Category Archives: pollution

Don’t Drink the Water… for this too is California


This is not a scenario from some generic developing third world banana republic where environmental regulation is lax and the government/economy is weak and there is simply no wherewithal to provide safe drinking water to the public.

This is here in the central valley of California. In some of the richest most productive agricultural areas of the world, home to some of the world’s richest farmers (or agriculture corporations), in an American state whose economy rivals some of the richest nations in the world.

This is not the third world. Or is it?

While the US is plunging towards third-world-dom, lead by a priceless bunch of narrow-minded rightwing (that includes both political parties) “leaders”, the central valley of California has probably always had an air of the third world about it. My own first inklings of the economic disparities and deprivations hidden underneath America’s shiny global facade came from reading Steinbeck’s epic “Grapes of Wrath”, much of which is set right here in the valley. That book, along with “East of Eden” (both of which I devoured while in college in Bombay) also gave me my first new mental images of California that diverged from the more romantic ones perpetuated through Hollywood’s glamour on the one hand, and Ansel Adams’ Yosemite landscapes on the other. Here in this valley, sandwiched between those two more picturesque, salubrious California dreamlands, lies a third world that tells many a different tale: of massive land transformation and farm-worker exploitation; of green revolutions and pesticides; of laser-leveled land crisscrossed by massive canals and shrinking aquifers; of dried up prehistoric swamps and over-irrigated farmland abandoned to leaching selenium; of Steinbeck’s Okies and today’s illegal aliens; of big agribusiness and industrial animal farms; of sprawling suburbs and highways; of endangered species and disappearing ecosystems; of exotic invasive species (the other “illegal aliens”) and designer GMOs; of weed and meth and gangs and prisons; of vineyards and fruit orchards and nut farms overflowing with riches; of migrant farmworkers dying of dehydration and schools where feeding the malnourished children must take precedence over any “education”; of some of the nation’s foulest air and dirtiest water. This too is California.

That last item on litany above, Water, is the subject of a special investigative series by Mark Grossi, currently being published by the Fresno Bee under the headline “Don’t Drink the Water”! Now that’s a standard warning I’m is used to hearing when talking about travel to India or Mexico, or other developing countries. The Bee is telling us local residents here in this rich, poor, messed up valley: Don’t Drink the Water! At least read the special report first, and find out what cocktail may be flowing out of your faucet.

Don’t Drink the Water!

Welcome to California. This is indeed the third world within the first.

To be a bird, oh to keep on singing, in a noisy urbanizing world

Wcsp-fenceAmong the many ways we are transforming the planet and its habitats for other species, one that is only now receiving some attention is that os sensory pollution. This is when we pollute the environment in such ways as to interfere with the sensory perception and communication systems of animals – i.e., dull their senses in potentially important ways. While much attention has been paid—and justly so, ever since Rachel Carson’s clarion call—to the wide variety of chemical pollutants we’ve  introduced into habitats all over the world, we haven’t really paid much attention to the sensory effluvia that come in the wake of modern civilization. Two common ways we mess up the sensory systems of animals are by interfering with the visual and auditory channels of communication: e.g., increasing turbidity in water makes it difficult for fish to see and communicate with each other using visual signals (color patterns, changes to and movements thereof); increasing noise from our cacophonous machinery on land and in water makes it difficult for animals to talk to each other. We are a flashy, noisy, brash, uncouth, species indeed! No consideration for the sensibilities of our planet-mates.

Hofi-blogBut that may be changing. Sensory pollution is getting increasing attention from biologists in recent years, as exemplified by a symposium on the topic at Behavior 2011, the joint meeting of the Animal Behavior Society and the International Ethological Conference, being held at Indiana University this week. I wish I had been able to attend, especially for this symposium, because I’ve been thinking about and trying to study the effects of urban noise on bird song and behavior for some years now. Although I couldn’t travel to the meeting, I’m happy that my lab was well represented – see below!

