Microbiota diversity in fecal, oral, and skin samples from uncontacted Yanomami in relation to other human groups. (A) Faith’s phylogenetic diversity (PD) (average ± SD) of fecal samples from Yanomami and Guahibo Amerindians, Malawians, and U.S. subjects. OTU tables rarefied at 5000 sequences per sample. Interpopulation differences were significant (P < 0.001, ANOVA with Tukey’s HSD) for all but Guahibo-Malawi comparison (P = 0.73). Graphic: Clemente, et al., 2015

By Michaeleen Doucleff
21 April 2015

(NPR) – Looks like many of us don't have the right stomach for a paleodiet. Literally.

Two studies give us a glimpse into our ancestors' microbiome — you know, those trillions of bacteria that live in the human gut.

And the take-home message of the studies is clear: Western diets and modern-day hygiene have wiped a few dozen species right out of our digestive tracts. One missing microbe helps metabolize carbohydrates. Other bygone bacteria act as prebiotics. And another communicates with our immune system.

In other words, Americans' digestive tracts look like barren deserts compared with the lush, tropical rain forest found inside indigenous people.

"The concern is that we're losing keystone species," says microbiologist M. Gloria Dominguez-Bello, at the New York University School of Medicine. "That's a hypothesis, but we haven't proved it."

Dominguez-Bello and her colleagues are the first to characterize the gut bacteria of people completely isolated from modern medicine, food and culture.

In 2009, her colleagues and a medical team with the Venezuelan government took a helicopter to a remote Yanomami tribe at the border of Venezuela and Brazil. Members of the tribe have lived as hunter-gatherers for more than 11,000 years in a mountainous area of the Amazon rain forest.

The visit was the first time that particular tribe had direct contact with modern society. "They knew about us, but we didn't know about them," Dominguez-Bello says. "They had names [in their language] for our helicopters and planes."

Dominguez-Bello's colleagues took samples from 12 of the villagers' fecal matter. Back in New York City, the team used DNA analysis to figure out which species thrived in the hunter-gatherers' guts.

The biggest surprise was how many different species were present in the Yanomami's microbiome. The tribe had about 50 percent more ecological diversity than the average American has, Dominguez-Bello and her colleagues reported Friday in the journal Science Advances.

As cultures around the world become more "Western," they lose bacteria species in their guts, Dominguez-Bello says. At the same time, they start having higher incidences of chronic illnesses connected to the immune system, such as allergies, Crohn's disease, autoimmune disorders and multiple sclerosis.

"So the big question is: Are these two facts related?" Dominguez-Bello asks. "It's not clear if more diversity in the microbiome is healthier. But maybe we have lost species with important functions." [more]

How Modern Life Depletes Our Gut Microbes

ABSTRACT: Most studies of the human microbiome have focused on westernized people with life-style practices that decrease microbial survival and transmission, or on traditional societies that are currently in transition to westernization. We characterize the fecal, oral, and skin bacterial microbiome and resistome of members of an isolated Yanomami Amerindian village with no documented previous contact with Western people. These Yanomami harbor a microbiome with the highest diversity of bacteria and genetic functions ever reported in a human group. Despite their isolation, presumably for >11,000 years since their ancestors arrived in South America, and no known exposure to antibiotics, they harbor bacteria that carry functional antibiotic resistance (AR) genes, including those that confer resistance to synthetic antibiotics and are syntenic with mobilization elements. These results suggest that westernization significantly affects human microbiome diversity and that functional AR genes appear to be a feature of the human microbiome even in the absence of exposure to commercial antibiotics. AR genes are likely poised for mobilization and enrichment upon exposure to pharmacological levels of antibiotics. Our findings emphasize the need for extensive characterization of the function of the microbiome and resistome in remote nonwesternized populations before globalization of modern practices affects potentially beneficial bacteria harbored in the human body.

The microbiome of uncontacted Amerindians

As many as 125 yellow-rumped warblers may have died at the Ivanpah solar plant in a one-year period. Photo: Rick Cameron / Flickr

By Chris Clarke
22 April 2015

(KCET) – Some new figures have been published about the likely wildlife impact of a controversial solar facility in the Mojave Desert by biological consultants working on contract with the plant -- and the numbers are startling.

