Monday, March 31, 2008

If You Build It, They Will Come...

This is the actual turn-off from Banff, Alberta, Canada to the #1 highway to Calgary.

Great picture isn't it? They had to build the animals (especially the elk) their own crossing because that was where the natural crossing was and after the highway was built there were far too many accidents.

It didn't take the animals long to learn that this was their "road."

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ice formed after freezing rain

An interesting series of images, will be good addition to our "Ice Storms!" article:
Every flower has ice embellishment:

Saturday, March 29, 2008

10 Things Smaller Than The Wilkins Ice Shelf

By now, many of you have heard about the giant ice cube that recently broke off from the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Western Coast of Antarctica. It’s the latest in a series of eyebrow-raising, canary-in-the-mineshaft reminders that this global warming thing (whomever you choose, or don’t choose, to blame for it) is really happening, and happening fast. (Because this particular chunk of the WIS is floating on water, not sitting on land, it’s not going to raise sea levels when it finally breaks off, not that that makes us feel a whole lot better about it.)

But what’s really amazing, and kind of difficult to comprehend, about this kind of phenomenon, is the sheer size of ice sheet we’re talking about. The “ice cube” that broke off was about 160 square miles — about three Lichtensteins, to be less exact — but the Wilkins Ice Shelf itself, which scientists say is now in danger of breaking off entirely, is much, much larger — a whopping 5,282 square miles. To help us get a better sense of scale, EnviroWonk (cousin of EcoGeek) has put together a fun/scary list called “10 Things Smaller Than The Wilkins Ice Shelf.”

1. Delaware (2,489 square miles)
2. Everglades National Park (2,357 square miles)
3. Jamaica (4,243 square miles): They could probably use some of that ice.
4. Yellowstone National Park (3,468 square miles)
5. Rhode Island (1,545 square miles): Though to be fair, there are people in Alaska with backyards larger than the Ocean State.
6. Ghawar Oil Field (3,243 square miles): Yes, there is an oil field in Saudi Arabia that’s larger than Delaware.
7. Puerto Rico (3,515 square miles)
8. The Falkland Islands (4,700 square miles)
9. 81 District of Columbias (68.3 square miles)
10. Los Angeles County (4,752 square miles): Which, with its population of 10 million people, answers the question, “How many people could live on the Wilkins Ice Shelf?”

Weird Trees

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Swimming Monkeys

Who knew macaques were such good swimmers?

Door to Hell: The Burning Crater of Darvaza

That burning crater near Darvaza, Turkmenistan, is called "The Door to Hell" by the locals. Decades ago, geologists were drilling for gas when they hit an underground cavern filled with gas. The drilling rig and camp collapsed into the cave and ignited the gas, which has been burning ever since.

Photographer John H. Bradley has more amazing photos of the Darvaz Burning Gas Crater

Flyover of breaking Wilkins Ice Shelf (2008.03.25)

The British Antarctic Survey says an ice shelf is breaking off the Antarctic peninsula because of global warming.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Flying carp on the Illinois River

CNN reporter learns firsthand the dangers of Asian Carp. You'll want to watch the whole thing if only for the pleasure of seeing what happens to the reporter toward the end.

Mutant Killer Seaweed of Doom

Mutant Killer Seaweed of Doom
Written by Richard Solensky

Caulerpa TaxifoliaBack in the early 1980’s, the Wilhelmina Zoo in Stuttgart was looking into various types of seaweed for use in their aquarium displays. They settled on a species known as Caulerpa taxifolia, since its bright green, feathery fern-like fronds were quite pretty, and it was both hardy and fast-growing. In addition, it produces chemicals that make it taste awful to marine animals, so it wouldn’t get eaten.

By repeatedly subjecting specimens to harsh aquarium conditions and selecting the ones that survived the best, researchers developed Caulerpa taxifolia (Vahl) C. Agandh, a new-and-improved, genetically distinct strain which was particularly hardy and fast-growing. This variety was ideal for their purposes and it was shared with other museums and aquariums. For a time, all was well and good in the world of marine botany. In 1984, however, a square meter patch of this new variety of Caulerpa was found in the Mediterranean off the shore of Monaco, right outside the Oceanographic Museum.

Evidently a little piece of it was flushed down a drain. But while those organizations involved in dealing with the accidental release exercised their blame-pointing fingers, Caulerpa spread. It was, after all, particularly hardy and fast-growing. By the time anyone got around to doing anything about it, the infestation covered several acres and was beyond anyone’s control. By 2001, there were thousands of acres of this remarkably prolific plant clogging coastal waters around the Mediterranean.