After co-authoring the first comprehensive review of urban bioacoustics (i.e., the study of how animals use sound; in cities), then moving to Fresno with this job, actually measuring the effects in wild birds, and testing some of the theoretical ideas outlined in our review was one of my first priorities. Easier said than done, though – especially for a naive faculty member coming to grips with the nature of teaching and the student body at an institution like CSU-Fresno! Between my increasingly heavy and chaotic teaching load, and several unreliable graduate students, it became rather a stop-start project – more stop than start for several years. That all changed a year ago, however, when two eager new graduate students entered my lab, already interested in birdsong and very keen to tackle the subject of urban noise. Over the past year, Jenny Phillips and Pedro Garcia have been studying the effects of noise on the songs of two species (seen above) that occur in urban and rural areas around here: the White-crowned Sparrow, winter visitor to the valley from northern breeding grounds, and the House Finch, year round resident in these parts. An interesting opportunity to compare what noise pollution does to the songs and singing behavior of two rather different species: one migratory, the other sedentary, one singing to claim territory and warn competitors, the other warbling in the spring to attract mates!
Today, Jenny and Pedro presented the first results from their research as a poster at Behavior 2011. Having helped them analyze their data and design the poster over the past few days, I’ve been something of an anxious parent this week, wondering how they are doing out there on their own, even as I followed the #behav11 hashtag on twitter to see what I was missing! A short while ago, a tweet (of course) informed me that “…they did a gr8 job!!” Phew! Not that I expected anything less…

If you, like me, missed the whole meeting, allow me to share their poster here, starting with this abstract:


Jenny Phillips, Pedro Garcia, Lauryn Moles & Madhusudan Katti 
California State University, Fresno, United States

Many animal species are dependent upon vocal communication to mate and defend territories. Selection will favor individuals that produce vocalizations that transmit best in their environments. The sensory drive concept suggests that environmental conditions, such as ambient sound, will influence the evolution of vocal behavior. Thus, background noise levels may have a profound effect on communication. We study how urban noise affects the cultural evolution of birdsong in two species: the migratory white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii) and the sedentary house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). These two species are ideal study organisms because they each have one song type, are territorial, and are easy to identify. We recorded songs and ambient noise concurrently across the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area (FCMA) and in outlying rural areas for comparative analysis of acoustic properties, in particular the frequency and temporal structure of songs. Because song influences fitness via phenotypic and genotypic mate quality, understanding how song changes in an urban environment may allow us to predict species adaptability in a changing world.

And here is the full poster – leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this ongoing study:

Phillips_et_al-ABS2011-Poster.pdf Download this file

From Silent Spring to Silent Night: A Tale of Toads and Men

As the semester winds down here at Fresno State, the Tri Beta Biology Club has a couple more special treats for us. For this week’s Biology Colloquium, we bring you a real role model in Dr. Tyrone Hayes, an African American field biologist (yes, they exist, despite the stereotype) who became one of the youngest Full Professors at the University of California Berkeley. He will share his groundbreaking (and corporation-shaking) research on the effects of the herbicide Atrazine on amphibians, a taxon that has been in global decline for some time now, with pesticides hammering some of the nails in their collective coffin. Here’s an excerpt about Dr. Hayes’ work from the PBS documentary Frogs: The Thin Green Line:


And if that isn’t enough to grab your interest, this might:
Here are details of the colloquium:
Tri Beta Biology Club presents:


Dr. Tyrone Hayes
Professor of Integrative Biology
University of Californa, Berkeley
on Friday, May 6, 2011
at 3:00 PM in AG 109 (download maps here)

The herbicide, atrazine, is a potent endocrine disruptor. My laboratory’s studies in amphibians have shown that atrazine both demasculinizes and feminizes exposed males at levels as low as 0.1 ppb. Our previous worked examined morphological effects, including the loss of androgen-dependent sexually dimorphic features, and the development of estrogen-dependent features in exposed males. These findings are consistent with an induction of aromatase, resulting in decreased androgen secretion and inappropriate estrogen synthesis and secretion. Our ongoing studies focus on behavioral effects in male frogs exposed throughout life and demonstrate both the loss of male reproductive behavior and the induction of female-typical behavior in exposed males. These data on amphibians and the proposed mechanism are consistent with findings across vertebrate classes, including humans, and raise concern about the role of this common environmental contaminant in reproductive hormone-dependent cancers and declining fertility in humans.

Call the Biology department (559•278•2001) for more information. You can also download the flyer here.

What links collapsing honeybee colonies and disappearing house sparrows? Neonicotinoids!

