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Ice & Us: There Is No Turning Back

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

The scientific community seems to talk about rising sea levels A LOT. This makes sense – as far as consequences of global warming go, it’s one of the easiest to explain, and one of the most potentially disastrous. We’ve looked at how a rise in sea level would effect us domestically and the results were not heartening. It’s pretty easy A-to-B math to see that if the sea level goes up, many coastal cities will be in critical danger of flooding and other natural disasters, and the entire ecology of the oceans will drastically change. And if that proof wasn’t in the pudding before, it sure is now.

Two new studies released this week confirm that the enormous West Antarctica Ice Sheet, the segment of the Western Antarctica continent that extends out into the Amundsen Sea, is losing mass at a rate that cannot be reversed. The ice sheet is estimated to weigh 25.4 million km3, however the accepted narrative in scientific communities for decades has been that it has been steadily and exponentially losing mass, to the point where snowfall is no longer replacing the amount of ice the sheet is losing. Between the years of 1996 and 2006, there was a 75% increase is the amount of ice mass lost, a statistic that seemingly should have set off alarm bells eight years ago. This week’s studies, then, should really just function as icing on a terrible, terrible cake, but judging by the reactions seen online, a lot of people were unaware that this was a problem.

The studies (one published in Science and one in Geophysical Research Letters) reach the same unsettling conclusion – the ice sheet is falling apart, and at this point the process cannot be reversed or delayed. The melting process will unsettle neighboring sections the larger continental ice sheet, and will result in a 10 + ft. rise in sea level. This will continue to happen slowly over the rest of the 21st century and speed up in coming centuries to the point of total global crisis. Coming on the heels of very pessimistic reports on climate change from the White House and NASA, it seems the gravity of the situation is finally starting to sink in on the Internet at large. I saw links to both of the aforementioned studies linked to dozens of times on many social networks by all sorts of people who normally wouldn’t be inclined to share this kind of stuff. The reality of climate change has, for many, finally gotten personal.

The Secret World of Cobia

Photo by Some rights reserved.

Photo by Some rights reserved.

We’ve talked a little bit about aquaculture and fish farming before on the GM and how the industry has changed and evolved over time. One of the biggest criticisms against raising fish in captivity is that the fish are not healthy and therefore not as delicious when they hit our dinner tables (other, less selfish concerns with the industry are that it is wasteful, due to the amount of processed food it takes to feed these fish, and that the possibility of fish escaping their pens and contaminating the gene pools of ocean-raised fish). Brian O’Hanlon, through his company Open Blue, aims to change that.

Founded in Panama in 2009, Open Blue is an aquaculture business that does all of its fish-raising in, you guessed it, the open blue waters of the Caribbean. Open Blue has set up giant pods that float in the open water, designed to hold 35,000 fish. Then pens are weighed down and anchored to the sea floor, and monitored by boat with cameras and sensors to detect and discrepancies. On top of all that, divers make daily expeditions down to examine the cages and check the health of the fish.

O’Hanlon and his company set up shop in Panama because the government there was more receptive to his work. In the U.S., the necessary permit would only extend a few years and the operation would no doubt be scrutinized both by environmental groups and local residents. “What we’re trying to do takes a lot of capital and commitment,” says O’Hanlon in a profile by National Geographic.

But there’s more to Open Blue than just there methods – they are also making investments in the fish of the future. It’s an inevitability at this point that our favorite fish to consume (salmon, trout, bass) take a lot of energy (and resources) to produce. As the state of the oceans change and resources grow more scant, we will have to look to more efficient fish to feed our families. That’s where cobia come into the picture. Growing to full size in one third the time it takes salmon and diverse enough to be used in a number of cuisines, cobia seem like a solid bet for the kind of fish that will end up taking the place of our current favorites, and its cobia that Open Blue has chosen to focus on. Their operation is still young and the reality is that cobia still has a ways to go before it topples salmon as the people’s fishy champion, but the math is encouraging. Open Blue ships nearly 250 tons of fish out across the world every month, and last year, their demand outpaced their supply for the first time.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Artificial Photosynthesis

Photo by Popular Science Monthly. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Popular Science Monthly. Some rights reserved.

