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31-Day Undersea Mission has Been a Boon for Marine Scientists

A young researcher talks about Fabien Cousteau’s underwater living experiment

Three years ago, I dove 63 feet undersea at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to visit Aquarius — the world’s only remaining underwater research lab — and gawked through the portholes at the researchers (they are called “aquanauts,” by the way) living inside the 81 ton, 43 by 20 by 16.5 foot, yellow, not-quite submarine (it’s stationary). I’ve been fascinated with that lab ever since and have been keeping track of its fate, from its near death by federal budget cuts in 2012, to its miraculous rescue in 2013 by Florida International University (FIU).

Aquarius Reef BasePhoto by Kip Evans/Mission31Aquarius residents can spend up to nine hours a day diving to depths of 99 feet without risking decompression sickness — a gift of time that allows researchers to accomplish in a few days what would otherwise take several weeks or months of diving from a boat.

The Aquarius Reef Base, as it’s officially called, is all kinds of cool. The structure is pressurized so that researchers can live for weeks underwater. It can sleep six people, has hot water, power, and high speed Internet. Using a technique known as “saturation diving,” Aquarius residents can spend up to nine hours a day diving to depths of 99 feet without risking decompression sickness — a gift of time that allows researchers to accomplish in a few days what would otherwise take several weeks or months of diving from a boat. Built by the federal government and currently managed by FIU, the 27-year-old facility has hosted everyone from marine biologists studying ocean ecosystems and endangered corals to NASA astronauts training for near-zero gravity missions in space.

Right now the Aquarius is hosting a unique 31-day research and education outreach mission spearheaded by ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Fabien Cousteau. The Mission 31 expedition, which ends tomorrow, was conceived as an homage to the first underwater living experiments in the Red Sea 50 years ago pioneered by Cousteau’s grandfather, the legendary French ocean explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau. (Mission 31 is so named because it will last one day longer than that first expedition in 1963.)

A team of filmmakers and researchers dove to Aquarius with Cousteau on June 1. After 15 days, the FIU researchers traded places with researchers from Northeastern University, who will emerge from the waters with Cousteau and …more

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Yosemite National Park Was Created 150 Years Ago

Nature preserve planted the seed of an idea that has spread around the world

Adapted from Seed of the Future: Yosemite and the Evolution of the National Park Idea by Dayton Duncan. Copyright © 2013, used with permission from Yosemite Conservancy,

The idea that a nation’s most majestic and sacred places should be preserved for everyone, and for all time, is what we now call the national park idea. At age 150, the national park idea seems such a natural part of our landscape that we often forget that it wasn’t always so. We take it for granted that the grandest canyon on earth or the nation’s highest mountain or the world’s greatest collection of geysers would of course be protected from destruction or despoliation. We assume that an exquisite valley with the continent’s highest waterfalls and a grove of Creation’s biggest trees would of course be saved for future generations to enjoy and experience. “Of course,” we think, “that’s only natural. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it’s always been.” But in this last thought, we are mistaken.

Yosemite Valley Viewphoto by Trey Ratcliff/FlickrView of Yosemite Valley. From Yosemite the idea of national parks would spread to other places.

National parks are simultaneously very real places and the embodiment of an idea, and that idea found its first home in a very real place. The place was the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. From Yosemite the idea would spread to other places, evolving and changing as it grew and interacted with the world around it. Biology, ecology, evolution – and history, too – work that way: not just as mechanical processes of predictable cause and effect, but something more fluid, something that takes chance and choice and change into equal account, realizing the nearly infinite variables at play in the myriad interconnections of existence, and recognizing that the way things are now is not the only way things could have turned out.

Yosemite was not the world’s first national park. Yellowstone holds that distinction. But Yellowstone National Park’s creation came eight years after Yosemite was set aside by Congress and entrusted to the state of California. Its DNA was 99 percent that of Yosemite’s, the only difference being which level of government was in charge. On an evolutionary tree, Yellowstone is a branch of Yosemite – …more

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Death in the Wilderness

There is no one path to death in the forest. There are a myriad of dyings. And that is as it should be.

For me watching the red colobus monkeys in a small West African forest was an  addiction. I suppose this was my Downtown Abby and my Mad Men writ large. Absolutely nothing mattered except this soap opera. The world could be spinning out of control, tectonic plates colliding, but when I was with the colobus I was glued to the forest, mesmerized to the point of semi-insanity. I had to be there from absolute beginning to the very end and nothing, no one, absolutely no one, could disturb me. The characters spilt out onto the forest floor and up into the canopy and took over. Their dilemmas were my dilemmas. Their joys were my joys. Their pain was my pain. These were not simply long-tailed, pot-bellied, thumb-less monkeys in trees. These were my “friends.” I thought about them all the time. I dreamt about them. They became my obsessions.

Female colobus monkey with infantPhoto by Photo by Dawn StarinFor Dawn Starin, the colobus were "not simply long-tailed, pot-bellied, thumb-less monkeys in trees," they were her "friends.”

I needed their stories. I needed — absolutely desperately needed like a junkie’s need — to have the latest red colobus soap opera instalment of love and passion and success and failure. I needed this forest, its array of Dr. Seuss-like creatures and its Dali-esque vegetation, sunrises and sunsets.

For years I religiously, fanatically took my time samples, recorded the temperature and humidity, plotted the colobus movements on a map, described all social interactions and took photos of everything and anything. I noted all snake sightings, bushbuck sightings, sitatunga sightings, and patas and green monkey sightings. I constantly, compulsively collected facts. Relevant facts, irrelevant facts. It made no difference. In fact, I’m not even sure I was able to distinguish between the two. If something happened it found its way into my notebook.

If I was sick, if it was storming with death defying thunder and lightening, I still went into the forest way before sunrise and sat under the sleeping trees waiting for the colobus to wake up and start my day. I was afraid that if I missed one minute of their awake-time I would miss the one piece of the puzzle that would complete the picture.  I was convinced that whenever I was away from them there was going to be an Archimedes …more

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Proposed Federal Legislation Could Weaken Secret Legal Settlements

Future fracking cases could be affected

This April, Lisa and Robert Parr of Wise County, Texas won a widely-publicized $3 million verdict in a case alleging they had suffered health problems from pollution related to gas fracking. Last week, a Texas judge upheld that verdict and ordered the defendant, Aruba Petroleum, to pay up.

closeup photo of a woman's face, duct tape covers her mouthPhoto adapted from image by Katie TegtmeyerIt’s not known how many fracking cases have been settled prior to jury verdict, or under what terms, because of the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements.

Although the case was widely labeled as unprecedented, the reality is that the public doesn't know how many times fracking cases have been settled prior to jury verdict, or under what terms, because of the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements, in which the people involved in the lawsuit promise not to talk about the wrongdoing alleged in the lawsuit or the terms of their legal settlement.

Opponents of these confidentiality orders just got a major boost from an unexpected quarter: Senator Lindsay Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, have introduced a bill called the Sunshine in Litigation Act of 2014 that would effectively end gag orders when public health or safety could be at stake.

“Our legislation would require federal judges, in cases where the facts are relevant to public health and safety, to consider the public interest before issuing an order to seal court records or a settlement agreement,” explained Senator Graham as he announced the bill.

The two senators focused on the unfolding GM scandal in announcing their proposed legislation – but the bill also would have broad implications for environmental lawsuits.

“Concealment can kill, and so can secret settlements,” Senator Blumenthal told The New York Times. “By sealing court records of lawsuit settlements that show serious safety defects, judges are aiding and abetting more deaths, injuries and danger.”

These secrecy pacts have drawn criticism from legal experts who argue that the practice puts public health and safety at risk. “I think there are lives being lost every week in America, due to hazardous products and hazardous activities, as a result of secrecy agreements,” former Texas Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Doggett has said.

Supporters of non-disclosure agreements say barring confidentiality agreements …more

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Planning a Day at the Beach? Check the Water Quality First

Ten percent of America’s beach waters fail to meet EPA’s new safety standards, says NRDC report

Towel, check! Sunscreen, check! Flip flops, check! Water quality testing kit, check? According to a report released today, summer getaways to the sandy shoreline may be more damaging to personal health than good.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s 24th annual beach report, Testing the Waters, has found that 10 percent of all water quality samples collected last year contained bacteria levels that failed to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s new benchmark for swimmer safety. Samples were collected from nearly 3,500 US coastal and Great Lakes beaches. The findings confirm that serious water pollution persists at many American shores.

A busy beach scenePhoto by courtesy NRDCThe beach at Tybee Island North in Georgia's Chatham County made it to this year's superstar list. The report uses the EPA’s newly-created “Beach Action Value” as a benchmark.

Using the EPA’s newly-created “Beach Action Value” (BAV) as a benchmark, the report identified 35 popular “superstar” beaches with excellent water quality, and flagged 17 “repeat offenders” that exhibited chronic water pollution problems. (See chart)

According to the EPA, 3.5 million Americans contract illness from contact with raw sewage in public recreational waters each year. Many public health experts predict, however, that this number is actually much higher. “People who get sick from swimming in polluted recreational waters are not always aware of the cause of their illness and do not report it to doctors or local health officials,” the report states.

