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Tuna-ed Out

Farming bluefin tuna might be out of our depths

bluefin-tuna.png
Shutterstock

Close your eyes. Think fish. Do you envision half a ton of laminated muscle rocketing through the sea as fast as you drive your automobile? Do you envision a peaceful warrior capable of killing you unintentionally with a whack of its tail? These giant tuna strain the concept of fish.

-- Carl Safina, Song for the Blue Ocean

When most of us think tuna, the image we conjure is more along the lines of a friendly looking tin of Starkist than a voracious top predator. But Atlantic bluefin -- not actually the tuna you'd likely find in a can, but the type that ends up as expensive sushi -- are just that. Because sushimongers' insatiable appetites for bluefin are wiping the fish out of oceans, some scientists hope that aquaculture can relieve the pressure from the wild stocks. Turns out, that's a hard thing to do.

Why? Well, think about it for a second: Would it ever sound like a good idea to farm tigers?

Read more: Food

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El Niño flakes out

Not even Jesus is going to save California from this drought

dry_ground
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California is looking pretty thirsty these days, having gotten less than half the historical average rainfall over the past year. But a few months ago the state began think that a great wet hope might step in to save them: El Niño, the weather system named after Jesus himself. Now the forecasts have changed, however, and it looks like Californians are SOL.

Back in April, scientists said there was a close-to-80 percent chance that an El Niño would form this year. Some believed that all of the pieces were in place for a particularly strong one. And while this would've raised certain flavors of meteorological hell, at least the boy would have brought copious amounts of much-needed rainfall.

But over the past few months the probability of an El Niño forming has decreased. And if one does form, it's becoming clearer that it won't be a strong one -- meaning that it probably won't bring Californians the break they were hoping for.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Exctinction VI: This time it's personal

Dead elephants, plagues, and rats: Why the sixth extinction is bad for you and everyone you know

Fossil_flat
Shutterstock

Hey, remember the dinosaurs? Yeah, neither. All it took was one massive asteroid, and all the dinos were wiped off the face of the planet. Well, there’s a new asteroid in town: us.

New research published in the journal Science lays out the scope of the destruction we've wrought -- and suggests that it's going to come back to bite us. Not only will the so-called sixth extinction make that wildlife safari you’ve always wanted to take a lot less interesting, it could increase disease and make it even harder to feed our own ever-growing population. Happy weekend!

Similar to previous extinction events, the large, cute animals (like elephants and polar bears) are disappearing the fastest: since 1500, more than 320 land-based vertebrates have gone extinct. Which isn't just bad news for wildlife junkies; their loss translates into a shift in the whole ecosystem. Scientists found that areas in which the big guys disappeared quickly became infested with rodents – who bring all of their disease-carrying parasites with them.

“Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission,” lead author Rodolfo Dirzo says. “Who would have thought that just defaunation would have all these dramatic consequences? But it can be a viscious cycle.”

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Northwest wildfires: We broke the forests, now we need to fix them

washington-fire
Jason Kriess

The Northwest is ablaze. Both Washington and Oregon are in official states of emergency as dozens of fires burn on forests and rangelands. Rainy weather in some areas has helped firefighters in the past few days, but according to the federal government’s InciWeb website, there are still 22 large fires burning almost a million acres in the two states. The half-contained Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington alone has torched 150 homes and burned more than a quarter million acres, making it the largest in state history.

Welcome to the hot, flammable future, America. We’ve been setting ourselves up for these fires for a long, long time.

David Freedman has a strong piece on the past, present, and future of wildfire in America in the latest issue of Men’s Journal. Here’s a snippet starring Dave Cleaves, an economist and former professor who now advises the chief of the U.S. Forest Service:

In the late 1980s, Cleaves found himself wondering: Why was the U.S. being hit by more and more uncontrollable fires? Up until then, increasing investments in firefighting seemed to have rendered wildfires tamable. But in 1989, 873 structures burned down in California wildfires. In 1990, 641 structures were lost in a single fire. In 1991, more than 3,300 homes were torched in a firestorm near Oakland. Throughout the 1980s, an average of 3 million acres had burned each year in the U.S.; by 1991, the number exceeded 5 million acres. "Large parts of whole counties in the West were going up in single fires," says Cleaves. "We'd never seen fires like that."

