Tag Archives: texas

Big oil asks US government to protect it from climate change

Even better, this is all coming from public funds.


Image credits: US Army.

Irony on steroids

We’re currently past the point where we can consider climate change a problem for future generations — it’s happening now, and it’s affecting us all.

Basically, we’re currently at the point where we have to take measures to limit its impact, and things are getting pretty rough. Like many other countries, the US is also taking some steps to protects its coasts; among these projects, one in particular stands out — one project which was greatly lobbied and supported by the fossil fuel industry.

Texas has an ambitious proposal to raise a line of defense against powerful storms and high tides — a 60-mile “spine” of concrete seawalls, earthen barriers, floating gates and steel levees on the Texas Gulf Coast. At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about it: the defense line will protect some important infrastructure, a few residential areas and fragile ecosystems. But the real reason behind this project has nothing the do with any of these things — the real reason is to protect Texas’ oil refineries, the state’s “crown jewels” of the petroleum industry. That’s right, the oil industry wants to be shielded from the damage that it itself is causing.

The project would cost around $12 billion and comes right off the back of three smaller projects fast-tracked by the state government. These smaller projects cost $3.9 billion and were aimed specifically at protecting oil facilities. The far-reaching hand of the oil industry is also visible in the reactions of Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz — normally outspoken critics of federal spending, the two senators (big-time supporters of oil companies) have both backed using taxpayer money to build the new infrastructure.

Cruz even called it “a tremendous step forward.”

“The oil and gas industry is getting a free ride,” said Brandt Mannchen, a member of the Sierra Club’s executive committee in Houston. “You don’t hear the industry making a peep about paying for any of this and why should they? There’s all this push like, ‘Please Senator Cornyn, Please Senator Cruz, we need money for this and that.’”

But for all this support for protection against climate change, there’s not much mention of climate change. This is representative of Texas’ general attitude — which is to support the fossil fuel industry at all costs, deny climate change, and even when you take measures to counter it, don’t admit it. A Texas special commission even submitted a report asking $61 billion from Congress to “future proof” the state against future natural disasters, many of which are amplified by climate change, without even mentioning climate change.

Economists have also been critical of this approach. Texas “should be funding things like this itself,” said Chris Edwards, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Texans are proud of their conservatism, but, unfortunately, when decisions get made in Washington, that frugality goes out the door.”

AP has questioned several major oil companies, asking them for comment, but none have replied.

Oil companies knew about climate change since the 70s

The cherry on top of this oily cake is that big oil companies have known that they’re causing climate change for decades — yet they relentlessly funded climate change denial campaigns. But when push comes to shove, they want to be protected from climate change — and not pay any of the costs.

No one is saying Texas doesn’t need environmental defenses. As Esquire points out, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, you could see small towns in shambles, with people living in tents because their roofs and houses were blown away. Texas needs to prepare and protect its people — there’s no denying that. But for the very oil companies responsible for climate change to come asking for help, out of taxpayers’ money, that deserves nothing more than a mordant laugh.

Which means it will probably happen.

Plaster fossil.

Fossil Friday: new study says Texas used to be a ‘veritable Serengeti’ 11 to 12 million years ago


A new study continues the work of amateur paleontologists from the Great Depression.

Actinopterygii teeth.

Actinopterygii teeth used in the study.
Image credits Steven R. May, (2019), P.E.

During the Miocene, the lone star state was a veritable Serengeti, one study reports, with rhinos, horses, antelopes, and elephant-like gomphotheres roaming all about. The fossils were discovered by unemployed Americans between 1939 and 1942. They took part in the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey — a collaboration between the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology — which gave unemployed people the chance to work on collecting fossils and minerals across Texas during the Great Depression.

Idle hands are the paleontologist’s tools

“It’s the most representative collection of life from this time period of Earth history along the Texas Coastal Plain,” said Steven May, the research associate at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences who studied the fossils and authored the paper.

Although those participating in the program were not trained paleontologists, they did manage to retrieve a treasure trove of fossils — tens of thousands of specimens strong. These fossils were then handed over to researchers at The University of Texas at Austin who, over the past 80 years, studied and stored them in various collections across the state. The majority of these fossils are now found in the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School Museum of Earth History.

