Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Last Roar

US Person pointed out in his pictorial post "Lions of Luangwa" that lion populations in Africa are in steep decline. The same troubling trend is true for other wild felids and canids. They all suffer from habitat loss and extermination by man for one invalid reason or another. A century ago there were as many as 200,000 lions, now there are fewer than 30,000. They are extinct in 26 countries they formerly occupied. Persecution by herders and ranchers is unrelenting and devastating. African wild dogs exist in less than 7% of their historic range and are extinct in 22 countries in which they lived. Accidental snaring and rabies have killed all but 8,000 of the genetically unique canine. The report ominously titled "Fading Call of the Wild" examines the condition of 15 species that are considered ecologically important, and if conserved properly would protect their surrounding habitats and other species dependent on those ecosystems.

A US law that helps preserve these animals is the Great Cats and Rare Canids   Conservation Act of 2004. It is set to expire unless the law is renewed by Congress. The law provides funds for conservation efforts through the Multinational Species Conservation Funds administered by US Fish & Wildlife.  Ask your Senator to support renewal of this important protection for wild cats and dogs. They deserve it.

Friday, July 30, 2010

'Toontime: The Oil Is Gone?

[credit: Kevin Siers, Charlotte Observer]
Wackydoodle sez: Ma' tother vehickle's a Harley!

British Petroleum has a new American face and his first job is to "scale back" the clean up efforts in the Gulf now that the oil is disappearing from the surface.  Of course the company's bosses are hoping the disaster will disappear from the minds of Americans too.  Make no mistake, the millions of gallons of crude oil & gas leaked into the sea are still there in less obvious forms: suspended in the water column as tiny droplets, lurking in the cold depths in heavy blankets,  floating as tar balls in remote lagoons and marshes, or ingested by marine life that humans at the top of the food chain eventually consume.  The visible oil may be dissipating, but the effects of the largest oil spill in our history will be with us for generations to come.  The real change so desperately needed is in the behavior of 'ordinary folks' as suggested by the cartoon.  Without increasing demand for petroleum there is no motivation to drill at the limits of technology.  Cultures can change--bravo, Catalonia.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

START II Encounters the Nabobs of Negativism

Already the warmongers and America first obsessives are agitating against the new strategic arms limitation treaty signed this year to replace the expired START I. The new treaty requires ratification by the Senate, and a vote is expected on the treaty next week. Both major Washington papersran headlines claiming or implying that the Russians cheated on START I. But the US State Department begs to differ with the COM. A State spokesperson for compliance issues said there was nothing in the recent compliance report that accused Russia of cheating. The history of Russian compliance is good according to the spokesperson. But reality never stopped Repugnants from trying to build momentum against a major foreign policy accomplishment of a Democratic administration. The Post story focused on Russian compliance with two other treaties covering biological and chemical weapons, not part of the START I agreement. The most the State Department report could say about those issues was that the US was "unable to ascertain whether Russia had" fulfilled its treaty obligations as interpreted by the US. The irony of the situation is that the more the war hawks try to delay ratification, the longer the US will be without inspectors inside Russia verifying compliance. With the expiration of START I all US technicians monitoring Russian stockpiles have been removed.

[Photo: a supersonic strategic weapon of a bygone era, B-58 "Hustler". The jet bomber was capable of Mach 2 at high altitude but it was never easy to fly, and the USAF loss 26 of the expensive bombers in accidents. The standard comment about the Hustler was that it cost more than it's weight in gold--when gold was $35 an ounce. Improvements in Soviet surface to air missile defense quickly forced the delta wing bomber into a low-altitude penetration mode where it lost the speed advantage. The aircraft therefore had an operational lifespan of just ten years.]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Victory for Polar Bears (and Humans Who Admire Them)!

NRDC reports that we have scored a big victory against big oil in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. The previous regime authorized opening up the Arctic seas in US jurisdiction to unrestricted oil exploration in its waning days in power. The move was a resource grab reminiscent of the Oklahoma land race. No environmental impacts of the executive action were studied in violation of NEPA and other federal laws. NRDC with its partners sued to get the issued permits revoked. A federal district court judge has agreed with the petitioners in the suit. The Chukchi Sea is home to America's polar bears where they hunt on the disappearing sea ice. Unrestricted oil exploration would certainly have hastened the dreadful day when the magnificent bears may go extinct due to climate change. The battle goes on against big oil as Shell prepares to drill off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the Beaufort Sea. Drilling on the OCS has been temporarily halted in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but the emphasis is on temporary. Forty four's folks definitely want more domestic oil exploration as a partial fix for this nation's fossil fuel addiction. If you want to help NRDC defend wild places and the creatures who live there make a donation.

Monday, July 26, 2010

'Zombie' Public Option Will Not Die

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) as chair of the progressive caucus in the House of Representatives introduced a "robust public option" to compete against private insurance on Thursday. That is good news to 6 of 10 Americans who support the idea of a government run health insurance as an option in the insurance exchanges created by the recent legislation restructuring the health insurance market. The bill has 121 co-sponsors. My readers know the public option was axed in the Senate to obtain the final few votes of conservatives necessary to pass  the overall bill in that filibuster-obstructed chamber. The Congressional Budget office projects that this version of the public option would reduce the deficit by $68 billion between 2014 and 2020. That is a number in which all the deficit hawks in Washington should be interested. However, the bill faces the nearly insurmountable trio of opposition from the insurance lobby, doctors and hospitals. All of whom fear the lowering of healthcare prices as the result of competition from a non-profit source. Sometimes the zombies win.