Cleaves pored over the data and came to a disturbing conclusion, one that seemed almost preposterous at the time: A slow but accelerating rise in average temperatures in the West was tipping the wildlands into a state of unprecedented vulnerability that would render fires increasingly uncontrollable. Today, we call it climate change.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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New rules aim to stop rash of oil train spills and explosions

oil-train.jpg
John Wathen / Public Herald

Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules for improving safety standards around transporting large quantities of flammable materials by rail. The chief concern here is the movement of crude oil and ethanol, which the federal government has been ramping up through recent decisions to expand the exploration and extraction of domestic oil and gas.

The new rules, summarized here, focus on upgrades for train tank cars, new speed limits for trains carrying flammable fuels, improved braking operations, and more rigorous testing for the movement of volatile liquids. A recent rash of train crashes and oil spills, notably in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Lynchburg, Va., prompted the new safety standards.

In a recent review of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Politico found that train wrecks have done more than $10 million in damage as of mid-May this year, which is nearly triple the damage for all of 2013.

In a press statement, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the proposal “our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Drone on

Could drones be our secret weapon in the fight against Big Ag?

factory-cows
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If you were privy to everything that went on inside a factory farm, you might never want to eat again. Manure lagoons fester. Animals cram into tiny spaces. Unsanitary conditions abound. Which is exactly why Big Ag would rather you just didn’t know. At least seven states have now made it illegal to use undercover evidence to expose the unsavory practices that take place on factory farms. Award-winning journalist Will Potter thinks drones could be the workaround to these controversial “ag-gag” laws.

NPR reports that Potter raised $75,000 on Kickstarter to buy drones and other equipment in order to investigate animal agriculture in the U.S.

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Listen up, EPA!

Feds move to restrict neonic pesticides — well, one fed at least

Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Byron Chin

So far the EPA has refused to ban use of neonicotinoid insecticides -- despite mounting evidence that they kill bees and other wildlife, despite a ban in the European Union, despite a lawsuit filed by activists and beekeepers.

But if the EPA is somehow still unclear on the dangers posed by neonics, it need only talk to the official who oversees federal wildlife refuges in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Ocean.

Kevin Foerster, a regional boss with the National Wildlife Refuge System, directed his staff this month to investigate where neonics are being used in the refuges they manage -- and to put an end to their use. Foerster’s office is worried that farming contractors that grow grasses and other forage crops for wildlife and corn and other grains for human consumption on refuge lands are using neonic pesticides and neonic-treated seeds. There are also fears that agency staff are inadvertently using plants treated with the poisons in restoration projects.

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Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.

solar panel rainbow
Steve Jurvetson

All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being -- essentially -- appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can't show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.

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hot at the top

Wanna see what climate change looks like? Check out the vicious fires in northwest Canada

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NWT Fire

Lightning, an intense heat wave, and low rainfall are lighting up northwestern Canada like a bonfire, producing conflagrations that scientists are linking to climate change.

More than 100 forest fires are burning in Canada's lightly populated Northwest Territories, east of Alaska. Some residents are being evacuated from their homes; others are being warned to stay inside to avoid inhaling the choking smoke. Take a look at the latest map produced by the region's fire agency:

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NWT Fire

“Some attribute that to climate change, and I’m one of those," Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, told CBC News. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change. Expect more fires, larger fires, more intense fires.”

Here's more from Climate Central:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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crikey

Australia repeals carbon tax, scientists freak out

Australian outback
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The cartoonish stereotype of Australia of yesteryear featured a rough-headed bloke in an Akubra hat wrangling crocodiles. That image has finally been scrubbed from our collective memories -- only to be replaced with something worse. Today, when we read news dispatches from Australia, we're seeing a dunderheaded prime minister cartoonishly wrangling commonsense, becoming the first leader in the warming world to repeal a price on carbon.

It's like George W. Bush, Crocodile Dundee-style.

Conservative prime minister, climate change denier, and accused misogynist Tony Abbott was elected in September. He started working as the nation's leader almost immediately, but he had to wait until this month for newly elected senators to take their seats. Abbott's (conservative) Liberal party still doesn't control the Senate, but it has found Senate allies in a powerful party that was founded just last year by kooky mining magnate Clive Palmer. Palmer held a press conference with Al Gore last month to announce that he opposed some of Abbott's climate-wrecking policies, and that he wanted a carbon-trading program to replace the carbon tax. That now seems to have been smokestacks and mirrors. When it came to repealing Australia's $US23.50 per metric ton carbon tax, the immodestly named Palmer United Party fell into line on Thursday, helping the repeal pass the Senate by a vote of 39 to 32, without demanding the establishment of any alternative.