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On becoming an apocalyptic zealot.

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

I’m no fun at parties anymore.

I’m like that guy whose only conversational gambit is to talk about the Spassky-Fisher match of 1973. Or the geek who has discovered SecondLife or WorldOfWarcraft. Or the airhead, who only wants to talk about celebrities, and other virtual worlds.

Or more to the point, that guy who has recently converted, and sees everything through the lens of the revealed.

In my case, that lens is cascading, endless bad news about species collapse, environmental collapse, peak oil and gas and phosphorus, toxic breaches and endocrine disruptions, and climate warming leading to ocean acidification. It’s the human-made horrors of the last century.

Because of what Jim and I are doing here, we are required, by our self-stated commitment, to be The ApocoDocs. We have to filter the news about the five apocalyptic scenarios, as well as finding stories of Recovery.

Sure, we make fun of all the news items, and make silly quizzes — that’s the gimmick, to get readers to pay attention by being entertained — and it’s kind of a hoot to be snarky about stuff that scares the shit out of me.

To construct that “fun,” Jim and I spend an aggregate hour or so each day, selecting the news stories we want to showcase — because there’s far more out there than we could include. And to be true ApocoDocs, we also have to know the background, understand the context, and be able to make informed predictions and judgments.

Today I read, for “fun,” a few chapters from the gorgeous, astonishing publication called Sustaining Life, from Oxford Univ. Press, which includes gems like:

The herbacide atrazine, widely used in the United States (~75 million pounds are applied each year) but banned in seven European Union countries, has been shown to change the sex of Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) and to slow their gonadal development at levels of only 0.1 parts per billion, a concentration that is found in rainwater essentially everywhere in the United States.

This fragile, collapsing, feedback-looping, it’s-so-much-worse-than-we-thought world is the world as it is. I am looking at the world through the lens of the revealed.

I saw the Obama/Clinton rivalry only through this lens: who might have a chance in hell of enlisting the world in the struggle to save itself?

I see the “threat of terrorism” through this lens as a paltry, puny, gnat of a problem, in comparison with overfishing, ocean acidification, and environmental toxification.

I see the recession we’re in as only another goddamn barrier to recovery, since there’s less money to spend on what matters: halting the spread of mercury and other heavy metals far and wide, through coal mining and burning.

I see the continuing rise of gas prices only through this lens (even as it bites me in the wallet), because the only way we will reduce our CO2 emissions is if it’s too costly not to — and if economic depression means we get energy efficient, then it’s a step in the right direction.

I see every plastic bag, every disposable lighter, every discarded bit of diaphonous wrap through this lens: in the carcasses of albatross chicks, having had it disgorged into their gullets by their parents as “food.”

I see every container ship through this lens: the ballast water they bring and dump inevitably contains alien species, some of which become invasive, and kill off the native species — an endless, continuous stream of ecosystem damage from place to place.

I like to think that this newfound zealotry helps me understand the perspective of other zealots: Islamic fundamentalists, anti-abortion militants, rooters for Armageddon, neoconservatives, fascists, Earth Liberation Frontists, Ayn Randians, Scientologists, and all the other glazed-eyed true believers. When it all makes sense through the new lens, we then frame the rest of the world through those glasses.

And like any zealot, I’m of course convinced that my zealotry is more right than anyone else’s, because I have the facts of science on my side. I can say “my fifty years of rational, empirical, evidence-based thinking has led me to conclude….”

I can say “take a look at this, and this, and this, and this…”

But it doesn’t make me any more fun at parties.

O wretched lens, through which I must now see.

The true challenges for the next president

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Whether the next president is Obama or (cringe) McCain, quite apart from rebuilding the charred ethical wasteland of the Administrative branch of government, coping with the ruins of the housing market and its effects on the economy, and dealing with the aortic congestion caused by ever-increasing energy prices, he will be facing complex, system-wide, slow-motion apocalypses that will span his presidency.