WPA workers.

Pictured: not palaeontologists. The majority of these workers had no geological or paleontological experience and were paid $0.20/hour through the WPA.
Image credits Steven R. May, (2019), P.E. / The University of Texas at Austin.

The fossils point to a “Texas Serengeti” which developed on the Texas Gulf Coast 11 million to 12 million years ago, according to a new paper. The ecosystem at the time could boast at least 50 different species including elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators, antelopes, camels, 12 types of horses and several species of carnivore. In addition to this, the study also reports some fossil firsts that include a new genus of gomphothere, an extinct relative of elephants with a shovel-like lower jaw, and the oldest fossils of the American alligator and an extinct relative of modern dogs.

Partial Shell.

Partial Trachemys shell used in the study.
Image credits Steven R. May, (2019), P.E.

The study worked with fossils recovered near Beeville, Texas, during the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey. This study isn’t the first to work with fossils in this collection, but it is the first to look at the entire fauna of the time instead of individual species. The results are helping us understand what ancient Texas looked like, says Matthew Brown, director of the Jackson School Museum’s vertebrate paleontology collections. However, the collection itself did not provide a complete image.

“They collected the big, obvious stuff,” May said about the 1939-42 exavations. “But that doesn’t fully represent the incredible diversity of the Miocene environment along the Texas Coastal Plain.”

The fossil hunters, lacking training in paleontology, tended to go for the biggest, flashiest fossils they could find. This skewed the collections heavily towards big mammals — things like large tusks, teeth, and skulls are easier to spot and more exciting to find than bones left by small species, so they claimed the lion’s share of attention and effort.

Plaster fossil.

A fossil encased in plaster, being retrieved as part of the WPA program.
Image credits UT Austin.

To make up for this, May used aerial photography and field notes from the WPA program to track down one of the original dig sites, on a ranch near Beeville owned by John Blackburn. There, he screened the site for any tiny fossils that the original digs missed, such as rodent teeth, to help him flesh out the ancient ecosystems and fauna in Texas.

“We’re thrilled to be a part of something that was started in 1939,” Blackburn said. “It’s been a privilege to work with UT and the team involved, and we hope that the project can help bring additional research opportunities.”

Many of the WPA-era fossils are still in storage, safely ensconced in plaster jackets. May said that he plans to continue to study the fossils as more are prepared.

Alligator skull fragments.

Alligator mississippiensis skull fragments used in this study.
Image credits Steven R. May, (2019), P.E.

For more images of the fossils used in the study (they are quite pretty) and their descriptions, go here.

The paper “The Lapara Creek Fauna: Early Clarendonian of south Texas, USA” has been published in the journal Paleontologia Electronica.

Bats are migrating earlier due to climate change, and this could spell trouble for our crops

Not a lot of people know this, but bats provide excellent pest control that saves farmers billions each year. A new study, however, suggests that climate change is making migratory bats arrive in Texas (from Mexico) earlier than they used to two decades ago. This is a dangerous pattern: the bats risk not finding enough food since the insects and other creatures they prey on haven’t hatched or migrated themselves yet. This poor timing could significantly reduce bat populations, jeopardizing farming operations in the process.

Scientists at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural laboratory in England, initially analyzed radar data from some 160 U.S. weather stations to investigate how accurate radar is for gauging bat colony numbers and movements. When the bats emerge for their night-time foraging, they can cover the sky in massive clouds which show up on radar. However, over the course of their study, the researchers gained a more important insight — that bats were leaving their winter homes in Mexico earlier and reproduced sooner than they had two decades ago. The data that the researchers investigated tracked bat activity in Texas from 1995 through 2017.

According to Phillip Stepanian, Rothamsted meteorologist and co-author of the new study, this behavior coincides with warming temperatures experienced over the last decades.

“This was very surprising,” the researcher told Scientific American. “We weren’t out looking for climate change,” he says, “but then it suddenly became very obvious.”