Chart of the Week: Obama's Drill'O'Rama

No getting around this fact dear readers:  Bush&Co were of the oil patch, but Forty-four got more money from the oil and gas industry than any other legislator except his opponent John McCain: $884,000. Expanded oil exploration was a centerpiece of his energy policy--at least prior to the greatest environmental disaster in American history took place on the offshore platform Deepwater Horizon. This year BP spent $3,530,000 lobbying exceeded only by Conoco-Philips which spent $6,408,978 for lobbying according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A sickening example of the influence the oil industry has in Congress--perhaps second only to the banking lobby--is the decision by Democratic leaders to abandoned efforts to pass carbon pollution limitations. US Person does not support cap and trade since it essentially creates yet another financial market that can be manipulated and gamed by big companies. However, not even a carbon tax will make it pass the minority of Senators in the grip of big oil regardless of the 'small change' agent occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Nor will the myriad of tax giveaways to the oil industry embedded in the tax code be ended. For an industry that generates trillions in revenue as a whole, it has just an incredible 11% effective tax rate! Just one egregious example of the industry's subsidization is the Deepwater Royalty Relief Act of 1995, signed into law by President Clinton, that suspends payments of royalties for deepwater leases determined not to be economically viable. Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon,relocated its headquarters to the Cayman Islands in 1999, a notorious tax haven, before shifting to Zug, Switzerland. This move allows it to pay just 16% in taxes on its 2009 income of $4 billion. BP which reported $246.14 billion in 2009 revenue has paid only $144 in compensation to damage claimants so far as a result of the spill. The full environmental cost will probably never be entirely compensated, the departure of the clueless CEO Tony Hayward notwithstanding.

Tired of the tax subsidized rape of our planet? Tired of a few senators not passing legislation? Call your senators on Tuesday, and tell them to get to work passing carbon legislation. It is the only way out for you and your children.

[chart: McClatchy News Service]

Friday, July 23, 2010

Turtles Saved in Mississippi

The oil spill has created both carcasses and survivors. Some of the turtle survivors are being helped at the Gulfport Mississippi Institute for Marine Mammals Studies. 99% of turtles rescued from the Chandelier Islands and Alabama have survived in the care of the compassionate people at the Institute.  They are caring for 4 out of the 5 species of turtles that live in the Gulf. The sad news is that the most endangered sea turtle, Kemp's Ridley [photo], is suffering the greatest fatalities. About 250 dead turtles have been seen by the Institute. Watch the video for more information, and see the amazing turtle survivors.

'Toontime: Obama's Bank 'O' Rama

[credit: Ted Rall]

The financial regulation package just signed by Forty-four may be the 'biggest change in bank regulation' since the Great Depression, but that is because the politicians on both sides have spent the last 70 years eviscerating FDR's regulatory reform.  The law does not prohibit naked swaps trading by big banks (derivative trading is a $600 trillion market), does nothing to solve the insolvency of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae that many experts believe were central players in the financial panic of '07, does not impose a usury cap on consumer debt, fails to breakup the colossi of Wall Street banks, and does not reestablish the separation between investment and commercial banking that was the central pillar of post-Depression regulation of Wall Street. Just ask Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) if this is really reform.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Countries Pledge to Help Tiger

The Chinese Year of the Tiger {21.01.10} sees the awesomely beautiful and efficient feline on the bring of extinction. A tragic story, but one that can have a happier ending if, and that is a big word, the countries that are the tiger's home range make good on their proposals to double tiger populations by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. The world population of tigers in the wild is estimated at 3,200 individuals. Thirteen countries met in Bali to try and agree on a global plan to prevent the big cat from disappearing in the wild. The meeting laid the groundwork for a later 'Tiger Summit' in Saint Petersburg, Russia where it is hoped the proposals can be made into binding commitments. The leaders at the Bali meeting apparently realize healthy tiger populations are a good indication of healthy forests that serve as huge carbon sinks. Efforts to curb global warming should benefit tigers, whose natural habitats are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Tigers also suffer from an insidious, irrational trade in body parts as well as retaliatory killing by villagers. The Bali tiger went extinct in 1940. Of the nine subspecies recognized by biologists only six remain today: Sumatran, Bengal, Amur, Indochinese, South China and Malayan. The Indonesian government was complimented by attendees for taking the initiative to hold the meeting on Bali as a symbol of its commitment to bring tiger populations up to more sustainable level. Igor Chesting, head of the Russian delegation got it right when he said, "The fate of the world's tigers is in our hands. We must not squander this opportunity to collectively do all it takes to ensure its survival..."


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blowout Prevention Act of 2010

Too bad it takes a disaster the size of the Deepwater Horizon blowout to get Congress to act on real regulation of private companies operating on the OCS instead of rubber stamping profit motivated dissembling. Nevertheless, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has marked up a bill (H.R. 5626) intended to put teeth in safety requirements for the OCS and other high risk wells that could cause extensive harm to the environment. The bill was reported out unanimously. For the first time oil company CEOs will have to certify the wells their company intend to drill are designed in a safe manner, have necessary safety equipment including blowout preventers (BOPs) with redundant systems, and that the company has the ability to control and promptly stop a blowout if the BOP fails. Minimum standards for BOPs are established for the first time. It must have two sets of blind shear rams with backup control systems that can be activated remotely. ln addition to these internal certifications well design, cementing procedures, and BOPs must be independently certified by an independent inspector selected by the government. These requirements all reflect failure modes leading to catastrophy on the Deepwater Horizon platform. The bill provides for criminal fines of up to $10million a day for knowing and willful violations. It remains to be seen how many of these tough provisions survive after the oil lobby gets its hands on the bill.