It took a few episodes to really get me on board, but I think at this point it’s safe to say that I’ve been enjoying Fox’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s PBS science-series Cosmos (airing Sundays and hosted by Sagan-worshipper and all-around-cool-guy Neil DeGrasse Tyson). There’s no way Tyson could ever hope to replicate what Sagan did with the original series, and I think he’s done a good job so far of updating the feel of the show for the current era (cheesy effects and all) and finding new topics to explore. If I was a kid watching it, I think there’s a very good change I’d be having my mind blown every week and learning all sorts of stuff in the process, and that’s ultimately the best thing that can be said about a show like this.

This Sunday’s episode I found particularly enlightening, as it found Tyson piloting his magical future-spaceship into a dewdrop to explore a concept I have never really full grasped: Photosynthesis. Sure, yes: I know that it’s the process through which plants convert sunlight into energy. But watching this segement felt like a sublime return to Freshman year Biology, re-introducing the concept through visual cues and functional metaphors that anyone could understand. I won’t do you, dear reader, the disservice of re-hashing Tyson’s elegant explanation. Instead, I’d like to focus on how he took the concept one step further. As Tyson explains in his intro, if we can learn the “trade secrets” of how chloroplasts manufacture and store energy, we can change the future of energy for our species. To quote Tyson directly:

We understand on a chemical level how photosynthesis works, we can recreate the process in a laboratory. But we’re not as good at it as plants are, and its not surprising considering nature’s been at this for billions of years and we’ve only just started. But if we could figure out the trade secrets of photosynthesis? Every other source of energy we depend on today – coal, oil, natural gas – would become obsolete. Photosynthesis is the ultimate green power. It doesn’t pollute the air,  and is in fact carbon neutral. Artificial photosynthesis, on a big enough scale, could reduce the greenhouse effect that’s  driving climate change in a dangerous direction.

This is a concept I’m entirely unfamiliar with, even as I read week in and week out about alternative energy solutions. Of course, at this point we don’t have the technology or the method with which to implement “artificial photosynthesis” as a viable energy source – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. HowStuffWorks has a nice breakdown of the efforts so far to harness this kind of energy, what it would require (beginning with a catalyst, something to interact with the provided sunlight to induce a chemical reaction), and what kind of useful outputs we could expect. Meanwhile, research continues at the California Institute of Technology’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis forges ahead, and their website has all sorts of useful and detailed information on what kind of work they’re doing to make Tyson’s dream a reality.


Getting Ready for Salmon Season

Photo by AER Wilmington DE. Some rights reserved.

Photo by AER Wilmington DE. Some rights reserved.

Here in the northwest, we put a very high premium on our salmon. It’s one of our most important, most publicized, and most delicious exports. In fact, we’re getting close to a very important time of year for salmon connoisseurs: Copper River season. Typically falling in the mid-May to mid-June time frame,  these especially tasty fish come down fresh from the eponymous river in Alaska to markets across the city of Seattle, to much rejoicing, every year. It’s a great way to celebrate the coming summer months, by grilling up (it really is the best way) a few hulking fillets of what many would consider the best salmon that money can buy.

In that spirit, it’s perhaps a good time to take a closer look at recent changes in the salmon farming business at large. We’ve looked a bit at the various arguments for and against genetically-modified salmon in the past. This week, National Geographic released a nice primer on the current state of aquaculture (re: fish farming) and how the industry is attempting to reform itself to appeal to green-minded customers while keeping up with demand.

The standard line on farmed fish as recently as five years ago seemed to be that it was a wasteful and somewhat dangerous industry because of the amount of processed food (mostly made from other fish species) it was taking to feed the farmed fish, which typically have a much higher fat content, was way too high to be environmentally friendly. Add to that the possibility that these farmed fish could escape their pens and possibly contaminate gene pools in an ocean climate where salmon are already struggling against overfishing and other global warming-related issues. Thus, the line from enviro-carnivores has seemingly always been “buy wild fish”. But as NatGeo points out, that line of thinking is changing. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes in the industry attempting to correct some of these issues, and most interestingly, the drive to do so seems to be not necessarily purely profit-driven, but driven more by a moral responsibility to maintain the fragile ecosystem of our oceans.