What’s more, the researchers also found that more and more bats are overwintering at the Bracken Cave near San Antonio, Texas, rather than going back to their cold weather quarters in Mexico. This sort of behavior is unprecedented since the first bat survey in the area began in 1957. According to Stepanian, overwintering is another sign of altering behavior due to warming temperatures. Previously, a study on migratory bats in Indiana found that temperature variations also affected arrival and departure times. Early arrival at their summer nests can expose the bats to cold snaps that might freeze them to death — that’s besides not finding enough food.

“These bats spend every night hard at work for local farmers, consuming over half of their own weight in insects, many of which are harmful agricultural pests, such as the noctuid moths, corn earworm and fall armyworm,” said Charlotte Wainwright, co-author of the new study.

“We found that the bats are migrating to Texas roughly two weeks earlier than they were 22 years ago. They now arrive, on average, in mid March rather than late March,” the scientist added.

In such conditions, the bats might struggle to feed their pups or might even decide to skip reproduction entirely. Overall, this will lead to fewer and fewer bats, to the point that some Midwestern bats may be threatened with extinction.

Such declines could have grave consequences for human activity, particularly agricultural production. By one estimate, bats indirectly contribute around $23 billion to the U.S. economy by controlling pests such as plant-eating insects or by eating bugs that prey on pollinators. In the future, the researchers plan to further investigate the link between climate change and shifting bat migratory patterns. They also hope that weather radar networks around the world can be integrated to provide a continent-wide survey of bat populations.

Scientific reference: Phillip M. Stepanian, Charlotte E. Wainwright. Ongoing changes in migration phenology and winter residency at Bracken Bat CaveGlobal Change Biology, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14051

Texas abortion leaflets contain unscientific, misleading information

Aggressive anti-abortion campaigns in Texas are causing debates about human rights in the first place, but parts of the pamphlets distributed by authorities are simply inaccurate and non-scientific.

In 2003, an abortion law in Texas required the state to provide information about fetal development to women who wanted to terminate their pregnancy. The law requires that the information “be objective and nonjudgmental and be designed to convey only accurate scientific information about the unborn child at the various gestational ages.” Well, to put it bluntly, it’s not.

The latest version of the booklet suggests that women who give birth have a lower risk of cancer than women who have abortions. This claim is not only baseless but has been refuted by the American Cancer Society, the CDC, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In fact, this mention is likely the result of lobby by anti-abortion organizations, including the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a medical group with a long history of anti-science.

“Early studies of the relationship between prior induced abortion and breast cancer risk were methodologically flawed. More rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk,” the college’s Committee on Gynecologic Practice said after an extensive literature review in 2009.

The CDC also shares this position. The idea that there is a connection between abortion and breast cancer risk is outdated and simply flawed.

“Since then, better-designed studies have been conducted. These newer studies examined large numbers of women, collected data before breast cancer was found, and gathered medical history information from medical records rather than simply from self-reports, thereby generating more reliable findings. The newer studies consistently showed no association between induced and spontaneous abortions and breast cancer risk,” the CDC says.

But there are even more troubling aspects. The guides also argue that having an abortion increases a woman’s risks of infertility, death, or suicide, something that’s also not backed by science, and that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks’ gestation. Peer-reviewed medical studies say fetal pain is likely not felt until closer to 30 weeks into pregnancy.

So there are a number of issues with these booklets, but Texas and other states continue to distribute such pamphlets, with anti-abortion groups deceivingly calling this “a triumph over misinformation.” In a press release, Texas Right to Life, one of these groups, stated:

“Texas Right to Life thanks DSHS for resisting the ideologically motivated demands of the pro-abortion lobby. Prudently, health officials rejected multiple deceptive and malicious recommended changes to the booklet that would have undermined informed consent of Texas women,” the group says.

bear dog

Ancient ‘bear dog’ species found by accident in museum collection from Chicago

bear dog

Credit: Monica Jurik, The Field Museum

Millions of years ago, the plains of North America, Asia, and Europe were roamed by a peculiar group of carnivorous mammals known as the ‘bear dogs’. These animals came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and resembled both bears and dogs in some features, hence the name. While some species could grow as big as a lion or bear, some forty million years ago in what’s now Texas at least two species of bear dogs were far less impressive in stature. One is the size of a chihuahua while the other is no bigger than a housecat.

