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Science Picks

October 28, 2008
Jennifer LaVista 703-648-4432 Jennifer LaVista

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In this October edition of Science Picks, crack the mystery of freaky frog fungus, sneaky iguanas, a "Halloween" fish and what’s lurking in our drinking water. Glaciers and sea otters are disappearing, while deep-sea corals and devilishly hot geothermal energy are thriving. Don’t be spooked — read on for clues to these mysteries and more!

October Highlights:


Most Alaskan Glaciers Retreating, Thinning, and Stagnating

Most glaciers in every mountain range and island group in Alaska are experiencing significant retreat, thinning or stagnation, especially glaciers at lower elevations, according to a new book published by the USGS. In places, these changes began as early as the middle of the 18th century. Although more than 99 percent of Alaska's large glaciers are retreating, a handful, surprisingly, are advancing. The Glaciers of Alaska, authored by USGS research geologist Bruce Molnia, represents a comprehensive overview of the state of the glaciers of Alaska at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. The report uses a combination of satellite images, aerial photographs and maps to document the distribution and behavior of glaciers throughout Alaska. Access the paper at Fore more information, contact Bruce Molnia at (703) 863-8653 or

Don't be Left Out! Two Weeks to ShakeOut--Thousands Join Each Day, You Can Too

At 10 a.m. on November 13, millions of southern Californians will drop to the ground, take cover under a table or desk, and hold on. An earthquake prediction? No. But it is certain that the Great Southern California ShakeOut is on track to being the largest earthquake drill in United States history. More than 4.3 million people have signed-up to participate in the drill and you can too at ShakeOut is based on a potential magnitude 7.8 earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault. Dr. Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey led a group of over 300 scientists, engineers, and others to study the likely consequences of this potential earthquake in great detail. A copy of the full technical report, The ShakeOut Scenario, is available online at A non-technical summary narrative of the Scenario is online at

Discovery of a New Pacific Iguana Unravels Mystery

A team of Australian and U.S. researchers has discovered a new iguana in the central regions of Fiji, which makes three living species of Pacific iguana, including one that is critically endangered. Their study also provides insight about the unusual occurrence of iguanas in the middle of the Pacific, suggesting ancestors of the Pacific iguanas may have arrived up to 13 million years ago after making a 5,000-mile rafting trip from the New World. What's in a name? The scientists named the new iguana Brachylophus bulabula. The Fijian word for 'hello' is bula and doubling it signifies an even more enthusiastic greeting. For more, see or contact Robert Fisher at 619-225-6422 or

Sea Otter Decline Means Change of Menu for Aleutian Bald Eagles

Over the past 15 years, sea otter populations around Alaska's Aleutian Islands have declined. This decline has altered the near-shore ecosystem and affected the area food web, including not only the marine-based but also of the land-based critters. One of the sea otter's important food items is the sea urchin, which feeds on kelp. Dwindling sea otter predation on sea urchins resulted in kelp deforestation, which in turn has affected the behavior of bald eagles. Bald eagles used to feed on kelp forest fish and sea otter pups, but they have since altered their diet to prey that don't depend on kelp forests, primarily sea birds and mackerel. For more information, contact Robert Anthony at 541-737-1954 or or Keith Miles at 530-752-5365 or

Discover Deep-Sea Corals in the Gulf of Mexico!

Join a voyage of discovery with USGS scientists on the Research Vessel Nancy Foster as they examine the ecology of deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico. Expect to see remarkable photos of deep-sea animals (and maybe even a shipwreck) on the ship's blog, available at As the cruise progresses, you can follow the journey of government, academic and international marine scientists as they work together to learn more about an area where little is known about deep-sea habitats. For more information, contact Gary Brewer at 304-724-4507 or


Let's Heat Things Up!

Geothermal power production could significantly add to the United State's capacity to generate electric power. A new USGS assessment is the first national geothermal-resource estimate in more than 30 years. The results of this assessment show that the United States has an estimated 556,890 megawatts-electric (MWe) of power generation potential from a combination of identified geothermal systems (9,057 MWe), undiscovered geothermal resources (30,033 MWe) and unconventional Enhanced Geothermal Systems resources (517,800 MWe). Full development of just the conventional, identified systems could expand geothermal power production by approximately 260 percent of the currently installed geothermal total of more than 2500 MWe. Geothermal energy is an extremely important but underutilized domestic, renewable energy resource. To view results of the assessment, visit For more information, contact Brenda Pierce at (703) 648-6421 or

What's Lurking in the Drinking Water?

