Special detective team wades in when Florida sea creatures die in droves

By Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post/Seattle Times

SARASOTA, Fla. — In the summer and fall of 2005, marine animals suddenly started dying off the southwest Florida coast, with scores of bottlenose dolphins, manatees and turtles washing up on shore. In October alone, 22 dolphins became stranded and died, compared with the usual monthly average of three.

Hoping to unravel the mystery, nearly 50 researchers, part of the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events, commissioned a study of the deaths. After taking samples from 130 stranded dolphins, they concluded that red tide — an algae bloom that creates a neurotoxin known as brevetoxin — caused the massive die-off.

In the 16 years since it was formed under the auspices of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the working group has investigated scores of similar events. It is detecting a rising number of die-offs — at the moment the panel is handling eight such cases simultaneously, an unprecedented high that reflects the environmental pressures on marine mammals and the nation’s increasingly broad scientific stranding network.

Experts believe a range of factors are contributing to the algae blooms and viruses linked to the die-offs, including nutrient runoff from farming, rising ocean temperatures and discarded waste such as cat litter.

Now, the working group has 12 permanent members and enlists a shifting group of volunteer experts from the United States and overseas to help diagnose each die-off. The working group has evolved into the federal government’s top detective team for these events.

Randall Wells, who heads the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program at the private Mote Marine Laboratory and helped study the 2005 red tide, said he and his colleagues are still struggling to figure out whether environmental contaminants or other factors might have weakened the mammals that fell prey to the 2005 algae bloom.

“It is so hard to do the detective work to pick all those things apart,” he said.

Just last week, the rapid-response team sprang into action again after 64 dead bottlenose dolphins and numerous fish washed ashore on the Texas and Louisiana coasts within roughly three weeks.

Teri Rowles, senior scientist for NOAA’s marine-mammal mortality program, said experts are examining the stranded dolphins’ organs, taking tissue samples and extracting their lymph nodes so that NOAA scientists elsewhere can do DNA and RNA analyses, and the Coast Guard has lent air support to survey the waters for more dead animals.

“This most important thing for us, when we have an incident like this, is to see people and agencies and scientists come together to try to solve the problem,” Rowles said, adding that the working group’s tight budget — it has received just $1.3 million in designated federal funding since 2001 — hampers its ability to conduct quick analyses when an incident strikes. “It’s quite frustrating to look at 60 dead animals and not have a rapid answer.”

Congress chartered the working group after two large dolphin die-offs in the late 1980s off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. The group — which enlists a variety of experts that include epidemiologists, clinical veterinarians, immunologists, and ecotoxicologists — has studied 39 incidents so far.

Typically, marine scientists first try to determine whether a virus or an algae bloom is to blame. Rowles said she is concerned that the morbilli virus, which is similar to distemper in dogs and killed tens of thousands of European animals in 2004, may be responsible for the recent dolphin deaths in Texas and Louisiana. The virus has affected marine mammals off the Florida coast in the past, and it can spread quickly through a large population of animals.

Many dolphins are already decomposed when they wash ashore, Rowles added, making it even more difficult for scientists to make a diagnosis.

Frances Gulland, who has collaborated with the working group on several cases and directs veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., said a major increase in gray whale strandings in Alaska less than a decade ago illustrates how global warming is affecting the region.

“There are some big changes in the Bering Sea ecosystem, likely due to climate change,” Gulland said. “Something has changed in the Arctic, and we need to start being concerned.”

Gulland has also studied why dozens of California sea lions started having seizures in 1998. She and other scientists ultimately determined that domoic acid, a biotoxin that can cause disease and death in humans, caused the sea lions’ illnesses and deaths. The toxin stemmed from an algae bloom off the California coast.

Gulland added marine mammals dying in waves can serve as indicators for human health: “They can be early messengers, really, for broader changes” such as rising pollution levels and global warming.


San Francisco passes plastic-bag ban

By Lisa Leff

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

SAN FRANCISCO — City leaders approved a ban on plastic grocery bags after weeks of lobbying on both sides from environmentalists and a supermarket trade group. San Francisco would be the first U.S. city to adopt such a rule if Mayor Gavin Newsom signs the ban as expected.

The law, approved 10-1, requires large markets and drug stores to offer customers bags made of paper that can be recycled, plastic that breaks down easily enough to be made into compost, or reusable cloth.

San Francisco supervisors and supporters said that by banning the petroleum-based sacks, blamed for littering streets and choking marine life, the measure would go a long way toward helping the city earn its green stripes.

“Hopefully, other cities and states will follow suit,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who crafted the ban after trying to get a 15-cent per bag tax passed in 2005.

The 50 grocery stores that would be most affected by the law argued that the ban was not reasonable because plastic bags made of corn byproducts are a relatively new, expensive and untested product. Some said they might offer only paper bags at checkout.

“I think what grocers will do now that this has passed is, they will review all their options and decide what they think works best for them economically,” said David Heylen, a spokesman for the California Grocers Association.

Newsom supported the measure. The switch is scheduled to take effect in six months for grocery stores and in one year for pharmacies.

Craig Noble, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it would be disappointing if grocers rejected the biodegradable plastic bag option, since more trees would have to be cut down if paper bag use increases.

The new breed of bags “offers consumers a way out of a false choice, a way out of the paper or plastic dilemma,” Noble said.

Global warming study: Rising sea levels a threat to major cities

By Thomas Wagner
The Seattle Times/Associated Press

LONDON — More than two-thirds of the world’s large cities are in areas vulnerable to global warming and rising sea levels, and millions of people are at risk of being swamped by flooding and intense storms, according to a new study released today.

In all, 634 million people live in the threatened coastal areas worldwide — defined as those lying at less than 33 feet above sea level — and the number is growing, said the study published in the journal Environment and Urbanization.

More than 180 countries have populations in low-elevation coastal zones, and about 70 percent of those have urban areas of more than 5 million people that are under threat. Among them: Tokyo; New York; Mumbai, India; Shanghai, China; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The peer-reviewed scientific study said it is the first to identify the world’s low-lying coastal areas that are vulnerable to global warming and rising sea levels. It said 75 percent of all people living in vulnerable areas are in Asia, with poorer nations most at risk.

The study gives no time frame for rising sea levels or the potential flooding in individual countries. It warns, however, the solution to the problem will not be cheap and may involve relocating people and building protective engineering structures. And, it adds, nations should consider halting or reducing population growth in coastal areas.

“Migration away from the zone at risk will be necessary but costly and hard to implement, so coastal settlements will also need to be modified to protect residents,” said Gordon McGranahan of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, a co-author of the study.

The other two co-authors of the study are Deborah Balk of the City University of New York and Bridget Anderson of Columbia University.

Separately, the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a draft copy of a report expected to be released next week that coastlines are already showing the impact of sea-level rise. The draft copy, obtained by The Associated Press, said about 100 million people each year could be flooded by rising seas by 2080.

The draft copy warned that two biggest cities in North America — Los Angeles and New York — are at risk of a combination of sea-level rise and violent storms. By 2090, in a worst-case scenario, megafloods that normally would hit North America once every 100 years “could occur as frequently as every three to four years,” the draft said.

Legislature likely to let electric cars speed up

By Andrew Garber

The Seattle Times

Olympia, WA — Geneva Sullivan loves almost everything about her electric car — the way it looks, its quiet power, the fact it doesn’t belch fumes. She just wishes it could go faster.

“I was so concerned I had lettering put on the back, so people would know I can only go 25 miles per hour,” said Sullivan, whose company, Espresso Vivace, uses the car to haul coffee beans to its stores around Seattle. “I sure would like it to go 35 mph.”

Sullivan could soon get her wish. The Legislature is expected to pass a law that would let electric cars like hers zip along at 35 mph, which is the top speed on many city streets.

State lawmakers passed legislation in 2003 that allowed low-speed, battery-powered vehicles on city streets but limited them to 25 mph. Dealers could not sell four-wheeled models that went faster. But back then, many of the so-called “neighborhood electric vehicles” looked like souped-up golf carts.

Vehicle specs

The details on a Dynasty IT sedan similar to Geneva Sullivan’s:

Size: Four-door sedan; 90-inch wheelbase; 140 inches long; 60 inches wide; 63 inches high; weighs 1,450 pounds

Range: 30.4 miles on a single charge

Maximum speed: 24.5 mph

Price: Sullivan paid about $18,000.

Acceleration: 0 to 24 mph in 10 seconds

Maximum recharge time: 11 ½ hours

Source: Dynasty Electric Car Corp.

Nowadays, the newer models — such as the one Sullivan owns — look like real cars. They’re enclosed, with heaters, windshields, seat belts, impact-resistant bodies, and often come with either unibody construction or safety cages. They’re recharged by simply plugging into a standard electrical outlet.

The cars have not passed federal safety tests, so they aren’t legal to use on highways, such as Interstate 5 or Highway 99. But that’s not what they’re designed for anyway, boosters say.
Electric-car dealers in the Seattle area predict a surge of interest in the vehicles if House Bill 1820 becomes law. The measure has already passed the House and is expected to be approved by the Senate. They also expect new types of electric cars to be imported from Europe. The cars cost from under $10,000 to around $18,000.

While a boost of 10 mph might not sound like much, it’s a big deal, said Greg Rock, co-founder of the Green Car Co. in Kirkland.

“Electric cars have been kept alive with the low-speed-vehicle law — vehicles that can go 25 mph. But they really are only functional for, like, golf communities. If you live in Seattle and plan to drive from your house to a grocery store, most of the time the road between you and there is 35 miles per hour,” Rock said.

“You’re constantly holding up traffic and you feel like a putz.”

Rock said he sells three-wheeled electric cars that are classified as motorcycles and thus can go 35 mph or more because the 25-mph cap doesn’t apply to motorcycles. However, he plans to start selling four-wheeled cars if the new speed limit is approved.

Electric cars in Washington

Total statewide: 369

In King County: 107

In Snohomish County: 44

In Pierce County: 20

In Kitsap County: 7

Source: State Department of Licensing

Steve Mayeda, vice president of sales at MC Electric Vehicles in Seattle, expects more people would buy an electric car if it could just go a bit faster.

“There are two reasons why they don’t buy the car. One is that it doesn’t go far enough. The other is that it doesn’t go fast enough. The distance issue I can explain to people. You really don’t drive as far as you think you drive,” he said. “The speed thing, I can’t help them with that.”

Mayeda said many of the electric cars being sold today, such as Sullivan’s, can be easily upgraded to travel at 35 mph. “It’s just a couple of buttons on a computer. You plug it into this controller and the car goes 35 miles per hour,” he said.

Electric cars available today generally carry two to four people and can travel 20 to 35 miles, or more, on a single charge. The range varies depending on the make and model.

The batteries can last three to five years and cost around $800 to $900 to replace, local dealers say. People typically recharge the batteries overnight by plugging the car into a standard outlet.

“It costs 2 cents per mile to drive a light electric vehicle, and it costs 13 to 14 cents per mile to drive a 20-miles-per-gallon car,” Rock said. “It’s a great way for people to insulate themselves from the costs of transportation that are coming.”

Sullivan said she and her husband bought their four-door electric car, a Dynasty IT, for around $18,000 last year. It is driven about four miles a day, well within its range.

“It was philosophical for us. We’re both bicyclists,” said Sullivan, 49. “We’re both big on the environment and try to have as little impact as possible.”

Danial Reid, the head roaster for Vivace, often drives the car. He gets a lot of stares: “I can never think of one time I’ve parked the car and gotten out and not had someone ask me about it.”

Joanna Loehr, 64, gets the same reaction to her ZENN electric car in Port Townsend. “People follow me home to find out about the car,” she said.

Loehr and her husband use the two-seater to run errands around town and, at most, drive about 10 miles on a single charge. Loehr said the car has a 30-mile range, though they’ve never tested it.

“It sort of feels like a VW Beetle from years ago. I just enjoy riding in it,” she said. “It’s kind of like riding around town on your bicycle. You’re close to the ground and you sort of feel like a part of your environment.”

But like Sullivan, she’d like to go faster. “Even though our speed limit is 25 mph, there are a lot of people who tend to go 30 mph. So they sort of pile up behind me … ,” she said. “If I could go 30, that would be just great.”

Confront global warming, Gore tells Congress

By David A. Fahrenthold

The Seattle Times/Washington Post
Contributions by The Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President and now environmental activist Al Gore descended on Capitol Hill Wednesday, telling two congressional panels that global climate change represents the most dangerous crisis in American history and that the measures needed to fix the problem are far more drastic than anything currently on the table.

Gore, whose documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” won two Academy Awards, testified before both House and Senate committees in an appearance that drew international media attention and lines of would-be spectators in the hallways.

In both hearings, he had testy exchanges with lawmakers who cast doubts on his scientific evidence or the feasibility of his solutions, such as an immediate freeze on new emissions from cars and power plants.

“This is not a normal time. We are facing a planetary emergency,” Gore said in the afternoon Senate hearing. “I’m fully aware that that phrase sounds shrill to many people’s ears. But it is accurate.”