According to the firm H.T. Harvey and Associates, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System was the site of somewhere between 2,500 and 6,700 bird mortalities in the plant's first year of operation, between October 2013 and October 2014. The firm says the most likely actual figure is somewhere around 3,500 birds killed in that time.

That estimate is based on the firm's biologists finding 695 killed and eight injured birds while searching just under 30 percent of the project's approximately 4,000-acre footprint during that year-long period.

The report was published on the California Energy Commission website on Monday.

That incomplete search of the facility is one of the reasons that the total number of bird mortalities estimated by H.T. Harvey is significantly higher than the number of killed or injured birds actually documented by the firm. Another reason: scavengers. According to H.T. Harvey's report, scavengers documented on the Ivanpah project site included common ravens and desert kit foxes, as well as white-tailed antelope squirrels, roadrunners and turkey vultures.

"Scavenger bias" tests conducted by the firm, in which carcasses were placed to see how many were removed by scavenging animals and how soon, showed that some small carcasses were removed as quickly as 14 hours after placement during summer. Other, larger carcasses still remained after six weeks.

Lastly, H.T. Harvey sensibly assumed that human searchers and their canine assistants wouldn't find every last carcass even if the scavengers left them in place, and so the firm tested for "searcher bias" by planting carcasses and feather spots and sending the searchers out to look for them. Depending on the carcass size and the time of year, searchers generally found between 40 and 60 percent of the test carcasses.

Assuming H.T. Harvey's estimate of 3,504 birds killed at Ivanpah between October '13 and October '14 is accurate, that works out to an average of 292 bird mortalities in a month, or just under ten per day.

Of those 3,504 projected fatalities, just under 1,500 are likely to have been caused either by burn injuries from the project's concentrated solar flux, collisions with structures, or entrapment in the project's buildings or other infrastructure, while about 2,000 would be expected to show no obvious sign of those specific causes of death -- raising the possibility, says H.T. Harvey, that at least some of those 2,000 other projected mortalities might have had nothing to do, at least directly, with the power plant. [more]

Solar Plant Likely Killed 3,500 Birds in 1st Year

U.S. children living in low-income and poor families, 2007-2013. Graphic: NCCP

By Yang Jiang, Mercedes Ekono, and Curtis Skinner
January 2015

(NCCP) – Children under 18 years represent 23 percent of the population, but they comprise 33 percent of all people in poverty.1 Among all children, 44 percent live in low-income families and approximately one in every five (22 percent) live in poor families. Being a child in a low-income or poor family does not happen by chance. Parental education and employment, race/ethnicity, and other factors are associated with children experiencing economic insecurity. This fact sheet describes the demographic, socio-economic, and geographic characteristics of children and their parents. It highlights the important factors that appear to distinguish low-income and poor children from their less disadvantaged counterparts.

The percentage of children living in low-income families (both poor and near poor) has been on the rise – increasing from 39 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2013 (Figure 2). During this time period, the overall number of children of all ages increased by less than one percent, while the numbers who were low income and poor increased by 13 percent and 23 percent, respectively. [more]

Basic Facts About Low-Income Children

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Annual changes in energy-related U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, 2006-2014. Graphic: EIA

By Perry Lindstrom
20 April 2015

(EIA) – For the second year in a row, energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States have increased. However, unlike 2013, when emissions and gross domestic product (GDP) grew at similar rates (2.5% and 2.2%, respectively), 2014's CO2 emissions growth rate of 0.7% was much smaller than the 2014 GDP growth rate of 2.4%.

