When did Donald Trump become an environmentalist?

Well before he became a presidential candidate, Donald Trump professed a deep concern about the welfare of birds endangered by wind turbines:

“[Wind power] kills all the birds,” Trump told 2012 Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain on the latter’s radio show Tuesday. “Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California — they’ve killed so many eagles. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds.”

Wind turbines do kill birds — but not in the numbers Trump claims.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported in 2018, based on data published between 2008 and 2015, that:

Bird/turbine collisions in California are estimated to be an average 7.85 birds/turbine/year, higher than in the East (6.86 birds/turbines/year), the West (4.72 birds/turbine/year), and the Great Plains (2.92 birds/turbine/year).

The agency says that in aggregate:

The most comprehensive and statistically sound estimates show that bird deaths from turbine collisions are between 140,000 and 500,000 birds per year. As wind energy capacity increases under the DOE’s mandate (a six-fold increase from current levels), statistical models predict that mean bird deaths resulting in collisions with turbines could reach 1.4 million birds/year.

But during his first year in office, it was clear how much concern Trump actually had about birds. In December, 2017, Huffpost reported:

In a reversal of yet another Obama-era rule, the Trump administration has moved to protect energy companies and other parties from being prosecuted for unintentionally killing migratory bird species.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 only prohibits the intentional hunting, capturing or killing of bird species, according to a legal opinion the Interior Department’s solicitor’s office published Friday. Accidental deaths, including those caused by oil rigs, wind turbines and power lines, will no longer violate federal law.

So where does Trump’s opposition to wind turbines come from? The clearest articulation of his concern almost certainly relates to the value of his golf courses and his expectation that their appeal to customers would diminish if wind turbines were allowed to spoil the surrounding views.

As Trump wrote to Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond in 2012:

Wind turbines in inappropriate locations are a disastrous mistake for Scotland. They will certainly be very destructive to major golf resorts (such as mine) and tourism will greatly suffer.

Trump made no reference to the threat to birds.

In another letter to Salmond, Trump predicted that the installation of wind turbines would result in Scotland becoming “a third world wasteland that global investors will avoid.” Again, no mention of birds.

Among the human-caused threats to birds, the greatest currently comes from domestic cats that kill an estimated average of 2.4 billion birds a year in the U.S. After that, the largest hazard is posed by buildings — especially the kind that Trump owns — that kill an estimated average of 600 million a year. Moreover, as The Guardian now reports, that figure may be as high as a billion:

Scientists estimate that at least 100 million and maybe as many as a billion birds die each year in the US when they collide with buildings, especially glass-covered or illuminated skyscrapers. And, in a new report, conservationists now have a better idea which American cities are the deadliest for those on the wing.

Chicago, with its many glass superstructures that spike into what is the busiest US avian airspace during migration, is the most dangerous city for those feathered travelers. More than 5 million birds from at least 250 different species fly through the Windy City’s downtown every fall and spring.

They journey twice a year, many thousands of miles, going north in the spring from Central and South America, across the Great Lakes to Canada, and back south in the fall.

So wherever Trump brags about owning the tallest building, it’s reasonable to also infer it’s the building that kills the most birds.

Insects have ‘no place to hide’ from climate change, study warns

The Guardian reports:

Insects have “no place to hide” from climate change, scientists have warned, following an analysis of 50 years of UK data.

The study showed that woodlands, whose shade was expected to protect species from warming temperatures, are being just as affected by climate change as open grasslands.

The research examined the first springtime flights of butterflies, moths and aphids and the first eggs of birds between 1965 and 2012. As average temperatures have risen, aphids are now emerging a month earlier, while birds were laying eggs a week earlier. The scientists said this can mean animals become “out of sync” with their prey, with potentially serious ramifications for ecosystems.

Researchers are increasingly concerned about dramatic drops in populations of insects, which underpin much of nature. Some warned in February that these falls threaten a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems” and the widespread loss of pollinating insects in recent decades in Britain was revealed in March.

Other studies, from Germany and Puerto Rico, have shown plunging numbers in the last 25-35 years, while new research shows butterflies have declined by at least 84% in the Netherlands over the last 130 years. [Continue reading…]

Is methane in Mars’ atmosphere evidence of life?

The New York Times reports:

Methane gas periodically wafts into the atmosphere of Mars; that notion, once considered implausible and perplexing, is now widely accepted by planetary scientists.

Why the methane is there is still a bewildering mystery. It may even point to present-day Martian microbes living in the rocks below the surface.

In Nature Geoscience on Monday, scientists working with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter reported that in the summer of 2013, the spacecraft detected methane within Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide depression near the Martian equator.