A new class of insecticides based on nicotinoids seem to be the key factor underlying the widely reported declines in house sparrows and other birds as well as the alarming colony collapse disorder in honeybees, according to a new book “The systemic insecticides: a disaster in the making” by Dutch cancer biologist Henk Tennekes. Is this our generation’s “Silent Spring“? Perhaps – we’ll have to read the book to dig into the specific details. I have to say though, that the wide use of apparently broad-spectrum insecticides seems like a far more plausible cause of such widespread declines in bees and insect-dependent birds than cellphone towers or a litany of other local factors that have been suggested, unconvincingly. What strengthen’s the case is that neonicotinoids apparently make bee colonies more susceptible to the combination fungal/viral infections that have recently been implicated in colony collapse! Here’s an excerpt from today’s article in the Independent raising the alarm on this:

Scanning the sky with his binoculars, he searches carefully for any sign of movement: the steady beat of a blackbird’s wings, the fluttering of a flock of starlings. It has been a week now since he saw the starlings: just four of them flitting from tree to tree, feasting on the autumn berries.

Birds are a real rarity these days. In his boyhood, he recalls, he would watch the acrobatics of entire flocks as they ducked and dived after insects. But now the skies are silent, barring the hum of the odd airplane. Turning back to his fruit and vegetable patch, he continues the laborious task of pollinating the raspberry plants by hand, gently brushing pollen onto the slender stigmas inside the flowers. In the past, bees, wasps, butterflies and flies would have done this job for him; nowadays such insects are likewise a rarity. Farmers instead resort to robot bees to pollinate their crops: tiny motors, encased in fuzzy fabric, which hover from flower to flower.

Will this bleak outlook be a reality for future generations? It is nearly 50 years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the book that warned of environmental damage the pesticide DDT was causing. Today, DDT use is banned except in exceptional circumstances, yet we still don’t seem to have taken on board Carson’s fundamental message.

According to Henk Tennekes, a researcher at the Experimental Toxicology Services in Zutphen, the Netherlands, the threat of DDT has been superseded by a relatively new class of insecticide, known as the neonicotinoids. In his book The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making, published this month, Tennekes draws all the evidence together, to make the case that neonicotinoids are causing a catastrophe in the insect world, which is having a knock-on effect for many of our birds.

Already, in many areas, the skies are much quieter than they used to be. All over Europe, many species of bird have suffered a population crash. Spotting a house sparrow, common swift or a flock of starlings used to be unremarkable, but today they are a more of an unusual sight. Since 1977, Britain’s house-sparrow population has shrunk by 68 per cent.

The common swift has suffered a 41 per cent fall in numbers since 1994, and the starling 26 per cent. The story is similar for woodland birds (such as the spotted flycatcher, willow tit and wood warbler), and farmland birds (including the northern lapwing, snipe, curlew, redshank and song thrush).

Ornithologists have been trying desperately to work out what is behind these rapid declines. Urban development, hermetically sealed houses and barns, designer gardens and changing farming> practices have all been blamed, but exactly why these birds have fallen from the skies is still largely unexplained.

However, Tennekes thinks there may be a simple reason. “The evidence shows that the bird species suffering massive decline since the 1990s rely on insects for their diet,” he says. He believes that the insect world is no longer thriving, and that birds that feed on insects are short on food.

So what has happened to all the insects? In the Nineties, a new class of insecticide – the neonicotinoids – was introduced. Beekeepers were the first people to notice a problem, as their bees began to desert their hives and die, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Read the rest of the article at

[via Common Dreams]

You win some and you lose some – but too bad the environment is not a zero sum game!

Two news items today, of some significance in the ongoing battles between big multinational corporations vs. those speaking on behalf of the environment and indigenous human populations. Do you want the good news or the bad news first? I suppose convention says I should lead with the bad, end with the good so you don’t go away feeling depressed. But when it comes to the planet’s ecosystems, we’re not playing a zero-sum game where a win in one place balances out a loss elsewhere! So in what may be the environmentalists’ tradition, I can’t have you go away happy thinking all is well with the world after reading this post now, can I? So let’s start with the good, shall we?

The Hindu reports that the long-eared blue-skinned eco-smurfs have beaten back the mining corporations at least this once, with help from the Indian government, no less, who have an Environment Minister increasingly gaining my respect with his recent actions. Let’s see how long that lasts – but enjoy this while it does:

After a long-drawn consultation process, the Union government has finally pronounced its verdict against Vedanta Alumina’s $1.7 billion plan to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa.

“There has been a very serious violation of the Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Rights Act,” said Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. He blamed Vedanta, the Orissa Mining Corporation, and the State officials for the violations. “The clearance stands rejected.”