Energy-related CO2 emissions are the largest component of overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. On March 31, 2015, the United States officially submitted its emissions-cutting target to the United Nations, committing to reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26%-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. This follows President Obama's 2009 pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

As discussed in a previous article, changes in CO2 emissions reflect changes in economic and energy-related indicators. The previous two years have largely followed the economic trends in terms of increasing population and per capita GDP, but have broken the trends of declining energy and carbon intensities:

  • Population grew at an average annual rate of 0.7% during 2005-14, and the U.S. economy, as measured by GDP, grew by 1.4% per year since 2005. Growth rates for population and GDP in the previous two years (2012 and 2013) were generally consistent with those trends.
  • The amount of energy consumption per unit of GDP, or the energy intensity of the U.S. economy, has generally improved in the past decade, as less energy was needed to produce economic growth. In 2014, the United States required 13% less energy than in 2005 per unit of GDP. In 2013 there was a slight increase in energy intensity of 0.7%, largely because of weather-related energy consumption, but energy intensity fell in 2014 by 1.2%.
  • Carbon intensity, or the amount of CO2 emissions per unit of energy consumption, declined in total by 8% during 2005-14, with an average annual decline of 0.9%. In 2013 and 2014, however, carbon intensity declined by only 0.4%.

Estimated emissions of 5,404 million metric tons of CO2 from energy-related sources occurred in 2014, and energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to increase slightly in both 2015 and 2016. In the Reference case in EIA's recently released Annual Energy Outlook 2015, emissions are expected to increase only slightly, at a rate of 0.1% annually, and to remain below 2005 levels by more than 400 million metric tons in 2040. Future energy consumption and related emission levels will depend largely on a mix of weather, energy sources, and economic factors—as well as potential changes in national and state policies.

U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions increase in past two years

Radiative forcing components. Graphic: IPCC 2007 / Wikipedia

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan
23 April 2015

(Scientific American) – Slivers of dust float in the upper atmosphere, scattering the sun's rays back into space and cooling the planet in some places. In other places, the particles warm the planet.

The equivocation has meant that the particles, known as aerosols, are a significant wild card in our planet's climate, rivaled only by clouds. So it was arguably not surprising that a study on aerosols would receive public attention.

But it was not the type of attention that the study author, Bjorn Stevens, a climatologist and director at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, was seeking. His work has been portrayed by conservative news outlets and blogs as undermining the theory of human-caused global warming. Red lights lit up. "New Climate Paper Gives Global Warming Alarmists 'One Helluva Beating,'" Fox News declared.

In the months since the study was published, Stevens has been peppered with emails from schoolteachers and laypeople asking him, broadly speaking, whether climate change is indeed something to worry about. That brought the normally reticent scientist, who says his aim is not to convince anyone of anything, into the public sphere.

"I was touched that they'd write me and double-check that my study was being interpreted correctly," Stevens said, speaking on a train en route to the Netherlands.

The study in question, published in Journal of Climate, is titled rather drably, "Rethinking the lower bound on aerosol radiative forcing."

It delves into the impacts of aerosols, which are tiny pollutants of mineral dust, soot and organic matter emitted by sources such as power plants, factories, and quarries. Not to be outdone, nature occasionally spews her own aerosols from volcanoes.

The particles gather at the highest reaches of the atmosphere, where the net result is that they cool the planet. In the process, they somewhat mask the warming caused by greenhouse gases. So scientists have long harbored a fear: Perhaps aerosols are cooling the planet so much that in their absence, global temperatures will rise rapidly. Such a future may play out as nations curb pollution from industries. […]

The misinterpretation of Stevens' paper began with Nic Lewis, an independent climate scientist. In a blog post for Climate Audit, a prominent climate skeptic blog, he used Stevens' study to suggest that as CO2 levels double in the atmosphere, global temperatures would rise by only 1.2 to 1.8 degrees Celsius. The measure is called "climate sensitivity."

That's less than the assumed 2 C threshold for catastrophic climatic change in parts of the world. It's also lower than an IPCC estimate that a doubling of CO2 will raise global temperatures by 1.5 to 4.5 C.

Lewis' blog post prompted conservative publications to crow that global warming is not a major threat. Stevens was inundated with email.

"All sorts of schoolteachers were contacting me, and they were all worried that everything they'd learned was wrong," he said.  [more]

How to Misinterpret Climate Change Research

ABSTRACT: Based on research showing that in the case of a strong aerosol forcing, this forcing establishes itself early in the historical record, a simple model is constructed to explore the implications of a strongly negative aerosol forcing on the early (pre 1950) part of the instrumental record. This model, which contains terms representing both aerosol-radiation and aerosol-cloud interactions well represents the known time history of aerosol radiative forcing, as well as the effect of the natural state on the strength of aerosol forcing. Model parameters, randomly drawn to represent uncertainty in understanding, demonstrates that a forcing more negative than −1.0 W m−2 is implausible, as it implies that none of the approximately 0.3 K temperature rise between 1850 and 1950 can be attributed to northern-hemispheric forcing. The individual terms of the model are interpreted in light of comprehensive modeling, constraints from observations, and physical understanding, to provide further support for the less negative ( −1.0 W m−2 ) lower bound. These findings suggest that aerosol radiative forcing is less negative and more certain than is commonly believed.

