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National weather forecasters won’t be furloughed after all

Without meteorologists, who would make maps like this?
Without meteorologists, who would make maps like this?

A swarm of tornadoes that killed three professional storm chasersone amateur storm chaser, and nine other people in Oklahoma on Friday night convinced NOAA to make sure its meteorologists and other staff members stay on the job. That, and some pressure from Congress.

NOAA Acting Administrator Kathryn Sullivan sent an email to all of her staff as midnight approached on Friday, telling them that the agency was canceling its furlough plans for employees, including those at the National Weather Service.

The furloughs had been intended to help the agency deal with the mind-numbing sequester cuts that are being imposed on all federal agencies. But the furlough plans had been sharply criticized by members of Congress, including Republicans, who feared that forcing the agency's weather forecasters to stay at home on certain days could cost American lives.


China’s plastic-bag ban turns five years old


What do you give a plastic-bag ban for its fifth birthday?

In the case of China, which over the weekend celebrated five years of restrictions on plastic shopping bags, officials are showering their ban with accolades and crediting it with keeping tens of billions of bags out of landfills and the environment.

The rules, which took effect on June 1, 2008, ban the manufacture or use of the thinnest types of plastic bags. They also prohibit supermarkets, department stores, and grocery stores from giving away thicker varieties, requiring them to charge customers for the bags.


Warming oceans are killing baby puffins

Atlantic puffin

Atlantic puffins -- sometimes called the clowns of the sea because of their squat bodies and odd waddles -- are finding themselves in a particularly unfunny predicament.

Scientists think warming ocean temperatures are driving the puffins' normal meals of herring away from the coastlines; they're being replaced with other fish that are too large for puffin fledglings to swallow.

We told you in May that record-breaking Atlantic coastal water temperatures were driving some fish away. And on Friday we quoted Oceana scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck warning that the warming of the oceans is “causing significant changes to marine ecosystems."

Well, what could be a more dramatic poster child for these impacts than the vision of adorable pufflings starving to death? From the Associated Press:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Vegetarians live longer, researchers find

Instead of bacon, try these. You'll live longer.
Instead of bacon, try these. You'll live longer.

If you want to live longer, you could dabble in cryonics, hire Dick Cheney's medical team, or, more realistically, pass on the meat and live the life of a vegetarian.

A recent study concluded that vegetarians were less likely to die from heart disease, diabetes, or kidney failure than were those who ate meat.

Researchers tracked more than 70,000 American members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which promotes clean living and vegetarianism, though not all followers shun meat. The scientists noted the subjects' diets and recorded the causes of 2,570 deaths during the six-year study.

Overall, the vegetarians were 12 percent less likely to die during the study. The results were published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Read more: Food, Living


Connecticut will label GMOs if you do too

"Label GMOs Now" sign
CT Senate Democrats

Connecticut is poised to become the first state to require labeling of genetically engineered food -- in theory, at least.

On Monday, the state House of Representatives passed an amended version of a labeling bill that the state Senate approved two weeks ago, and Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) has said he’ll sign it. The bipartisan bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 134-to-3 in the House, with little debate in either chamber -- a major contrast to California’s contentious GMO-labeling ballot initiative that ultimately failed last year. Differences between the two states aside, it goes to show you how much more difficult passing such progressive measures becomes once corporate money and gullible voters are involved.

The Hartford Courant’s political blog reports that “Immediately after the vote, cheers could be heard outside the Hall of the House from advocates who had been pushing the labeling requirement.” The bill’s success is certainly an important victory for the GMO-labeling movement, which seems to have been motivated, not discouraged, by last year’s loss in California. Thirty-seven labeling proposals have been introduced in 21 states so far this year.

But the final version of the Connecticut bill includes quite a crucial catch: The labeling requirement won't actually go into effect until similar legislation is passed by at least four other states, one of which borders Connecticut. Also, the labeling adopters must include Northeast states with an aggregate population of at least 20 million. So if, say, New York passed a labeling law, that would help a lot, as New York borders Connecticut and has a population of 19.5 million, which, combined with Connecticut’s 3.5 million, easily passes the population target.


Monsanto is currently testing GMO wheat in two states

Monsanto protest GMO wheat
John Novotny

Last week, when the USDA announced that an unauthorized strain of GMO wheat was recently discovered on an Oregon farm, it was widely reported (by us, among others) that Monsanto had stopped field-testing its genetically modified wheat in 2005.

