fieldnotes

 

Energy Conservation
Hogwash?

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita knocked out oil rigs, refineries, and natural gas processing plants in the Gulf of Mexico, President George W. Bush ordered the White House and all government agencies to curtail nonessential travel and reduce their electricity use. So far, so good: Many staffers now carpool, and photocopiers and computers are turned off at night. Additionally, thermostats have been lowered from an average of 73 degrees to 71 degrees. “The White House staff takes this effort seriously,” says Michele St. Martin, a spokeswoman for the administration.

To inspire Americans to follow its lead, the Bush administration has buffed up a government-sponsored cartoon character known as the Energy Hog. (It's “a half human, half hog that can suck the energy out of your home faster than you can say, ‘Why did the lights go out, Mom?' ” says the website, www.energyhog.org, which also offers games and conservation tips.)

The national campaign, run by the Alliance to Save Energy, a consumer group, in conjunction with the Ad Council and the U.S. Department of Energy, is aimed primarily at young children. Never mind that the biggest energy consumers are SUV-owning adults; the Hog has provided a sizzling target for critics of the administration's focus on stepping up oil and gas production rather than developing renewable energy sources.

Other skeptics dismiss the President's steps at the White House as just an expression of personal virtue. “If the entire staff followed Bush's advice, it might save about five minutes of fuel flying to a worthless photo op,” says Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank. “High gas prices are an environmentalist's best friend.” Taylor points out that SUV sales have dropped by 51 percent since July.

Meanwhile, the White House repeatedly rejects efforts to legislate energy conservation. For example, it has held firm against raising standards for automobile fuel economy and for higher efficiency for such household appliances as furnaces and room air conditioners.

Never mind that the biggest energy consumers are SUV-owning adults; the Hog has provided a sizzling target for critics of the administration's focus on stepping up oil and gas production.

Even as the administration encourages children not to be energy hogs, its pork barrel policies have led to $14 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to the oil, gas, and coal industries (breaks incorporated into the recent energy bill). At the same time the U.S. Department of the Interior has accelerated and expanded drilling on public lands.

Thousands of new natural gas wells are popping up in the West, and plans are in motion to legalize natural gas exploration off the Atlantic Coast. The President also continues to advocate drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite the government's own estimates that there's only enough oil there to satisfy U.S. demand for less than a year.

“If there's any oil there at all it would simply be a drop in the bucket,” says Katherine Kennedy, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.“The administration needs to get off its obsession with drilling in the Arctic and really focus on the larger issue of how we can make better cars.” Increasing the fuel efficiency of all new automobiles by one mile per gallon, per year for the next 15 years, for example, would save more than 10 times the amount of recoverable oil in the Arctic refuge, says Luke Tonachell, an NRDC fuels analyst.“If we adopted better policies and backed them up with real actions, then Americans could use energy more efficiently without sacrificing their lifestyles,” says Kennedy. A cartoon hog was not what she had in mind.

—Jesse Greenspan

 

Exotics
There Goes the Neighborhood

If the hot real estate market is any yardstick, the American Dream is alive and well. The bad news is that the better the market, the greater the number of exotic plant species. Kudzu in the South and purple loosestrife in the Northeast are poster plants for exotic and invasive species that now threaten to destroy biodiversity by crowding out natives. What's more, these invaders often carry with them foreign insects, parasites, and pathogens. Researchers Brad Taylor of the University of Wyoming and Rebecca Irwin of Dartmouth College have examined the relationships between the number of exotic and native plant species, human population, and real estate development—in all 50 states. What they found is that construction often imports soil or sod containing nonnative species, and introduces newly minted landscapes with foreign ornamentals.“The link is discouraging,” says Taylor,“but it also identifies potential solutions, such as providing incentives to landowners and developers for planting native species and minimizing disturbance to landscapes by using low-impact, ecologically oriented development techniques.”