Among them, collapsing ecosystems:

  • So what’s Plan Bee?
    [London Guardian, Sun, May 25, 2008]

  • Over 50 percent of oceanic shark species threatened with extinction
    [Aquatic Conservation, via EurekAlert, Fri, May 23, 2008]

  • Biodiversity Loss Puts People At Risk: World Wildlife Fund
    [World Wildlife Fund via ScienceDaily, Wed, May 21, 2008]

  • Climate ‘accelerating bird loss’
    [BBC, Tue, May 20, 2008]

  • UN Experts To Say 2010 Biodiversity Target Elusive
    [Planet Ark via Reuters, Mon, May 19, 2008]

  • ‘Frightening’ future must be avoided to retain the integrity of planet we share
    [The Scotsman, Sat, May 17, 2008]

  • Window Of Opportunity For Restoring Oaks Small, New Study Finds
    [USDA Forest Survey, via ScienceDaily, Fri, May 16, 2008] More information is available on the Species Collapse scenario
  • And, declining resources worldwide:

  • Get used to high food costs, water shortages
    [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Wed, May 28, 2008]

  • Oil crisis triggers fevered scramble for the world’s seabed
    [London Daily Telegraph, Tue, May 27, 2008]

  • Midwest’s message: Hands off our lakes
    [Chicago Tribune, Tue, May 27, 2008]

  • Poor soil lowers world’s production of food
    [Ventura County Star, Sun, May 25, 2008]

  • Drought turning futures to dust
    [Houston Chronicle, Sun, May 25, 2008]

  • Shell ’selling suicide’ by preferring tar sands to wind
    [Guardian (UK), Thu, May 22, 2008]

  • Famine Looms as Wars Rend Horn of Africa
    [New York Times, Sat, May 17, 2008]
  • More information is available on the Resource Depletion scenario

    And, Climate Chaos:

  • Large Methane Release Could Cause Abrupt Climate Change As Happened 635 Million Years Ago
    [University of California - Riverside via ScienceDaily, Fri, May 30, 2008]

  • White House issues climate report 4 years late
    [Associated Press, Thu, May 29, 2008]

  • Scientists warn of rising Pacific Coast acidity
    [The New York Times via Associated Press, Wed, May 28, 2008]

  • G8 meet sidesteps midterm gas cuts
    [The Japan Times, Mon, May 26, 2008]

  • Billions wasted on UN climate programme
    [London Guardian, Mon, May 26, 2008]

  • Tufts global warming study eyes cost of doing nothing
    [Houston Chronicle, Sun, May 25, 2008] More information is available on the Climate Chaos scenario
  • AND he will be dealing with the tremendous economic upheaval of these and other apocalyptic (yet realistic) scenarios of grinding, slow-motion, systemic collapses over the next decade.

    These realities need to be addressed by the candidates in the coming months — because these are the issues that will make a real difference to our children and grandchildren.

    There are also signs of hope, here and there:

  • Green Firms Rewarded By Financial Markets
    [Strategic Management Journal, Thu, May 29, 2008]
  • New study finds most North Pacific humpback whale populations rebounding [NOAA, via EurekAlert, Fri, May 23, 2008]

  • Oregano oil works as well as synthetic insecticides to tackle common beetle pest
    [Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, Fri, May 23, 2008]

  • Simple, Low-cost Carbon Filter Removes 90 Percent Of Carbon Dioxide From Smokestack Gases
    [American Chemical Society via ScienceDaily, Wed, May 21, 2008]

  • US Changes Course, Bans Drilling In Arctic Wetland
    [Planet Ark via Reuters, Mon, May 19, 2008]

  • Recovery plan kills species’ foe, thins fire-prone forests
    [Redding News, Sat, May 17, 2008]

  • Prince Charles urges forest logging halt
    [The Post (Pakistan), Fri, May 16, 2008]More information is available on this Recovery scenario
  • We need to see thoughtful, reasoned, rational acknowledgement of the sacrifices required by these last few party generations, if we are to have any hope of ending the next decade with a world remotely recognizable as related to how we live today.

    When GMO ≠ GMO

    Sunday, May 11th, 2008

    Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can raise my hackles. But only sometimes. Other times, I’m delighted by the creativity, ingenuity, and smarts of the technology and its scientists.