Now Bloomberg reports that the biotech giant actually resumed field tests of GMO wheat in 2011:

The world’s largest seed company planted 150 acres of wheat in Hawaii last year that was genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate weedkiller, which the company sells under the brand name Roundup, according to a Virginia Tech database administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another 300 acres of wheat engineered with Roundup tolerance and other traits are being tested in North Dakota this year.

Were these recent field trials linked to the outbreak of unwanted GMO wheat in Oregon? We don’t know that yet. Monsanto, which you may or may not choose to trust, told Bloomberg in an email that the Roundup Ready wheat in the new trials is “an entirely different event” than the escaped crop discovered in Oregon.


Famous storm chasers killed by Oklahoma tornado

Tim Samaras
Penn State
Tim Samaras.

Three researchers including a father and son who starred on the TV reality show Storm Chasers died doing what they loved on Friday night: venturing treacherously close to killer tornadoes to help the rest of us understand how they work.

Tim Samaras, founder of the tornado research company Twistex, and his son Paul Samaras were killed after a tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno on Friday. Their partner, Carl Young, also died.

"They all unfortunately passed away doing what they LOVED," wrote Tim Samaras's brother, Jim, in a post on Facebook. "I look at it that he is in the 'big tornado' in the sky."

"As far as we know, these are the first documented storm intercept fatalities in a tornado," NOAA said in a statement. "Scientific storm intercept programs, though they occur with some known measure of risk, provide valuable research information that is difficult to acquire in other ways."

The tornado researchers were among 13 people killed when five tornadoes touched down in central Oklahoma on Friday night. Three more people drowned in floods triggered by the storms.

Read more: Climate & Energy


California, Illinois lawmakers welcome frackers

Lawmakers rolled out red carpets for frackers last week in California and Illinois.

red carpet

California's Assembly rejected, by a 37-24 vote, AB 1323, which would have imposed a moratorium on fracking until state regulators issue environmental and safety guidelines. Apparently the rush to cash in on oil and gas deposits just cannot wait for such trivial matters. "Let's unleash this magnificent potential for jobs," Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R) said, according to the AP.

A separate bill requiring scientific studies, water testing, and public notification of chemicals used by frackers -- but imposing no moratorium -- passed California's Senate and will now move on to the Assembly for a vote.

Fracking for gas and oil is well underway beneath private land in California, though there are no requirements for energy companies to tell anybody what they're up to, meaning it's difficult to know how widespread the practice is. (Fracking for oil on federal lands in the state, meanwhile, is on hold pending an environmental review ordered by a federal judge.)


Deadly fire at Chinese poultry plant highlights industrial-ag safety concerns

We don't know yet how much fire-safety equipment the factory had.
Brian Yap
We don't know yet how much fire-safety equipment the factory had.

We’re still reeling from April’s garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people, making the 112 fatalities of a clothing-factory fire in the same country five months earlier seem tragically routine in comparison. Today’s news, then, of at least 119 deaths in a fire at a poultry plant in northeast China, not only adds another unwanted entry to this history of horror, but also shows that mortally unsafe working conditions are not limited to the apparel industry.

According to Chinese news reports cited by The New York Times, when a fire broke out inside the Baoyuanfeng Poultry Plant, “a major domestic poultry supplier,” workers rushed to the factory’s few exits only to find some of them blocked -- the same safety hazard that made November’s fire in a Bangladesh factory so lethal, and that killed workers in the U.S.’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire a century ago (which spurred important safety reforms in this country).

Industrial-scale ag is taking off in China thanks to a growing middle class with an appetite for meat. The Baoyuanfeng plant began operations just four years ago in Jilin Province, whose administrative city, Dehui, “has promoted itself as a base for commercial agriculture,” and claims it can produce 250 million broiler chickens a year. Last week’s announcement that Chinese meat company Shuanghui hopes to buy U.S. pork behemoth Smithfield demonstrated the global implications of a rapidly expanding Chinese meat market. This week’s tragedy shows the human consequences.


British Columbia opposes big tar-sands pipeline

A rally held to oppose the proposed Northern Gateway in Prince Rupert, B.C.
Pipe Up Against Enbridge
Protesters in B.C. rally against the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project.

The Canadian province of British Columbia has come out in formal opposition to a plan for a massive pipeline system that would carry bitumen from Alberta's tar-sands fields to a coastal port, pointing out the significant dangers of oil spills.

But we're not talking about the Keystone XL pipeline here.

We're talking about Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, a pair of pipelines proposed to carry tar-sands oil west across B.C. to a port in the town of Kitimat -- effectively a backup system in case America rejects Keystone XL. A new shipping terminal in Kitimat would feed oil onto ships headed for Asia.