Up until the disaster in the Gulf, oil companies had their way with federal regulators.  The Minerals Management Service (whose name has been changed by Forty-four's folks to protect the complacent) signed off on BP's exploration plan and environmental impact statement for Mississippi Canyon Block 252. This plan infamously claimed that an accidental spill would be "unlikely" to occur from the proposed activities. MMS even certified that the company had "the capacity to a worst-case discharge". Unhappily, America now knows that wasn't true. BP's playboy CEO Tony Hayward said the disaster was due to the "unprecedented" failure of the BOP, but that isn't true either. MMS knew for years the documented, substantial problems with blowout preventers. When MMS proposed the mandatory installation of acoustic switches on BOPs,-- required by Norway and Brazil--the oil industry pushed back hard and the agency capitulated, deciding their use could be voluntary. Unsurprisingly, the Deepwater Horizon platform did not have the switch.

What is wrong with the agency is summed up in the Interior Department IG's report on the Lake Charles, Louisiana district office with jurisdiction over the Gulf. The IG reported misconduct occurring before 2007. The report portrays a chummy, club-like atmosphere at the district office in which fraternizing and gift exchange was the norm: "we discovered that the individuals involved...have often known one another since childhood." A confidential source told investigators that some MMS inspectors had allowed roughnecks to fill out MMS inspection sheets and then sign the forms and turn them in as their own work product. In January, 2007 an inspector of offshore installations was fired for taking gifts from an oil company. But as Mother Jones concludes, it is hard to imagine that the good 'ole boy system has substantially changed since then despite all the campaign rhetoric.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Methane Seep Found Near Macondo #1

Update: Government incident commander Thad Allen, said Monday the "science folks" think the gas bubbles around the cap do not indicate "any threat to the well bore." Scientists studying the seep two miles from the well bore believe it a natural occurrence. So the well continues to be shut in. Now that the well is not flowing, BP is studying the possibility of a "static kill" or pumping mud down into the well forcing oil and gas back into the reservoir while it is capped. A previous attempt at a "top kill" while the well was out of control failed.

{19.07.10}Bad news from the oil spill front. BP shut in the blowout, but the enormous gas pressure involved--responsible for the explosion that destroyed the drilling platform and killed 11 workers [photo]--has found a way to vent. Forty-four's folks admitted a methane seep has been discovered near the shut in well. The seep may force the company to again allow crude to spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Pressure at the cap has not been as high as expected (6,778psi) leading science advisers to guess that there was either a leak somewhere else in the system or that enough oil and gas had already escaped to lower the well's pressure. The existence of a gas seep seems to provide an explanation. {5.07.10}Experts are concerned that the continued escape of methane gas which accelerates the crude/debris mix through the well's casing and piping, is increasing friction on possibly already weak joints, seals, and steel as a result of 85 days of unrestricted flow.  Pounding cavitations--like the water hammer effect in your home's plumbing only magnified-- can also cause the elaborate piping system to fail. Almost certainly the terrific explosion on April 20th affected the well head and well casing, perhaps shifting it in the well bore enough to cause leakage. Then there is the question of the geologic integrity of the reservoir itself. A Houston engineer who specializes in underwater operations and president of Radoil Inc, told AP that oil from the well could be leaking out underground and entering a geological void or pocket that may not be structurally able to contain it. Admiral Thad Allen, in charge of the government's crisis response has admitted to the press that such a nightmare scenario is possible. The relief wells are being drilled deep, but the oil layer lies at 18,360 feet, and if oil is escaping underground a relief well will not solve the problem. Currently, the deepest relief well is at 17,864 feet and four feet away from the Macondo bore. The back up relief well has stopped at 15,874 feet. In a word, we are not out of the deep yet.

Obama Lost in the Souk

The head of the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy club for nabobs that provides policy advice to presidents says the war in Afghanistan has been drastically escalated in scope under Forty-four's administration from a counter-terrorism strategy to a state building strategy. The transformation in strategy has embroiled the United States in another foreign civil war. The focus of the war effort has shifted to the Taliban which is comprised of Pashtuns, and Pashtuns make up half the population of Afghanistan. Actual foreign terrorists seeking refuge there number less than a hundred according to our own intelligence. To make matters worst the Taliban is secretly aided by the Pashtun dominated Pakistan Interservice Intelligence agency (ISI). Richard Haass told CNN he "does not think Afghanistan is worth it".

US Person could not agree more. Because the corrupt central government makes deals with the Taliban, the United States is essentially fighting against it's own allies and resources. An example of this absurd situation is related by David Samuels in Harper's. Logistics move by truck in the country by necessity. Two major companies that escort convoys are known to pay bribes to the Taliban to avoid attacks. Bribes are about $800 per truck, although the tolls vary according to cargo and number of trucks. Both companies are owned by relatives of President Hamid Karzai. According to a report by the Center for International Cooperation at NYU, the US spends hundreds of millions of dollars on payments to private security firms and trucking companies. The Pentagon awarded NCL Holdings a $360 million contract for transportation services despite the fact the company was not registered with the Afghan government and did not own any trucks. The company is owned by Hamed Wardak, son of the Afghan defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak. Regardless of the US investment of $276 billion in Afghanistan, not to mention all the arms and legs, a contract to exploit the Aynak copper deposit estimated to be worth $88 billion was awarded last year to the Chinese! The bribe paid to the former minster of mines, a close friend of brother Mohammed Karzai, was reported at $30 million.  Karzai recently awarded other valuable mineral contracts to the Japanese {20.06.10}.

