In Serengeti, Highway Project Threatens Animal Migrations

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 30, 2010

More than any other place in Africa, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park is famous for its vast herds of wildebeests and zebras, which each year embark on the largest land-based animal migration in the world.  For years, Serengeti National Park has served as a refuge for many of Africa’s large hoofed mammals and the predator species which depend on them for food.  Now conservationists are warning that the Serengeti ecosystem is threatened by a new development project that could disrupt animal migration patterns.

The national government of Tanzania is planning construction of a commercial highway that would cut through thirty-one miles of the Serengeti.  As currently proposed, the project transects animal migration routes and could prevent migratory animals like wildebeest from migrating across the Tanzania border, on their way to Kenya’s Mara River.  Scientists and conservationists worry that disrupting animal migration patterns could produce a domino effect of ecological problems, from depriving lions in Kenya of their normal food supply, to allowing grasses normally grazed down by wildebeest to proliferate.

Without herbivores to trim back grass on the plains and keep it from becoming overgrown, the risk of large fires could go up significantly.  Scientists warn this would not only endanger animals and human communities, but could also represent a new source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

In response to the highway proposal a group called Save the Serengeti launched an online petition to the government authorities and financial institutions backing the highway project.  It urges decision makers to find an alternate route for the highway that would have less impact on wildlife migrations.  “The government of Tanzania has a responsibility to work for the development and welfare of its people,” reads the petition. “But in doing so it should not have to sacrifice its most precious wilderness, its income from tourism, or its heritage of conservation.”

In addition to being prized by scientists as a research site and by wildlife enthusiasts as a refuge for threatened and endangered species, Serengeti National Park is also one of Tanzania’s most successful tourist draws.  Though most famous for its migrating herds of wildebeests and zebras, it is also home to elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, and many other large and charismatic animals.  The United Nations has designated the park as a World Heritage Site—a title reserved for select places around the world judged to be of unusually great cultural or biological significance.

By harnessing the Internet to create an international uproar, environmental groups hope to persuade the Tanzanian government to re-consider its highway route and protect wildlife from the ill effects of development.  “We call on governments, development organizations, and lending institutions to help Tanzania protect its priceless world treasure and ensure that the people of Tanzania benefit from its preservation,” says Save the Serengeti.

Photo credits: Marc Veraart, Guido Appenzeller

Dwindling CA Sea Otter Population Linked to Deadly Bacterial Strain

Yawning Sea Otter

A sea otter lounging in Monterey, CA

Sep 29, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – Historically, sea otters have had a rough time living off the warm coastal waters of Southern and Central California. During the Western expansion characteristic of 19th century America, California sea otters became an unfortunate victim of the burgeoning fur trade, their population dwindling down to nearly nothing by the start of the 1900s. However, following their dramatic rediscovery on an inlet of Big Sur in 1939, the species benefited from extensive efforts made to study and rehabilitate it, and sea otters have been making a steady comeback in California ever since. Until now.

The US Geological Survey recently confirmed a 3.6% drop in California’s sea otter population for 2010, with an even more alarming 11% drop in sea otter pups born this year. This marks the second consecutive yearly drop in sea otter population, something that worries Tim Tinker, head of the USGS otter research program in Santa Cruz, California.

“All the research we have done to date suggests there’s no one single mortality factor,” Tinker says, “but that the deaths are caused by a suite of interacting stressors”. Tinker cites several natural causes for increased sea otter deaths (low genetic diversity; parasites from feral animal excrement; recent increases in shark attacks) as well as distressingly standard human causes (dirty ocean water from urban runoff, agricultural fertilizers, and pesticide traces; poaching; accidental fishing catches).

However, the single most disturbing cause of California’s decreased otter population is a combination of natural phenomenon and human waste. In investigating the irregular deaths of 21 sea otters found off the coast of Monterey, State veterinarian Melissa Miller was left puzzled by a series of chronic liver failures and circulatory problems in young, otherwise healthy otters. Then she found out about microcystin.