    What scares me most, I’ve discovered while working on a related project, is idle blurring of the various issues involved with “Genetic Modification.” When we speak as if it’s all the same, and worse, when our leaders polarize the issue, then society is the worse for it. We need to acknowledge that it’s not necessarily the process, but rather the implementation that is at issue.

    On the one hand, you can have stupid GMO, as we have seen with Monsanto’s proprietary “roundup ready” crop seeds — corn, soybeans, and a few other crops they’ve developed, which can withstand Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup™.

    They raise my hackles because they’re stupidly produced, stupidly implemented, and with a business model that is stupid for the planet, if clever for Monsanto.

    a) Monsanto requires, and vigorously enforces, the provision that farmers sign away their right to replant seed grown on their own farms. Instead, they’re required to buy new seed from Monsanto, every season.

    b) The early GMO seed — the Monsanto stuff in particular — was produced in a frighteningly primitive way: essentially blasting desired DNA (and a whole lot of other DNA) into another set of DNA, and seeing what happened. If the resulting plant showed promise, and didn’t fail to thrive (that is, no mutation was causing obvious troubles), then it would be propogated.

    That is, they were aiming at a target — getting RoundUpReady™ seed — and then using a shotgun to fire at the target. And by golly, one of the pellets hit a bulls-eye!

    But we haven’t done thorough studies of where the other pellets went — and what damage they might have done outside the target. Instead, Monsanto is making astounding profits testing the system “in the field.” Which leads me to:

    c) Humankind is allowing Monsanto (and other GM crop producers) to use the world as a petrie dish. This is fundamentally stupid: few if any human-health, genetic-drift, ecosystem-health, or other tests have been done on these crops, yet we’re planting millions of acres of Monsanto seed, resulting in plenty of spillover (GM canola has been found growing as a weed in Japan, which nationally prohibits GMO importation).

    It may be mere coincidence that bee colonies are suffering colony collapse disorder, but we don’t know — because the pollen of RoundUpReady soybeans was never tested on pollen-collectors. We haven’t tested to see what degree of digestive problems might be the result of an allergy to, say, GM corn-produced corn syrup. We haven’t tested whether the worms in the soil get have their reproductive systems screwed up because they end up eating the Roundup-killed weeds in those cornfields, or the decaying roots of the previous year’s corn.

    a) is insulting, b) is primitive, and c) is idiotic. That’s three strikes.

    But that doesn’t mean I’m fully anti-GMO. There are some amazing projects out there, which are smart, and are also controlled. That is, they are systems that use genetically modified bacteria to turn cellulose — the chaff, the corn husks, the sawdust — into ethanol, thereby taking straw and turning it into gold.

    Elsewhere scientists are modifying bacteria to fix nitrogen while producing sugars to make burnable gas, grown in transparent vats, using sunlight to grow.

    What’s different is that these are a closed systems. These smart GMO projects and others are being tested, and refined, within a laboratory. They’re tested, they’re checked, they’re limited even if scaled up.

    Among the many reasons these distinctions matters is that knee-jerk anti-GMO reactions are as easy to dismiss as knee-jerk creationist reactions: who but a zealot would refuse to acknowledge that bacterial infections have evolved to defeat a sequence of antibiotics? The scientists working in the exciting GM field can easily dismiss societal concerns — justifiable concerns — by painting them with the brush of zealotry.

    We, and our political and scientific leaders, need to take a multivalent view of GMOs — it’s not binary, not just “bad” or “good.” It’s not the “genetically modifed” part that is so wrong (and many a biologist will tell you “we’ve been doing genetic modification via hybrids for thousands of years”) — it’s the stupid implementation of promoting uncontrolled organisms that might have profound effects on our food, our health, and our biome.

    We should ensure that all GM work is done smartly, not stupidly. And we need to be sure that profit is not used as an excuse for irresponsibility.

    Bat die-off now found in CT

    Friday, April 4th, 2008

    I’ve been following the bat die-off in the Northeast US this winter — first in New York state, then in MA, then in VT, and now in CT. The scientists studying the 80-90% fatality rate in affected “hiberniums” (read: caves and abandoned mines) are desperately searching for understanding of what has been coined “White Nose Syndrome (WNS),” after a symptom of these starving, dehydrated, dying bats flying out into the winter daylight, certain to die.