Some of the changes are happening in laboratories – for instance, the article highlights the Delaware-based company Verlasso, which has been developing fish feed based around a transgenic yeast that makes omega-3s (an essential component of their diet found in non-salmon fish, which is why salmon food will usually be made up of smaller fish). Using this yeast (which is combined with other nutrients and plants to make food pellets) has created a highly-desirable 1-to-1 sustainability ratio for amount of fish used as feed to amount of salmon produced. That’s a nearly impossible figure to reach with traditional methods of farm salmon feeding. The article also goes into some of the efforts going on to promote genetically engineered fish, though that is all still pending FDA approval.

What’s clear in any case is that consumption of salmon isn’t going down. In fact, it’s up 20% over the last 10 years, and in 2013 the U.S. consumed 353,000 of the delicious pink stuff. So it makes sense that the industry would want to set itself up for the long game, and now it’s just a matter of getting everyone, consumers and manufacturers, on the same page (the Aquaculture Stewardship Council set standards in 2010 for the industry which have been very influential, and of course there’s the ever-vigilant Seafood Watch website, which will help tell you what the best sustainable choices for salmon are at any given time).

New EPA Regulations Put Much-Needed Safety Measures on Pesticide Use

Photo by Michael D. Heckman. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Michael D. Heckman. Some rights reserved.

Late last week, the EPA released a pre-publication copy of a Federal Register proposed rule increasing safety measures surrounding pesticide use by agricultural workers and farmers. The new standards would impose new restrictions and requirements in an effort to better protect America’s 2-million strong agricultural workforce. Seems like a good time to do so – the last time the standards were updated was 1992, and obviously a lot has changed, agricultural-technology wise and everything-else wise, in the last two decades. As it stands, 12,000 workers are afflicted with acute pesticide poisoning in the U.S. every year, and it’s been suggested that this figure is actually a very conservative estimate, as cases of poisoning go extremely under-reported.

The new protocol as set forth in the EPA’s proposed rule will require a yearly training course on pesticide use and safety for all agricultural workers (the old standards required these only every five years), which seems like a no brainer. They also require farms that use pesticides to construct “buffer zones” around the area where pesticides are used to protect those nearby from drifting toxins, and for No Entry signs to be put up in these areas. So far so good! Perhaps the most significant restriction imposed by the new rules is that agricultural workers must now be 16 years of age or older to work on a farm that uses pesticides (family farms being the exception). Of course, this may also be the hardest component of the rule to implement, without creating some sort of expensive task force to go farm to farm and enforce it.

The rules will now enter a 90-day comment period following their publication in the Federal Register. The EPA hopes to publish the final rule by next year.

Pondering the Future of the Salton Sea

Photo by Geographer. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Geographer. Some rights reserved.

The Salton Sea – one of California’s least dazzling but most important geographical features. Spanning 350 square miles across the Imperial and Coachella Valleys in Southern California’s Colorado Desert, the Salton Sea is the largest lake in the state. It also provides a habitat for over 400 species of migrating birds flying along the Pacific Flyway, which runs down through Mexico. For these birds, the Salton Sea is a crucial oasis, but it is also of great importance to humans – the Salton Sea warms winds that blow down from the north, causing a unique microclimate at the south end of the lake that is ideal for agriculture, and its in this area that 80 percent of the U.S.’s winter crops are grown.

The Salton Sea was created in 1905, in a particularly rain-and-snow heavy year. Flooding of the Colorado River caused a re-routing of the Alamo Canal that in turn forged two new waterways, carrying huge amounts of water into the Salton Sink. In the 1950’s and 60’s, small resort towns with quaint names like Salton City and Desert Shores began to pop up around the lake’s perimeter, drawing the overflow of tourists from Palm Springs. However by the late 1960’s, it became evident that the salinity levels of the Sea were dangerously high, causing a threat to some fish species – the Sea continued to be fed from the Colorado River as well as agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley, but the amount varied year to year and the runoff often carried pesticides. Quickly, Salton Sea was abandoned as a vacation destination and left largely to sit dormant until interest picked up again in the 1990’s under the renewed efforts of Congressman Sonny Bono, who spearheaded efforts to save the Salton Sea when scientists discovered another problem: the Salton Sea was shrinking, and if trends weren’t reversed, it could disappear entirely.

