Equilibrium/Sustainability — Pocket gophers farm for a living

·9 min read

Scientists have identified a pocket-sized group of gophers as the only mammals — aside from humans — known to farm for a living.

Detectable only by mounds of sandy soil that appear above ground, southeastern pocket gophers devote their days to creating a maze of tunnels that extend hundreds of feet long, according to a University of Florida research team.

In this underground labyrinth, the rodents tend to fields of subterranean roots that they harvest for consumption, the scientists explained, publishing their results in Current Biology on Monday.

“They’re providing this perfect environment for roots to grow and fertilizing them with their waste,” author Veronica Selden, a recent University of Florida graduate, said in a statement.

While pocket gophers are often thought of as pests, they actually eat only the roots of plants and rarely cause damage to crops, the scientists noted.

Selden and her supervisor Jack Putz, a University of Florida professor, discovered the root system while puzzling over how gophers amassed enough energy to dig.

Recalling that roots often grow unwanted into household sewage systems, they said they wondered if the same could be true of the gopher tunnels, which Selden described as “dark and wet like a sewer pipe.”

“Pocket gophers are a lot more interesting than people give them credit for. They’re really important ecosystem engineers,” Selden said.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll look at why Texans are turning up their thermostats amid a heat wave. Then we’ll examine how a wildfire raging in Yosemite is threatening the world’s oldest giant sequoias and look at evidence of a cancer-linked weedkiller in human urine.

Texas at risk of rolling blackouts: energy regulator

Officials asked Texas households, businesses and factories to curtail their power use on Monday in the face of possible rolling blackouts amid a brutal heat wave.

  • ERCOT, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, which monitors the state grid, asked residents and businesses to voluntarily conserve electricity for six hours on Monday.

  • Officials suggested businesses and residents increase the thermostat 1-2 degrees during peak times and avoid using major appliances.

Power advisory, heat advisory: ERCOT warned that power demand at 5 p.m. Central Time would exceed supply by about 100 megawatts, Bloomberg reported.

That meant the possibility of rolling blackouts, according to Reuters.

Heat wave pushes up demand, cuts supply: The crushing heat has helped cause both demand and supply problems, our colleague Zack Budryk reported for The Hill.

  • Heat has spiked demand from air conditioner use by the state’s growing population, a statement from ERCOT said. 

  • But it has also led to a lack of supply as the hot, static air left Texas’s enormous wind energy fleet generating less than 10 percent of its usual capacity, according to ERCOT.

What about solar? Solar power is at nearly 81 percent capacity, ERCOT reported.

That means the state’s solar plants are producing more than three times as much power as its wind fleet — despite having less than a third as much generating capacity.

Gas worries for the summer: ERCOT has kept the power grid on amid 2022’s battery of heat waves. But reliable power this summer has come at the price of forcing gas-fueled power plants to defer much-needed downtime and maintenance, state Sen. Nathan Johnson (D) of Dallas told local station WFAA in June.

Running past schedule maintenance “keeps people’s air conditioners on,” according to Jones.

“And it keeps people out of political trouble,” Jones said. “But it is not sustainable.”

Not just Texas: More than 50 million people nationwide were under heat warnings over the weekend, The New York Times reported.

O’ROURKE SLAMS GRID FAILURES

Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke is latching onto the state’s latest power grid challenges to go after his rival, incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

“The governor of the 9th largest economy on earth — the energy capital of the world — can’t guarantee the power will stay on tomorrow,” O’Rourke tweeted on Sunday.

  • O’Rourke, who trailed Abbott by double digits in May, was 6 points behind the governor in a recent poll, the Texas-based Gainesville Register reported.

  • The Democratic hopeful is kicking off a round-the-state tour next week that aims to hold 65 events over the next seven weeks, the Texas Tribune reported.

O’Rourke has spent a year targeting Abbott for failing to require meaningful reforms of the grid after a 2021 winter storm killed hundreds and left millions without power for days in freezing temperatures, the San Antonio Current reported in February.

While the state legislature has passed some helpful reforms, dangerous loopholes remain, according to the Tribune.

The dynamics for this summer’s power shortages are different from those of 2021 — no gas infrastructure is freezing this July, for example, and the wind turbines that provided crucial power during those shortages are providing scant help this time.

Yosemite blaze threatens giant sequoias

An ongoing wildfire in California’s Yosemite National Park is smothering some of the world’s oldest giant sequoia trees, clouding views and triggering air quality alerts throughout the area, Reuters reported.

