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March Science Picks—Leads, Feeds and Story Seeds
Released: 3/10/2008

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Jessica Robertson 1-click interview
Phone: 703-648-6624

Spring is near and many are gearing up to paint the town green for St. Patrick's Day! Uncover the mystery behind hidden treasures at the end of the rainbow, and find out how your luck might change as invasive clovers spread throughout the world. In this edition of Science Picks, you can also discover a new method to estimate sea ice thickness, what the USGS has learned from the hurricanes of 2005, and so much more! If you would like to receive Science Picks via e-mail, would like to change the recipient, or no longer want to receive it, please e-mail jrobertson@usgs.gov.

March Highlights Include:

  • New Method to Estimate Sea Ice Thickness
  • Past, Current and Future Hurricane Response
  • You Are What You Eat: Chemicals Found in Earthworms
  • Does the United States Have Enough Water?
  • Opening a Dam to Improve Resources in the Grand Canyon
  • Panama's Baru Volcano is Restless and Could Erupt Again
  • Wind Energy Threatens Bats
  • On Your Mark. Get Set. Grow! Cheatgrass Gets an Early Start, Endangering Spring Plants
  • Spring Predators Cause Lambs to Skedaddle
  • Some Don't Like it Hot
  • Working Dogs Lend Their Noses to Find Threatened Tortoises
  • Oh, Rats: Scientists Work with Walt Disney World to Breed Endangered Species
  • The Insides of a 34-Million-Year-Old Supervolcano Exposed
  • Climate Clues in Spring Flowers
  • Is There Gold at the End of the Rainbow?
  • Four-Leaf Clovers Are Not All Good Luck
  • Glacier Retreat: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Or Several Degrees)
  • Snowpack Affects Wildlife Disease in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
  • Plans for Coal-Bed Methane Drilling and Coal Mining in Precious Ecosystems
  • USGS Science and Human Health

and more ...

Leads (top news in natural science)

New Method to Estimate Sea Ice Thickness

Scientists recently developed a new modeling approach to estimate sea ice thickness, and it's the only model entirely based on historical observations. The model was developed by scientists with the USGS and the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. Using this new technique, the thickness of Arctic sea ice was estimated from 1982 to 2003. Results showed that average ice thickness and total ice volume fluctuated together during the early study period, peaking in the late 1980s and then declining until the mid-1990s. Thereafter, ice thickness slightly increased but the total volume of sea ice did not. Scientists propose that the volume stayed constant during the study's latter years because while the ice was thickening in the high latitudes of the Arctic, the surrounding sea ice was melting. Sea ice, however, can only become so thick, and if Arctic sea ice continues to melt, the total volume of sea ice in the Arctic will decrease. For additional information on this research, visit http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/remote_sensing/sea_ice.html, listen to a podcast interview at http://www.usgs.gov/corecast/details.asp?ID=62, or contact David Douglas at (907) 364-1576 or ddouglas@usgs.gov.

Past, Current and Future Hurricane Response

USGS scientists say that the lessons learned and technology deployed before, during and after Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005 can be used to help the public, emergency responders and policymakers prepare for and reduce losses from future hurricanes. This and much more are detailed in the new USGS report "Science and the Storms: the USGS Response to the Hurricanes of 2005." The publication includes information on the discovery of new storm surge modeling techniques; the use of satellite imagery and airborne lidar (light detection and ranging) to measure land loss and landscape change; and how science helps determine water quality and flooding threats. For more information, visit http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1306/, or contact Gaye Farris at (337) 266-8550 or farrisg@usgs.gov.

You Are What You Eat: Chemicals Found in Earthworms

The saying "you are what you eat" is proving true for earthworms, which eat soil for nourishment. Earthworms studied in agricultural fields have been found to contain chemicals from household products and manure, indicating that such substances are entering the food chain. The chemicals investigated include a range of active ingredients in common household products such as detergents, antibacterial soaps, fragrances and pharmaceuticals. For more information, visit http://toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/earthworms.html, or contact Jennifer LaVista at (703) 648-4432 or jlavista@usgs.gov.

Does the United States Have Enough Water?

