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Monday, August 4, 2014

Boreal burning

Rumbling afternoon thundershowers are breaking over the Southwest, bringing gratitude and sweet relief – not that the region needed much relieving this year. Bouts of cool, wet weather throughout early summer helped stave off the conflagrations predicted to erupt after a dry winter, and by mid-July, most areas had already been deluged by a full month’s worth of rainfall. In other words, summer monsoon season has extinguished any lingering fears that 2014 would be a bad fire year.

But as the Southwest collectively inhales the smell of rain falling on dry land, parts of the Northwest and Western Canada are bathed in acrid smoke. Nearly a million acres are burning in Washington and Oregon alone – more than what typically burns over the course of a whole year. Some 12,000 firefighters have been deployed since the fires began earlier this month.

Yet though the deadly combination of drought and summer lightning strikes have led to a particularly severe fire season in eastern Washington and Oregon, some of the West’s biggest blazes are in Canada's Northwest Territories, where the total acreage burned so far this year is six times the 25-year average. In recent years, twice as much Canadian forest has been burning annually as in the 1970s, says University of Alberta wildland fire professor Mike Flannigan, and the northwestern part of the country is experiencing its hottest, driest summer in half a century. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change,” Flannigan says...

To read more about what burning boreal forests mean for the environment, click here


taigafire2

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

More fun with photoshop.











Grasshopper plagues: agricultural nightmare or ecological boon?


In early June, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were puzzled: There was a big splotch on the radar that didn’t look like any weather system they’d ever seen. Maybe their software had a bug?

Turns out, the dark green blob hovering over Albuquerque wasn’t a software glitch at all but a giant swarm of grasshoppers. John Garlisch, an agricultural extension agent at New Mexico State University, told Modern Farmer that the state’s dry winter allowed more grasshopper eggs than usual to hatch this spring, and the ongoing drought has caused a dearth of fresh growth on rural rangeland, forcing the swarm to take flight in search of greener pastures. The well-watered gardens of Albuquerque must’ve looked mighty appealing.

By now, the grasshoppers have mostly died of natural causes or been eaten by cats, says forecaster Brent Wachter of the National Weather Service. But this summer’s incident raises the question: As climate change continues to impact weather patterns across the West, will grasshopper swarms big enough to show up on Doppler radar become a more regular concern? And if so, how concerned should we be?

To find out, I called population ecologist Gary Belovsky, who’s been studying grasshoppers in western Montana for 37 years. He's currently researching how climate change affects grasshopper outbreaks. If you’re looking for a simple, straightforward answer, though – something along the lines of “climate change causes drought and drought causes more grasshoppers” – look elsewhere. While drought can indeed increase short-term grasshopper populations, the picture Belovsky paints over the long run is far more complex. ...

... Click here to read the rest.


More Pebble Mine - Alaska sides with mining corp., tribes back EPA

Victories in clean air and energy politics may be among the Obama Administration’s lasting legacies, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t been getting much love from rural communities lately. Here in western Colorado coal-mining country, a hand-painted sign reflects the opinion of many local miners: “Frack the EPA and the war on energy!” In Idaho last week, demonstrators illegally dredged a protected stretch of the Salmon River to protest EPA permits for mining in Western watersheds. Since January, Kansas and seven other rural states have passed symbolic measures opposing the EPA’s new power-plant emission standards, and since 2010 Texas has spent millions in taxpayer dollars on more than a dozen (mostly unsuccessful) lawsuits against the agency.

Yet in rural Alaska, where sentiment against federal oversight runs deep, a group of remote residents are actually siding with the EPA. Not only that, they’re joining the agency in fighting a powerful lawsuit filed against it.

That’s the latest news in the saga of Pebble Mine, a massive open-pit copper mine proposed in western Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. Local tribes and commercial fishermen fear the mine could destroy one of the world’s most prolific salmon runs, and in 2010, tribes petitioned the EPA to invoke a seldom-used power under the Clean Water Act to block development. This April, after a federal environmental assessment concluded the mine could indeed harm salmon habitat, the EPA took the first steps to begin using the Clean Water Act to halt the mine. ...