    And now, it’s showing up in Connecticut.

    From the Litchfield County Times:

    The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first announced the presence in Connecticut of bats affected with WNS last Friday and the second location was discovered Tuesday….

    “The presence of WNS could have a major impact on biodiversity in Connecticut, and we are taking this discovery very seriously,” she continued. “Bats are our single largest predator of night flying insects and provide an important form of natural insect control. Any significant depletion in their numbers will also result in a significant effect in other parts of our ecosystem.

    Dr. R. Laurence Davis, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of New Haven, explained further. “Bats will eat 4,000 to 7,000 mosquitoes each night, per bat. Those mosquitoes won’t be eaten if the bats die. Mosquitoes have a major impact on the environment, carrying diseases such as West Nile Fever. Bats also eat moths — you could say that’s just a few more moths around the light at night, but adult moths make baby moths and those are caterpillars that defoliate things. We have the potential for — I am trying not to use the word ‘disaster’….’

    “Typically, they have only one pup a year,” the professor said, “It’s not like it’s a population of mice that crashed, where they have three and four litters a year — you would have mice again in a hurry — but bats are going to take a long time to come back. Normally, you would expect bats from other colonies to come in and scarf up the bugs — no food source goes wasted — but with 80 to 90 percent of the New York bats dying off, you are beginning to test the limits of bat migration.”

    The reason for the die-off — which may be wiping out the majority of bats in these states — is still unknown. They’ve found no specific virus, bacteria, or other pathogen to explain it — and the “white nose” fungus seems a symptom, not a cause.

    Dr. Davis said that there is little data available on bats, which is making it difficult for scientists to determine cause and effect. “They don’t normally do bat surveys every year in every cave,” he said, “mainly because when you go in, you wake them up and they burn up fat with nothing to eat. This syndrome could have started earlier than two years ago — we just don’t know. The real problem is there are no in-depth studies of bat biology. There are several labs working as hard as they can and they find parasites, they find bacteria on the fur or skin — but no one knows if this is normal because there is no data on a healthy population. We haven’t found any toxins; we haven’t found any smoking gun. Everything is so inter-connected. There are so many different elements that could be attributed to something else. No one knows for sure.”

    My own armchair theorizing leads me to conclude that it has more to do with pesticide-resistent (but still sick) insects being eaten by the “prime predator” of the air. These resistent bugs have been sprayed with pesticides in apple orchards, croplands, and elsewhere. The bats then are poisoned, sickened, and their hibernation disturbed by these now-flushed toxins.

    But then, I’m just watching from the sidelines, worried. I’m not an expert in this field.

    The Lakota tribe has a saying that’s part of sweatlodge rituals: “O mitak uyasin,” which translates loosely to “all are my relatives.” It’s used to remind that someone else’s troubles are also mine; that we are all connected, inextricably, and are all — humans, animals, plants, soil — related.

    In the bat die-off we see another example of what we’re doing to the natural world, to our relatives. Scoffers might say “there’s no proof that we are the cause of this problem” — just like they say there’s no “proof” that climate chaos is a humanly-generated problem. It seems better than likely, if not obvious.

    We are all related. Our world is in trouble. We are doing damage of unspeakable magnitude in ways both hidden and evident. We are thoughtlessly presuming that if we can do it, it’s ok to do, regardless of the impacts on other living creatures.

    The bats are an example of what I’m seeing as a frightening trend (viz. the bee colony collapse, the bird collapses, the amphibian collapse) — generalized species collapse, leading to newly chaotic, unbalanced ecosystems. It will likely be very depressing, on many levels — financial, psychological, systemic.

    O mitak uyasin. All beings are my relatives. When my relatives are sick, so am I.

    Pine beetle infestation impacting salmon runs

    Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

    From The Vancouver Sun:
    “VANCOUVER - If the heat of climate change weren’t enough of a danger to Pacific salmon, scientists are cataloging how the effects of the global-warming-aided mountain pine beetle infestation are adding to salmon’s woes. The grain-of-rice-sized beetles have chewed through interior pine forests covering an area four-times the size of Vancouver Island, a report released Tuesday by the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council notes. Some 60 per cent of the Fraser River watershed is affected, with loss of forest cover over salmon streams that has led to numerous impacts that “significantly alter the watershed’s ecology, threatening already stressed salmon runs.”