A Caulerpa infestation looks like a vast meadow of leafy, green fronds. And nothing else. The meadows have been compared to fields of wet, overgrown Astroturf. It grows as much as three inches a day, fast enough to crowd out other algae, and since it tastes awful, aquatic herbivores won’t go near it. Because it creates immense fields of desert-like undersea monotony, humans are crowded out as well. The bland landscape becomes uninteresting to divers, diminishing the tourism industry; and seaside fishermen lose interest as their favorite fish move on to more accommodating waters.

Its appearances as far away as Spain, Croatia, and Tunisia are believed to be the result of Caulerpa being picked up by fishing nets and anchors. Since it’s particularly hardy, it isn’t bothered by typical harbor pollution and it happily lies waiting to hitch a ride. A tiny fragment no larger than a fingernail is all that is needed to spawn a new plant, which means that the usual mechanical seaweed-removal methods can actually spread an infestation rather than contain it. A Caulerpa meadowA Caulerpa meadowControlling the plant with natural predators is also problematic. While there are a few mollusks that will munch happily on the other strains of Caulerpa, they cannot tolerate the temperatures of the Mediterranean, and they would be unable to eat it fast enough to be useful anyway.

Meanwhile, Caulerpa was working its way around the globe via the aquarium trade. In 2000, two small patches were found off the shore of San Diego, CA. Additional patches were spotted off southeast Australia. It is believed that these were the result of people dumping the contents of their salt-water aquaria down the drain.

Aware of the danger, agencies in California sprang into action. The state passed a law banning the possession and sale of nine species of Caulerpa. The City of San Diego topped them by banning all Caulerpa species. The infestations were dealt with through drastic measures. Marine biologists led an all-out assault on the invader. Armed with the latest weapons in botanical warfare, they completely covered and sealed the patches with black plastic tarps to cut off sunlight. Next, they pumped deadly chlorine under the tarps, killing every last trace of the enemy - along with anything else that had the misfortune to be trapped along with it. Six years and $7 million later, California can boast the world's first successful victory over a Caulerpa invasion. Mediterranean countries are doing what they can with mechanical removal, and Australia is trying copper sulfate, a potent herbicide. In both places, the infestations are too large for the California treatment.

Meanwhile the United States has declared a war on mutant seaweed, exercising the federal Noxious Weed Act (1999) and the federal Plant Protection Act (2000) to ban the importation, interstate sale, and transport of the menacing Caulerpa. A public education campaign in California is also underway. Nonetheless, a recent survey showed that there are still stores selling the banned species. Not only do home hobbyists frequently lack the expertise to identify the illegal immigrants, but dealers, distributors, and inspectors may also lack this knowledge. Bans have also been enacted in Spain, France, and Australia.

A "Wanted" poster from the California Environmental Protection AgencyA "Wanted" poster from the California Environmental Protection AgencyInvasive species are certainly nothing new. The current infestation of rabbits in Australia is perhaps the most well-known example of a foreign species causing the decline and extinction of various indigenous species. This invasion was launched by a landowner who immigrated from England and wanted to continue his rabbit-hunting hobby. Additionally, in 19th Century America, "acclimation societies" were trendy among those well-to-do who wanted to better mankind through scientific dabbling. Members encouraged the introduction and spread of non-native species for various beneficial uses. Kudzu, presently infesting the southeast US, was brought over from Japan for use as animal fodder and ground cover. House sparrows were imported from Britain to control insects, only to quickly become as annoying a pest as the insects they were meant to control. Even after it became apparent that the introduced species were becoming problems, they still continued bringing in new ones.

What separates Caulerpa from other invasive varieties is that it does not occur in nature. It is the product of selective-breeding genetic manipulation, pre-packaged with a man-made advantage which allows it to out-compete natural species. Although Genetically Modified (GM) crops are invaluable in feeding millions of poor– usually by producing more nutrients, growing in harsher environments, producing larger yields, and/or resisting predators– Caulerpa serves as a sobering illustration of the risks involved in developing alternatives which are hardier than their natural cousins. Today this mutant seaweed serves as a test case for the control of an accidentally-released unnatural strain, demonstrating the importance of quick and comprehensive action.