Rethinking the lower bound on aerosol radiative forcing

By Tanya Lewis
24 April 2015

(Business Insider) – Earth Day, which was on April 22 this year, is a time to celebrate and protect the pale blue dot we call home. But some of its crown jewels may be vanishing.

Many parts of the globe face threats from warming temperatures, sea level rise, drought, and other effects of climate change and human activity.

Here are 10 amazing places to visit before it's too late. [Images: One-of-a-Kind Places on Earth]

1. Tuvalu

A beach on the island nation of Tuvalu. This Polynesian island nation, located between Hawaii and Australia, may be a tropical paradise, but it risks becoming submerged by rising seas as a warming climate melts ice sheets and causes water to expand. Photo: Nick Hobgood / Flickr

This Polynesian island nation, located between Hawaii and Australia, may be a tropical paradise, but it risks becoming submerged by rising seas as a warming climate melts ice sheets and causes water to expand.

The islands — which are home to about 10,000 people — lie just 6.6 feet (2 meters) above sea level. Currently, seas there are rising at a rate of about 0.2 inches (5 millimeters) per year since 1993, compared with the global average of 0.11 to 0.14 inches (2.8 to 3.6 mm) per year, satellite data show.

Experts predict that, even with a conservative greenhouse-gas-emissions scenario, sea levels in the region will rise by up to 17.7 inches (45 cm) by 2090, according to a report by Australia's Pacific Climate Change Science Program, and such a rise could make Tuvalu uninhabitable.

2. Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park. Most of the 150 glaciers present in 1850 were still there when the park opened in 1910. But as of 2010, only 25 glaciers remained, and some climate models predict that the park's biggest glaciers will be gone by 2030, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Photo: Lee Coursey / Flickr

True to its name, this Montana park — which borders the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia and spans more than 1 million acres (4,000 square km) — was once home to hundreds of glaciers, but these stunning icescapes won't be around forever.

Most of the 150 glaciers present in 1850 were still there when the park opened in 1910. But as of 2010, only 25 glaciers remained, and some climate models predict that the park's biggest glaciers will be gone by 2030, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. [more]

Places to visit before they’re ruined forever by climate change

Aerial view of an oil spill caused by a failed platform owned by Taylor Energy Company. The slick marks the spot where an oil platform toppled during a 2004 hurricane, triggering what might be the longest-running commercial oil spill ever to pollute the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: AP

16 April 2015

OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) – A blanket of fog lifts, exposing a band of rainbow sheen that stretches for miles off the coast of Louisiana. From the vantage point of an airplane, it's easy to see gas bubbles in the slick that mark the spot where an oil platform toppled during a 2004 hurricane, triggering what might be the longest-running commercial oil spill ever to pollute the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet more than a decade after crude started leaking at the site formerly operated by Taylor Energy Company, few people even know of its existence. The company has downplayed the leak's extent and environmental impact, likening it to scores of minor spills and natural seeps the Gulf routinely absorbs.

An Associated Press investigation has revealed evidence that the spill is far worse than what Taylor — or the government — have publicly reported during their secretive, and costly, effort to halt the leak. Presented with AP's findings, that the sheen recently averaged about 91 gallons of oil per day across eight square miles, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that is about 20 times greater than one recently touted by the company.

Outside experts say the spill could be even worse — possibly one of the largest ever in the Gulf.

Taylor's oil was befouling the Gulf for years in obscurity before BP's massive spill in mile-deep water outraged the nation in 2010. Even industry experts haven't heard of Taylor's slow-motion spill, which has been leaking like a steady trickle from a faucet, compared to the fire hose that was BP's gusher.