Cut to the present and very recent past, after decades of losing water to the California Drought. In 2003, the Quanification Settlement Agreement was signed by the Department of the Interior, California, and its water-related agencies, agreeing on a method and timeline to slowly scale back the amount of water being siphoned into Salton Sea from the Colorado River, leaving more water for San Diego and its surrounding cities. A looming deadline of 2018 has been set, at which California’s Imperial Irrigation District must stop sending “mitigation” water to the lake. California is currently entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River a year, about thirty percent of the total volume. Of the 4.4 million, 2.6 million acre-feet are being used in the Imperial Valley alone, and the state as a whole regularly overdraws on its allotment, leaving neighboring states Arizona and Nevada with a smaller portion.

But the Salton Sea is so crucial as both a natural habitat and a vital component of the region’s agricultural productivity that efforts to preserve the Sea, at least in some sort of realistic, piecemeal fashion, are already underway. Pipelines are being shored up to prevent as much runoff in the transportation of water, and naturalists are researching which areas of the lake are most vital to migrating birds. It’s now up to California farmers, who are being asked to invest in more efficient water-saving technology that will result in less waste water, to make their contribution. But is the government in California doing enough to help this region’s farmers in making the transition, and can the conservation goals be met by the mandatory 2018 deadline? National Geographic looks more closely at the farmers in this area, fallowing programs, and the agricultural implications of a drier Salton Sea.

Sicilian Farmers Take Over Mob Land

Photo by gnuckx. Some rights reserved.

Photo by gnuckx. Some rights reserved.

I don’t know that I’ve ever met a mobster in real life; in fact I think it would be safe to assume I haven’t. Still, I’ve seen enough about the mafia in film and television to know you wouldn’t want to make them angry by, say, stealing their stuff. Yet in a way, that’s exactly what Sicilian agricultural group Libera Terra are doing. Well, they’re not stealing, exactly – instead, they’re using land in Sicily formerly owned by the mafia (since seized by the government) as shared farming space to grow grains, fruits, olives, etc.

The story of Libera Terra (which I have to credit Modern Farmer for turning me on to) begins in 2001, when the Cooperativa Placido Rizzotto (one of the branches of Libera Terra – each is named after a slain mob victim from the region) began operations. Those involved say it was slow goings at first – many in the area feared retaliation from the Cosa Nostra for what could be interpreted as disrespect for former mafia property. However, over the following years, with little violence to point to as evidence and with the assistance of a police presence protecting the farmland, local farmers began to change their attitude.

Now, there are over 200 people involved in the Libera Terra network’s eight different coops, producing a total of over 70 products (wines, oils, jams, and other artisinal goods) sold internationally for a gross annual income of over 6 million Euros (or $8.2 million). Those are impressive figures for any coop, let alone one built from the ashes of a criminal empire!

Farm Bill Passes the Senate


Photo by tvanhoosear. Some rights reserved.

After two years of alterations and arguments, the farm bill has finally been approved by the Senate  by a vote of 68-32. The bill the Senate passed on Tuesday afternoon is the same bill that the House committee accepted last week, a final version that represents a bi-partisan compromise on the original bill. As President Obama acknowledged, the version that is on it’s way to his desk for signature “isn’t perfect – but on the whole, it will make a positive difference not only for the rural economies that grow America’s food, but for our nation.” A signing ceremony is planned for this Friday at Michigan State University.

The bill allocates $1 trillion in spending over the next decade. Its major components, and some of the major points of contrition, involve alterations to the commodities program to provide more agri-benefits to farmers, and $8 billion in cuts to the national food stamp program. Other fund allocations include $8 billion in expansions of crop insurance for farmers, and $125 million for a “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” at the USDA. While the bill seems to go a long ways towards providing expanded coverage and benefits to agribusiness, the cuts to food stamps (as well as other budget cuts like the elimination of a $5 billion crop subsidy program that allowed farmers to claim insurance whether they were actually growing crops or not) are expected to generate $23 billion in savings over the next ten years.

Needless to say, not everyone is happy about the bill being so close to being passed, and many readily admit it’s far from perfect. You can find specifics of exactly how the money in the bill will be spent as well as some of the more minor and interesting points of the bill at Modern Farmer and the Washington Post (as well as everywhere else on the internet, those are just two articles I found particularly enlightening).

Plants Eyeballed as New Suspects in Bee Conspiracy

Photo by cygnus921. Some rights reserved.

Photo by cygnus921. Some rights reserved.

