Skip to content


Is the Monarchy Over? The Butterflies Are Homeless

Researchers at the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona report a 90 percent decrease in the monarch butterfly population in the past 20 years and have just petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. These researchers blame the decline on genetically modified seed and loss of habitat, but I think it could just be artist Damian Hirst’s penchant for making huge collages from thousands of butterfly wings:

Source: Photo: EPA/KERIM OKTEN

Of course, that’s absurd. Hirst doesn’t discriminate against monarchs—he kills all sorts of species to make his lepidopteristic masterpieces.

But think about it—how many monarchs have you seen this summer, compared to previous summers? My backyard butterfly bush died in the last barbaric Michigan winter, so I didn’t see any monarchs this year. However, I can’t say that 20 years ago I saw 90 percent more than none. But my evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, and if respected scientists say there are 90 percent fewer monarchs, I believe them. You should too.

Source: Kathy Wilson Peacock, 2012.

But let’s get back to the two main reasons for the monarch decline:

  • A decrease in the milkweed plant that serves as the monarch’s breeding ground and food source. This is linked to increased herbicide use, which itself is linked to the rise of genetically modified (GM) corn. GM corn is modified to withstand harsh herbicides, so it can be sprayed liberally and still grow vigorously. Meanwhile, the surrounding weeds die. Milkweed is—you guessed it—a weed, in farmers’ eyes. The herbicide kills the milkweed, and the monarchs have nothing to eat and nowhere to call home. Starvation ensues; generations fail to reproduce. Before you know it, the end is nigh. For those that do survive the hatching of their eggs, their growth into caterpillars, their transformation into monarchs, and their migration to Mexico, a second disaster awaits them.
  • Extreme habitat destruction in the monarch’s Mexican winter hideaway, which has altered the ecosystem to be inhospitable to the butterfly. The great monarch migration is a wonder of the biological world. Each year millions of butterflies born late in the season travel thousands of miles from their homes in North America to warmer climates, kind of like retired people. Monarchs in the western United States find secluded spots in California. East of the Rocky Mountains, most land near Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico. In 2003 the Mexican colony covered roughly 22 acres; by 2013 the colony covered only 2.9 acres. Most of this decrease was caused by illegal logging, which stripped the region of the oyamel fir trees the insects prefer. Without the protective forest, they are more exposed to the elements. Take a look at this:

Source: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/spring2002/species/monarch/Update021402.html.

This photo was taken after a severe winter storm in January 2002 killed 75 percent of the monarchs that overwinter in Mexico. The loss of the oyamel fir trees changed the ecosystem, making the storm worse and leaving the butterflies unprotected. In some places the dead butterflies were up to 18 inches deep; many on the bottom layer survived initially because they were kept warm by those on top. How many were able to escape from the morass is unclear.

Back in North America, the loss of milkweed is proving to be just as serious as the loss of the oyamel fir. According to Karen Oberhauser, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, the amount of milkweed in the Midwest has fallen by more than 80 percent in the past decade or so. This is due to the popularity of GM corn and soybeans and the fact that a million acres of grassland, formerly a friendly environment for the monarch, have been converted to corn and soybean cropland as the market for products derived from these crops expands. Milkweed that used to grow on the fringes of these fields is now eliminated by the liberal use of herbicides that protect the crops.

Does this mean that big, bad Monsanto, the maker of the most popular brand of GM corn (Round-Up Ready), is to blame? The issue isn’t that simple, says Monsanto. In a statement published in the Vancouver Columbian, a Monsanto spokesperson said that

“Scientists think a number of inter-related factors are contributing to the decline and year-to-year variation of monarch butterfly populations. While weather events (snowfall and frost) at mountaintop overwintering sites and logging in Mexico continue to be factors, experts are also focusing on agricultural practices and land use changes that have reduced milkweeds along the migration path in central regions of North America.”

This sounds as noncommittal as those who claim that there is no evidence for anthropogenic climate change. They can proclaim that the jury is still out simply by virtue of the fact that their own dissenting opinion prevents a unanimous consensus on the issue.

Nevertheless, coming and going, the monarchs are screwed. Various conservation groups (and even Monsanto) have called upon farmers and others to voluntarily plant milkweed in an effort to revive the monarch species. Sounds like a great idea. Milkweed comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors, and no doubt you can find one that’s right for your growth zone. You can even get free milkweed seeds online from LiveMonarch.com.

