January 5 News: Lack of Sea Ice Could Be Causing More Seal Deaths, Say Researchers

Other stories below: Debate flares on U.S. natural gas exports; Insurance payouts point to climate change

Lack of ice could be causing more seal deaths: study

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A new scientific study suggests harp seals in the North Atlantic are dying at high rates because of warming waters and a steady decline of sea ice in their traditional breeding grounds.

The research by scientists at Duke University in North Carolina tracked the decrease of sea ice due to global warming and the mortality of harp seals from 1992 to 2010.

David Johnston, a marine scientist who co-wrote the report, said it’s the first study to show that seasonal ice cover in the four seal breeding areas of North America has receded by as much as six per cent per decade.

“There has been a string of light ice years recently and we’re starting to be concerned that if ice continues to decline, this might have longer-term effects on the harp seal population,” Johnston said from his office in Beaufort, N.C.

“I’m concerned that these animals are in for a tough road with what we’re seeing with climate change.”

Should the U.S. export its natural gas? A debate flares

Last year, fuel was America’s #1 export. But not everyone’s so keen on watching the United States ship out all that energy to the rest of the world. Case in point: On Wednesday, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) fired off a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu asking him whether it was really such a swell idea for the United States to be exporting its newly abundant natural gas resources all over the globe. Some experts, after all, have raised concerns that such exports could have unexpected downsides.

On the surface, there’s an alluring logic in exporting natural gas. The United States has been flooded with cheap gas thanks to its newly exploitable (and potentially large) shale resources. And gas prices are higher in many other countries. So why not ramp up exports, turn a profit, and reap the gains from trade? That explains why various producers are asking the Energy Department to green-light new export facilities, such as Cheniere Energy’s just-okayed Sabine Pass Liquefaction terminal in Cameron Parish, La., which will ship out two billion cubic feet of gas per day by 2015. Seven more projects are awaiting approval.

Insurance payouts point to climate change

Natural disasters in 2011 exerted the costliest toll in history — a whopping $380 billion worth of losses from earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis and more. Only a third of those costs were covered by insurance. And the tally ignores completely any expenses associated with sickness or injuries triggered by the disasters.

The single priciest events last year were the magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which wrought some $210 billion worth of devastation, followed in second place by the series of earthquakes in New Zealand that triggered $16 billion worth of destruction, notes Ernst Rauch of Munich Reinsurance corporate headquarters in Munich.

Known as Munich RE, his firm is among a handful of major international corporations that insure insurance companies against failing. So it’s crucial that reinsurers know natural disasters intimately — where they’ve happened, how often, what’s caused them, how much damage they wreak and what recovery from them will cost. Munich RE has compiled one of the largest databases of natural catastrophes going back to 1980 globally, and to 1970 for U.S. and select European events.

Bus drivers and subway workers are the real environmentalists

As negotiations between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union go into their final week before the old contract expires, there’s no guarantee what will happen come Jan. 15.

But one thing is for certain: If you wanted to find some of the greenest workers on the continent, look no farther than the city’s subway tunnels and bus lanes.

When we think about “green jobs,” we usually imagine the (former) employees of Solyndra, or people putting up solar panels in the Mojave Desert or building giant windmills in the Dakotas. And those will help, some, to lessen America’s drain on energy resources. When visitors think about New York and the environment, maybe it’s the Greenmarket at Union Square that comes to mind — an awfully nice place to spend your money.

Scientists create living LED screens out of glowing bacteria

Here’s some cool news for people who love anything that glows in the dark: Scientists at UC San Diego have figured out how to make millions of flourescent E. coli bacteria flash all at once, creating a sort of living LED screen.

Jeff Hasty, a professor of biology and bioengineering who headed the research team in the university’s Division of Biological Sciences and BioCircuits Institute, said it took him and his team about five years and a series of papers to develop what he calls the “biopixels” that make up the living LED screen.

Back in 2008 Hasty and his team published a paper that showed how they built a biological clock inside a single bacterial cell that would tell the bacteria when to produce a flashing, glowing light.

In a second paper published in 2010 they showed they could synchronize thousands of bacteria in the same colony to blink on and off in unison.

The next step was to find out if they could get bacteria in different colonies to blink on and off at the same time.