—Sydney Horton

Alaska
Real Estate Development:

$2.3 billion

Number of Exotic Species: 196
For Example:

Canada thistle, hemp nettle, foxtail barley, bird vetch, narrowleaf hawk's beard


Washington
Real Estate Development:

$28.5 billion

Number of Exotic Species: 689
For Example:

Siberian elm, spartina, giant hogweed, parrot feather milfoil, red canary gras


Maryland
Real Estate Development:

$29.3 billion

Number of Exotic Species: 880
For Example: Japanese barberry, fire tree, porcelain berry, garlic mustard, English ivy

New York
Real Estate Development:

$116.5 billion

Number of Exotic Species: 1,242
For Example: Japanese knotwood, pale swallow-wort, Japanese stilt grass, Japanese tearthumb

 

Global Warming
On the Hot Seat

Most scientists lead cloistered, anonymous lives, publishing their findings quietly in peer-reviewed journals. Until recently they didn't have to worry about Congressional inquisitors banging on their doors, demanding to see computer data and the funding sources related to their research. But last June Representative Joe Barton (R-TX), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, shocked many in the scientific community—as well as members of his own party—when he sent letters to Michael Mann, a leading climate change researcher, and two of his collaborators, requesting they turn over information related to an influential study affirming global warming.

“The precedent your investigation sets is truly chilling,” wrote Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chair of the House Committee on Science, in a letter to Barton. “The only conceivable explanation . . . is to intimidate a prominent scientist and to have Congress put its thumbs on the scales of scientific debate.” Barton, who received more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industries in his most recent campaign, is a longtime opponent of efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, considered by most scientists to be the main global warming gas. His congressional probe focuses on Mann's famous “hockey stick” graph, which shows the 20th century to be the warmest in the past 1,000 years. Barton says his inquiry is looking into alleged “methodological flaws” of the graph, which he learned about from a Wall Street Journal article featuring the work of two global warming skeptics (who aren't scientists).

In recent years a vocal minority of nonbelievers, including novelist Michael Crichton (see “Pulp Fiction,” May-June 2005), have engaged in a “desperate attempt to cloud the consensus on climate change,” says Mann, the director for the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. Last winter he and several colleagues started a website and blog (www.realclimate.org) to stem the spread of misinformation.

Six months later Barton opened his probe of Mann. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was so outraged by his request that he denounced the tactic in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The message sent by [Barton] to the three scientists,” McCain wrote, “was not subtle: Publish politically unpalatable scientific results and brace yourself for political retribution. . . . It represents a kind of intimidation, which threatens the relationship between science and public policy.”

In July Mann sent an 11-page response to Barton, who plans to conduct his own analysis of the climatologist's research. “It's pretty sad that it's come to this,” Mann says, referring to the personal attacks on his credibility. “The science supporting global warming is now so overwhelming that one can't take on the science—you have to take on the scientist.”

—Todd Neale

 

Space Photography
The Eyes of an Astronaut

Early last summer, during the second half of the space shuttle Discovery 's most recent mission—a rendezvous with the international space station—there were plenty of things to worry about: the state of the ceramic pieces protruding from the shuttle's underside, for instance, and the damaged thermal blanket below the cockpit. Then, of course, hanging over the mission itself was the specter of the Columbia tragedy in 2003. But when Eileen Collins, Discovery 's commander, looked down at her planet more than 200 miles below, she had another concern. Something in Central Africa didn't look right. “I was just taking a glance out the window,” Collins says, “and I saw dozens of fires. And the way they were burning, it looked like it wasn't a natural event. It was widespread.”

In fact, it wasn't right, and it was visible only from high above the earth: thousands of fires started by people clearing farmland and hunting animals. After four shuttle missions, Collins has grown increasingly concerned about what she has seen below. “On my second mission, in 1997,” she says, “I photographed almost the whole island of Madagascar. It had really been deforested, and you could tell from the river deltas all the erosion that was taking place.”

Since the late 1990s NASA has been working with scientists to help monitor large-scale environmental degradation. Biologists are using the space images to map endangered species, track whale populations, and monitor coral reefs and wetlands.“There are still a few places in the world where the only image out there is an astronaut photograph,” says Julie Robinson, an earth scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. A number of biologists are also using NASA images to predict future deforestation.

“From an astronaut's perspective, you see the earth has limited resources,” Collins adds. “During sunrise and sunset, when you look off at the earth's horizon, you can see how thin the atmosphere is. You can see how people share the air. You also see just how beautiful the earth is from space. It makes me want to protect what we have more so.”