The USGS targeted pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, detergents, flame retardants, naturally occurring sterols, and other organic contaminants in a study of untreated sources of drinking water in the United States. These contaminants of emerging concern are commonly associated with human- and animal-waste sources, though other natural and human-related sources are also possible. Researchers collected data from 49 surface- and 25 ground-water sources of untreated drinking water in 25 states and Puerto Rico. This study follows previous USGS research on emerging contaminants in water that is not used for drinking, including the first national-scale reconnaissance of both U.S. streams and ground water. Together the data from these studies will help scientists, regulators, water-resource managers, and health professionals determine if the concentrations and mixtures of chemicals found pose a threat to human or ecological health. To learn more about these studies, visit or contact Mike Focazio at 703-648-6808 or

Halloween Darter: Spooky New Species of Perch

It doesn't glow in the dark or howl at the moon - but the Halloween Darter is a new fish species being described by USGS scientists. This new colorful member of the perch family can be spotted sporting its black and orange coloration in the rocky shoals of the Chattahoochee and Flint River systems. This species was first spotted in the 1990's, but was overlooked because of its resemblance to the Blackbanded Darter. The Halloween Darter will be the 46th described species of Percina, a genus that is largely restricted to eastern North America. For more information, visit or contact Mary C. Freeman at 706-542-1227 or

Lingering Effects from Recent Hurricanes

Extreme storms like Hurricanes Ike and Gustav can leave impacts that last well beyond the eye of the storm. Storms like these can change the shape and position of the coast as well as destroy buildings. Hurricane Ike's impact lingers more than a thousand miles from where it made landfall. Runoff from tributaries dumped massive amounts of sediment into Lake Michigan, contaminating the water, compromising near-shore navigation and raising E coli bacteria to levels unsafe for swimming. USGS scientists use high tech, state-of-the-art equipment in the lake to measure runoff, the lake's currents, and sediment input during storms. These data are used to forecast whether a beach is unsafe for swimmers.

Find discussion and compelling before-and-after photographs of both hurricanes on the Texas and Louisiana coast, airborne-laser mapping, and deployment of storm-surge sensors at Access extensive photography, a podcast and more at As hurricane season continues, the USGS airplane and science-response vehicle remain ready to assess damaged coastal areas and to produce maps of infrastructure for first responders. For more information, contact Heidi Koontz at 303-202-4763 or or Richard Whitman at 219-926-8336 x 424 or

Freaky Frog Fungus: Cause of Amphibian Decline?

Some amphibian population declines have been attributed to a fungal disease that affects the skin of amphibians. The fungus has been spreading around the world for the last century, and determining the extent of the fungus is important for resource managers. Previous studies revealed the presence of the fungus in several amphibian species in Europe. USGS scientists are busy collaborating with researchers in Europe to determine the extent of the fungus. Four different species of frogs were discovered to have the fungus in Denmark and Italy, but no dead or sick frogs were encountered. For more information, contact Michael Adams at 541-758-8857 or

Story Seeds

Wind Energy: Will Fall Bird Migration be Smooth Sailing for All?

As the seasons change, the skies are filling with the sites and sounds of the fall bird migration. As the United States migrates toward more sustainable and domestically available energy resource options such as wind energy, many are concerned about potential problems for migrating birds. Even though wind energy provides a clean and affordable domestic energy source, there are environmental concerns about bird mortalities, migratory bird routes, and species habitat disruption. USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center researchers and their partners are developing a model of how birds use important landscapes to help managers selecting sites for wind farm development to understand which areas would better protect migratory bird species, both while on land and in flight. For more information, visit or contact USGS scientist Rick Sojda at (406) 994-1820 or

A Scientific Crystal Ball: Tiny Bubbles Reveal Earth's History

Scientists with the USGS are peering deep into crystals to learn about Earth's history. Inside the crystals are small samples of Earth's ancient environment, which can be millions to billions of years old. These samples are giving scientists clues about, for example, the temperatures and salinity of ancient seawater, and in turn, the nature of past climates. This has been preserved for millennia because mineral crystals form from fluids, and microscopic bubbles of this parent liquid and gas become trapped as the crystals form. These bubbles serve as environmental time capsules - snapshots of ancient environmental conditions - that give us clues as to how certain rocks (even the Earth's crust itself) originated. Scientists have studied these "fluid inclusions" to unravel the history of ore mineral formation, to find ways to reduce the effects of climate change, and to assure safe disposal of radioactive waste. Some inclusions even contain ancient bacteria, aiding in DNA studies. For more information, contact Nora Foley at (703) 648-6179 or

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