The corruption is so pervasive and extensive, the US government is incapable of keeping track of the millions it is throwing away in the desert. A government report on the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) gave it failing marks. The report cited 10 major ways SIGAR was failing to conduct meaningful investigations into waste, fraud and abuse. The agency has been criticized by Congress members from both parties. SIGAR actually found the re-election of Hamid Karzai as president to be 'democratic' when the consensus of observers is that the election was fraudulent. Forty-four must be affected by the White House omnipotence syndrome because he has lost sight of the way out of the Afghanistan camel souk. But 58% of his countrymen see the exit. They want him to adhere to a timetable for withdrawal. Nine Repugnants in the House voted with 2/3 of the Democratic caucus for the McGovern-Obey amendment to the recent war supplemental bill which would have required the president to submit a time table for US withdrawal.

[photo: National Geographic]

Sunday, July 18, 2010

More Evidence Arctic Meltdown Is Near

Scientist studying the fossil record on Ellesmere Island near the North Pole have published their results in the peer journal, Geology. What they found adds more scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that the Earth will undergo fundamental changes as a result of anthropogenic global warming. Fossils from the Pliocene Epoch (2.6 to 5.3 million years ago) show that the island was very different from the barren, tundra covered rock it is now. Ellesmere had forests of larch, dwarf birch, and northern white cedar, as well as mosses and herbs. The island was inhabited by extinct mammals such as small deer, ancestral bears and horses, small beavers, rabbits, badgers and shrews. Using three different methods, the scientist were able to arrive at a consistent estimate of mean annual air temperature on Ellesmere during the Pliocene. It was about 34℉, and levels of atmospheric CO₂ were only slightly lower than they are today.  Their findings indicate that a CO₂ level of 400ppm is sufficient to elevate mean annual air temperatures in the Arctic to above freezing. The current level of CO₂ is about 390ppm, very near the tipping point. Arctic air temperatures have risen by about 1.8 degrees in the past two decades. Arctic sea ice is melting at a rate of 11.2% per decade. Some experts believe that Arctic summers will be ice free within a decade or two.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Squeaky Wheels Get Nuclear Grease

A House energy subcommittee passed a $25 billion loan guarantee for new nuclear reactors.  The subcommittee delayed action on the measure until now because a Democratic member running for reelection in Texas' 17th District wanted the money to expand the Comanche Peak reactor in his district.  Congressman Chet Edwards attacked his Repugnant opponent for being soft on bailouts for the nuclear industry, and especially Comanche Peak.  Luminant, the owner of the plant is applying to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build two new 1700W reactors, scheduled to begin construction in 2013.  Edwards has sold the idea to his constituents as a source of jobs and economic development.  The inclusion of the $25 billion loan subsidy is not the first time House Democrats have used the Energy Loan Guarantee program to help colleagues.  Last month $9 billion in loans was included for projects in Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn's districts, while other money was stripped from the bill.  The latest subsidies to the nuclear industry were made after GAO released a report on July 12 saying the loan program was inadequately planned and executed.

Herbivores of Luangwa

Besides numerous elephant families, the Luangwa River valley supports many species of herbivores. Hippopotamuses congregate in the rivers and many lagoons. Only the deepest lagoons stay wet through the blistering heat of the dry season. This lagoon is covered in Nile water lilly. The hippo may walk 5kms from water to find suitable grazing, mostly at night. Hippos will get out of the water during the day to sunbathe and doze on exposed banks. Their skin obtains pink highlights by secretion of a sunscreen substance. The hippos in South Luangwa National Park are being culled. Overpopulation leads to serious habitat degradation due to overgrazing, trampling and erosion of banks. Their habitual paths to and from the water are clearly visible. Hippos are truly dangerous animals with a nasty disposition. They are credited with the most human deaths of any large African mammal.

The wart hog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus) is a prey animal for lions and leopards.  Only lions and spotted hyaenas can take on an adult like this one. Both sexes have warts and tusks. They use their muscular snout and tusks for rooting, but also eat meat. They sometimes chase wild dogs off their kill. Wart hogs are diurnal. At night they sleep in holes, usually abandoned burrows of other animals modified with their forefeet. They are a good indicator of the health of an ecosystem because their numbers rapidly decline when a habitat is under stress such as during a prolonged drought.

Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) are plentiful in the Park.  This young buck seems to be posing for his picture, giving you a good profile. Unlike an impala males which hold harems, the waterbuck holds a territory beginning at 5-6 years of age. The male will mate with females that move through his territory. As their common name implies they are usually found in proximity to a water source. Serious fights between males are severe and are often more fatal than in other antelope. A distinctive marking of this antelope is the elliptical white patch of fur on its rump, often described as a "toilet seat" ring. Behind the waterbuck on the left are puku.

Puku (Kobus vardonii), along with impala, are the most numerous antelope in South Luangwa.  Here a female nurses her young. Puku are uniformly brown with whiter underparts and no distinctive markings. Only males have horns. Puku usually live in small groups of females with young and bachelor males. Rams defend territories.