Gore, who served a combined 16 years in the House and Senate before becoming vice president in 1992, had not made such a public appearance on Capitol Hill since he lost the 2000 presidential election.

In both hearings, Gore took criticism from Republican lawmakers. The toughest sparring was with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who contends that climate change is a hoax.

Inhofe criticized Gore for using too much energy in his Tennessee home, and he also listed a number of scientists who he said had broken with Gore about the reality — or the danger — of warming temperatures.

“Are they all wrong, and you’re right?” he asked.

Inhofe also dismissed Gore’s list of proposed solutions, which include taxation of polluters, by saying he believed they would offer little environmental benefit.

“It’s something that we just can’t do to America,” Inhofe said. “And we’re not going to do it.”
Outside of those exchanges, many legislators greeted Gore warmly, hailing him as the country’s loudest voice on climate change, the instigator of a growing movement.

“You have acted for us,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the Senate committee chair. “You have acted more than anyone else.”

In his talk, Gore described briefly the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change. Scientists say emissions of “greenhouse gases,” primarily carbon dioxide emitted by cars and power plants, are accumulating in the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate and trapping more of the sun’s heat.

A U.N. report in February concluded it was “very likely” that man-made gases were behind most of the increase in global temperatures over the past 50 years.

Gore told the panels Wednesday that rising global temperatures could cause polar ice to melt and sea levels to rise, and increase the likelihood of droughts, wildfires and intense hurricanes.

Among his proposed solutions: a pollution tax, an immediate freeze on carbon-dioxide emissions with sharp reductions in future years, stricter vehicle miles-per-gallon rules, a moratorium on construction of highly polluting coal-fired power plants, a strong global climate-change treaty and the creation of a federally operated Carbon Neutral Mortgage Association that would serve as an incentive for building energy-efficient homes.

Gore acknowledged that almost all these measures go well beyond anything lawmakers have contemplated so far.

“This is a challenge to our moral imagination,” he said.

US developing system to track global warming gas


NEW YORK – The United States is developing a system to track atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, which could help scientists project future climate change, a government researcher said.

The CarbonTracker monitors carbon dioxide levels throughout North America to create an Internet-based map. Carbon-emitting areas, such as cities and industry centers, show up in red and carbon sinks, such as forests, are represented in blue.

Pieter Tans, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s greenhouse gas cycles group, which created the system, said it could help researchers verify their climate models. It could also facilitate any future trade in carbon credits by monitoring whether industries are actually cutting emissions, he said.

The tracker will soon use more data from sources, including monitors in airplanes and countries beyond North America, to broaden the map.

“We hope this will evolve into a much denser network, so we can say meaningful things about whether states or large metropolitan areas are successful in limiting net emissions of CO2,” Tans said in a telephone interview.

The United States, the world’s top emitter of carbon dioxide, does not regulate greenhouse gases.

But banks, as well as carbon trading firms that took shape when the European Union started trading carbon credits in 2005, are gearing up for potential U.S. trade. They take heart in the growing political pressure in the country to tackle climate change by putting mandatory limits on the gas.

Canada’s federal environment office, Environment Canada, provided a quarter of the data for the project, Tans said.

Tans said the project was working with researchers from China and India to try to expand the project to those countries, which are growing carbon emitters.

“Zero-energy” homes planned in Issaquah

By Sonia Krishnan
The Seattle Times

Your future home could come from the recycling bin.

Solar energy would power it.

The best part? Utility bills would be next to nothing.

They’re called “zero-energy” homes — homes designed to produce as much electricity as they consume. And in Issaquah, city officials are planning an unusual partnership with a builder to construct King County’s first community by 2009.

“This would be the first step in a new paradigm for green development,” said Brad Liljequist, sustainable-building and lead urban-design consultant for the Issaquah project.

The 10 energy-saving town houses in the Issaquah Highlands will be aimed at the median market.

“We don’t want this to be for an exclusive few,” he said.

The city’s efforts follow in the path of a U.S. Department of Energy program pushing zero-energy home construction. “Building America” began in 1995, with a goal to trim household energy use by 70 percent by 2020.

About 2,000 zero-energy homes have been built around the country since 2003, said Tim Merrigan, senior program manager for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.
Federal and state tax credits, coupled with financial incentives from utility companies, are driving the trend forward, builders say.

While the ultimate goal is to get to zero, most homes end up slashing utility bills 50 percent to 70 percent, Merrigan said.