The main source of beach water contamination in the United States is storm water runoff. After big rainstorms, overworked drainage systems overflow and untreated sewage seeps into nearby waterways, placing beachgoers at acute risk of bacterial and viral disease. Children, the elderly, and pregnant women are most susceptible to illness from beach water pollution.

When deciding whether to issue precautionary public health warnings prior to 2013, state beach authorities relied on set, and rather lax, EPA water quality standards. These standards were inadequate, the report says. Under the old benchmarks, the EPA found it acceptable for 36 out of every 1,000 beachgoers to become ill with gastroenteritis, an intestinal and stomach infection that causes vomiting, nausea, and/or stomachache.

The EPA’s new Beach Action Value is lower than the value previously used, reducing the acceptable risk of exposure to 32 out of every 1,000 beachgoers. The BAV is not regulatory and only meant to provide guidance …more

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A Spark of New Energy in Africa

Graduate students craft a plan for the future of Africa’s power grid

Grace Wu and Ranjit Deshmukh grow vegetables in their garden, bicycle to school each day, and are rarely seen in clothes more formal than blue jeans and t-shirts. Though they seem to live a quiet life, these two graduate students from UC Berkeley are helping to design renewable energy systems employed on a continent-wide scale half a world away.

photo of children looking at a solar generatorphoto by Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), on FlickrSolar generator in Benin

Last year, Wu designed a computer program to site solar and wind energy development in the western United States. Then she and Deshmukh refined the model to map renewable electricity potential in India. Now the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental group that represents more than 100 countries across the globe, is contracting the pair as technical research partners for a new project to green Africa’s power grid.

In collaboration with researchers at the agency and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Wu and Deshmukh are working with officials from 22 countries in eastern and southern Africa to identify zones that are well-suited for development of electricity production from wind, solar, and geothermal energy. “This is part of a multi-step process that aims to increase the amount of renewable energy in the African grid,” Wu says.

This isn’t a typical academic project that languishes in the ivory tower. Stakeholders in the 22 different governments affiliated with the project “have the potential and the actual desire to implement the work we’re doing,” Wu says.

It’s no surprise that African nations are looking to produce more power. Frequent electricity shortages stifle economic growth and limit quality of life. If the energy currently generated on the continent were equally distributed, it would only be enough to turn on one standard light bulb per person for a scant three hours a day. In many parts of eastern and southern Africa, hospitals and industries resort to using diesel generators during blackouts.

“Africa is in infrastructure dire straits,” Wu says. “They don’t have enough infrastructure for the kind of growth that they want to achieve.”

Though most of Africa currently runs on coal, international organizations like the Inernational Renewable Energy Agency and the African Development Bank are encouraging the continent to use more renewable energy. In eastern …more

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Feds Considering Allowing Fracking Near World Heritage Site, Chaco Canyon

Oil extraction would threaten archaeological treasures

Most people think that US National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites would be buffered from industrial extraction like fracking for oil. But during the last two weeks of May, we were at Earthworks were forced to think again and reconsider if that assumption is true.

Fajada Butte in Chaco CanyonPhoto by John FiveashThe Bureau of Land Management is amending its land management plan to flitate oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin that's home to the Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is writing a new management plan for a multi-million acre swatch of public lands in northwestern New Mexico. Contained within this area is the treasured Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. One of less than a dozen UNESCO sites in the western United States, Chaco Canyon includes the ruins of what were the largest buildings in North America 1,000 years ago.

The hub of the Chacoan society is a series of well designed villages that at one point housed some 6,000 people who navigated the surrounding countryside using perfectly straight roadways etched into the landscape. Chaco Canyon is called the “American Cradle of Civilization,” and the descendants of the Chaco culture include several modern Southwest tribal nations. The Chaco ruins are considered sacred sites by the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples.

The Chacoans, of course, didn’t know that their communities were built atop the Mancos Shale, or that one day the US government would prioritize oil over culture and communities.

The BLM plan is being amended to help facilitate oil and gas development — particularly fracking — in the San Juan Basin. In response, Earthworks and partners took action, sending alerts through our networks encouraging the boss of the BLM — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell — to use her authority to protect the lands surrounding Chaco Canyon from oil and gas development. In just a few weeks, 173,000 people took action, flooding the BLM's inboxes, as well as those of other lawmakers within the region, with a simple message: “protect these unique places from oil and gas development.”

photoname Photo by John/FlickrThe Chaco Canyon is called the “American Cradle of Civilization,” and the Chaco ruins are
considered sacred sites by the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples.

This more

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