—Frank Bures

 

© 2006 National Audubon Society
 

Sound off! Send a letter to the editor
about this piece.

Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print edition!

HOME

DISPATCHES

Love Flap

Most male birds attract mates by singing. But the club-winged manakin, it seems, takes a different approach. Males of this tiny, colorful South American species impress the fairer sex by making music with their wings, which they vibrate at more than 100 cycles per second—twice the speed of the average hummingbird—creating a violinlike hum. Kimberly Bostwick, a Cornell University ornithologist, went to study the species where it lives in a strip of threatened forest on the western slopes of the Andes in northwest Ecuador and southwest Colombia. Using a high-speed camera, she found that the club-winged manakin's specially adapted feathers create the sound when the males rub their wings together behind their backs. This dramatic trait likely evolved because of the competition between males for sexual selection, she says. The study was recently published in the journal Science. “In the animal kingdom there are lots of drummers and lots of whistlers,” Bostwick says, “but there are almost no violinists.”

—Prachi Patel

The Monster Lives!

For centuries the seldom-seen giant squid has fascinated and terrified humans. In 1555 the Swedish cleric Olaus Magnus described it as a “monstrous fish” of “horrible forms with huge eyes,” and warned that “one of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships.” Its fearsome reputation was cemented in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Recently, though, the real thing was caught up close on camera for the first time by Japanese scientists. It turns out that the massive creature, a relative of the octopus, is not to be tangled with. The modern-day squid chasers collected more than 550 photographs by dangling a baited hook and digital camera almost 3,000 feet into the inky depths of the Pacific Ocean off the Ogasawara Islands. When the 26-foot behemoth with eyes as big as hubcaps attacked the bait, its tentacles coiled up like a constricting python. After a four-hour struggle, one of the squid's tentacles broke off, freeing it to return to the ocean's deepest and darkest recesses.

—Todd Neale

Flower Power

In 2004 more than 650 million cell phones were sold worldwide, and environmentalists expect the majority of them to end up in landfills within the next year or two. Still, there are those with a grander plan for the phones: toss their outer casings on the compost heap and watch a flower grow. A new, biodegradable material developed by PVAXX Research & Development looks like any other plastic but breaks down as easily as grass clippings and eggshells in the soil. Researcher Kerry Kirwan from England's University of Warwick has used the material in a prototype phone cover with an unusual twist—it sports a transparent bubble that contains a dwarf-sunflower seed, which germinates within a couple of weeks of being “planted,” he says. “We chose sunflower seeds simply because they are nice,” Kirwan says, though he adds that his team is “looking at a range of seeds for different regions to maximize attractiveness and avoid the introduction of foreign species.”

—Hilda J. Brucker

Lowdown on the National Parks

Internet bloggers are a new media force to be reckoned with, weighing in on subjects far and wide, from prospective Supreme Court justices to the breakup between Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. Kurt Repanshek, author of America's National Parks for Dummies, is carving out his own niche with National Parks Traveler (nationalparkstraveler.typepad.com), which covers everything from the dangers park visitors face to assaults on the parks themselves. When Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA), for instance, drafted a proposal—it's since been withdrawn—in September that would allow for the sale of 16 national park properties, Repanshek declared that Pombo was “in the running for recognition as the national park system's worst enemy.” Says the nature blogger: “I'm just one small voice in the wilderness calling out.”

—Todd Neale

Toughing It Out

This winter, when you look out in your yard and see birds that haven't left for warmer climes, you might show some respect for the stragglers. They're not there because they're lazy; new research, in fact, indicates they're the smart ones. A recent study by Daniel Sol, a biologist at the University of Barcelona, measured birds' “behavioral flexibility” and brain size. Species with bigger brains and a higher “innovation rate” (such as the magpie and great tit) were the ones that stuck around for the winter, since they could come up with new ways to find food. Meanwhile, their less-flexible migratory friends (such as the nightingale) made a beeline for similar terrain down south. Which adaptation is the real evolutionary advantage remains to be seen.

—Frank Bures

.

For more Reports, go to
Back Issues.