US Person hopes you have enjoyed seeing some of the marvelous and curious inhabitants of South Luangwa National Park. The people are friendly too. The best time to visit in my opinion is at the beginning of the dry season which is the Southern Hemisphere's fall.  Tourism helps protect these animals because it gives governments and locals an incentive protect them.  Animal populations in southern Africa's protected areas are increasing, but the news from the rest of the continent is not good.  A recent survey by the London Zoological Society revealed that in 78 protected areas there is an average decline of almost 60% in the population of key species including the "big five".  Of course the situation outside parks and reserves is even worse.  Zoos are sterile places for animals and humans.  The experience of seeing a wild African mammal in its natural environment is one of a lifetime.  These wild places need your visit to survive in tact.
A female leopard hunts in the African night.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Trouble Comes Double

Update:  News reports are BP has finally shut down the blowout after 85 days of chaotic crisis.  Now the process of completing the relief well and filling it with drilling mud resumes to permanently close off the bore hole.  The Deepwater Horizon disaster will live in infamy as this nation's worst environmental disaster.  May there never be one that exceeds it's memory.

{14.07.10} We all want the spill in the Gulf to be finally plugged.  That means we want BP to succeed in the remote control efforts to shut the well down. But the sudden and abrupt halt to operations means trouble.  US Person has been posting {5.07.10} about the worse case scenario--a lack of well bore casing integrity--that would make any effort to cap the well from the top useless. Pressure testing with the new capping stack in place may have indicated such a lack of integrity. As a progress evaluation is underway, the well spews crude unabated into the sea killing wildlife and making humans sick.

Assuming the capping is eventually successful, there remains myriad questions about the response to the April 20th explosion aboard the platform Deepwater Horizon. The most pregnant one is why it took a major international oil company with enormous assets and tens of billions in revenues every year 3 months to shut down a blowout.  Granted the Macondo #1 well is a mile down, but BP assured the US government such a blowout event was unlikely despite knowing a contrary reality. The company operates over 20,000 wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone, so it should know the real risks and be prepared.  It was NOT. So the question becomes why the federal government as landlord of the OCS did not know its tenant was unprepared to effectively shut down a deep water well quickly and minimize damage to the environment? Or, why is the government allowing an apparently reckless operator with a checkered regulatory history to control the crisis response? The commission appointed by Forty-four needs to find definitive answers to these questions. Otherwise alleged "communists" like US Person will simply ascribe the disaster to arrogant state capitalism.

Hudson Bay's Polar Bears Headed for Extinction

Prince Charles rightfully accused climate change skeptics of practicing "pseudo science" at a recent London climate conference.  The scientists involved in the e-mail scandal that may have derailed the Copenhagen climate summit have been exonerated of wrong doing by an independent commission.  And now this tragic announcement by Canadian scientists studying the  second most southern population of polar bears at Hudson's Bay. These bears have reached star status, attracting visitors from all over the world, becoming the global symbol of environmental damage done by global warming. But a new study based on mathematical calculation of their energy storage capabilities, ice cap shrinkage, and the increasing length of time the bears spend on land without food indicates the bears are doomed to extinction in 25 to 30 years. The vital connection between sea ice and the bears' ability to hunt has been known to biologists for some time {"polar bears"}, but this study is the first computer model of the affects of loss of sea ice. The study's conclusion is backed up by ground observations of the bears' physical condition. The west Hudson Bay population is the most studied of all polar bears populations. Since 1980 there has been a gradual decline in their average weight of 60 lbs. The number of bears has also declined from 1200 to 900.  Bears have less and less time to hunt for their favored prey, the ringed seal, and less time to store fat for the summer months when sea ice retreats from the shore, leaving the bears without a source of meat. Arctic sea ice reached its lowest recorded extent in 2007. Despite the strong evidence of a threat to this population's survival, skeptics have managed to convince the Canadian government not to take steps to save the bears.  Scientific caution is a good thing, politically motivated denial something else entirely.

[photo: an underweight mother waiting for the ice, Andrew E. Derocher, University of Alberta]

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Birds Of Luangwa

The mopani and miombo woodlands of South Luangwa National Park provide habitat for a wide variety of interesting birds. A visitor will tire of seeing the lilac- breasted roller despite it having such beautiful colors--they seem to be everywhere. Another frequently sighted bird is Lillian's lovebird (Agapornis lilianae). These smaller members of the parrot family are easily recognizable because you have probably seen relatives in pet stores. Villagers tend to dislike the gregarious and noisy lovebirds because they are seed eaters which damage grain crops and stores.

This is a truly impressive stork, the Saddle-billed (E. senegalensis) The "saddle" is the flat yellow frontal shield on the top bill. It's five foot height is exceeded by an immense wing span of more than eight feet. Watching such a big bird take flight was amazing. The ancient Egyptians thought enough of the stork to give it a hieroglyph with the phonetic value, "ba". It feeds on aquatic animals which it stalks in a deliberate manner in shallow water. Behind the stork is an Hadeda Ibis looking for worms in the grass.

This raptor looks like a hawk, but it is the Western Banded Snake Eagle (Circaetus cinerascens).
True to their name these small eagles hunt snakes and other small vertebrates. They are secretive, solitary birds and hard to spot. US Person was fortunate enough to watch it consume a deadly poisonous boomslang (an Afrikaans word for "tree snake") while perched in this tree. Look closely and you can see the tail of the snake directly below the thick branch on which the raptor is standing. What remains of the serpent's head is under the bird's right talon.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chart of the Week: So Is It Still the "Great Recession"?