That is noteworthy, because NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring that region since 2011, and in the summer of 2013 it, too, measured a marked rise of methane in the air that lasted at least two months.

“Our finding constitutes the first independent confirmation of a methane detection,” said Marco Giuranna, a scientist at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy, in an email. Dr. Giuranna is principal investigator for the Mars Express instrument that made the measurements.

The presence of methane is significant because the gas decays quickly. Calculations indicate that sunlight and chemical reactions in the thin Martian atmosphere would break up the molecules within a few hundred years, so any methane detected must have been created recently. [Continue reading…]

Evidence of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth

Douglas Preston writes:

If, on a certain evening about sixty-­six million years ago, you had stood somewhere in North America and looked up at the sky, you would have soon made out what appeared to be a star. If you watched for an hour or two, the star would have seemed to grow in brightness, although it barely moved. That’s because it was not a star but an asteroid, and it was headed directly for Earth at about forty-five thousand miles an hour. Sixty hours later, the asteroid hit. The air in front was compressed and violently heated, and it blasted a hole through the atmosphere, generating a supersonic shock wave. The asteroid struck a shallow sea where the Yucatán peninsula is today. In that moment, the Cretaceous period ended and the Paleogene period began.

A few years ago, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory used what was then one of the world’s most powerful computers, the so-called Q Machine, to model the effects of the impact. The result was a slow-motion, second-by-second false-color video of the event. Within two minutes of slamming into Earth, the asteroid, which was at least six miles wide, had gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and lofted twenty-five trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. Picture the splash of a pebble falling into pond water, but on a planetary scale. When Earth’s crust rebounded, a peak higher than Mt. Everest briefly rose up. The energy released was more than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs, but the blast looked nothing like a nuclear explosion, with its signature mushroom cloud. Instead, the initial blowout formed a “rooster tail,” a gigantic jet of molten material, which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America. Much of the material was several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and it set fire to everything within a thousand miles. In addition, an inverted cone of liquefied, superheated rock rose, spread outward as countless red-hot blobs of glass, called tektites, and blanketed the Western Hemisphere.

Some of the ejecta escaped Earth’s gravitational pull and went into irregular orbits around the sun. Over millions of years, bits of it found their way to other planets and moons in the solar system. Mars was eventually strewn with the debris—just as pieces of Mars, knocked aloft by ancient asteroid impacts, have been found on Earth. A 2013 study in the journal Astrobiology estimated that tens of thousands of pounds of impact rubble may have landed on Titan, a moon of Saturn, and on Europa and Callisto, which orbit Jupiter—three satellites that scientists believe may have promising habitats for life. Mathematical models indicate that at least some of this vagabond debris still harbored living microbes. The asteroid may have sown life throughout the solar system, even as it ravaged life on Earth. [Continue reading…]

The plague killing frogs everywhere is far worse than scientists thought

Carl Zimmer reports:

On Thursday, 41 scientists published the first worldwide analysis of a fungal outbreak that’s been wiping out frogs for decades. The devastation turns out to be far worse than anyone had previously realized.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers conclude that populations of more than 500 species of amphibians have declined significantly because of the outbreak — including at least 90 species presumed to have gone extinct. The figure is more than twice as large as earlier estimates.

“That’s fairly seismic,” said Wendy Palen, a biologist at Simon Fraser University who is a co-author of a commentary accompanying the study. “It now earns the moniker of the most deadly pathogen known to science.”

Scientists first noticed in the 1970s that some frog populations were declining quickly; by the 1980s, some species appeared to be extinct. The losses were puzzling, because the frogs were living in pristine habitats, unharmed by pollution or deforestation. [Continue reading…]

Mitochondria are much more than the powerhouses inside cells

Diana Kwon writes:

Of all the organelles to be found inside eukaryotic cells, the DNA-sheltering nuclei might be the best-known, but the mitochondria are surely not far behind. Mitochondria are familiar as bean-shaped structures floating in the cytoplasm, and they are almost inevitably referred to as “powerhouses” of the cell because they generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel for most metabolic processes. For more than a century, biologists believed that energy production was their only role.

But that simple picture of mitochondria is turning out to be shockingly incomplete.

Mitochondria may look static and uniform in textbooks, but as researchers recognized early on, in reality the organelles change shape constantly through cycles of fusion (in which they combine and elongate) and fission (in which they split and shrink). They form highly dynamic, short-lived tubular networks threading throughout a cell. Recently, it has become clear that mitochondria also perform signaling and regulatory functions that are only indirectly related to their job as energy providers. In the past few years, research has revealed that one of their key roles is in controlling the development and ultimate role of stem cells.