Microcystin is an ancient strain of cyanobacteria — a bacterial form of blue-green algae found in large bodies of freshwater. When consumed in large quantities, it causes liver failure and subsequent blood poisoning, which perfectly explained the deaths of the 21 sea otters Miller had examined. The only trouble was figuring out how the marine animals had been exposed to such high levels of an ancient freshwater contaminant.

“Based on what we know, this is the first documentation of a freshwater algal bloom being transmitted to upper-level species mammals,” Miller told the San Francisco Chronicle. She originally postulated that blooms (large formations of bacterial growth in water) of microcystin flowed into the ocean directly from creeks, and was then eaten by urchins and shellfish that were subsequently eaten by sea otters.

Algal Bloom (Lake Erie)

An algal bloom in Lake Erie

To confirm her suspicions, Miller conducted a study with members of the California Department of Fish and Game on the nature of microcystin. To their alarm, they found that cyanobacteria, previously though incapable of surviving for long periods in saltwater, can remain extremely toxic for up to two weeks in the ocean. They also discovered that the poison becomes up to 107 times more concentrated in shellfish, which helps to explain why the microcystin was able to poison Miller’s sea otters so quickly.

The study attributes these changes in the nature of cyanobacteria to changing environmental conditions. Global warming, scientist claim, have raised the temperature of coastal seas and inland freshwater reserves, promoting bacterial growth. This warmer water is also rich in waste-related nutrients as a result of city and agricultural runoff. Warm and polluted water provides ideal living conditions for cyanobacteria like microcystin, and the subsequent flow of these waters into the oceans sufficiently alters marine habitats to accommodate the survival of cyanobacteria for longer than ever thought possible.

All of this leaves Tim Tinker very concerned about not just the future of the California sea otter, but about the future of all oceanic life. “Here is a toxin coming into the ocean,” which, he claims, “probably affects a lot of species, and the first indication we have of it is the death of sea otters.”

For the California sea otter, microcystin represents another deadly concern to their population, something the species doesn’t need; with only 2,711 sea otters left in central and Southern California waters, one disastrous epidemic is all it would take to wipe the species out for good. Even more troubling to concerned marine biologists are the implications this problem has for other oceanic species and the people and industries who depend on them. Steve Shimek, executive director of the USGS’s sea otter research project, commented that “The California sea otter is one of the most researched marine mammals on the planet. So if we don’t have enough information to take action on behalf of the sea otter, I would say that 90% of the other endangered species in the world are doomed.”

Shimek and Tinker plan to concentrate all of their energies into boosting the California sea otter population and figuring out how to most effectively of treating the microcystin problem. “This definitely highlights the importance of monitoring water quality,” Tinker says. “It is an early warning sign for an emerging problem.”


Photo credit.

Thousands Call for End to Mountaintop Removal at Appalachia Rising

Sep 28, 2010 – An estimated couple of thousand people rallied in Washington, DC on Monday to call for an end to the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.  About 100 protesters were arrested for an act of civil disobedience outside the White House, after refusing to obey an order not to cross a police line.  Monday’s event, titled Appalachia Rising, marks the largest demonstration against mountaintop removal mining so far in the United States.

Mountaintop removal mining, a method for coal extraction used mainly in the Appalachian Mountains, involves clear-cutting forested mountains and blasting away the mountaintops to expose underground coal seems.  In the last year the US Environmental Protection Agency has taken at least some steps to curb the practice and make mountaintop removal mining permits more difficult for companies to obtain.  However environmental groups and many residents of Appalachia charge the practice must be discontinued altogether, and that the EPA has failed to do its job of protecting Appalachia’s environment. 

On Monday morning hundreds of activists began the day with a rally in Washington, DC’s Freedom Plaza.  Speakers from Appalachian communities affected by mountaintop removal mining described how pollution from mining sites has polluted their air and water and damaged the quality of life in mountain towns.  Most mountaintop removal operations end up dumping rubble and debris into nearby streams and valleys, contaminating water with heavy metals and chemicals used for coal mining. 

Matt Dernoga, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who attended the rally, described the impact speakers had on the audience.  “Coalfield residents…spoke from the heart,” says Dernoga, “in a way that conveyed how dire the situation was to those like myself who are fortunate enough to have clean water and relatively clean air.”