The short answer is nobody really knows. The National Ground Water Association has designated the week of March 9-13 as Ground Water Awareness Week. The USGS is gearing up to assess the availability and use of our Nation's water resources, including groundwater. The USGS is working to determine how much water we have now, how water availability is changing over time, and how much water will be available for America's future. By better understanding groundwater resources now, we can help to protect the quality and quantity of human and environmental fresh water needs in the future. To learn more about the USGS's plans for water availability assessment, visit http://water.usgs.gov/wsi/, or contact Jennifer LaVista at (703) 648-4432 or jlavista@usgs.gov.

Opening a Dam to Improve Resources in the Grand Canyon

Glen Canyon Dam's jet tubes were opened on March 5 to release about 41,500 cubic feet of water per second from the Colorado River in Arizona. At that rate, the water would fill the Empire State Building within 20 minutes. The Department of the Interior proposed this experiment using high flows from the dam to study and improve Colorado River resources in Grand Canyon National Park. The goal of the experiment is to better understand whether higher flows can be used to rebuild eroded beaches downstream of the dam by moving sand accumulated in the riverbed onto sandbars. Grand Canyon sandbars provide habitat for wildlife, serve as camping beaches for recreationists and supply sand needed to protect archaeological sites. High flows also create areas of low-velocity flow, or backwaters, used by young native fishes, particularly endangered humpback chub. For more information, visit http://www.doi.gov/news/08_News_Releases/080305.html or www.gcmrc.gov/research/high_flow/2008/, or contact Jennifer LaVista at (703) 648-4432.

Panama's Baru Volcano is Restless and Could Erupt Again

Earthquakes rumbling beneath Panama's Baru Volcano in May 2006 served as a reminder that the slumbering volcano might one day reawaken. Since then, a network of seismic instruments has been placed around Baru Volcano to help detect unusual activity and aid in mitigating danger to surrounding communities. The Panamanian government funded the instrumentation in response to a joint study of Baru by the USGS and the University of Panama, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Panamanian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and the U.S. Embassy in Panama. "Future eruptions will likely be similar to past eruptions - explosive and dangerous to those living on the volcano's flanks," said the scientists in the report, which is can be found at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2007/1401. More than 10,000 people live in areas adjacent to the volcano, and three towns are located within a 10-mile radius of the mouth of the volcano. For more information, contact Clarice Nassif Ransom at (703) 648-4299 or cransom@usgs.gov.

Feeds (science updates and happenings)

Wind Energy Threatens Bats

Demand for electricity from wind energy has been growing internationally. Large wind energy facilities have sprung up around the world, composed of newer-generation turbines that stand over 350 feet high with blades spanning more than 250 ft across. Several wind farms, however, have killed unprecedented numbers of bats, resulting in the need to understand animal movements and behavior, especially as warmer weather approaches and species begin seasonal migration. To help reduce conflicts between wind energy facilities and wildlife, USGS scientists are studying the interactions between bats and wind turbines at several sites across North America. For more information, visit http://www.fort.usgs.gov/BatsWindmills/, or contact Paul Cryan at (970) 226-9389 or cryanp@usgs.gov.

On Your Mark. Get Set. Grow! Cheatgrass Gets an Early Start, Endangering Spring Plants

Cheatgrass starts from seed in the fall, and by the time native plants start their springtime growth on Western rangelands, this highly competitive weed has already tied up water and nutrients critical to native plants. To complicate matters, once established, cheatgrass increases the chance of ignition and spread of rangeland wildfires. The USGS is seeking management techniques to control the spread and dominance of cheatgrass. USGS scientists have tested herbicides, soil additives and even clipping methods that mimic livestock grazing. Results vary by techniques, but overall, hope remains for cost-effective and ecologically and socially acceptable control measures. For more information, visit http://fresc.usgs.gov/staff/profile_pubs.asp?Emp_ID=80, or contact David Pyke at (541) 750-7334 or david_a_pyke@usgs.gov.

Spring Predators Cause Lambs to Skedaddle

Desert bighorn sheep use escape terrain, which consists of cliffs and steep, rocky slopes, to outdistance and outmaneuver predators. As spring approaches, escape terrain becomes increasingly important, especially for adult females with lambs. Analysis of this terrain is important to understand both behavior and distribution of these animals, other wildlife and vegetation. Although there have been methods to measure slope, quantitative analysis of rugged terrain has been elusive for biologists. Scientists at the USGS and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas recently developed a tool to measure terrain. This tool was used to examine bighorn sheep habitat use in three distinct mountain ranges in the Mojave Desert. For more information, visit http://www.werc.usgs.gov/pubbriefs/longshorepbjan2008.html, or contact Kathleen Longshore at (702) 564-4505 or longshore@usgs.gov.