Last summer, I decided it was finally time I learned something about honey bees. Prior to this decision, I knew a few things – a little about the pollination process, a bit of second hand knowledge on how to keep bees, and one very scary-sounding but frustratingly vague fact that kept coming up: bees are disappearing and nobody knows why. It was this last point that I aimed to research – it couldn’t be that there was simply zero explanation for such a disturbing trend, and it was also improbably that this was just a natural phenomenon. Well, a few online articles and one very worthwhile documentary (the great More Than Honey, about this very subject, is on Netflix Instant now, so watch it!) later, I knew a bit more. I knew that the phenomenon had a name – colony collapse disorder – and that we did know some about what was causing it, but that the answer is complex, attributable to a number of possible factors (growing use of pesticides in farming and antibiotics in beekeeping, global warming, trauma from transportation, electromagnetic radiation, etc.)  and quite possibly unknown factors as well. The only thing that is known for sure is that bees are dying and disappearing in higher numbers than ever before (last winter, one third of the U.S. honeybee population died or disappeared, an unprecedented loss and an astronomically higher figure than the year before).

All of this is just preface to some new information that could help crack this case wide open: TIME reports on a plant-based virus known as tobacco ringspot virus (or TRSV) which has been known to affect tobacco and soybean crops, causing crop yield loses of up to 100% in some cases. TRSV is a nepovirus, and moves from the infected leaves into the stems and eventually to the root of the plant, and infected plants will often produce infected seeds. The way that TRSV is spread from plant to plant, however, is through pollination, which is of course where our bees come in. The story suggests that bees can, surprisingly, also become infected with the ringspot virus, and that the spread of these mutating pathogens between species could be the missing, capital-b Big puzzle piece in the mystery of colony collapse disorder.


Give Blackfish an Oscar Nomination

Photo by YIM Hafiz. Some rights reserved.

Photo by YIM Hafiz. Some rights reserved.

Tomorrow morning, the Internet will be abuzz with speculations over the Oscar nominations, as they will have been just-released. Today though, it’s still (sort of) anybody’s guess. Many have weighed in already that 2013 was one of the best years for movies in recent memory, so the competition seems a little fiercer with so many great movies competing.

But what does this have to do with the environment? Well, nothing yet, but allow me to begin again. This year on Christmas, I went with my family to see the new Martin Scorsese movie, the Wolf of Wall Street. Well, we went to the theater anyways, but the movie was already sold out. So we went home and queued up the documentary Blackfish, and we sat slackjawed in front of the TV for the next hour and a half.

Disclaimer: Blackfish is a terrible Christmas movie. In a year where the best picture frontrunner is a brutally beautiful exploration of slavery in America (12 Years a Slave, go see that too!), Blackfish was still perhaps the saddest film I saw in 2013. The documentary, helmed by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, takes an uncompromising look at whales in captivity at theme parks like Sea World, and the toll that that captivity has taken on the whales themselves. The film posits it’s thesis quite clearly, through interviews with former whale trainers as well as investigations into administrative records and security videos from the parks – these whales engage in violent, depressive behavior as a direct result of their captivity.

I don’t want to go too in depth because the film will make its points much better than I will, but in broad strokes, the documentary takes a close look at one whale in particular – Tilikum, a massive 12,000 bull orca currently living at SeaWorld. We follow Tilikum from his capture in the waters of the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s through his time at SeaWorld, where he has become the main male whale used for breeding and has given birth to 21 calves, successfully and unsuccessfully, many through artificial insemination. Tilikum also has a violent streak, and has been involved with the deaths of three humans during his time in captivity, including Dawn Brancheau, his trainer at SeaWorld.

The film examines these deaths with the gravity they deserve, but it also does not in any way blame the whale. We are instead given a glimpse into the insanely mundane and restrictive life these whales live, and the physical and mental toll that such a limited life can take on these incredibly intelligent animals. There have been many great and moving films in the documentary genre this year (I would also highly recommend The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell), but only one has begun to cause major changes in the real world – and so I say, with whatever limited authority I have as a movie lover and a whale lover, give Blackfish the Oscar for Best Documentary this year.

For more info on the film itself, this editorial at CNN by the director is worth reading. Then watch the film on Netflix Instant, and then check out the back and forth between SeaWorld and the filmmakers over the film’s charges against the park here.

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