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.


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...

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starfish wasting 2

Monday, June 2, 2014


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:
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