Common milkweed; Asclepias syriaca. Source: Wikipedia.

Lincoln Brower is one of the scientists leading the fight for the monarch, the species to which he has devoted his career, and is the principal researcher that called for the petition to save the monarch. According to Brower, the monarch is “the canary in the cornfield” because its decline may be foreshadowing other problems, such as colony collapse disorder with bees, which may ultimately imperil our food supply.

As Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, so succinctly says:

“the story here is about more than the decline of a butterfly species. It’s also about the unintended consequences of subjecting millions of acres of our best farmland to a single chemical-dependent technology, one literally designed to wipe out plant biodiversity in farm fields. We know about the plight of the monarch only because it’s a fascinating, beloved creature that attracts scrutiny from researchers.”

The monarch is worth saving. Even if you’re not a butterfly fan (although, really, why wouldn’t you be?), how can you look at this little guy and not fall in love?

Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: September 16, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Bubbles of Doom: Methane Under the Sea

First methane poked mysterious holes in the Siberian tundra. Now it’s bubbling up in 570 clusters off the east coast of United States, like a busted pipeline of pollution along the edge of the continental slope break. Methane: It’s one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen, and one metric ton of flammable hurt—heating up the atmosphere with its no-good gassy indifference.

Source: USGS

But methane is also the main component in natural gas, which environmentalists tell us is the responsible alternative to coal and petroleum. It’s what propels all those buses in our hippie cities like Portland and Los Angeles. Compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles emit up to 90 percent less pollution than their gasoline-sucking counterparts. Plus, we’ve got a hefty supply of natural gas, in the form of methane, right here in the good ol’ US of A. No need to meddle in parts of the world where we’re not welcome.

So methane: Good or bad?

Answer: Yes! But let’s put on our truth goggles and dive into the morass for a closer look.

Source: Credit: NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS The ROV Jason inspects a methane gas seep that is teeming with life; including sea urchins and mussels.

These newly discovered methane vents have likely been bubbling up from the East Coast seabed since Leif Eriksson was cooking bison over a campfire in Newfoundland (i.e., about 1,000 years ago). It’s the same form of methane that has been trapped in the Arctic permafrost for eons but is now being released as the permafrost turns to sludge. That’s the good and bad of methane. As National Geographic says, “Burn natural gas and it warms your house. But let it leak from fracked wells or the melting Arctic, and it warms the whole planet.” Ideally, we would control the capture and release of natural gas for our houses and cars, but, as always, Mother Nature has other ideas.

Source: A. Skarke, Mississippi State University. Let’s hope these vents aren’t anywhere near Bikini Bottom, although that would explain a lot.

Interestingly, the underwater methane is trapped in an ice-like substance called methane hydrate (or methane clathrate for you chemistry majors). Now that the ocean’s temperature is rising, this ice is melting, releasing the methane and contributing to ocean acidification. There’s no evidence yet that the methane is reaching the atmosphere, but it’s a hypothesis that will be a major source of research in the coming years. In other fun science facts, take a match to methane hydrate and instead of a puddle, you’ve got yourself a campfire:

Source: USGS. A hunka hunka burning ice.

Research in the coming years will focus on the extent to which the rising ocean temperatures and the melting hydrate become a pernicious feedback loop.  More practical minded scientists will be thinking of ways they can harness the escaping methane as a useful source of energy.

Source: Andrew Melo, 2012, http://utmcompass.wordpress.com/

According to a report from BBC News, the 570 U.S. vents could be, ahem, simply the tip of the iceberg. More than 30,000 of them may exist worldwide, containing up to 10 times more carbon than the Earth’s atmosphere. So, if it all starts bubbling up to the ocean’s surface and beyond, it’ll be time to don your gas mask. In the meantime, take a gander at these little ice nuggets. They’re just the thing to chill your cocktail:

Source: USGS.

Okay, this is a rambling post, because methane hydrate is a big topic and because I lack the brain power to distill it to its pithy essence. In closing, here are some other useful and interesting facts about methane hydrates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

  1. Methane hydrate can host its very own species of animals, such as hydrate ice worms that feed off specialized bacteria associated with the hydrate.
  2. Methane hydrate reserves on the ocean floor may hold up to three times more stored energy than undersea petroleum reserves.
  3. Local meltdowns of methane hydrate can cause “massive continental slope failure.”
  4. “Massive hydrate dissolution events . . . are possible causes of some of the abrupt climate changes seen in the geologic record.”

