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Science Picks

February 4, 2009
Jessica Robertson 703-648-6624 Jessica Robertson

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Redoubt Volcano could be on the verge of eruption! Want to watch the volcano in real-time? In this edition of USGS science picks, we'll tell you how! You can also learn about the impact of airport runway deicers on the environment, how hot things are really getting in the Arctic, a diet gone bad for sea otters on the central Californian coasts and what may be causing the increase of tree deaths in the West. Also, view aerial maps of last summer's devastating Indiana floods, learn more about the affects of soil carbon and understand how water will be managed in a changing climate. But that's not all - we have the results of a landmark grizzly bear study and a new joint effort between the USGS and NASA that will put you over the moon! 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 email

February Highlights:


Webcam Recording Redoubt Volcano, AK as Activity Increases

In response to the current increase in activity of Redoubt Volcano, in the Cook Inlet region of Alaska, the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) has deployed a web camera approximately 7.5 miles north-northwest of the summit of the volcano. A second webcam also is pointed at Redoubt from a platform within Cook Inlet. Photos of eruption plumes from Redoubt's 1989 - 1990 eruptive sequence are incredibly beautiful and provide great scientific information - so much so that one in particular serves as the AVO logo. The AVO has 16 webcams throughout the state of Alaska pointing at 11 different, active volcanoes. These webcams can be viewed from the AVO Webcam Web page. AVO has also set up a Redoubt Activity Web page on its site displaying all available information, data streams and current updates of activity at the volcano. For more information, contact Jennifer Adleman at (907) 786-7019 or, or contact Bill Lukas at (703)-648-6168 or

Airport Runway Deicers Impact on the Environment Greater Than Previously Thought

The most widely used compound to remove dangerous ice from runways at many of the nation's airports may impact the environment more than previously realized. New research shows that potassium acetate deicers may be harmful to aquatic life. This is the first published study of potassium acetate in airport runoff. These findings follow a major shift in formulations used to deice airports across the country. Want to know more? View the report at the ACS Publications, Environmental Science & Technology Web site or contact Steven R. Corsi at (608)-821-3835 or

Arctic Heats Up More than Other Places

Temperature change in the Arctic is happening at a greater rate than other places in the Northern Hemisphere, and this is expected to continue in the future. As a result, glacier and ice-sheet melting, sea-ice retreat, coastal erosion and sea level rise can be expected to continue. A new scientific synthesis of past Arctic climates demonstrates for the first time the pervasive nature of Arctic climate amplification. This report also draws conclusions on the Arctic regarding sea ice, rates of past changes, temperature and precipitation and the Greenland Ice Sheet. The USGS led this new assessment, which was commissioned by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. To view the full report, visit the U.S. Climate Change Science Program Web site: Past Climate Variability and Change in the Arctic and at High Latitudes.

For a podcast interview with USGS scientist Joan Fitzpatrick on this report, listen to Episode 82 at For more information, contact Jessica Robertson at (703) 648-6624 or

What Exactly Is that Oscar Made Of?

For years, stars of the silver screen have hoped to take home an Academy Award of Merit. But what are they really competing for? The Oscar statuette stands 13.5 inches tall, weighs 8.5 pounds, and is made from the alloy Britannium, which consists of tin (93 percent), antimony (5 percent), and copper (2 percent). The statuette is then plated in 24-karat gold. This combination of materials has been the norm for a while, although it wasn't always the case. For example, during World War II, when materials and metals were scarce, the Oscars were made of plaster. After the war, the plaster statues were then turned in for the normal gold-plated versions. This prestigious award is much more than one might think! The USGS provides information on where these and other mineral commodities are known and suspected to be on Earth. For more information about this and other mineral related topics, visit the USGS Mineral Resources Program Web site. You can also contact Jessica Robertson at (703)-648-6624 or

Risky Behavior and Diet Diversity Can Make Sea Otters Sick

Sea otters living along the central California coast risk higher exposure to disease-causing parasites as a consequence of the food they eat and where they feed, according to a new study published the week of January 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists have found that where food resources are limited, individual sea otters tend to become diet specialists, and the result is that individual otters inhabiting the same area can have very different diets from one another. It now appears that high levels of infection with Toxoplasma gondii or Sarcocystis neurona, parasites of cats and opossums, respectively, may be a consequence of this dietary diversification. Findings indicate that prey choice in sea otters has implications for their health, and depleted resources and high rates of infectious disease may be acting in concert to limit the recovery of this threatened species. For more, see USGS News Release: Food Choices and Location Influence California Sea Otter Exposure to Disease or contact Tim Tinker at (831)-459-2357 or

Doubled Over from the Heat: Tree Deaths in the West

Tree death rates have more than doubled over the last few decades in old-growth forests of the western United States, and the most probable cause of the worrisome trend is regional warming, according to a USGS-led study published in Science on January 23. The increase in dying pines, firs, hemlocks, and other kinds of trees has been pervasive across a wide variety of forest types, at all elevations, and in trees of all sizes. Regardless of the cause, higher tree death rates ultimately could lead to substantial changes in western forests and cascading effects, such as changing forest suitability for wildlife species. Additionally, increasing tree mortality rates mean that western forests could become net sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, further speeding up the pace of global warming. For more, see USGS News Release: Tree Deaths Have Doubled Across the Western U.S. -- Regional Warming May be the Cause. Or contact Phil van Mantgem at (707)-825-5189 or, or Nate Stephenson at (559)-565-3176 or