Mr. Ramesh accepted the recommendation of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) to withdraw the Stage I forest clearance, granted in 2008, and reject the Stage II clearance that the promoters had applied for. In the light of this, the environmental clearance will also become invalid.

In a further blow to Vedanta’s plans in the region, the Ministry will investigate the allegation that the bauxite for Vedanta’s Orissa refinery is being sourced from 14 Jharkhand mines, of which at least 11 do not have a valid environmental clearance.

The Ministry is also issuing a show cause notice, threatening the cancellation of the licence given to the refinery itself, which has illegally grabbed village forest lands and carrying out a six-fold expansion without permission. The appraisal process of the expansion has been suspended.

Elsewhere on our planet, the UN has decided to pardon the Shell corporation for 40 years of pollution, human rights abuses, and environmental malfeasance in the Niger delta. I bet BP is feeling pretty stupid right now for trying risky oil drilling off the coast of the US instead of some poor developing nation. Its far easier to blame the impoverished victims there, and to get away with almost anything. I’m sure BP’ll bounce back, though, as these big corps always seem to. And no doubt Shell shareholders are rejoicing.

A three-year investigation by the United Nations will almost entirely exonerate Royal Dutch Shell for 40 years of oil pollution in the Niger delta, causing outrage among communities who have long campaigned to force the multinational to clean up its spills and pay compensation.

The $10m (£6.5m) investigation by the UN environment programme (UNEP), paid for by Shell, will say that only 10% of oil pollution in Ogoniland has been caused by equipment failures and company negligence, and concludes that the rest has come from local people illegally stealing oil and sabotaging company pipelines.

The shock disclosure was made by Mike Cowing, the head of a UN team of 100 people who have been studying environmental damage in the region.

Cowing said that the 300 known oil spills in the Ogoniland region of the delta caused massive damage, but added that 90% of the spills had been caused by “bunkering” gangs trying to steal oil.

His comments, in a briefing in Geneva last week, have caused deep offence among the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni leaders who were hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995 after a peaceful uprising against Shell’s pollution.

60 Minutes report on BP’s Deepwater Horizon Blowout and the ongoing oilpocalypse

Last night, CBS’s venerable hard-hitting news magazine 60 Minutes aired their take on the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s the full report, in two parts (the website has more in the form of web extras, so do visit there).

There, now aren’t you appropriately depressed for a Monday morning?

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Beaches of garbage and albatrosses around our necks

Katie Mathis (Biol 110, Human Ecology) is saddened by how plastics and garbage have become albatrosses around our necks – quite literally as our trash kills these omens of good luck.

Below is a link about the garbage and devistation caused by human trash and swallowed by infant Albatross birds on the beaches of Hawaii.

Having been to “garbage beach”, off the coast of Kauai with my fiancée’ last year, I related to this video’s portrayal of waste management. My fiancée and I expected to see a beach similar to Kauai’s coral strewn, pebbled and sea shell filled beach and finding anything but that after we traveled to it on a speed boat. “Garbage Beach” is literally a huge island seemingly composed of garbage. We found every kind of discarded floating item possible. There were glass balls and nets from fishing villages in China, toy Tonka trucks, pieces of glass bottles, Styrofoam and various plastics strewn all along the shore and making up dry land when we arrived. Not even able to get off the boat because we were wearing flip flop shoes, we just turned around and went back to Oahu. I was incredibly saddened and shocked that in the middle of paradise, such a horrible and disgusting mass of garbage destroyed all obvious life. I remember feeling very unworthy and saddened to see that and be there. It saddens me that all of our garbage and waste has killed so many chicks and laid waste to their natural habitat.

In which Ripley drips acid rain all over Fox & friends’ cheery morning parade!

Looks like Sigourney Weaver really surprised Fox & friends by turning up in the wrong avatar! Didn’t they get any notice from her agent about what movie she was really out promoting this week? But kudos to Weaver: what a way to throw them off script and take up the whole segment talking about a real environmental issue! Hilarious pwnage:



2798703767_ac9e304823.jpgWould that more towns/politicians/governments, prone as they are to prohibiting various things, start banning this sort of thing!! Its the kind of small-scale local action that, if it went global enough, could start helping us clean up this mess. Meanwhile, you can read updates from ongoing efforts to simply study and understand the latter here, here, and here – I don’t think we are anywhere close to beginning a real clean-up there yet. Not even sure how we might or where to begin. Except at home. So think about this before taking your next sip!

