It may only be six weeks since Earth Day, but it's already time to collectively celebrate our home planet again, this time via the United Nations' World Environment Day on Sunday, June 5. The theme for 2011 is "Forests: Nature at Your Service," which is meant to highlight all the "ecological, economic, social and health benefits" that an intact forest can provide. According to the U.N., forests supply clean water to 50 percent of Earth's biggest cities, boost global soil fertility, soften the impacts of floods and fires, and provide a home for half of all land-based plants and animals. Some 1.6 billion people also depend on forests for their livelihoods — not to mention all the rest of us who would at least find life less enjoyable without them.

"Forests embody so much of what is good and strong in our lives," the U.N. Environment Program says on its World Environment Day website. "Yet despite all of these priceless ... benefits, we are destroying the very forests we need to live and breathe." Some 13 million hectares of forest are wiped out every year, according to the U.N., an annual loss roughly equivalent to the size of Portugal. Much of this deforestation is occurring in South America and Southeast Asia, where old-growth rain forests continue to fall in favor of palm-oil plantations, soybean farms and cattle pastures. "But this trend is not irreversible," the U.N. adds. "It's not too late to transform life as we know it into a greener future, where forests are at the heart of our sustainable development and green economies." The key is to look at preserving and expanding forests as a business opportunity, since "targeted investments in forestry could generate up to 10 million new jobs around the world." An investment of $30 billion to fight deforestation and degradation could ultimately yield a return of $2.5 trillion in new products and services, the U.N. says, in addition to a variety of less economically tangible perks like richer biodiversity, fresher water and cleaner air. And it doesn't hurt that forests are potent carbon sinks, either, mitigating the effects of global warming by soaking up the excess carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere.

India is the host country for this year's World Environment Day, but you don't have to join the Green Walkathon through Delhi or the Bangalore 10K to take part in the festivities. You could join one of the many official celebrations around the world this weekend, or you could follow the example of "Parks and Recreation" star Nick Offerman, who has joined a campaign urging men to stop shaving in the name of water conservation. As the Washington Post reports, the initiative has already saved more than 400,000 gallons of water. And with forests still scattered all over the planet, observing this year's theme can even be as simple as spending some quality time with trees, points out U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "Today — and every day — I encourage everyone to take part in our global efforts by taking the time to enjoy our forests and environment, whether by hiking at a national park or getting involved at a local neighborhood garden," Jackson said in a statement Friday. "When we learn to love our great outdoors, we also feel more compelled to protect them — making our communities healthier and stronger."

(Sources: U.N. Environment Program, Washington Post, Times of India, EPA, MNN)


It has already been a big week for bacteria, with a rare and "super-toxic" strain of E. coli sweeping across Europe, and now scientists say they've found another dangerous microbe in our midst — one that humans may have inadvertently helped create. The new bacterium is a strain of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which means it has evolved an immunity to antibiotics. It doesn't pose a broad public-health threat like the recent E. coli outbreak, but it does highlight a growing controversy about preemptive antibiotics given to farm animals, a practice that's widely believed to create "superbugs" like MRSA.

There are about three dozen known strains of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, most of which share a relatively similar genetic structure. The new strain of staph is different, though, and its discoverers suspect it may have first emerged in British dairy cows. Since many of those cows, like their American counterparts, are regularly fed low-dose antibiotics to make them healthier and more productive, some environmental advocates say dairy farmers likely played a role in the evolution of the new MRSA. "This new evidence confirms our long-held view of the importance of absolutely minimizing the use of antibiotics, especially those closely related to antibiotics used by people," says Helen Browning, director of the U.K.'s Soil Association. Although it's not clear exactly how the new MRSA strain came about, its discoverers say overexposure to antibiotics is a "credible hypothesis." On the bright side, it's not seen as a major threat to public health, since the pasteurization of milk kills MRSA, but many experts do consider it a troubling sign of growing drug resistance in bacteria. 

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Congress is bristling at environmentalists' efforts to cajole the Food and Drug Administration into banning the preemptive use of antibiotics on livestock. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently sued the FDA in hopes of eliciting such a ban, but GOP lawmakers have now shot back, the Washington Post reports, using an agriculture appropriations bill to thwart the NRDC's lawsuit. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has floated an amendment that would limit the FDA's ability to restrict substances like livestock antibiotics. As Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., tells the Post, Republicans and many agriculture groups don't think there's enough evidence linking antibiotics to superbugs. "We have had discussions on the antibiotics used for livestock and pork and how they're not using sound science on that, and I'm glad the gentleman has offered this amendment and I support it," Kingston says of Rehberg's amendment. But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wasn't quite as pleased with the measure. "This amendment ties FDA's hands and will prevent the agency from taking basic steps to protect us from highly lethal threats, like tainted foods and drugs," Waxman said in a statement. "Simply put, it will endanger American lives."

(Sources: ReutersBBC News, CNN, Ecologist, Washington Post, NRDC)


Nuclear radiation in the environment has caused millions fewer females to be born worldwide than would otherwise be expected, National Geographic reports, thanks to atomic-bomb tests and power-plant accidents during the 20th century. Radiation exposure only slightly boosts the odds of babies being born as boys, according to research published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, but on a global scale that has translated to millions of extra boys in place of girls. And while atmospheric tests of atomic bombs largely ended in the 1970s, the disaster at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 triggered similar effects — and some experts worry that Japan's crisis-stricken Fukushima Daiichi could, too.