Some Donít Like it Hot

Temperature change has a dramatic effect on the survival and ecology of amphibians. The USGS recently found that cool temperatures in streams are vital to the survival of two Pacific Northwest salamanders, and neither species can live in stream temperatures above 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Southern torrent salamanders, one of the studied species, were also found to be among the most heat sensitive of any amphibian. In the Pacific Northwest, timber harvest and other disturbances may cause stream temperatures to rise, affecting these amphibians and other biota, such as salmon and trout, living in cold water. Management practices that retain or promote the presence of trees, shrubs and large pieces of wood along stream banks are important in maintaining favorable conditions for cold water-associated species. For more information, visit http://fresc.usgs.gov/products/papers/1894_Bury.pdf, or contact R. Bruce Bury at (541) 750-1010 or buryb@usgs.gov.

Working Dogs Lend Their Noses to Find Threatened Tortoises

Our ability to study threatened and endangered species depends on our ability to locate them. So, who is better at finding threatened desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert - humans or wildlife detector dogs? Statistically they're about the same, according to the first study making that comparison under natural conditions. But USGS scientists and collaborators found that properly trained wildlife detector dog teams offer a safe and quick alternative in conducting field surveys for desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert. The dogs, which relied on their keen sense of smell, finished surveys quicker than humans and detected a greater proportion of tortoises hidden by vegetation, but at a slightly higher monetary cost. For more information and photos, visit http://www.herpconbio.org/Volume_3/Issue_1/V3_I1_Contents.htm, or contact Ken Nussear at (702) 564-4515 or knussear@usgs.gov.

Oh, Rats: Scientists Work with Walt Disney World to Breed Endangered Species

The population of Key Largo woodrats (a small rodent) has dwindled because of habitat loss, free-roaming domestic cats and other threats. In an effort to re-establish this species, a genetics-based captive-breeding program was developed for this rodent by the USGS, Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. To help captive-bred animals have the best chance of maintaining a diverse gene pool and to help prevent problems associated with inbreeding, USGS scientists provided woodrat genotypes - think of this as your identity and family tree expressed in genes instead of in names - for more than 120 wild woodrats. The USGS also identified appropriately paired mates for two captive colonies. The USGS will use each animal's unique genotype to monitor and optimize captive-bred woodrat introductions to the wild gene pool. Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom Park is also hosting an exhibit with these animals. For more information, contact Timothy King at (304) 724-4450 or tlking@usgs.gov.

The Insides of a 34-Million-Year-Old Supervolcano Expo

Imagine what would happen to books on a shelf without a bookend: They would topple over and open up. Now imagine the 34 million year old Caetano caldera, remains of one of the world's largest volcanoes, similarly opening up and enabling scientists to examine each page of its exposed volcanic history. The exposed internal structure of this Nevada caldera is providing scientists with a rare opportunity to inspect the internal record of ancient geologic history. USGS scientists recently co-authored two papers describing how Nevada's faulted, blocky crust has slid and tilted so that the insides of Caetano caldera are clearly visible on the surface. These papers were published in a recent edition of Geosphere. For more information, visit http://geosphere.geoscienceworld.org/cgi/content/abstract/4/1/75 and http://geosphere.geoscienceworld.org/cgi/content/abstract/4/1/107, or contact David John at (650) 329-5424.

Story Seeds (points to ponder or investigate)

Climate Clues in Spring Flowers

If you thought flowers were mostly for Valentine's Day and other special occasions, think again! Plants and flowers are also indicators for changes in climate. Through Project BudBurst, volunteers are helping track climate change by observing and recording the timing of flowers and other plants. U.S. students, gardeners and other citizens are entering their observations into an online database that, over time, will give researchers a more detailed picture of global climate change. This project is operated by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and a team of partners including the USA National Phenology Network, to which the USGS provides substantial support. For more information, visit www.budburst.org, or contact Jake Weltzin at (520) 626-3821 or jweltzin@usgs.gov.

Is There Gold at the End of the Rainbow?