  • The fire, initially identified by visitors on Friday, has burned through both timber and brush at the park’s southern end, according to Reuters. 

  • The fires have generated winds powerful enough to throw large branches hundreds of feet into the air, high enough to threaten firefighting aircraft, SFGate reported.

Threat to tourism and trees: The blaze comes at the height of the park’s summer tourism season and has resulted in the evacuation of about 1,600 people, Park Service spokesperson Nancy Phillipe told Reuters.

National Park Service personnel have shuttered both the park’s southern entrance and the Mariposa Grove, which houses more than 500 mature giant sequoias, Reuters reported.

A history of protection: Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley earned protected status after President Abraham Lincoln signed related legislation in 1864, according to The Associated Press.

Saving the sequoias: Fire crews were working on Monday to steer the flames away from the giant sequoias, by installing a sprinkler system to moisten the ground around the trees, CNN reported.

  • Some of these trees are thought to be more than 2,000 years old and can reach more than 20 stories, CNN reported.  

  • Among those giant sequoias are named trees, including a 3,000-year-old tree called Grizzly Giant, according to the AP.

“The good news is because of prescribed burns and clearing out material on the ground, it’s clear in the Mariposa Grove,” Robbie Johnson, a spokesperson for the fire response, told CNN on Sunday.

The fire is growing: While the trees may have escaped significant damage thus far, the so-called Washburn Fire doubled in size over the weekend to 2,340 acres, CNN reported.

Weedkiller common in human urine samples: CDC

The vast majority of human urine samples analyzed in a newly published U.S. health survey contained detectable levels of the cancer-linked weedkiller glyphosate, as first reported by The Guardian.

Of 2,310 samples taken from American adults and children in 2013-14, about
82 percent contained traces of glyphosate, according to the report, released by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

What’s glyphosate? It’s the active ingredient in a variety of herbicides, including the popular Roundup brand, The Guardian reported.

And the CDC study? The data included urine samples from males and females ages 6 years and older. Nearly a third of the participants were children ranging from 6 to 18, The Guardian reported.

The outlet’s story was co-published by The New Lede, the in-house reporting initiative of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that focuses on agricultural and water toxins.

More data needed: “Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the country, yet until now we had very little data on exposure,” Alexis Temkin, an Environmental Working Group toxicologist, said in a statement.

“Children in the U.S. are regularly exposed to this cancer-causing weedkiller through the food they eat virtually every day,” Temkin added.

Is glyphosate truly ‘cancer-causing’? It depends on who you ask.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an interim decision in
January 2020 deeming “that there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label.”

The EPA also determined that the substance “is unlikely to be a human carcinogen.”

So what’s the problem? That determination was a Trump-era finding, which a federal appeals court rejected last month, The Associated Press reported.

  • The California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to reevaluate its 2020 conclusion, stressing that the determination “was not supported by substantial evidence,” according to the AP.  

  • Following the ruling, the EPA has said that it is in the process of deciding its next steps.

Risk remains unclear: Contrary to the 2020 determination, California and other states have listed glyphosate as a cancer risk, while local agencies across the country have limited its use, the AP reported.

The World Health Organization deemed the chemical “probably carcinogenic” in 2015, according to the AP.

Motor Monday

Russia influences gas prices; scientists train bacteria to help with battery effort; and why to avoid an electric Hummer if you’re concerned about the environment.

Fuel prices dependent on Vladimir Putin: analyst

  • The fate of U.S. fuel prices — which have dropped to an average of $4.68 per gallon — may rest in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, analyst Tom Kloza told Yahoo Finance Live. “The biggest factor is Vladimir Putin. I think he’s demonstrated his ability to invoke pain on Western countries and particularly in Europe — and he still has some buttons that he might push, and he’s very unpredictable,” said Kloza.

Bacteria may soon mine for futuristic minerals

  • A team of government scientists have received a $4 million grant to create lines of bacteria that can refine and purify rare earth elements for use in products like batteries, renewable energy news site CleanTechnica reported. The researchers hope to make such “bio-mining” a practical means for alleviating domestic supply shortages that have slowed the expansion of clean energy, CleanTechnica reported.

Some large EVs are no better than gas-powered cars: report

  • General Motors’ Hummer EV is an even bigger polluter than many internal combustion engine-powered cars, auto news site CarBuzz reported. The Hummer’s size requires a motor so powerful that — if charged from a fossil-fuel powered grid — it releases more carbon dioxide than a gasoline-powered Chevy Malibu sedan, though less than half as much as a first model Hummer, according to CarBuzz.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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