    So who are the real heroes here?

    Am I supposed to consider these beetles the antagonists in this scenario? Okay, so they’ve eaten a few trees — I scanned the article but I REALLY READ THE HEADLINE a couple of times — but if their activities are hurting salmon, why aren’t we cheering for them? Salmon are clearly responsible for the creation of salmonella bacteria, so I say go for it, pine beetle. Do your dirty work!

    Oh. Wait. I just thought of something. The headlines says “Pine beetle infestation impacting salmon runs.” Maybe that means these nasty pine beetles are giving the salmon diarrhea and it’s their, ahem, “runs” that produce salmonella. So the pine beetles should be stopped! So the salmon can defecate normally and not have the runs and maybe there will be less salmonella.

    I wish headlines were just a little clearer, even if they have to be a little longer.


    Plastic, and Albatrosses around our necks

    Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

    Today, a BBC story called “New ‘Battle of Midway’ on plastic,” made it clear how seriously our never-to-biodegrade plastics are damaging our ecosystems:

    The Midway Islands are home to some of the world’s most valuable and endangered species and they all are at risk from choking, starving or drowning in the plastic drifting in the ocean.

    Nearly two million Laysan albatrosses live here and researchers have come to the staggering conclusion that every single one contains some quantity of plastic.

    About one-third of all albatross chicks die on Midway, many as the result of being mistakenly fed plastic by their parents.

    Every single albatross contains “some quantity of plastic”! This isn’t just another canary in the coal mine — this is humankind thoughtlessly poisoning our own wells with our own crap.

    In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” because he killed a lucky bird, the Mariner was required to hang the rotting corpse around his neck, as punishment:

    God save thee, ancient Mariner
    From the fiends, that plague thee thus
    Why look’st thou so ? - “With my cross-bow
    I shot the ALBATROSS.”

    Ah. well a-day. what evil looks
    Had I from old and young
    Instead of the cross, the Albatross
    About my neck was hung.

    Ah, well a-day indeed.

    The stinking, rotting corpses of the albatrosses — the ones dying on Midway, as well as the fish, birds, whales, seals and turtles dying from ingesting our plastic — will be around our necks for a long, long time.

    Mercury Threatens Next Generation Of Loons

    Saturday, March 8th, 2008

    From Wildlife Conservation Society:
    “A long-term study by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the BioDiversity Research Institute, and other organizations has found and confirmed that environmental mercury–much of which comes from human-generated emissions–is impacting both the health and reproductive success of common loons in the Northeast.”

    Pretty much…everything I posted today could have been under the heading of “Species Collapse,” but then you might have come upon our homepage and thought there was a bug (or endangered bug) in the system because of the repetition of the species collapse symbol.

    So I mixed it up, because I’ve learned over the months of doing this site that if I don’t, I’ll get overwhelmed.

    Let’s take today’s findings one story at a time.

    1) Polar bears’ status as threatened is being delayed by the Interior.

    2) Eels are declining

    3) Next, I found this loon story and decided I had to search for good news just to keep my spirits up. So I found the good news that a giant wind farm is being constructed in Southern California.

    Of course, I forgot for that moment that the one real problem with wind energy is that birds are kind of brainless and fly into them and sliced and diced or simply bludgeoned to death.

    4) so then I found the giant oyster story– a natural for our Biome Breach scenario — and sure enough it was a classic tale of a human intervention creating an invasive species situation.

    5) having interpolated a couple of non-species collapse stories, I returned to my loon story.

    Late in that story, I find this quote: “This study demonstrates how top predators such as common loons can be used as the proverbial ‘canaries-in-the-coalmine’ for pollutants that concern humans as well,” said David C. Evers of the BioDiversity Research Institute and lead author of the study. “Our findings can be used to facilitate national and global decisions for regulating mercury emissions from coal-burning plants and other sources.”