Cheers!

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: September 2, 2014, 9:04 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

The Tragedy of Mount Polley

One of the largest breaches of contaminated mining tailings in recent history took place on August 4, 2014. It happened near Vancouver, British Columbia, and you probably haven’t heard about it. Here’s the aerial view of the scene at the Imperial Metals Mount Polley gold and copper mine:

Ten million cubic meters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of slurry contaminated with arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, and cadmium breached its undersized pond when a dam collapsed. The toxic sludge spilled into a small creek, expanding the waterway from 1.5 meters to 100 meters, in a pristine environment populated by First Nations peoples. Like in Toledo a couple weeks ago, residents suffered through a water ban advisory that instructed them not to drink, bathe, or feed livestock from the polluted water. Apparently, the mine operators had been warned repeatedly and issued violations for holding vastly more tailings in the pond than it was designed for.

Furthermore, it’s almost salmon spawning time in nearby Quesnel Lake, with one of the biggest salmon populations in the world, which the contaminated creek feeds into, and the extra juicy heavy metals should make for some fine tasting fillets for all of us piscivores. Experts say the returning adult sockeye salmon should be fine, but the juvenile salmon may be affected by the contaminants. Mmm. . . . Okay, I guess.

Who knows what the long-term environmental ramifications are—experts sure don’t. As Peter Moskowitz reported in the Guardian:

“Water will continue to run through literally tons of this sediment and grass will grow through the sediment,” said Brian Olding, an environmental consultant who authored a report on the Mount Polley Mine in 2011. “Imagine if a moose eats that grass, and then an aboriginal person comes and shoots that moose. Then we have a food contamination issue on our hands.”

Oh, Canada, we love you, but even you have your environmental demons. And just as in the United States and elsewhere, the situation is usually wrapped up in politics and money. (“Canucks—they’re just like us!”) So let’s not point fingers here.

It’s worth noting that the story barely made a ripple in the news cycle. Outside of Canada, few media outlets covered it. Not a word in the New York Times or USA Today. The Guardian took note (if you’re not reading the Guardian, you should be), as did Al-Jazeera (ditto).

This media silence begs the question, how often do these mine spills happen while we’re engrossed in news stories about climate change and methane-spewing permafrost holes in Siberia?

The answer: A whole heck of a lot.

There are something like 3,500 tailings ponds in the world. None of them are failsafe. If you’ve got some time on your hands, here’s the smoking gun report on the state of tailings ponds in the United States. If you’re busy going about your day with the weight of the world pressing down on your shoulders, here’s a handy chart. If you’re supposed to be preparing your TPS report, here are a few highlights:

  • February, 2014: (perhaps you didn’t hear about this either), a million gallons of coal ash sludge from a decommissioned power plant owned by Duke Energy spilled into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina, contaminating the drinking water of several communities. Took a week to plug the leak with concrete. Sure, the river now has high levels of arsenic, but it’s still safe to drink!

  • October, 2010: 700,000 cubic meters of caustic red mud from a aluminum mine in Kolontar, Hungary, flood towns, injure 120, and kill 10. The mud’s color came from iron oxide. Also present: arsenic, mercury, chromium, etc.

  • December, 2008: The dike at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, failed, and 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash (containing lead, thallium, mercury, arsenic, et al.) covered 400 acres and 42 houses were damaged. (This one you probably remember.) It was the largest fly ash release in U.S. history, with a total volume more than 100 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

  • April, 2005: A Mississippi Phosphates Corp. tailings pond fails in Bangs Lake, releasing 17 million gallons of acidic liquid into delicate marshlands. This caused algal blooms (the problem in the Toledo incident) that killed lots o’ marine life.

And the granddaddy of them all:

  • February, 1972: At the Pittston Coal Mine in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, a heavy rain led to the collapse of a tailings dam, releasing 500,000 cubic meters of black coal slurry that destroyed 500 homes, left 4,000 homeless, and killed 125 people. This one even has its own book (more than one, it turns out).