The two specimens were discovered three decades ago in rather poor conditions — mostly fossil fragments. Since then, the fossils had been gathering dust at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, until one day Susumu Tomiya, who is a vertebrate paleontologist working for the museum, studied them with a fresh eye.

“I had just started at the Field, and I was getting the lay of the land, exploring our collections. In one room of type specimens, the fossils used as a standard to describe their species, I stumbled across something that looked unusual,” he says. “There were beautiful jaws of a small carnivore, but the genus the specimen had been assigned to didn’t seem to fit some of the features on the teeth. It made me suspect that it belonged to a very different group of carnivores.”

Due to their poor condition, the two species had been previously misclassified being grouped in wrong genus and family. Tomiya noticed however that one of the specimens had upper teeth whose surfaces looked like they were meant for crushing. This suggests that the animals not only ate meat, as the previous classification suggested, but also berries or insects, much like a fox diet today. This hint spurred him to investigate further. He later noticed that another fossil carnivore from the same rock formation in Texas also had similar features.

Eventually, Tomiya enlisted the help of Jack Tseng of the University at Buffalo and together made a 3D reconstruction of one of the skulls which was still relatively intact. Using high-resolution X-ray CT scans, the team could see internal skull features otherwise invisible. These scans showed that the two species are actually ‘bear dogs’ or amphicyonid.

As such, the species had to be re-classified. The chihuahua-sized Miacis cognitus is now renamed Gustafsonia cognita (in honor of Eric Gustafson, who first described them), and Miacis australis is now known as Angelacrtocyon australis, meaning “messenger bear dog.”

Both lived 36 to 37 million years ago and although earlier fossils were found in Europe, the new fossils suggest that southern North America was an evolutionary hot spot for the bear dogs. Their lineage eventually went extinct several million years ago. It’s not clear why, but around the time bear dogs collapsed the climate became cooler and drier. Meanwhile, actual bears and canines appeared who may have been more adapted and eventually took their place in the ecological niche.

“Studying how the diversity of beardogs waxed and waned over time could tell us about larger patterns in carnivore evolution,” Tomiya added.

Findings appeared in Royal Society Open Science.

First living-donor uterus transplant in the US performed in Texas

A Texas hospital has performed four uterus transplants from live donors, one of which was successful. This marks the first occasion such a procedure has been performed in the US.

Image credits Hey Paul Studios ? Flickr.

The four women underwent transplants in September. They all had a condition called Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome, which caused them to be born without a uterus. So far, three of the organs had to be removed as they weren’t getting enough blood flow, and the doctors feared the possible complications which might have developed. The fourth patient is stable and the procedure seems to be doing well so far. A statement by BaylorScott&White, the hospital who performed the transplants, says that the surgical team was “cautiously optimistic” that the fourth uterus would be functional.

“This is the way we advance, from learning from our mistakes,” lead surgeon at Baylor University Medical Centre in Dallas, Giuliano Testa, told Time.

“I am not ashamed of being the one who will be remembered as the guy who did four [transplants] in the beginning and three failed. Even if through failure, I am going to make this work.”

The procedure is still experimental and there’s a high failure rate. More research and operations are needed before it’s deemed safe. Even if the surgery becomes widely available, it’s very likely it will take a huge financial toll on potential patients. But, for women born without a uterus or for those who’ve had it damaged or removed, undergoing such a transplant might be their only change at getting pregnant and having children. Here’s a basic run-down:

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Here’s the basic rundown” footer=””]Surgeons take the uterus and part of the vagina from a donor, living or deceased.
This is then implanted in the patient. Surgeons connect the uterus to the body’s circulatory system, and attach it along the vagina and pelvis. No nerves need to be attached.
In case of a successful transplant, the patient should be able to safely get pregnant in about 6 to 12 months’ time. In virto fertilisation will be used (as the uterus is not connected to the ovaries).
The woman will have to deliver via a C-section.[/panel]

At this point, the doctors are sadly not sure if the fourth case will be a success or not.

UK doctors plan to perform the procedure using non-living donors in the near future, but for now, Sweden is the only country apart from the US where such transplants have succeeded. The nine procedures in Sweden used live donors — like the Texas ones — and some of the women went on to have children. The experts helped the TBaylor team during the operations.


The oldest known supercontinent was called "Rodinia" and formed some 1.1 billion years ago, when there also was only one superocean, which was called the "Panthalassic Ocean" (or "Panthalassa") and eventually became the present-day Pacific Ocean. (c) NASA

Texas was attached to Antarctica, 1.1 billion years ago

The oldest known supercontinent was called "Rodinia" and formed some 1.1 billion years ago, when there also was only one superocean, which was called the "Panthalassic Ocean" (or "Panthalassa") and eventually became the present-day Pacific Ocean. (c) NASA

The oldest known supercontinent was called "Rodinia" and formed some 1.1 billion years ago, when there also was only one superocean, which was called the "Panthalassic Ocean" (or "Panthalassa") and eventually became the present-day Pacific Ocean. (c) NASA

Despite an evident contrast, geologists claim that the region of modern day El Paso, Texas was once attached to the now icy continent of Antarctica, in an effort to piece together the giant pieces of a puzzle that formed a pre-Pangaea supercontinent.

“Most people are familiar with Pangaea,” said study co-author Staci Loewy, a geochemist at California State University, Bakersfield. “That was a supercontinent that formed 300 million years ago.”

About 1.1 billion years ago, most of the world’s landmass was contained within a supercontinent called Rodinia, Pangaea’s predecessor. Today’s continents came to be after a plate tectonics process, which continues to this day,  separated Pangaea into multiple  land masses about 250 million years ago.

If it might seem incredibly difficult to pinpoint where and when supercontinents formed or split, it’s because it is. Scientists have to trace ancient mountain belts or analyze a myriad of data filled with geological patterns to assert a sound geological statement.

In this particular case, the team of researchers, lead by Loewy, collected rocks from a region known as the North American Mid-continental Rift System – a volcanic zone stretching from Canada to the Franklin Mountains near El Paso. Another set of rocks was collected from the mountains in Coats Land in East Antarctica, on the coast of the Weddell Sea. The rock sampling in Antarctica was a bit more difficult, since most of the mountains were covered in ice, except “two tiny tips of mountain peaks,” Loewy said.

After a careful analysis of the samples from both regions, scientists concluded that the sites match in age and in lead isotope ratio, meaning that the volcanic rocks erupted in the same rift zone. Oddly enough, although hugely separated nowadays, scientists concluded in their study that the two landmasses were once connected.

“It’s such a neat thing,” she said, referring to the past ties between the West Texas desert and Antarctica’s glaciers. “It’s a quite spectacular contrast.”

While the study, published in the journal Geology, is extremely interesting, even more fascinating similar geological studies are been made, as scientists painstakingly try to trace down the origins of even older supercontinents.

“There are people who have put forth models of earlier supercontinents. One, called Columbia, [may have] existed from 1.8 to 1.5 billion years [ago],” Loewy said.

“And at 2.4 to 2.6 billion years ago, there seems to have been another major event,” she said. “There appear to have been multiple cycles throughout time.”


A third of Texans believe humans lived side by side with dinosaurs… and other stuff

I recently came across this poll, which was conducted about a year ago. Ok, so it’s not extremely actual, but one year can’t change the data significantly. So, almost 1 in 3 Texans believes that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time, and over half of them don’t believe humans evolved from some other species.

Just so you can get an idea, dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago, and homo sapiens originated some 200.000 years ago. But wait, there’s more ! More than one third of them belive humans evolved over millions and millions of years, with God carefully guiding the process. About a fifth of them, 22 percent believes that life existed in its present form in the form we see today since the beginning of time.

The survey was conducted by David Prindle, a University of Texas government professor, and the answers it found, as well as the figures… are sad. Just sad.