Under normal circumstances, births of male humans outnumber female births by a ratio of 105 to 100, explains study co-author Hagen Scherb. "It's not known what is the biological reason for this ratio," he says. "It's a natural constant, like the constant of gravity." But when exposed to nuclear radiation, that ratio begins drifting even further in favor of boys over girls, Scherb and his colleagues have found: In every country they studied from 1964 to 1975, the number of male births relative to female births increased from the baseline ratio, a trend that also continued in many eastern European countries — especially those near Chernobyl — for several years after 1986. "The closer the country was to Chernobyl, the stronger the effect," Scherb tells National Geographic. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 sent most atomic-bomb tests underground, reducing the amount of radiation dispersed into the atmosphere, and the global incidence of "boy booms" began to fade soon afterward. But the lingering trend around Chernobyl suggests radiation leaks like the one in Japan could still trigger bizarre biological and demographic changes in humans. 

The Chernobyl-related boy booms weren't as widespread as those linked to atomic bomb tests, but they did extend outside Ukraine — in neighboring Belarus, for example, more males were born relative to females than in France during the years after the Chernobyl catastrophe. The U.S. was too far away to see an effect in the '80s, but that may not be the case with Fukushima Daiichi, Scherb says. "We do not know how much radioactivity was emitted through Fukushima and how it will spread throughout the world," he says. "Maybe it's confined to just Japan ... but if it gets in the water and the air, it's possible that we could see a similar effect, especially on the West Coast of America."

(Source: National Geographic)


Jet streams haven't been very kind to the U.S. lately, helping produce several violent tornado outbreaks from the Great Plains to New England in recent weeks. But as the AP reports, these powerful high-altitude winds could be used to generate cheap, ample electricity, offering far more bang for the buck than ground-level winds. Some scientists estimate jet streams pack 100 times more energy than all the power used worldwide every year, and if they can be harnessed at a large enough scale, they might even bring electricity prices down as low as 2 cents per kilowatt hour. 

"They are projecting crazy numbers," says Cristina Archer, an atmospheric scientist at California State University in Chico. "I'm not saying that it's true. ... But it's really the lowest, the cheapest energy source, possibly." Ultimately, Archer tells the AP, there's "not a doubt anymore" that jet streams will be tapped for power. "This can be done," she says. "It can work." That's not to say it'll be easy, though — engineers are working to develop flying and floating wind turbines that can endure the rigors of life in the sky while pumping electricity safely back down to Earth. Some companies say their high-altitude wind turbines could hit the market by the middle of the decade, the AP reports, but the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory is more skeptical, suggesting the industry is 10 years away from putting a significant dent in the country's energy demands.

Still, the allure of jet streams is too strong for many entrepreneurs to resist. Soaring four to 10 miles above the ground, jet streams carry winds that regularly top 100 mph, and high-altitude wind advocates say their smaller, lightweight turbines will eventually be cheaper to build and operate than conventional windmills, which involve large, heavy blades and towers that must be anchored to the ground or seabed. There are plenty of technical hurdles before power-generating kites start surfing jet streams, but supporters of the idea say they intend to stay grounded — figuratively speaking — until they can work out the kinks. "You start smaller ... and then you scale up over time," says Adam Rein, co-founder of Altaeros Energies, a Boston-based company that's building high-altitude turbines. "We think that approach makes a lot of sense."

(Source: Associated Press)


The familiar "food pyramid" is now a thing of the past, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out a new replacement Thursday called "MyPlate," which ditches the pyramid concept entirely in favor of a plate divided into food categories. Developed with help from first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MyPlate aims to reduce confusion and focus on the basics of nutrition — especially ensuring that Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables.

"The new icon is simple and easy to understand, with more emphasis placed on fruits and vegetables," Benjamin said in a statement released Thursday. "This new tool can be a fun way to help individuals and families make healthier meal choices." The new diagram vaguely resembles a pie chart, but there are no actual pies on this plate. Instead, the central circle is divided into four sections — fruits, vegetables, grains and protein — with a smaller circle next to it representing dairy. There are some casualties in the name of simplicity: Fats and oils are left off the plate, and unlike a recent incarnation of the food pyramid, there is no mention of exercise. Some critics also say the section for "protein" is oversimplified, since most Americans already get too much protein, and can also get it from other sections on the plate, including vegetables and dairy. Still, some nutritionists say MyPlate is an improvement over the often-criticized pyramid, helping make complex decisions more digestible for busy Americans. It should also help parents make wiser dietary decisions for their kids, according to the first lady.

"As a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country," Obama said Thursday. "When mom or dad comes home from a long day of work, we're already asked to be a chef, a referee, a cleaning crew. So it's tough to be a nutritionist, too. But we do have time to take a look at our kids' plates."

(Sources: Reuters, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor)

Russell McLendon

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Photo (forest in Utah): Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Photo (dairy cows in Connecticut): ZUMA Press

Photo (atomic bomb blast): U.S. Energy Department

Photo (jet stream seen from space): NASA

Photo (MyPlate logo):

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 6/3/2011
New superbug found, nukes cause 'boy booms,' jet streams may power world, and more.