The takeaway from all this is that mining is an industry that is here to stay, and the longer it stays, the fuller the tailings ponds get. Many already hold much, much more than they were designed for, and many others aren’t far behind. Disasters are certain to happen with epic storms contributing to landslides and overflowing dams in addition to under-engineered dams and general laziness prompted by a carefree attitude toward government regulations. We’re very good at getting stuff out of the ground, not so good about what happens to the ground after that.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: August 19, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

Elon Musk: The Jonas Salk of Climate Change?

“There is no patent. Can you patent the sun?”  –Jonas Salk, explaining to Edward R. Murrow in a 1955 interview why he didn’t patent his groundbreaking vaccine for polio.

Salk understood the importance of his incredibly effective polio vaccine for the future of the nation’s and the world’s public health. His vaccine was one of the most important medical advances of the 20th century, and he declined to patent it. Thus, over 100 million people were vaccinated in the first two years after clinical trials ended in 1955, all but eliminating a scourge that had plagued the country for generations.

Now we’re in a new century, with a new scourge: climate change. Many entrepreneurs have spent the past couple of decades trying to break our dependency on Big Oil and Big Coal. None has a higher profile than Elon Musk, the wunderkind behind SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors. Could he be this generation’s Jonas Salk?

He’s already beat NASA at their own game:

Now he’s putting his money (and he’s got a lot) where his mouth is:

On June 12th he took to Tesla’s website and pledged to no longer enforce the patents on his Tesla electric car:  “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” Overnight, engineering developments protected by over 500 patents became part of the open-source movement. Musk wrote that his primary reason is because “it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis.” Like Salk, he recognizes that climate change is an issue that requires a level of cooperation not common in capitalism. He wants some synergy, now.

First came the love, then came the cynics. “It’ll never stand up in court”; “What if Ford and GM build a Tesla knock-off?”;  “Caveat emptor”; It’s not “only an altruistic act of charity” they say. We are all cynics of American capitalism, but when NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center said that June 2014 was the hottest June in the recorded history of planet Earth, it was clear someone had to do something.

Musk says he did it because, according to Ashlee Vance writing in BusinessWeek, he “wants to promote a more dramatic shift toward electric cars, so he will do what he can to accelerate things.” Vance also noted that Sun Microsystems once did the same thing—open-source its products when the company’s stock price started going south. That’s not Tesla’s situation, though. Last August the stock was at $138, and now it’s at $223, having soared as high as $265 in the past year.

Musk’s point is to expedite important business partnerships that will lead to a faster and more widespread adoption of electric vehicles, which still comprise less than 1% of the market. The hope is to facilitate creating an infrastructure of recharging stations that make electric cars practical for the general public. “Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced,” Musk says, “but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”

Thus, Tesla is fighting against GM, Ford, Toyota, and Honda, and what Tesla Motors has going for it is a superlative product. The Tesla Model S travels 265 miles in one charge, accelerates from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds (comparable to the Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini); and has zero emissions. It’s the 2013 World Green Car of the Year, Motor Trend Car of the Year, and Consumer Reports’ “best car ever tested.”

Sometimes good PR, good business sense, and doing the right thing for the environment coincide. You’d have to be awfully cynical to think that Musk isn’t on the right side of history. But for some reason, even though the Tesla announcement made a big splash in the news, thoughtful analysis on the topic has been sparse. It is simply too soon to tell what will happen.

One of the big, largely ignored problems of electric cars is where the electricity comes from. Sure, the cars have no emissions, but those massive battery packs are often charged with electricity that comes from coal-burning power plants; as of 2013 39.1% of the country’s electricity is generated from coal.

Even that’s a problem that Musk is addressing through his SolarCity initiative, which liberates consumers from the monopolies of the electric utilities with free solar panel installation in their homes. Nevertheless, our heroes cannot be expected to solve all our problems. Salk eradicated a disease that killed and condemned thousands of others to life in an iron lung and didn’t even receive the Nobel Prize. Musk so far has been called an “Obama-backed loser” by Sarah Palin, and TV’s Jim Cramer bellowed about Tesla: “You don’t want to own this stock! You don’t want to own this car! Heck, you don’t even want to rent the thing!” With enemies like that, Musk’s future looks bright and I hope ours does as well.


Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: August 5, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Giant Hogweed: Put on Your Hazmat Suit before You Go Outside

Have you heard the one about the mammoth carrot plant that’s so toxic it can scar your skin and permanently blind you? It’s the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), a plant indigenous to Caucasus and Central Asia that was imported to Europe in the 19th century as a showy perennial and then made its way to North America.