... Click here to read the rest.

Monday, June 23, 2014

changing seasons.

When you choose to spend the summer solstice at 11,000 feet, there is likely to be snow. Taken in the Ice Lakes basin, San Juan National Forest, southwest Colorado.


W





Mushy starfish and washed-up sea lions

Here’s some shocking news: Since last fall, when I first wrote about Pacific sea stars falling victim to a mysterious disease, turning into goo and dying, the aptly-named “starfish wasting syndrome” has not – as scientists hoped – subsided on its own. It’s gotten much, much worse.

How much worse, you ask? Well, from the get-go, this iteration of starfish wasting was more widespread and severe than previous outbreaks, which have historically spiked during warm-water El NiƱo years and then quickly subsided. By the time it was identified late last summer, the disease had already caused localized die-offs of up to 95 percent of ochre sea stars in Santa Cruz, California, and was spotted as far north as Alaska. Tens of thousands of starfish simply wasted away and died, literally before researchers’ eyes.

Yet it seemed for a while that Washington and Oregon would be spared. This May, just over 1 percent of ochre sea stars in Oregon were affected. But now – a mere four weeks later – an estimated 30 to 50 percent are dying, and scientists predict a 100 percent mortality rate in some places. In parts of Washington’s San Juan Islands, mortality jumped from 10 to 40 percent over the course of a single week in June, and the disease has now been confirmed in more than a dozen species. “This is an unprecedented event,” says Bruce Menge, a marine biologist at Oregon State University. “We’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before.”

By now, you might well be wondering what’s behind this intertidal horror show. Funny you should ask. Though the outbreak has prompted a slew of research and emergency funding from the National Science Foundation, no one really knows. We’re 11 months into an epidemic that could wreak havoc on entire ecosystems from Mexico to Alaska, and we can’t pin down the cause. It’s like the bubonic plague is striking our oceans, and we’re stuck in the dark ages...

Read the rest of the story here: http://www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/dying-starfish-washed-up-sea-lions-and-other-marine-diseases-leave-too-many-questions

starfish wasting 2

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mudslide!

It looked like lava and sounded like a freight train. That’s how locals described the sea of mud and debris that flowed down the green foothills of western Colorado’s Grand Mesa on Sunday afternoon, carving a path of destruction 3 miles long and a half-mile wide. Three men missing from nearby Collbran are presumed dead; rescue efforts have been halted by mud that’s up to 250 feet deep; and though the slide occurred in a rural area away from most homes, it came within 25 feet of a natural gas drilling pad with three active wells.

“It’s an understatement to say it’s massive,” Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said in a press conference on Monday. For comparison, the mudslide that captured national attention and killed 43 people in Oso, Washington, in March covered one square mile. The Mesa County slide was eight times that size, and the biggest difference appears to have been luck: unlike in Oso, residents of Collbran simply hadn’t built homes in the path of natural disaster.

The county’s oil and gas wells, however, are a different story. Though the mud just barely missed a drill pad operated by Occidental Petroleum Corporation, 16 additional wells sit below the current slide, and Mesa County isn’t in the clear just yet. Temperatures are expected to reach 85 degrees Wednesday afternoon, kicking snowmelt into high gear and increasing the risk of another slide. “There’s an unofficial consensus that an additional slide is likely,” says David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group.
 
Lynn Highland, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Landslide Information Center, agrees that a second slide is a real possibility. She also underscores what High Country News contributing editor Judith Lewis-Mernit recently pointed out: There’s no database of the thousands of precarious hillsides looming over homes and infrastructure in the West. The last national map of landslide risk was released in 1982, and as climate change increases the frequency of the freak rainfall and rapid snowmelt that lead to giant mudslides, the map has grown obsolete, Highland says...

... Read the rest here: http://www.hcn.org/articles/colorado-mudslide-reveals-risks-in-energy-planning-1
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