Archives for category: 2011

I recently received word that I’ve been awarded a travel grant from the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Carl Taylor Grants provide funding for research or practice projects on topics relevant to the complex interrelationships among food production, diet, environment and public health.

I’ll be doing a reporting project that looks at whether the pawpaw, a delicious but little-known fruit native to the mid-Atlantic, has the potential to emerge as a more sustainable alternative to the banana and other tropical fruits on the American market. As part of the project, I’ll be creating a special pawpaw page on my website, posting interviews with pawpaw experts, and doing as much freelancing about the pawpaw as I can.  For now, here’s a brief excerpt from the grant proposal:

A little-noticed fruit tree called the pawpaw, which is native to the mid-Atlantic region and grows in 26 states across the eastern United States, has great but largely unrealized potential to offer Americans a local and sustainable alternative to bananas and other tropical fruit. The common pawpaw (asimina triloba), a small tree that grows in shady areas with well-drained soil, produces the largest indigenous edible fruit in North America. Pawpaw fruit, which looks similar to small mangos but has fleshy yellow interiors with the texture of custard, has an extremely sweet taste that is unique but has hints of banana, mango, and pineapple.

Pawpaw has a rich but largely forgotten place in the culinary history of the United States. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, many Native American tribes used to forage for wild pawpaw and made the fruit a regular part of their diets. Lewis and Clark wrote that pawpaw saved their expedition in 1810 when food supplies ran dangerously low.  And prior to the 1920s when the banana became a cheap and ubiquitous option on the American market,  Americans across wide swaths of the eastern United States used to eat wild pawpaw in the fall.  There’s even a popular children’s song about pawpaw that is still sung frequently today.

I just returned from San Francisco where I spent a week at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. With more than 21,000 attendees and tens of thousands of posters and talks, there’s never a shortage of things to see, just a shortage of time to see it all. I did a bit of blogging for What on Earth  this year. Links below:

How Satellites Can Fill the Gaps in Air Quality Maps
Airborne Particles a Threat to Himalayan Glaciers
Dust Storm Triggered Phytoplankton Blooms in the South China Sea
New Project Aims to Predict South Asian Floods
How Shifting Storm Tracks Are Amplifying Climate Change
What Would Pristine Air Mean for the Climate?

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Ben Cook, a climatologist affiliated with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York City, highlighted new research that indicates the ancient Meso-American civilizations of the Mayans and Aztecs likely amplified droughts in the Yucatán Peninsula and southern and central Mexico by clearing rainforests to make room for pastures and farmland.

Converting forest to farmland can increase the reflectivity, or albedo, of the land surface in ways that affect precipitation patterns. “Farmland and pastures absorb slightly less energy from the sun than the rainforest because their surfaces tend to be lighter and more reflective,” explained Cook. “This means that there’s less energy available for convection and precipitation.”

NASA, December 2011

If terms like adenine and guanine bring back unpleasant memories of Genetics 101 here’s one reason to give the words a second thought: A team of scientists has discovered that these and other DNA building blocks can form in outer space and have been deposited on Earth’s surface by meteorites. To reach this eye-opening conclusion, researchers ground up and analyzed a set of twelve meteorites collected from Antarctica and Australia. Within them, the scientists found a treasure trove of molecules that may have played a key role in allowing early forms. Read more and download the iPad app.

NASA Visualization Explorer, September 2011.

On a warm afternoon in early March, the Taurus XL rocket that was prepped for launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California looked more like a giant chopstick standing on end than a potential game changer in the debate over climate change science.  The barrel-shaped satellite that the rocket carried — named Glory — was designed to deliver critical information about small airborne particles called aerosols. The elusive particles account for much of the uncertainty in climate models, and data from the satellite would have helped scientists determine more of the aerosols’ key properties than ever before....

Earth, September 2011