It looks like Queen Anne’s Lace that got tasered with a nuclear beam:

Evil in bloom.

Today it can be found throughout the temperate portions of Canada and the American Midwest, Northeast, and Pacific Northwest:

 

Sorry, Canada.

The giant hogweed lives up to its name: It’s a weed that grows up to 14 feet tall with leaves that can span 5 feet wide and white flower clusters up to 2.5 feet in diameter. And like a giant hog it can hurt you if you get too close. That’s because it is phototoxic, meaning that if the plant’s sap comes into contact with your skin and then your skin is exposed to sunlight, your skin will become discolored and then blister (this process is called phytophotodermatitis).

Gloves in the garden—always a good idea.

The reaction can start up to 48 hours after contact. In some cases, the blisters can cause permanent scarring and discoloration. What’s more, if you get the sap on your fingers and then rub your eyes, you can go blind—either temporarily or permanently. This is a problem, given that children “have been known to use the plant’s large, hollow stems as play telescopes or pea-shooters,” according to Drew Halfnight, writing in Canada’s National Post. Way to ruin your weekend.

Giant Hogweed is more dangerous than poisons ivy, oak, and sumac. So it makes sense that you learn how to identify it. You don’t want to be the one wrapping your bare arms around the stalk saying, “Hey, George, would you look at the size of this thing?”

By gum, it's taller 'n LeBron James.

Luckily, it’s not hard to spot when it’s fully grown—its size is a huge clue. First off, you’re probably safe on the golf course, the beach, and the neighborhood tot lot. Like poison ivy, Giant Hogweed thrives in disturbed environments; areas along roadways, waterways, and the edges of wooded areas where civilization meets up with the wild. Apart from its height, the other giant thing about the plant is its leaves, which are lacy and compound, like 5-foot wide fronds of celery or carrot greenery (they belong to the same family). The hogweed’s flower clusters are comprised of many tiny flowers on umbrella-like stems that can span over a foot.

 

The real problem is identifying the plant before it blooms and before it reaches its leviathan size; the Giant Hogweed can take up to four years to reach maturity. And when it does bloom, each flower head can release 50,000 seeds, which can stick around in the soil for a few years. So really, don’t even think of leaving home without protective clothing.

Innocent? I think not.

For more pictures of the Giant Hogweed in various states of growth, see here.

It’s a perennial, meaning that unless you dig out the entire root system, it will grow back the next year. Just make sure you’re wearing your hazmat suit (or long sleeves, pants, and rubber gloves). Let the plant rot in the sun. Make sure the seeds don’t spread by putting the flower head in a big ol’ plastic bag and letting that rot in the sun too. Prevent seeds from sprouting by covering the area in plastic. Spraying with repeated applications of glyphosate (the active chemical in Roundup) also works, just make sure you’re getting those dangnabit seedlings that are bound to pop up in the spring. Or, better yet, just call your local university extension or department of natural resources and have them take care of it.

Mother Nature is out to get you.

One problem in identifying Giant Hogweed is that its primary doppelganger is the nontoxic cow parsnip, with the primary differences being that of size. Of course, making this distinction may be difficult if you’re looking at a giant hogweed that’s still growing. A cow parsnip leaf only grows up to 2.5 feet wide and its similar-looking flower clusters only grow to 1-foot wide. Cow parsnip is actually useful;  Native Americans have used it for centuries as a natural insect repellant.

Cow parsnip: A good plant.

The Giant Hogweed has the rare distinction of having been confirmed on snopes.com as really living up to its hype, rather than debunked as a hoax like the latest celebrity death rumor. However, other media outlets are trying to stem (heh) the hysteria. The Michigan State University Extension wants people to know that you’re not likely to see the plant on “a vigorous tramp through the woods or wetlands.” But it’s always a good idea to remember that plants can be evil.

So let’s review what we need to stay away from as we go cavorting through the field chasing butterflies this summer. Always be on the lookout for that nasty trio that can ruin your adventure:

 

Trifecta of killjoy foliage.

For poison oak and poison ivy, don’t forget: “Leaves of three, let them be.” For sumac, remember: “Leaves of nine, very bad sign.”

How about this for the Giant Hogweed: “Mammoth Queen Anne’s Lace—shield your hands and face, and call the hazmat team posthaste.”

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: July 22, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , ,