Category: Earth

Lead exposure in mothers can affect more than one generation

A team of researchers at Wayne State University have discovered that mothers with high levels of lead in their blood not only affect the fetal cells of their unborn children, but also their grandchildren. Their study, Multigenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans: DNA methylation changes associated with maternal exposure to lead can be transmitted to the grandchildren, was published online this week in Scientific Reports.

It’s a known fact that babies in the womb can be affected by low levels of lead exposure. If a pregnant woman is exposed to lead, the lead passes through the placenta into the baby’s developing bones and other organs. Pregnant women with a past exposure to lead can also affect the unborn child’s brain, causing developmental problems later in life. Previous research studies have suggested that exposure to heavy metal toxicants can influence a person’s global DNA methylation profile.

In the recent Wayne State study led by Douglas Ruden, Ph.D….program leader in the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors, he and his research team revealed that lead exposure can cause specific changes in DNA methylation, which can be detected in dried blood spots beyond one generation. The neonatal blood spots from both the mothers and children in this study were obtained from the Michigan Neonatal Biobank, a unique resource that has most of the neonatal dried blood spots from children born in Michigan since 1984…

“Our results suggest that lead exposure during pregnancy affects the DNA methylation status of the fetal germ cells, which leads to altered DNA methylation in grandchildren’s neonatal dried blood spots,” said Ruden. “This is the first demonstration that an environmental exposure in pregnant mothers can have an epigenetic effect on the DNA methylation pattern in the grandchildren.”

The research team stated that this novel, two-generational study design might be able to identify the genes that may serve as possible candidate biomarkers for future transgenerational risk assessment studies.

Consider the creeps who despoil the world’s environment in their quest for short-term profits not only may be shortening your own life; but, that of your children – and, now, we know the effects may proceed directly to your grandchildren.

And the contaminated environment hangs around even longer.

Glider ready to fly higher than the U2 spy plane

Click to enlarge

The Perlan Mission II glider, which is designed to fly higher than the U-2 spy plane and SR-71 Blackbird, has made its maiden flight. The aircraft separated from its towplane at an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,524 m) above Roberts Field at Redmond Municipal Airport in Oregon, but is expected to go much higher next year when it makes a world altitude record attempt to the edge of space.

Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock piloted the aircraft on its first flight, gliding back to the ground on wings with a span of 84 ft and surface area of 263 sq ft. The 5,000-ft altitude of the maiden flight is a baby step for the aircraft, which is expected to reach 90,000 ft next year when it will attempt to soar to the edge of space over Argentina.

If successful, this will not only smash the current glider world record altitude of 50,727 ft set by Perlan II’s predecessor, Perlan Mission I, in 2006 with Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson at the controls, but it will also beat the SR-71’s current record-holding altitude of 85,069 ft. Although a number of aircraft have exceeded this altitude in zoom climbs, the SR-71 retains the “absolute altitude record” for sustained flight.

While the SR-71 achieved the record drawing power from two Pratt & Whitney J58 axial-flow turbo-jet engines, Perlan II will look to reach these dizzying heights by riding air currents over certain mountainous regions near the north and south poles that can reach into the stratosphere.

The Perlan team isn’t looking to go to the edge of space just because it is there, but to aid in research into high-altitude flight, climate change and space exploration. Since the aircraft is engineless, it will reach high altitudes without polluting the atmosphere it will study in an effort to shed more light on how the stratosphere impacts global weather, the health of the ozone layer, and to collect data to improve climate models for more accurate climate change predictions.


Don’t worry about Styrofoam in landfills – just add mealworms


If you’ve ever kept mealworms as food for a pet reptile or frog, then you probably fed them fruits or vegetables. What you likely didn’t know, however, was that the insects can also survive quite nicely on a diet of Styrofoam. With that in mind, scientists at Stanford University have now determined that mealworms can break the difficult-to-recycle plastic foam down into a biodegradable waste product.

The Stanford team fed Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene to a colony of approximately 100 mealworms.

Within 24 hours, the worms consumed 34 to 39 milligrams of the plastic, converting about half of it to carbon dioxide – as they would with any other food source. Bacteria in the worms’ gut degraded the other half into tiny biodegradable droppings. The researchers believe that those droppings could safely be used as a crop fertilizer.

The mealworms themselves appeared to be just as healthy as worms that received a more traditional diet of vegetable matter.

Working with colleagues in China, the Stanford team members are now investigating whether mealworms or other insects could also be used to break down additional types of plastic, such as polypropylene. They also hope to find a marine equivalent to mealworms, that could consume the tons of plastic waste currently fouling the world’s oceans.

Phew! Now we can go back to comfy styrofoam cups of coffee at our favorite fast food joints.

New York mayor calls on pension funds to divest from coal

Koch Bros carbon wall of shame

New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the city’s five pension funds…to end their investments in coal companies, demonstrating his commitment to taking on climate change.

The pension funds – whose assets total a collective $160bn – have $33m invested in coal, according to the mayor’s office.

“New York City is a global leader when it comes to taking on climate change and reducing our environmental footprint. It’s time that our investments catch up – and divestment from coal is where we must start,” De Blasio said…

This announcement follows a continued global movement to divest from coal. In June, Norway’s parliament endorsed the selling of coal investments from its $900bn sovereign wealth fund, and on 2 September, California lawmakers passed a bill requiring the state’s two largest pension plans to divest any holdings of thermal coal within 18 months…

The mayor also proposed that the pension funds establish long-term investment strategies for all fossil fuel investments “as New York City continues to move toward renewables and away from fossil fuels”.

Now, if we would only kick the foot-draggers [knuckle-draggers?] out of Congress we might see progressive movement in the whole United States on pollution and climate change.

There’s a very cold ‘blob’ in the North Atlantic Ocean

day after tomorrow

Last week we learned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that the first eight months of 2015 were the hottest such stretch yet recorded for the globe’s surface land and oceans, based on temperature records going back to 1880. It’s just the latest evidence that we are, indeed, on course for a record-breaking warm year in 2015.

Yet, if you look closely, there’s one part of the planet that is bucking the trend. In the North Atlantic Ocean south of Greenland and Iceland, the ocean surface has seen very cold temperatures for the past eight months:

What’s up with that?

First of all, it’s no error. I checked with Deke Arndt, chief of the climate monitoring branch at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, who confirmed what the map above suggests — some parts of the North Atlantic Ocean saw record cold in the past eight months…

And there’s not much reason to doubt the measurements — the region is very well sampled. “It’s pretty densely populated by buoys, and at least parts of that region are really active shipping lanes, so there’s quite a lot of observations in the area,” Arndt said. “So I think it’s pretty robust analysis.”

Thus, the record seems to be a meaningful one — and there is a much larger surrounding area that, although not absolutely the coldest it has been on record, is also unusually cold.

At this point, it’s time to ask what the heck is going on here. And while there may not yet be any scientific consensus on the matter, at least some scientists suspect that the cooling seen in these maps is no fluke but, rather, part of a process that has been long feared by climate researchers — the slowing of Atlantic Ocean circulation…

The fact that a record-hot planet Earth coincides with a record-cold northern Atlantic is quite stunning. There is strong evidence — not just from our study — that this is a consequence of the long-term decline of the Gulf Stream System, i.e. the Atlantic ocean’s overturning circulation AMOC, in response to global warming.

The short term variations will at some point also go the other way again, so I don’t expect the subpolar Atlantic to remain at record cold permanently. But I do expect the AMOC to decline further in the coming decades. The accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet will continue to contribute to this decline by diluting the ocean waters.

This won’t lead to anything remotely like The Day After Tomorrow (which was indeed based — quite loosely — on precisely this climate scenario). But if the trend continues, there could be many consequences, including rising seas for the U.S. East Coast and, possibly, a difference in temperature overall in the North Atlantic and Europe.

A good time to go back and watch at least the first portion of Day After Tomorrow. The movie does a good job of explaining the slowing of Atlantic Ocean circulation and what potentially can happen. There are climate scientists who agree – and some who disagree. A localized effect can become a regional effect and vice versa.

What is fairly likely is that if the circulation is interrupted by what has long been a predictable feature of global warming, folks in NW Europe and the UK who’ve been getting used to a generally warmer year-round batch of seasons better get out their woolies. The Gulf Stream circulation brings a fair chunk of warmth to what should feel like Poland or even Belarus. And may, soon.

Sheepdog guardians keep this colony of Fairy Penguins safe

Click to enlargeJJ Harrison

They’ve been our best friends for centuries, and in more recent years, dogs have proved they can also be our allies in conservation, from sniffing out endangered species to fighting wildlife crime. One place where they’ve notched up a major conservation victory is on a small island off the Australian coast, where a colony of tiny penguins has been brought back from the brink – a success story that’s now inspired a multimillion-dollar movie that opens in the country this week.

Middle Island, a rocky outcrop off the coast of Victoria, is best known for its avian inhabitants: it’s home to a colony of the world’s smallest penguins. Just 33 centimetres tall (13 inches), the little penguin – or fairy penguin, if you prefer (of course you do!) – tips the scales at only around one kilogram.

While the birds spend most of their lives at sea, they do come ashore when breeding season rolls round – and that’s where Middle Island’s residents began running into trouble. The few hundred metres that separate the island from the mainland are not much of an obstacle for hungry foxes who proved quite capable of crossing the distance at low tide for the promise of an easy penguin meal.

With the predators picking off the defenceless birds, populations began to plummet dangerously: by 2005, what was once a colony numbering in the hundreds had been left with fewer than ten survivors.

Enter “Oddball”. The maremma sheepdog was initially bought by a mainland farmer whose chickens were being targeted by the very same enemy. “I used to spend my nights up with a rifle shooting foxes. One night I noticed the neighbour’s dog barking and the light went on in my head. I realised he was barking at the same thing I was trying to shoot,” the farmer, Allan Marsh, told ABC last year.

Marsh decided to get a dog of his own, and Oddball soon proved to be a pro at keeping foxes away from the farm. After a series of fortunate events, the sheepdog ended up on Middle Island, where wildlife officials hoped her chicken-guarding skills could work to keep the penguins safe too

Oddball first set paw on Middle Island in 2006, when the penguin colony was on the verge of total collapse. Since then, other maremmas have followed in her footsteps, and the Middle Island Maremma Project has proved a major conservation success. Fox attacks have stopped entirely and penguin numbers have been recovering, with around 180 birds at last count.

Click to enlarge

Conservation success + dogs = enough to make my heart happy for quite a spell.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

Wider Image: Toronto, Leslie Street Spit

Leslie Street Spit

Like a rooftop garden in an overcrowded financial district, Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit is an unexpected urban oasis whose narrow escape from development has brought marshes, lagoons and forests to the centre of Canada’s largest city.

My favorite kind of photojournalism.