand and the woman who wrote “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” (never mind Menand’s arch New Yorker review of ES&L, which was far more haughty than a mere pan; here, they agree)? Digging up a Kurt Vonnegut quote that includes both Hemingway and his second-most despised punctuation mark? Someone even drew out the perfect quote from Noam Chomsky, giving Bush detractors and Chomsky haters alike something to laugh about.

And the coup de grace – was this the brilliant late addition of an overworked copyeditor? – bringing a mass murderer into the story; it’s just a setup for a groaner at the end of the sentence.

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

(Thanks: C.A.H.)

(Image: semicolon subway commuters; Scribble Images)

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Tracker Alerts the Headline Police

Would you read a story about a new advance in in vitro fertilization, whereby an inherited mitochondrial disease is averted through transplantation of a fertilized nucleus?

How about a story about scientists creating the first embryo with three parents?

That’s what I thought. Never mind the scientists, who in one well-reported story, said “it would be incorrect to say that the embryos have three parents.”

What really happened was a neat but unfrightening transplant of a fertilized egg nucleus (with the standard set of DNA from two parents) into a donor egg containing a third woman’s mitochondria. As you may remember, mitochondria are those little steam engines that live in our cells by the thousands. They have their own set of DNA that governs how their machinery converts glucose into energy the rest of the cell can use.

Interestingly, mitochondria are the descendants of bacteria that our cells enveloped way back in the mists of evolutionary time back when “we” were some version of multicellular sludge in a tidepool somewhere. Mitochondrial DNA has had very little to do with the rest of our genes ever since – it’s one reason why they’re so useful to biologists tracing evolutionary lineages. So given the origin of mitochondria, you might just as well argue that we all have three parents.

But what good is explaining all that to a headline writer who has only 10 words with which to catch the eyes of thousands of readers? That’s how we get “Brit scientists brew up three-parent embryo” and similar rickety headlines appearing all over the world.

Fortunately, the world has someone who calls out headline abuses such as these: the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. It’s his job to scan news stories each day and point out what’s been done right and wrong. It’s much-needed peer review for journalists, conducted by one of their own with four decades (correct me if I’m wrong) of experience. Worth checking regularly.

And how did the Tracker resist the too-easy headline for his own post? He bypassed “parents” and went straight for the oldest attention grabber of them all: Sex triangle – though the headline continues, honorably: “An embryo with one woman’s mitochondria, and another’s nuclear DNA (a man’s involved too) ”

(Image via the X-men)

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The new year ticked over while I was in Kaikoura, New Zealand, a southern hemisphere version of Monterey. That is to say, a deep submarine canyon veers close to shore and pumps nutrients into the surface waters. Seabirds and whales gather for a year-round feast. Seals lounge on flat mudstone reefs; kelp fronds drape the rocks and anemones tremble in the tidepools. California quail sit on fenceposts, and someone’s even planted Monterey cypress in the park entrance.

I spent new year’s eve (the daylit portion of it, anyway) in a 25-foot boat with Gary Melville, an old fisherman with hair the color of sea spray and hands like cured ham. A deckhand on a tractor backed us down the boat ramp while we were aboard, and Gary gunned the engine as soon as we were floating. The raw windswell was running about 5 feet at 4 seconds, which is to say burly. Gary approached it like a tailback, gunning sideways for openings or slowing to take the unavoidable hit head-on. For 20 minutes, it was all red-billed and black-backed gulls.

At a sudden stop, Gary ran to the stern and I figured Oh Great, engine trouble. But he just opened a metal bucket and flung over a hunk of fish liver in a metal cage. In a few minutes we had Buller’s shearwaters all over us, two-toned gray-and-brown upperwings, clean white below. Then came the others, escalating the armaments: Hutton’s shearwater (endemic to right here); northern giant petrel, shy albatross (two subspecies), and the big kahuna, wandering albatross. By the end, we had a half-dozen of them, the big Antipodean subspecies and the massive Gibson’s subspecies. 

They flew in from upwind, carved a clean bottom turn in our wake, wings stretching out past both sides of view in my binoculars, and coasted in through a pile of petrels and shearwaters to take possession. Bigger than a turkey, with massive chest, they were deceptively light on their wings. The biggest one arrived in one swoop past the bait, then calmly hung out its left foot in the water and made a neat pivot like a kayaker catching an eddy. 

Not feeling the proper respect from all present, the bird went after its neighbor, a slightly smaller wanderer, by rearing up on its wings and chest-thumping its opponent, then diving in with a beak to the neck. Its point was made, and everyone calmed down. Minor skirmishes distracted the albatrosses’ attention, and in those few moments a little red-billed gull or mottled, chocolatey cape pigeon nipped in to grab a string of fat. Back at the dock, 14 gannets made a late appearance, heading north in formation. Happy new year to you, too. 

(Photo via flickr)

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