Through the ages, people have cherished gold, and many have had a compelling desire to collect great quantities of it - in fact, the frantic need to seek and gather gold has been named "gold fever." From generation to generation, people have told the tale of a pot of gold hidden at the end of rainbows. So, where is this sought-after resource? The USGS provides information on where gold and other mineral commodities are produced and suspected to be on Earth. For example, in 2006, South Africa was the leading gold producer among more than 80 gold-mining nations, followed by the U.S., China, Australia and Peru. Mines in Nevada accounted for almost 82 percent of U.S. production in 2006. The remaining domestic production came from mines in Utah, Alaska, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Idaho, in descending order of amount mined. To learn more, visit http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/gold/, or contact Micheal George at (703) 648-4962 or mgeorge@usgs.gov.

Four-Leaf Clovers Are Not All Good Luck

Weedy clovers are spreading at high rates throughout the world, and while this may increase four-leaf clover sightings and bring you a streak of good luck, this invasive species threatens its surrounding environment. USGS scientists are studying sweetclover to understand its effects on soil fertility and native species and to develop control methods for the species. In addition to clovers, America is facing an abundance of other harmful non-native species, which threaten native species, valued ecosystems, and human and wildlife health. The current annual environmental, economic and health-related costs of invasive species exceed those of all other natural disasters combined. USGS scientists are studying new invaders, improving understanding of habitat resistance to invasion and developing prevention, management and control methods. For more information, visit http://biology.usgs.gov/invasive/ or contact Diane Larson at dlarson@usgs.gov.

Glacier Retreat: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Or Several Degrees)

USGS climate change research in Glacier National Park, Mont., reveals that glaciers have receded rapidly since the park's establishment in 1910, primarily due to an increase in daily minimum temperatures and persistent droughts. USGS climate models predict that if the Earth's current warming trend continues, the park's glaciers will completely melt by the year 2030. The USGS Repeat Photography Project has captured striking images that illustrate the disappearance of glaciers by pairing historic images with contemporary photos. As the world's glaciers respond to warming, these images from the Northern Rockies give viewers tangible and easily interpreted evidence of the worldwide phenomena of glacier recession. For more information on the Repeat Photography Project and other natural indicators of climate change, visit the project's Web site at http://nrmsc.usgs.gov/repeatphoto, visit the USGS Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems Web site at http://nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/global.htm, or contact Dan Fagre at (406) 888-7922 or dan_fagre@usgs.gov.

Snowpack Affects Wildlife Disease in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

In the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, state and federal managers feed more than 6,000 metric tons of hay to elk and bison every year. USGS researcher Paul Cross, in collaboration with colleagues at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, recently found that increased snowpack results in longer feeding seasons, and sites with longer feeding periods had a greater presence of brucellosis - a bacterial disease that infects elk, bison and cattle in the region. The results suggest that reducing the feeding season by a month may reduce the prevalence of brucellosis in elk by up to two-thirds. Cross is now using satellite imagery and GPS collars to identify the locations and times when cattle are at the greatest risk of infection from elk. For more information, visit http://www.nrmsc.usgs.gov/staff/cross.html, or contact Paul Cross at (406) 994-6908 or pcross@usgs.gov.

Plans for Coal-Bed Methane Drilling and Coal Mining in Precious Ecosystems

The North Fork headwaters in British Columbia, Canada, are being targeted for coal-bed methane (CBM) development and open-pit coal mining. Research conducted by the USGS and collaborators shows that this region hosts one of the most diverse and unique ecosystems for terrestrial and aquatic species in North America. Potential open-pit coal mining and CBM development could impact critical bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout spawning habitat. To ensure decisions that could impact the region are supported by sound science, congressional funding was recently provided to the USGS and collaborators to collect data on fish and wildlife populations, water quality, and the geologic and hydrologic characteristics of the watershed in 2008. For more information, contact USGS scientist Clint Muhlfeld at (406) 888-7926 or cmuhlfeld@usgs.gov.

USGS Science and Human Health

Human health is influenced in many ways by our environment and the wildlife we share it with. Our health can be affected by exposure to natural materials, such as asbestos, radon or arsenic, and manufactured contaminants, such as pesticides and industrial chemicals in drinking water. Other examples include pathogens in recreational waters as well as diseases such as avian influenza or West Nile Virus, which can be spread through mosquitoes. USGS science is helping public health scientists better understand the factors that cause the spread of disease in humans. Environmental and health scientists have been collaborating to gain new insights on where, why and how some health issues occur and how they can be addressed. For more information, visit http://health.usgs.gov/, or contact Diane Noserale at (703) 648-4333 or dnoseral@usgs.gov.


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