Photo Maps Depict the Severity of Indiana’s Summer Floods

The severity and extent of last June's floods in Indiana made them the state's costliest disaster. The USGS has released a series of aerial photographs that are computer-enhanced to show the approximate depths and extents of floods. The maps show areas flooded by water up to 23 feet deep along 17 central and southern Indiana waterways. The USGS and its cooperators are using the maps to document the conditions leading to the flooding, the magnitude and severity of the flooding, and the impacts and damages to affected communities. For more information, view Open-File Report 2008-1322: Flood of June 7-9, 2008, in Central and Sourthern Indiana, or contact Scott Morlock at (317) 716-8412 or

Potential "Hot Zones" for CO2 Emissions in Boreal Forests

Soil carbon is likely contributing increasingly larger amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere as a result of warming, permafrost degradation, and changes in soil-plant interactions. Northern soils are known to harbor large amounts of carbon and when permafrost thaws, organic matter is decomposed and CO2 is released to the atmosphere. Soil CO2 emissions have also increased as a result of enhanced wildfire activity: wildfires in North American boreal forests have doubled over the past 30 years, releasing to the atmosphere not only CO2, but also mercury, the toxic twin of carbon-derived fire emissions. Thus carbon-rich soil is proving be a hot zone" for CO2 emissions. USGS scientists and colleagues are researching the role that soil carbon may play in influencing climate change during the coming decades. For more information about USGS carbon and soil studies, visit the USGS Soil Carbon Research @ Menlo Park Web site, or contact Leslie Gordon at (650)-793-1534 or

Story Seeds

Managing Water Resources in a Changing Climate

How do water managers even begin to handle one of the nation's most important resources during a changing climate? Multiple government agencies have developed a framework to help them get the job done. This new report will be used to help managers address climate change in the vital water decisions they make to ensure that water is available to support communities, generate power for cities, sustain ecological systems, or protect lives and homes from flooding - all critical to the public's health, safety and quality of life. The USGS has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation to define and characterize the science that will help the nation develop the necessary strategies to prepare for, adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. For more information, visit Circular 1331: Climate Change and Water Resources Management: A Federal Perspective, or contact Jennifer LaVista at or (703)-648-4432.

USGS and NASA Cook Up Moondust Recipe

In support of NASA's future lunar exploration, the USGS is working with NASA to develop a realistic moondust substitute, or simulant. Team members pound on boulder sized rocks to break them into manageable chunks, dump these chunks into buckets, and lug the buckets over to pickup trucks containing reinforced containers to hold the rocks. The pickups carry the rocks down the mountain for loading onto 18 wheelers that transport tons of the material to the USGS in Denver. The USGS makes the simulant by crushing and grinding the rocks and blending in small amounts of natural minerals according to a well-researched "recipe" to approximate the make up of genuine moondust and moon dirt. A springtime media availability is in the works to show how the USGS scientists are creating the moondust and the final result. We will also be collaborating with NASA on a potential joint event this summer. For more information, contact Heidi Koontz at (303) 202-4763 or

Seeing Double Trouble for Receding Glaciers

Climate change research in Glacier National Park is revealing that the park's glaciers have receded rapidly since the Park's establishment in 1910, primarily due to an increase in daily minimum temperatures and persistent droughts. The USGS Repeat Photography Project Web site has captured striking images that illustrate the disappearance of glaciers by pairing historic images with contemporary photos. Recently thirteen glacier pairs have been updated to reflect change since the early 20th century and summer 2008. As the world's glaciers respond to a warmer earth, these images from the Northern Rockies give viewers tangible and easily interpreted evidence of the worldwide phenomena of glacier recession. To learn more about the Repeat Photography Project visit the USGS Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems Web site or contact Dan Fagre at (406) 888-7922 or

Results of Landmark Montana Grizzly Bear Study Published

The USGS Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project has concluded that 765 grizzly bears live in northwest Montana. Results from the study were published in the January 2009 edition of the Journal of Wildlife Management as a cover article entitled "Demography and Genetic Structure of a Recovering Grizzly Bear Population." The study sampled the grizzly bear population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a 7.8-million-acre area in northwest Montana, and was led by USGS biologist and principal author Katherine Kendall in cooperation with 12 federal, state and tribal agencies, landowners, universities and other entities. Through genetic analysis of 34,000 bear hair samples that were obtained non-invasively, the study concludes that the overall genetic health of the population is good, but that human development has begun to inhibit interbreeding between bears across some of the main transportation corridor in the ecosystem. The project was the first ever ecosystem-wide scientific assessment of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and largest non-invasive study of grizzly bears to date. For further information, contact Katherine Kendall at (406)-888-7994 or

This edition of Science Picks was compiled by Lauren Limerick, USGS Office of Communications.

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