Here are just three charts that have economy watchers wringing their hands over the possibility of a replay of the last Great Depression.  US Person has unabashedly  been calling the financial panic and economic collapse since 2008, the "Second Great Depression", for some time.  In the first Great Depression there was a robust recovery in the market post 1929, only for a relapse to take place in 1932.

This economic decline has seen more jobs lost for a longer period of time than previous "recessions" since WWII.  Without jobs, people cannot buy houses.  Real estate is a major driver of the FIRE economy.  Housing inventories are increasing:
To make matters worse credit is contracting. Banks are mostly lending to the federal government which is spending the money on foreign wars, not domestic economic stimulus. Consumers are already burdened with a huge amount of outstanding debt:
US Person asked last week what was the explanation for only North Dakota's positive increase in business activity from last year.  It seems that oil and gas exploration may be responsible for the state's out sized economic performance.  Of course the development will come at a high environmental price.  See the shocking documentary, "Gasland", for further details.

[chart source:]

Friday, July 09, 2010

Lions of Luangwa

US Person promised his readers more photos of Zambia's wildlife, so here is a  photo gallery of the "Pride of Seventeen" that calls South Luangwa National Park home. The pride is large by Zambian standards and is presided over by an impressive black mained male. The adult females and subadults were photographed enjoying a meal of buffalo calf in the Mushilashi River. The pride male relaxed on the far bank, digesting his earlier repast. Kudos to my guide Andrew, who used his knowledge of buffalo behavior and Park geography to find this pride of lions which might have been missed without his expertise. He conjectured a nearby herd of agitated Cape Buffalo had been ambushed as they crossed the deep sand of the riverbed, giving the lions an advantage over their hoofed prey.

Lions are descended from an ancestor felid that was spotted--perhaps an adaptation to hunting in dappled light such as in a forest. As forests gave way to grasslands and the lion moved out onto the plains in search of food. There developed it's more suitable tawny coat.  This female shows her ancestral spots on her rear hindquarters.

One of the females in this group (L) is wearing a large radio collar. She was collared by an African wild dog study project that is investigating the relationship between the rare canine and other predators. Hopefully the collar will be removed when it has served its purpose.

Cape Buffalo are the lions preferred prey, although they will take zebras, boar, and antelopes. If they are starving, or too ill to hunt, lions will scavenge. Buffalo are formidable prey: very strong with tough hides and curving horns that can gut a lion in one swipe. This herd was sighted while walking to Luwi Camp. They have excellent senses of smell and hearing, but their eyesight is about as good as humans, making them dangerous to approach on foot. They have a reputation among hunters as being very fierce when wounded.

It is good to be full! A satisfied lioness relaxes and listens near her sisters. Lions are terrific hunters, able to bring down prey many times there size, but no match for men armed with high powered rifles. They need protection because their numbers continue to dwindle as African development reaches into the bush.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

BP Still Has Clout

After turning the northern Gulf of Mexico in a toxic waste dump, the giant supra-national oil company is still calling the shots in Alaska's Beaufort Sea, and the administration is playing the toady--again. BP got an exception to the moratorium on offshore drilling by building a 31 acre gravel drilling pad that extends three miles into the sea. The company is preparing to drill horizontally up to eight miles in the search for oil. So-called "whipstocking" is prone to dangerous methane gas buildups like the one that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon The company was allowed to write it's own environmental assessment and emergency response plan for the "Liberty Project". This kind of government capitulation to profiteers simply cannot go on, if our planet is to remain inhabitable. Please contact Interior Secretary Salazar (Anchorage office: 907-271-5485; fax: 907-271-4102) and tell him that the "Liberty Project" needs to be included in the moratorium not given a pass on a technicality. BP has a horrendous environmental record {21.6.10}. Conditions in the Arctic make a major oil spill clean up almost impossible, even if enough modern equipment were readily available--NOT!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Toontime: The Last Quagmire?

[credit Jim Morin, Miami Herald]

It is a lot easier to blow people away than convince them of the righteousness of your military occupation of their country. Perhaps that is why US troops are allegedly asking their new commander for a loosening of the rules of engagement.Clearly, the Obama team has run out of ideas.  The 'surge' in Iraq, which many observers believe Forty-four is emulating in Afghanistan, has produced a domestic political stalemate that endangers that nation's fragile peace and the American military withdrawal. After doing his best Harry Truman imitation by sacking General McChrystal, Obama's "go to guy", General David Petraeus, is still faced with the inconvenient truth that his civilian boss is propping up a quisling government so corrupted that it interferes with military operations. The Kandahar push had to be postponed because local officials, headed by President Karsai's Taliban friendly brother, could not be brought on board. Karsai is already planning for his survival after the US military leaves by opening negotiations with the Taliban.