    There’s that metaphor again: canary in the coalmine, one we’ve been using for bats in the northeast and pteropods in the Atlantic and…

    It seems chillingly true that the planet is being divided into the haves and the have nots. On one end, the endangered species: the polar bears, the eels, the loons, the bats, the pteropods, the eastern hemlock, the honey bees and … on the other end, the oysters and rats and jellyfish and cane toads and even the Asian harlequin ladybird….

    Biomes are breached, species collapse, climate is changed, metaphors proliferate like … well, like oysters and rats and rabbits and cane toads.

    Let’s just declare the human species as threatened or endangered. That may be the wake up call we need.


    Waking from Hibernation: or, Bats ‘R’ Us

    Friday, March 7th, 2008

    I have been obsessing about the bat problem — the un-hibernating bats in New York and Vermont, flying out of the caves to a wintry landscape because they’re starving to death, littering the snow around their hiberniums.

    And I think I realized today the reason for the obsession:

    Bats ‘R’ us.

    We’ve been sleepwalking through the last fifty years — mentally hibernating while the evidence piles up around us of what we’re doing to our world — and we’re just now waking up. We’re opening our eyes, and realizing that something’s wrong. We’re sick, we’re poisoned, we’re hungry, and the fat stores are about used up.

    Normally, we’d just go out and get some more land, conquer another civilization, pump another aquafir, find some more solutions — it’s worked every other time for humankind, right?

    We had a great autumn, eating twice our body weight of the world. We flew around with abandon, delighted in the evening sky.

    But now, we’re realizing that a lot of what we ate was toxic. That our resistances are down, and all isn’t quite how it should be. And we’re waking up from our hibernation, realizing that we may have screwed it all up over the last fifty years.

    And there’s not much but snow, out there.

    Climate Change Hitting the Sea’s Little Guys Too

    Saturday, March 1st, 2008

    From National Geographic News:
    “When it comes to climate change, polar bears and sharks may grab the bulk of the headlines—but it’s the threat to the sea’s tiniest creatures that has some marine scientists most concerned. Malformed seashells show that climate change is affecting even the most basic rungs of the marine food chain—a hint of looming disaster for all ocean creatures—experts say. Climate change could drastically reduce sea urchin populations in particular, according to Gretchen Hofmann, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.”

    What a strange lede for a story. No dis intended for the writer — it ain’t easy finding the right entry point into a story — but isn’t this hierarchical thinking that continues to contribute to this mess? I’m overwhelmed with the feeling of ‘duh’ and I figure you are too.

    Everything is equally important.

    Maybe that’s an over-simplification, but I’ll restate it for emphasis: Everything is equally important.

    We just found a story a week or so ago about the so-called “potato chip of the oceans” — the pteropod (endangered snail) whose loss would be devastating up the foodchain ladder.

    Maybe that’s the problem, we have two metaphors working against each other. The foodchain, which implies everything is connected in a horizontal manner, and the ladder, which implies a movement toward higher and higher (and thus more important) forms.

    This is just one more indication that humility is going to be essential to reshaping our relationship to the earth. The polar bear is not more important than the urchin. People are not more important than the polar bear.

    That gets us off on the right foot/paw/wing/tube feet/protoplasm.


    Sea birds, pipefish, and koyaaniskatsi

    Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

    From Guardian (UK):
    “The snake pipefish, virtually unknown around the UK in 2002, has undergone a massive, baffling and dangerous expansion since then, scientists have discovered…. Since 2000 sea birds have not been able to find sufficient food either to sustain their chicks or give them the energy to breed, a problem that is blamed on the dwindling populations of small fish and sand eels that sea birds eat, a phenomenon scientists have been unable to explain…. Now parent guillemots, terns and puffins are scooping pipefish from the sea for their chicks as substitutes for their normal fish food. But the pipefish body is rigid and bony and extremely hard for chicks to eat. Biologists have found dozens left uneaten in single nests while chicks have choked to death on their bodies.”

    The seabirds are starving, because their normal food is disappearing, for reasons uncertain and no doubt complicated — warming waters, changes in phytoplankton, changes in currents, changes in other fish populations, toxins in the waters — and so the birds turn to what’s available: a bony, almost fatless relative of the seahorse.