That’s enough to draw increasing numbers of buyers in fast-growing states such as Arizona and California, where residents face some of the nation’s highest energy costs. In Washington state, another zero-energy community is planned for Lopez Island, San Juan County.

The timing seems ripe.

In November, the environmental catchphrase “carbon neutral” was selected as The New Oxford American Dictionary’s “Word of the Year.” Three months later, a team of international climate scientists declared humans to blame for global warming. And late last month, former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” won an Oscar.

“You could say it’s reached a tipping point,” Merrigan said.

Residential buildings in America contributed 21 percent of the country’s carbon-dioxide emissions to the environment in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Inefficient heating and cooling systems, poor insulation and energy-sucking appliances, such as outdated refrigerators, are mostly to blame for high fuel consumption.

Then there’s the “standby factor.”

Keeping appliances such as stereos, computers and televisions plugged in all day consumes between 500 and 1,000 kilowatt-hours a year per household, said Alan Meier, scientist for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who has written on the phenomenon.

That’s comparable to about one month of power consumption, he said, and equals at least 700 pounds in carbon-dioxide emissions.

“Standby power is one of the biggest obstacles to achieving a zero-energy home,” Meier said.
In Issaquah, staff members say they’re undeterred by the challenges. The City Council recently approved $50,000 to study the project. Over the next two years, the city plans to collaborate with a builder and develop the project’s design and energy-efficient standards. It will run an educational program for homebuilders and homeowners once the project is built.

The town homes would sit on a half-acre on Northeast High Street in the Issaquah Highlands. The proposed site was donated by Port Blakely Communities, developer of the Highlands, to use as a demonstration tool for future homebuilding, said Judd Kirk, president of Port Blakely.

According to preliminary plans, the homes will range from 500 to 1,700 square feet. The project would:

• Reduce water use by 50 percent over the average household by installing low-flush toilets that use stormwater collected from rooftops and filtered in a nearby tank. This reclaimed water would not be used for drinking or showering.

• Produce no stormwater discharge through green roofs and permeable pavement.

• Use a “very high percentage” of locally sourced or recycled materials.

• Use highly durable materials, such as metal roofing instead of asphalt shingles and hardwood floors instead of carpeting.

Issaquah is ahead of most cities when it comes to building “green,” environmental advocates say. In 2004, for instance, the city hosted tours and seminars on the Built Green Idea Home — a model home in the Highlands — to inspire people about eco-friendly choices.

“We’re trying to be responsive to climate change,” said David Fujimoto, manager of Issaquah’s resource-conservation office. “Our goal is to really push the envelope and encourage new construction to achieve the highest level of environmental performance possible.”

Recycled materials play a big role in zero-energy homes. Lumber planks made from wood and plastic bottles are used for decks, doors or window frames. And fibers taken from recycled newspapers are turned into insulation.

Using the latest technology, zero-energy homes are fitted with rooftop solar panels that convert the sun’s rays into electricity.

During the Northwest’s long summer days, the homes would send extra kilowatts back to the local utility grid. In the dark winter months, the homes would draw on that power. At the end of the year, the home’s net energy use should, theoretically, equal zero.

Most zero-energy homes also come with tankless water heaters, energy-efficient appliances, heavy insulation and improved air-conditioning and heating systems.

The intricate systems help keep indoor temperatures stable, said Chuck Murray, energy specialist for Washington State University and a consultant for Issaquah’s project.

If homeowners produce more electricity than they use, utility companies are required to credit them for it under Washington’s net-metering law. And, under a state law that took effect last year, those who generate solar energy for the power grid could earn up to $2,000 a year in cash reimbursements through 2014.

Zero-energy homebuilders say they’re seeing more demand as fuel prices rise.

“When we started doing this four years ago, gas was $1.50 a gallon. Energy efficiency was not in the top five things homeowners were looking for,” said John Ralston, vice president of sales and marketing for Premier Homes in Roseville, Calif., near Sacramento.

But sales have taken off so well that an all-solar development is under way in Yuba City, Ralston said.

State-of-the-art-efficiency doesn’t come cheap.

The features could tack about $100,000 on to the Issaquah units, Liljequist said. Rebates and tax credits would help offset that, he said. And strides in technology have made solar panels cheaper and easier to work with than in years past.

But most of all, he said, shrinking square footage will keep costs in line.

“Rather than having that extra-large bonus room, we want to put that money towards living more lightly on the earth,” he said.