The ease at which it spreads and grows has earned Caulerpa a spot on the World Conservation Union’s "100 World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species" List. It remains to be seen whether or not the spread of Caulerpa can be contained, or whether it will wind up being the equivalent of aquatic kudzu. Perhaps over time we'll find some Caulerpa-consuming sea creatures we can introduce to feast upon the unwanted plants; and hopefully we won't need to find something to control the Caulerpa eaters. Failing that, some genetic tinkering might yield some kind of particularly hardy and fast-growing Caulerpa predator, and we can pit one mutant against another. With enough time, tarps, and successive creature-eaters, our victory over un-nature is inevitable.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Sunset from Space

The Astronomy Picture of the Day is a gorgeous sunset in honor of the Vernal Equinox.

To celebrate the equinox, consider this colorful view of the setting Sun. Recorded last June from the International Space Station, the Sun’s limb still peeks above the distant horizon as seen from Earth orbit. Clouds appear in silhouette as the sunlight is reddened by dust in the dense lower atmosphere. Molecules in the more tenuous upper atmosphere are preferentially scattering blue light.

Giant Marine Life Found in Antarctica

Giant Marine Life Found in Antarctica
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Mar 21, 7:44 AM (ET)


WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - Scientists who conducted the most comprehensive survey to date of New Zealand's Antarctic waters were surprised by the size of some specimens found, including jellyfish with 12-foot tentacles and 2-foot-wide starfish.

A 2,000-mile journey through the Ross Sea that ended Thursday has also potentially turned up several new species, including as many as eight new mollusks.

It's "exciting when you come across a new species," said Chris Jones, a fisheries scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "All the fish people go nuts about that - but you have to take it with a grain of salt."

The finds must still be reviewed by experts to determine if they are in fact new, said Stu Hanchet, a fisheries scientist at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

But beyond the discovery of new species, scientists said the survey, the most comprehensive to date in the Ross Sea, turned up other surprises.

Hanchet singled out the discovery of "fields" of sea lilies that stretched for hundreds of yards across the ocean floor.

"Some of these big meadows of sea lilies I don't think anybody has seen before," Hanchet said.

Previously only small-scale scientific samplings have been staged in the Ross Sea.

The survey was part of the International Polar Year program involving 23 countries in 11 voyages to survey marine life and habitats around Antarctica. The program hopes to set benchmarks for determining the effects of global warming on Antarctica, researchers said.

Large sea spiders, jellyfish with 12-foot tentacles, huge sea snails and starfish the size of big food platters were found during a 50-day voyage, marine scientist Don Robertson said.

Cold temperatures, a small number of predators, high levels of oxygen in the sea water and even longevity could explain the size of some specimens, said Robertson, a scientist with NIWA.

Robertson added that of the 30,000 specimens collected, hundreds might turn out to be new species.

Stefano Schiaparelli, a mollusk specialist at Italy's National Antarctic Museum in Genoa, said he thought the find would yield at least eight new mollusks.

"This is a new brick in the wall of Antarctic knowledge," Schiaparelli said.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Baby Kiwi Is Born

A Baby Kiwi Is Born

Hatching is hard work.

An exhausted baby kiwi, a highly endangered bird from New Zealand, is resting at the Smithsonian's National Zoo after being born early March 7.

Keepers had been incubating the North Island brown kiwi egg for five weeks, following a month long incubation by the chick’s father, carefully monitoring it for signs of pipping: the process in which the chick starts to break through the shell. The chick remained in an isolet for four days and is now in a specially designed brooding box.

Kiwis are one of the world's most endangered species. Only four zoos outside of New Zealand have successfully bred kiwis, and only three U.S. zoos, including the National Zoo, exhibit them.

The sex of the chick is still unknown and is difficult to determine by sight. For this reason, Bird House staff enlisted the help of National Zoo geneticists. Using DNA samples swabbed from the inside of the egg and from the bird’s beak, the geneticists hope to decipher its sex in the coming weeks.

There are five species of kiwi and all are unique to New Zealand. The North Island brown species of kiwi is the national bird of New Zealand. They are widely thought to be the most ancient bird and have existed in New Zealand for more than 30 million years. Kiwis typically mate for life, and both parents share the responsibility of caring for the egg. After kiwi chicks hatch, however, they receive no parental care. Unlike other bird species, kiwis hatch fully feathered and equipped with all of the necessary skills they need to survive.

The North Island brown kiwi species is classified as endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature. The wild population is declining at a rate of approximately 5.8 percent a year. Nearly 60 percent of all wild North Island brown kiwi chicks are killed by stoats, a species of weasel and an introduced predator. The remaining wild population of the North Island brown kiwi is estimated at roughly 24,000, down from 60,000 in the 1980s.