The reality on the ground in Afghanistan makes our military leaders sound like college sophomores at a football rally. After taking over from McCrystal, Petraeus talked about "winning" the war there. Hopefully this rhetoric was for grunt consumption only. The only thing the contesting ethnic factions in Afghanistan can agree on is the removal of western troops. As the General would readily admit, winning hearts and minds in a counterinsurgency is more than half the battle. Nine years on, that battle we have clearly lost. It is one we lost in Vietnam too. Destroying Vietnamese villages in order to save them from communism did not win that conflict, nor will killing more Afghanis win this one. If the original rational for this war was to enter the country, destroy Al Qaeda and it's leaders, and then exit, the rationale has been lost amongst the hubris of western militarism.  The $33 billion Congress recently approved for the Afghan war is a waste, pure and simple, and better spent giving Americans another six months of unemployment benefits.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Good News in Numbers

The National Wildlife Federation reports that several species of endangered animals have increased their number or survive in numbers larger than previously thought.  Good news indeed at a time when the loss of biological diversity is becoming pervasive.  Some exceptions to the general trend towards extinction:
  • Grizzly Bears--Senator John McCain ridiculed the expenditure of federal funds to study bear DNA, but the study resulted in the most accurate population count of the largest grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states.  There are now 765 grizzly bears in northwestern Montana, two and a half times the previous federal estimate;
  • Western lowland Gorilla--recently 125,000 lowland gorillas were discovered in a remote area of the huge Congo Basin thanks to months of gut wrenching effort by staffers from the Wildlife Conservation Society.   Their discovery more than doubles previous estimates, and has encouraged the Congolese government to create a new national park to protect them.  The Society is searching for ways to protect our primate cousins from an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus that kills both humans and apes;
  • Black-footed Ferrets--a reintroduced population of ferrets in Wyoming's Shirley Basin managed to survive a double whammy of disease.  Plague and distemper reduced a population of 200 released animals to five in 1997.  But the latest counts show that the resilient ferrets have rebounded to 239.  Extrapolating from the study area count, there may be as many as 1,000 in the Basin, which makes the reintroduction effort a great success.  Given a helping hand, animals can make it back from the brink;
  • Eastern Bowhead Whales--Scientists thought the eastern population was very small, but native Inuit were asking for increased quotas for their annual hunt based on their observations.  The Canadian government used satellite tracking combined with aerial surveys to produce a figure of around 14,400 bowheads.  That number was reduced by the International Whaling Committee after a critique of their methodology to about 6,300.  The truth may lie in between, but it's good news either way because the eastern group may have finally hit a threshold for speedier growth barring renewed commercial whaling and the threat posed by global warming;
  • Tokin Snub-Nosed Monkey--another monkey thought to be on the verge of extinction.  Scientists estimated a total of 150 or fewer of the extravagantly colored primate confined to a few patches of forest in northeastern Vietnam. Last December Vietnamese biologists found a new breeding group of twenty monkeys including 3 infants.  The find prompted the government to protect their patch of forest and help nearby villagers avoid hunting them for food or destroying their habitat;
  • Sociable Lapwings--a plover scientists had written off as headed towards extinction because of habitat loss.  By 2003 the estimate was only 200 breeding pairs remaining in Eurasia. But in 2007 a flock of 3,200 birds was found in the remote Turkish steppe.  Researchers were led to the site by a bird that had been tagged with a satellite signal responder.  Lapwings are the smallest bird ever to be successfully satellite tagged thanks to the Darwin Initiative funding the project by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Do not be misled. All of these animals still face possible extinction due to environmental destruction. No better example of the truth of this statement is Louisiana's state bird, the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalus). Recently removed from the endangered species list, the pelican now faces catastrophic destruction of it's breeding habitat along the Gulf Coast because of the recklessness of a virtual person, British Petroleum, Plc.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Top Kill Failure Could Be Sign of Subsurface Leaks

Update: Even 'Bubba' Clinton talked about the possibility of using explosives to collapse the seabed around the Macondo blowout. If the well casings are not intact, then relief wells will not seal off the reservoirs because there is more than one route for the oil and gas to escape into the sea. Clinton said nuclear devices would not be necessary, but US Person thinks conventional explosives would not be sufficiently powerful to collapse porous strata over a wide enough area to permanently stop the leaks. A relatively small nuclear blast, besides burying the well bore, could also fuse rock overlying the oil reservoirs creating an impermeable layer or "cap" well below the sea bottom. Much has be made of the fact that the Soviet experience with this drastic method was on land. Pundits tend to neglect the fact that the successful explosions took place in subsurface rock strata--the same would be true for an explosion beneath the seafloor in the Mississippi Canyon formation. No doubt a nuclear blast is a risky proposition, so the suggestion has always been intended as a last resort after the relief wells have failed to stop the blowout. Letting the huge reservoirs simply drain out would be an environmental disaster beyond contemplation of even a "Freddie Kreuger".  Tar balls have washed up on Texas beaches for the first time.  Not an "act of God" as the craven Texas governor would have you believe, but a notorious act of man. But then they always do tend to exaggerate in the Lone Star State.

{6.17.10}Yes, folks US Person said it was the "big one", and knowledgeable commentators are saying the same thing. The failure of BP's top kill operation last week, could indicate leaks exist below the sea bottom in the well bore itself.  Pumping 80 barrels of heavy drilling mud a minute into the well failed to seal it after three attempts. Usually this method has a good chance of killing a gusher, but in this case the pumping action did not overtake the flow of oil, indicating a leak somewhere beyond the column of drilling mud being forced into the well. BP used up 50,000 barrels of mud before calling off the effort[1].