Protesters next marched to EPA headquarters to express their frustration with the agency, and then on to the local branch of PNC Bank—one of the main financial institutions that provides funding for mountaintop removal mining.  That morning, in an act of civil disobedience that did not result in any arrests, thirteen activists held a sit-in inside the US Department of the Interior building to urge Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to work with the Office of Surface Mining to end mountaintop removal. 

Appalachia Rising culminated with a large rally outside the White House, during which about 100 protesters were eventually arrested.  One of the individuals arrested was climate scientist Dr. James Hansen of NASA, who has been among the most outspoken scientific advocates for ending the burning of coal that contributes to global warming. 

The decision to target the White House reflects growing frustration from environmental activists who hoped President Barack Obama would put an end to the practice of mountaintop removal much more quickly than has been the case.  “I have no doubt that those in power and big coal took notice of this day,” said Dernoga.  “I encourage everyone to step up their efforts to win this.”

Photo credit:

Environmental Groups Push for 60 MPG Automobiles

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 27, 2010

In spring of 2010, the United States increased federal fuel efficiency standards for automobiles for the first time in twenty years.  The new standards implemented by the Barack Obama administration this year require cars in the US auto fleet be able to travel an average of 35.5 miles on a gallon of gas by the year 2016.  Now environmental groups are working to ensure it doesn’t take another two decades to raise fuel efficiency standards again.  Organizations like the Sierra Club are pushing the Obama administration to support a 60 mile per gallon fuel economy standard by the year 2025.

Later this fall, the Obama administration is scheduled to finalize new standards for automobile efficiency that will go into effect after the current ones expire in 2016.  Environmental groups argue that by making cars gradually more efficient over time, the US can reduce dependence on oil while cutting back on vehicle emissions that cause global warming and other environmental problems.  Setting a goal of 60 miles per gallon by 2020, groups like Environment America and the Sierra Club say, will give automakers time to prepare to make their vehicles more efficient.

A 60 mile per gallon average fuel efficiency standard will likely seem more attainable as the number of hybrid and electric cars increases in the US.  The Sierra Club estimates it would be feasible to reach this goal if by the year 2025, 55% of US vehicles are hybrids and 15% are electric.  Remaining internal combustion engine cars would also need to be as streamlined and lightweight as possible, and inefficient gas guzzlers would have to be phased out. 

Nationwide, cars and other personal vehicles account for about 25% of US greenhouse gas emissions.  Though that’s not as much pollution as comes from power plants, making automobiles more efficient is a relatively easy way to quickly reduce the causes of global warming.  While replacing old coal plants with renewable energy will require some challenging technological feats, the technology exists today to build cars that pollute less by burning less gasoline.

Public opinion polls also show the US public is strongly supportive of raising fuel efficiency standards.  According to a national poll cited by the Sierra Club, 74% of those surveyed are supportive of adopting the 60 miles per gallon standard by 2025.  When asked whether making the shift would be worth it even if it adds $3,000 to the price of a car, 66% of respondents said yes.  It seems that after years of unstable gas prices, more consumers are coming to realize that an efficient car will eventually pay for itself by saving money at the gas pump.   

So will a 60 mile per gallon car fleet really hit the streets of the US within fifteen years?  It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will take the advice of environmental groups as new fuel economy rules are finalized.  But whether the standard is 60 miles per gallon or some other figure, the US may be facing its best chance in decades to dramatically decrease demand for gasoline and all the environmental problems that go with it.

Photo credit: Donald Rogers

US Senate May Pass Renewable Energy Standard

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 26, 2010

A bi-partisan group of US senators hopes that by the end of this year the Senate can pass a renewable energy standard requiring that utilities get 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by the year 2021.  Supporters see the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010 as a way to encourage development of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power in the United States.  The bill could also prevent clean tech companies from abandoning the US for friendlier markets in Europe and Asia. 

Though less ambitious than the comprehensive climate legislation environmental groups hoped might pass into law this year, the renewable energy bill would help reduce carbon pollution by pushing utilities toward cleaner energy sources.  It would also be the first major piece of national legislation in the US specifically devoted to making the transition to renewable power sources. 