Now scientists at the University of Ottawa in Canada have provided evidence that the morphing shapes of mitochondria powerfully influence neurogenesis, the development of neurons. In making this discovery, the scientists have pieced together a connection between the organelle’s shape transitions and how it carries out its signaling functions. [Continue reading…]

How the body and mind talk to one another to understand the world

By Sarah Garfinkel

Have you ever been startled by someone suddenly talking to you when you thought you were alone? Even when they apologise for surprising you, your heart goes on pounding in your chest. You are very aware of this sensation. But what kind of experience is it, and what can it tell us about relations between the heart and the brain?

When considering the senses, we tend to think of sight and sound, taste, touch and smell. However, these are classified as exteroceptive senses, that is, they tell us something about the outside world. In contrast, interoception is a sense that informs us about our internal bodily sensations, such as the pounding of our heart, the flutter of butterflies in our stomach or feelings of hunger.

The brain represents, integrates and prioritises interoceptive information from the internal body. These are communicated through a set of distinct neural and humoural (ie, blood-borne) pathways. This sensing of internal states of the body is part of the interplay between body and brain: it maintains homeostasis, the physiological stability necessary for survival; it provides key motivational drivers such as hunger and thirst; it explicitly represents bodily sensations, such as bladder distension. But that is not all, and herein lies the beauty of interoception, as our feelings, thoughts and perceptions are also influenced by the dynamic interaction between body and brain.

[Read more…]

The ocean is running out of oxygen, scientists warn

Laura Poppick writes:

Escaping predators, digestion and other animal activities—including those of humans—require oxygen. But that essential ingredient is no longer so easy for marine life to obtain, several new studies reveal.

In the past decade ocean oxygen levels have taken a dive—an alarming trend that is linked to climate change, says Andreas Oschlies, an oceanographer at the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany, whose team tracks ocean oxygen levels worldwide. “We were surprised by the intensity of the changes we saw, how rapidly oxygen is going down in the ocean and how large the effects on marine ecosystems are,” he says.

It is no surprise to scientists that warming oceans are losing oxygen, but the scale of the dip calls for urgent attention, Oschlies says. Oxygen levels in some tropical regions have dropped by a startling 40 percent in the last 50 years, some recent studies reveal. Levels have dropped more subtly elsewhere, with an average loss of 2 percent globally.

Ocean animals large and small, however, respond to even slight changes in oxygen by seeking refuge in higher oxygen zones or by adjusting behavior, Oschlies and others in his field have found. These adjustments can expose animals to new predators or force them into food-scarce regions. Climate change already poses serious problems for marine life, such as ocean acidification, but deoxygenation is the most pressing issue facing sea animals today, Oschlies says. After all, he says, “they all have to breathe.” [Continue reading…]

Frans de Waal embraces animal emotions in ‘Mama’s Last Hug’

Sy Montgomery writes:

The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”


Other authors have explored animal emotion, including Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy in “When Elephants Weep” (1995) and Marc Bekoff in “The Emotional Lives of Animals” (2007). Still others have concentrated on a specific emotion, such as Jonathan Balcombe in “Pleasurable Kingdom” (2006) and Barbara J. King in “How Animals Grieve” (2013).

“Mama’s Last Hug” takes these seminal works a step further, making this book even bolder and more important than its companion volume, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” de Waal’s 2016 best seller.

For too long, emotion has been cognitive researchers’ third rail. In research on humans, emotions were deemed irrelevant, impossible to study or beneath scientific notice. Animal emotions were simply ignored. But nothing could be more essential to understanding how people and animals behave. By examining emotions in both, this book puts these most vivid of mental experiences in evolutionary context, revealing how their richness, power and utility stretch across species and back into deep time. [Continue reading…]

No marine ecosystems left that are unaffected by plastic waste, study suggests

The Guardian reports:

The world’s deepest ocean trenches are becoming “the ultimate sink” for plastic waste, according to a study that reveals contamination of animals even in these dark, remote regions of the planet.

For the first time, scientists found microplastic ingestion by organisms in the Mariana trench and five other areas with a depth of more than 6,000 metres, prompting them to conclude “it is highly likely there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by plastic pollution”.

The paper, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, highlights the threat posed by non-biodegradable substances in clothes, containers and packaging, which make their way from household bins via dump sites and rivers to the oceans, where they break up and sink to the floor.

The impact of plastic in shallower waters – where it chokes dolphins, whales and seabirds – is already well documented in academic journals and by TV programmes such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. But the study shows this problem is far more profound than previously realised. [Continue reading…]