What does this mean? The worst case scenario is now a distinct possibility. A compromised well bore in which crude is leaking out of failed well casings means any top down method of shutting off the leak is doomed to failure[2]. Even relief wells may not work since they is no way of knowing which of four reservoirs are escaping to the surface or where exactly in the column the leaks are located. A complete bleed out of the reservoirs--2 to 2.5 billions barrels--may end up in the Gulf of Mexico, turning it into an ecological nightmare. Even the wildlife is trying to escape for their lives. One thing is certain: a $20 billion liability fund is a puny drop in the ocean compared to the cost of havoc being unleashed at 50,000 barrels of toxic crude a day.

[1] BP experienced problems controlling well pressures before the explosion due to cracks in the surrounding strata. BP finally plugged cracks through which gas was seeping into the well bore after three attempts in February before the final gas leak destroyed the Deepwater Horizon platform on April 20th. The company informed the Minerals Management Service in early March it was having a "well control situation". Other companies have shut down wells considered unsafe due to gas surges. Exxon shut its Blackbeard well in 2006 after a threatened blowout.
[2]In 1966, a nuclear explosive was detonated at Urtabulak gas field in Southern Uzbekistan in order to extinguish a gas well fire that had been burning for almost three years and had resisted numerous attempts at control. The gas fountain, which formed at pressures of almost 300 atmospheres, had resulted in the loss of over 12 million cubic metres of gas per day through a 200 mm casing – enough to supply a city the size of St Petersburg. Two 445 mm holes were drilled that aimed to come as close as possible to the well at a depth of about 1500 metres in the middle of a 200 metre thick clay zone. One of these came to within about 35 m of the well and was used to emplace the special 30-kiloton charge which had been developed by the Arzamas weapons laboratory. Immediately after the explosion the fire went out and the well was sealed. This was the first of five peaceful nuclear explosions used for this purpose, and all but one was completely successful in extinguishing the fire and sealing the well. No radioactivity above background levels was detected in subsequent surveys of any of the sites. So, Mr. Garwin, is the freak still crazy after all these years?

Chart of the Week: What's With North Dakota?

This chart from Business Insider tells us that 49 out of 50 states have lower business activity than last year.  The states on the left have experienced the most decline with West Virginia leading the way.  US Person has no explanation for the sole positive outlier in this bleak picture.  Could it be that North Dakota's state-owned central bank, the Bank of North Dakota, is responsible for insulating the rural state from the malaise overtaking the rest of the country? Or has a new gold mother lode been discovered there?

Friday, July 02, 2010

'Toontime: Executive (In)Action

Wackydoodle asks: But can he see the flag?

"MMS (Minerals Management Service) is the most corrupt, inept, industry-dominated agency I have dealt with in 20 years," said Kieran Suckling, the executive director and founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group in San Francisco. "They are incapable of regulating the industry. Maybe it's time to put them out of their misery." Two months after the explosion on that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon platform, criticism of the federal government's uncoordinated response to the blowout disaster is growing.  Even using the government's conservative estimate of barrels leaked per day, the spill will eclipse Mexico's Ixtoc well this July 4th weekend when Gulf beaches are usually covered with bathers instead of toxic slime. It took 10 months for the Ixtoc well to be finally sealed.  The two relief wells now being drilled towards the ruptured wellbore are not a sure fire solution either, as Chairman Edward Markey of the House Energy & Environment Subcommittee points out in his letter to Tony Hayward, BP's party-time CEO. The Deepwater Horizon spill is only eclipsed by the deliberate opening of terminal valves by Iraqi forces during the Persian Gulf war, which dumping about 460 million gallons of oil into the sea. So far the BP blowout has spewed 71.2 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.

Read more:

Nestlé Decides to Help Protect Forests

This story came across US Person's desk in May, but he was on safari for part of the time and the press of depressing information from the Gulf oil spill caused him to neglect an important victory for conservationists. Greenpeace announced on May 17th that Nestlé, the giant food products company, decided to change policy and stop using palm oil from companies that cause deforestation like Sinar Mas, notorious for its rainforest destruction in Indonesia. The expansion of palm oil plantations poses a serious threat to the remaining rainforest {20.6.07}. Sinar Mas controls 406,000 hectares of palm oil plantations and plans to develop another 1.3 million hectares for plantations on Papua New Guinea and Kalimantan Borneo. Greenpeace exposed the use of palm oil in Nestle's popular "Kit Kat" chocolate wafer bar. The commercial uses of palm oil are numerous. Besides food, cooking and fuel, it is an ingredient in toothpaste and cosmetics.


Thursday, July 01, 2010

Oil Spill Begins to Affect Public Health

It is a story the COM will not feature, but you know it was only a matter of time. Local media is reporting the first effects of crude oil exposure in humans. Four hundred people have sought medical care--complaining of respiratory problems, headaches, nausea and eye irritation--after trips to Escambia County, Florida beaches. Nevertheless, the County's health department lifted a health advisory for Pensacola beach against the advice of a federal environmental official on Friday. Swimmers complained of petroleum smell and jelly-like petroleum substance clinging to their skin. Water samples have been taken, but results have not yet been reported publicly. Clean up workers are also reporting the effects of  exposure to petroleum and petroleum based dispersants. The flu like symptoms--headache, fatigue, nausea, and nervous system effects--have been reported by 74 clean up workers in Louisiana. Respirators are not being used, apparently because of BP's liability concerns, but protective gear may not be effective to prevent absorption of toxins such as benzene.  And if that isn't enough bad news, CNN reminds us that almost all of the Exxon Valdez clean up workers are dead. The average life span for those responders was 51 years.