Citizen Science Watch: The Great World Wide Star Count

Does your mind (and binoculars) fly to outer space seeking out distant constellations more often than to the tree in your backyard trying to discern the wing-bar patterns on that warbler flitting there? Mine did, back in college several decades ago when I was an active instigator in a campus Astronomy club. Back in the Institute of Science in Bombay as a starry-eyed undergrad (zoology major, mind), some of my happiest moments were spent peering up past the city’s well-lit smog through the business end of a telescope trying to catch that faint streak across the sky known as Halley’s comet, or marvel at the smudge of the Orion nebula! O what fun we had refurbishing a lovely old brass 4-inch optical telescope found forgotten in some cabinet in the Physics department (where it has perhaps retired once again – but I hope not); even more fun designing and then building a proper equatorial mount for the brass beauty in the institute’s machine shop. We even went on to build (from scratch) a 6-inch reflecting scope, starting with grinding and polishing out the mirror from a thick disc of optical glass! We took these out on to the roof of the Institute to share views of the comet, or eclipses and such, with fellow students. The best part, perhaps, was when we went away from the city, hiking in the mountains of the Western Ghats (indeed on that very plateau you see in the wikipedia image on the page I just linked to), to get better views of the sky. And what a contrast it was from the urban sky, to be able to actually see the milky way, and once, most astonishing of all, catch a fleeting shadow out of the corner of my eye that could have only been cast by an unbelievably incandescent Venus burning up the moonless pre-dawn sky! What a cosmic experience to break open the floodgates for a sheltered urban mind! Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, I tired of reading about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, and, on the day-hikes to-and-from our itinerant hill-top observatories, turned some of the high-powered optics to life closer by; discovered bird watching (which goes surprisingly well with star-gazing) and stepped on to the path which has kept me in a state of wonder about the universe we inhabit, and the life that has evolved from the star dust right here on earth.

If any of the above resonates with you, if you like looking at the stars, and wish you could see more of them, here’s a citizen science effort for you: the Great World Wide Star Count.

And no, unlike us birders or other measurers of life on earth, the astronomers aren’t asking you to help them conduct an actual census of the stars, or help them figure out how many there really are (wouldn’t that be fun?!). Their concern is more earth-bound, as in how many known stars can you actually see from any given location on earth! Why wonder about that? Because along with the various other ways we humans are befouling this planet for ourselves and other species, we are also robbing the night sky of its mysteries, by lighting everything up! Here’s an excerpt of an article about this project from the NSF:

The event, which is open to everyone who wants to participate, is organized by the Windows to the Universe project at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colo., in conjunction with planetariums and scientific societies across the country and abroad.

Funding is provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“By searching for the same constellations in their respective hemispheres, participants in the Great World Wide Star Count will be able to compare their observations with what others see, giving them a sense of how star visibility varies from place to place,” said Cliff Jacobs, program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

The observers will also learn more about the economic and geographic factors that control light pollution in their communities and around the world.

“The star count brings families together to enjoy the night sky and become involved in science,” says Dennis Ward of UCAR’s Office of Education and Outreach. “It also raises awareness about the impact of artificial lighting on our ability to see the stars.”

So if you aren’t doing anything of an evening during the next couple of weeks, why not walk outside your house, see if you can spot a particular constellation: Cygnus (there’s a constellation for bird-watchers!) in the Northern hemisphere, Sagittarius in the Southern, assess its magnitude, report your observations, and bask in the afterglow of participating in a collective science project?

Back in college when my friends and I wielded binoculars more at night than in the day, there was a fellow student who knew of our enthusiasm for astronomy, even though he didn’t share it enough to participate in our nocturnal adventures. Upon graduating, he came to the US for graduate school – where exactly, I don’t quite remember. What I do remember is that a few months later there was a postcard from him, gushing with excitement about his new life in this land of dreams. And among the highlights of his brief stay here was a special tidbit just to amaze us stargazers: someone had taken him camping in the US, and you know what? One could even see the Milky Way from here! Imagine that!!

I hope this project helps students like our friend know where to go to find the Milky Way wherever they happen to live on this small blue dot. I hope you can help. Even if you can’t observe the constellations, at least turn out those lights!

[Hat-tip: Urban Science Adventures]