    The seabird populations are collapsing:

    Sea bird numbers have been hit by a series of consecutive breeding failures in recent years, affecting skuas, guillemots, shags and others. The problem is starvation.

    Why care about sea birds? Well, because they’re another canary in the coalmine, another example of koyaaniskatsi, life out of balance. “Sea birds breed fairly slowly and a number of bad years could have a long-term devastating impact,” said a professor studying the problem.

    Bats, bees, amphibians, sea birds, turtles, tuna, right whales, sharks…. the list goes on.

    We may be eating pipefish ourselves, all too soon.

    Don’t forget to chew.

    Methane, permafrost, tundra, and the Wild Card.

    Monday, February 25th, 2008

    From Reuters: “More research [is] urgently needed into the possibility of a runaway release of methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas trapped in frozen soils in Siberia, Canada, Alaska and Nordic nations, it said in a 2008 yearbook issued at 154-nation talks in Monaco…. Vast amounts of methane entering the atmosphere “would lead to abrupt changes in the climate that would likely be irreversible,” UNEP said. “We must not cross that threshold.”

    This isn’t actually new news. Take a look at Scientists warn thawing Siberia may trigger global meltdown, from WikiNews, from 2005.

    We’ve known about this for two to three years and if we’d been paying attention, it would have been obvious: As frozen meat melts, it starts to rot. As frozen tundra melts, it starts to rot.

    Rotting stuff puts out smells. Those smells include about a third methane, a mildly-noxious aroma. When mixed with sulfur, it make our farts stink.

    But methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. So, as the formerly permanently-frozen top few feet of Siberia, Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia begin to thaw, well, it’s going to rot. Meaning, it will put out methane. It will add a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. This will mean that the greenhouse effect will be increased.

    What does that mean? “The permafrost has been intact for 11,000 years and started melting 3 to 4 years ago, according to Kirpotin.” (from above WikiNews, in 2005).

    This is a long-term stability now disrupted, by climate warming.

    This means that the permafrost even farther north will keep on rotting and spewing a powerful greenhouse gas, warming us further and much faster than previously expected.

    One domino falls. No big deal. Bats collapsing. Bees collapsing. Amphibians collapsing.

    It’s only warming. What’s the big deal? I like my winters mild.

    Ian Sample “Warming hits ‘tipping point’“. The Guardian, Aug 11 2005

    Siberia’s rapid thaw causes alarm“. BBC News, Aug 11 2005

    Bees, and the continuing collapse

    Sunday, February 24th, 2008

    60 Minutes reprised their 6-month-old story on the bee collapse, something we’ve been following for longer than that. It spotlights David Hackenburg, a beekeeper for thirty years.

    The scariest parts for me were two surprises:

    Normally, if there weren’t soldier bees to protect a hive’s honey, all the honey would be poached by bees from other hives in short order. But, this beekeeper said, “The hives are like a ghost town. The honey’s there. The other bees won’t touch it.” He showed the honey, just sitting there.

    Remember, honey is what bees make, to feed the larval bees. What’s in that honey the other bees won’t touch?

    Quite possibly, a fairly recently popular insecticide, neonicotinoids, which is an artificial form of nicotine, that acts as a neurotoxin to insects, but ostensibly doesn’t harm humans. Or some GM pollen. Or some other insecticide reaching critical mass.

    Is that what’s in the honey? Something is making the collapsed colonies’ honey not just toxic, but even disgusting to the other bees.

    The second surprise was that Hackenburg had originally lost two thirds of his hives. In the followup, 6 months later, the poor man has lost half of his remaining hives.

    This is deeply troubling. What other insects are also being affected? Broad-spectrum insecticides are like broad-spectrum antibiotics, killing off entire populations of beneficial biota as “collateral damage” in the hunt for a few terrorists.

    We burn the village to save it. We wipe out 10,000 innocent for every one we wanted to see die. We cut off our hands to trim our fingernails.

    Disease killing brown bats across the region… CT?

    Sunday, February 24th, 2008

    We’ve been watching this the last week. The bat syndrome continues.

    Please remember, the evidence indicates this is hibernation interruption, not “white nose syndrome,” fungal infection, pneumonia, or other specific malady, in terms of the active agent. Those are symptoms (and/not) cause.