Aerial view of an oil spill caused by a failed platform owned by Taylor Energy Company. The slick marks the spot where an oil platform toppled during a 2004 hurricane, triggering what might be the longest-running commercial oil spill ever to pollute the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: AP

Taylor, a company renowned in Louisiana for the philanthropy of its deceased founder, has kept documents secret that would shed light on what it has done to stop the leak and eliminate the persistent sheen.

The Coast Guard said in 2008 the leak posed a "significant threat" to the environment, though there is no evidence oil from the site has reached shore. Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University biological oceanography professor and expert witness in a lawsuit against Taylor, said the sheen "presents a substantial threat to the environment" and is capable of harming birds, fish and other marine life.

Using satellite images and pollution reports, the watchdog group SkyTruth estimates between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons of oil has spilled from the site since 2004, with an annual average daily leak rate between 37 and 900 gallons.

If SkyTruth's high-end estimate of 1.4 million gallons is accurate, Taylor's spill would be about 1 percent the size of BP's, which a judge ruled amounted to 134 million gallons. That would still make the Taylor spill the 8th largest in the Gulf since 1970, according to a list compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The Taylor leak is just a great example of what I call a dirty little secret in plain sight," said SkyTruth President John Amos.” [more]

Secrecy shrouds decade-old oil spill in Gulf of Mexico

Apple Inc.'s carbon footprint was 34.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in fiscal 2014 — the vast majority from manufacturing plants in China. Graphic: Apple Inc.

20 April 2015 (NBC News) – Apple is more energy efficient than it ever has been, according to a new report, with 100 percent of U.S. operations running completely on renewable energy. Still, the company was responsible for 34.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in fiscal 2014 — the vast majority from manufacturing plants in China.

That is an increase from the 33.8 million metric tons the company said it was responsible for in 2013. Apple released its "Environmental Responsibility Report" on Monday, which covered the 2014 fiscal year. "We don't want to debate climate change," the report said. "We want to stop it." Last year, 87 percent of its operations worldwide (which include data centers, corporate offices and retail stores) ran completely on renewable energy, according to the report.

The carbon emissions associated with each Apple product — both when it came to manufacturing and daily use — fell 7 percent in 2014 to its lowest level in company history. Apple products today generate 61 percent less greenhouse gases than those sold in 2008. The problem? Apple sold so many products last year that its total manufacturing emissions actually increased by 5 percent.

Overall, manufacturing accounted for 24.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, far more than any other source of emissions. "We may not own our suppliers' facilities," Apple said, "but we do own their carbon footprint — 72 percent of our total."

Apple Carbon Footprint Rises Despite Green Measures

Days after Cyclone Pam, people wait to load up portable water purification units and supplies at a Red Cross aid centre in Port Vila, capital city of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, 19 March 2015. Photo: Edgar Su / Reuters

By Magdalena Mis; Editing by Tim Pearce
22 April 2015

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than 100,000 people in Vanuatu have no clean drinking water, a month after a monster cyclone struck the tiny Pacific nation, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Wednesday.

Two thirds of the archipelago's water and sanitation infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed and most wells are contaminated, UNICEF said in a statement.

"There is water but quality is not that good because of the contamination," Ketsamay Rajphangthong, chief of UNICEF Vanuatu field office, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Vanuatu.

"When the water is contaminated there's lots of risks coming after that, especially diarrhea and also other forms of disease."

Tropical Cyclone Pam destroyed homes and infrastructure when it swept across the South Pacific island nation on March 13, leaving 11 dead and affecting the majority of the 252,800 Vanuatu population.

Seventy percent of wells have been contaminated and bacteriological tests showed that water required purification before drinking at all sites tested outside the capital Port Vila, UNICEF said.

The agency has been providing water purification tablets and plastic sheets for rainwater collection as a temporary substitute for the 68 percent of rainwater harvesting structures that have been damaged by the cyclone.

Cyclone damage means that women and children have to walk to shower facilities and toilets further from home, or defecate in the open, lacking privacy and exposing themselves to abuse, said Rajphangthong.

UNICEF needs $1.5 million to close the gap between donations and its appeal target, she said. [more]

Half of Vanuatu residents lack clean water, month after cyclone: UNICEF


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