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the main author of the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act, hopes to bring it up for a vote shortly after the November 2nd elections.  To become law, the bill would then have to pass through the US House of Representatives.  Passage in the Senate depends on it attracting enough Republican votes, in addition to the majority of Democrats who are likely to support the renewable energy standard.  So far the bill has four Republican co-sponsors, and Senator Bingaman has said he believes it will draw more soon.

In addition to being strongly supported by environmental groups, the Renewable Electricity Promotion Act also has the backing of the United Steelworkers and advocate organizations for the renewable energy industry.  These groups see the bill as a chance to assure the creation of new jobs in the US renewable electricity sector, growth of which has slowed recently due to a lack of a national policy to encourage clean energy development.    

Nearly half of all US states already have some type of renewable energy standard of their own, requiring major utilities source some percentage of their electricity from renewables by a given year.  Some state standards are much more ambitious than others: while Arizona only aims to generate 15% of its power from renewable sources by 2025, Oregon and Illinois plan to hit 25% by the same year.  This month California increased its state standard to require utilities produce 33% of their power from renewables by the year 2020.  So far California’s is the most ambitious renewable energy standard of any state in the country.

Under Senator Bingaman’s Renewable Electricity Promotion Act, states with stronger renewable energy standards than 15% by 2021 would be allowed to keep their own goals in place.  Thus the national law would mainly affect utilities in states with weak standards or with no renewable energy goals at all.  It would also assure clean tech companies trying to navigate a patchwork of state requirements that the national government of the United States is determined to provide a market for renewable energy. 

Photo Credit: Wayne National Forest

Similac Recalled After Beetles Found in Baby Formula and Factory

[img_assist|nid=195027|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=225|height=225]Sep 22, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – Abbot Laboratories is recalling five million containers of Similac after two consumers found beetles in the popular baby formula. Beetles were also found in the Michigan plant where the product is manufactured.

According to reports, the recall affects only the powdered infant formulas. Liquid formulas are not included in the recall.

Based on concerns about contamination, the company recently tested their product line and discovered only 0.02% of all containers were contaminated with beetles.

Abbott spokeswoman Melissa Brotz indicated that “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that while the formula containing these beetles poses no immediate health risk, there is a possibility that infants who consume formula containing the beetles or their larvae could experience symptoms of gastrointestinal discomfort and refusal to eat.”

The voluntary recall will reportedly cost the company $100 million.

Study: Education About Sunbathing and Tanning Bed Risks Effective

[img_assist|nid=194839|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=183]Sep 21, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – Educating adolescents about the dangers of lying out in the sun and using tanning beds is an effective means of changing their behavior, according to U.S. researchers.

A recently completed study looked at the tanning behavior of 1,500 U.S. boys and girls aged 11 through 18. The study took half the group and educated them about the benefits of using sunless tanning products as an alternative to laying out and using a tanning bed. Two months later, this group reported a 33 percent decrease in sunbathing activities versus 10 percent in the control group.

Educating adolescents about the dangers of sunbathing is a major public policy issue. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., with more than one million cases each year. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, kills 8,700 people every year.

Fortunately, skin cancer is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Simply avoiding tanning beds, limiting exposure to the sun and using sunscreen, are very effective means of decreasing the risk.

FDA Panel To Continue Review of Genetically Modified Salmon

[img_assist|nid=194824|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=145]Sep. 21, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – The FDA panel tasked with reviewing a request to permit genetically modified salmon to be sold in the U.S. decided on Monday to not vote on the matter. ABC News reports that several members of the panel were concerned that there was not enough data presented to allow a determination to be made regarding the safety of genetically modified salmon.

Ron Stotish, the CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, indicated that the panel was confused by the large amount of information presented during the eight hour hearing.

The non-decision is a temporary setback for AquaBounty Technologies, which is hoping to introduce a salmon egg which includes a growth hormone gene that causes salmon to grow twice as quickly.

Opponents have argued that the potential health and environmental effects are too great to permit genetically modified salmon to be produced and consumed.