    The bats are waking up hungry, literally starving, way too early. They also probably went to sleep, way too late. Now the emaciated-bat syndrome is being seen even more regionally.

    From Republican-American (CT):
    A mysterious disease has killed hibernating bats in New York and Vermont, is spreading into Massachusetts, and may already be in Connecticut…. Biologists have now identified sick bats in Chester, Mass., 40 miles north of Connecticut’s Barkhamsted Reservoir, and will be looking for them here in March.

    Looking for them “here” in March??

    We need to understand this now, not in a week. Mobilize! We need to know what this means, ASAP.

    Bats as the canaries in the coal mine

    Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

    Something about the bat die-offs is really freaking me out. It’s the “90-97%” death rate, in colonies of thousands. It’s happening in caves in NY and Vermont. First noticed last winter in an isolated instance, it’s being found with increasing frequency in caves in the Northeast.

    Why is this affecting me so much? Perhaps because I fell in love with bats years ago, working on a reference work on mammals — the many faces of bats are so astonishing. Perhaps it’s because they eat half their weight in insects every night, an amazing feat of evening echolocation that keeps farmers’ fields free from certain moths and thus their voracious larvae, removes a thousand mosquitos a night per bat. Or it’s that the cause of death is starvation, because their hibernation systems aren’t working right, and they’re agitatedly using up their fat stores too fast; they’re found as gaunt sacks of bones, outside the caves, as well as inside.

    Or it’s because they’re such a joy to watch in the twilight sky, and I’ll miss them.

    But in the end I’m freaked mostly by what I was thinking on the way into work: the fungal growth around the bats’ noses are indicative of weak immune systems, as well as lack of colonial grooming. What would make an entire colony’s immune systems weak? Well, perhaps some of the biome-breach realities that we’ve been seeing, where chemicals move up the food chain, disrupt endocrine systems, and cause strange immune system responses.

    Picture this: some delectable insect that apple growers (let’s say) keep at bay with chemicals — a fly, a moth, or something like that — has evolved a resistance to that chemical. That means that the fly doesn’t drop to the ground dead (like it used to do), but rather flies around, perhaps ill, but not dead. It becomes ideal bat-food — a slow-moving prey without its wits about it.

    Now, the top predator of the winged areas is ingesting thousands of these insects, nightly. Like swordfish, and tuna, and killer whales in the ocean, the chemicals concentrate in the predator (or scavenger). This may have been going on for the last couple years, and just now has built up to toxic levels.

    Or, the late winter (as one bat-watcher noted) in the region resulted in the bats flying too late in the year, after the insects had disappeared; they went to bed hungry, and are waking up too early, hungry, emaciated, and ill.

    I dearly hope that there’s a specific cause that can be identified, rather than remain the mystery that the bee colony collapse disorder is currently.

    I fear we are reaching tipping points of toxicity in our biospheres, and it scares the hell out of me.

    Reading further, I was chilled

    Saturday, February 16th, 2008

    This, after following Jim’s link ( Scientists fear ‘tipping point’ in Pacific Ocean) , I was chilled, as I read further:

    “Only once during the past seven years did the strong northerly winds of spring and summer go away — and that time, in spring and early summer of 2005, the pendulum swung wildly the other way, with little wind at all until partway through summer.

    That set off a chain of events that scientists concluded were responsible for a startlingly widespread wave of seabird deaths — from the Farallon Islands off San Francisco to Vancouver Island.

    After that, researchers from Oregon State University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife looked intensely at waters off the Oregon coast for the research announced Thursday. And the same thing is happening off Washington’s coast.

    Mary Sue Brancato and her colleagues first noticed it on a visit to the coast in 2000 or 2001.

    We were out there for another (research) project and we were like, ‘What is it with these thousands of dead crabs?’ ” said Brancato, a marine biologist who works at the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

    Those were Dungeness crabs. Later other species were affected, Brancato said, leading scientists to surmise it was some widespread cause. By 2004 they were taking measurements to document low levels of dissolved oxygen, the kind of oxygen sea creatures can use.

    Holy shit.