Genetically Modified ‘FrankenFish’ Headed To Your Table?

[img_assist|nid=194725|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=156]Sep. 20, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – Over the next few days, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be conducting hearings regarding a proposal to allow genetically modified salmon to be sold to U.S. consumers.

Termed “FrankenFish” by its critics, the genetically modified salmon eggs are produced by a company called AquaBounty Technologies. The eggs include a hormone gene that cause the salmon to grow twice as quickly as regular salmon. AquaBounty is hoping the FDA will approve this product for sale and distribution throughout the country.

However, critics contend that the potential health and environmental risks are too great to justify allowing the genetically modified fish to be produced and sold. Among many theorized risks, one obvious concern is that the engineered fish escape into the wild and breed with regular fish. The effects the resulting offspring could have on native fisheries could be devastating.

The FDA panel will be making four determinations, including: whether genetic engineering is safe for the fish; whether there is reasonable certainty the fish are safe to consume; whether the data really does indicate the fish grow faster; and the potential environmental impacts the production of these fish could pose.

If the genetically modified salmon is approved, it would mark the first time that American’s are fed genetically modified animals. Until now, the only genetically modified foods approved for human consumption in the U.S. have been soybeans and corn. Approval of genetically modified salmon could usher in a new era of genetically engineered super animals on American’s dinner plates.

Rare Plant Collection Threatened by Development

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 19, 2010

As global warming continues to alter the Earth’s climate, the genetic diversity of food plants will become more and more important as a way to ensure survival for many crop species.  As climates change in countries all over the world, plants may react in unforeseen ways, and varieties that once thrived in a particular environment may no longer do well there.  Meanwhile global warming could cause the spread of plant diseases, posing challenges as farmers try to find more disease-resistant strains.  Now-obscure varieties of food plants, developed decades or centuries ago through years of methodical breeding, could help nations survive global warming by providing farmers with resistant genes to experiment with. 

But in the Russian village of Pavlovsk, close to the city of St. Petersburg, one of the world’s premiere strongholds of domestic plant diversity is now threatened with extinction.  The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, where scientists have bread rare and heirloom plant varieties for decades, is in danger of being auctioned off by the Russian government to real estate developers.

In a famous story from World War II, Russian scientists at the Vavilov Institute reportedly allowed themselves to starve to death rather than abandon their post guarding rare plant varieties against invading German forces.  Like scientists today, these researchers saw the Institute’s repository of plants a valuable resource for those seeking to develop new or better crops, and an asset for both Russia and global agriculture.  Yet in an age where agriculture is increasingly dominated by a few crop varieties mass-produced on industrial farms, collections like the Vavilov Institute’s are no longer as highly valued.  Now real estate companies are eyeing the lands around St. Petersburg, and have offered to buy up Institute land and convert it to housing developments.

As the Russian government moved to sell off the land last month, scientists and food diversity activists responded with international outrage.  Leading plant researchers from around the world criticized the idea of putting Vavilov’s plant collection in jeopardy, and Internet activists tweeted their concerns at Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  The outcry was great enough that the Russian Housing Development Foundation has said it is postponing auctioning off the land, partly to collect more information about the Vavilov Institute’s value.  The auction could still take place as soon as October, unless Russia’s government makes a concrete commitment to preserving the land.

Scientists say ninety percent of the plant varieties at Vavilov are found nowhere else in the world, meaning significant genetic diversity would be lost if the land is destroyed.  Because many of the plants are deep-rooted trees and shrubs that cannot be safely moved, re-locating the collection does not seem to be a viable option.  Groups and individuals concerned about the possible loss of biodiversity are still pressuring the Russian government to protect the Vavilov Institute, and has created a petition to President Medvedev, asking that the collection of rare plants be saved.

“As a result of public pressure, thousands of precious plants have been granted a temporary reprieve,” writes Jaelithe Judy of  “But there is still more work to be done.”  With the Russian government deciding how to respond to public criticism of the land auction, the next few weeks may decide the ultimate fate of the Vavilov Institute’s botanical gene bank. 

Photo credit: Luigi Guarino, and Luigi Guarino