Earth ChangesS

Bizarro Earth

With natural gas boom, Pennsylvania faces an onslaught of wastewater

© Joanquin Sapien (ProPublica)The McKeesport Sewage Treatment Plant, one of nine plants on the Monongahela River that has treated wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations.
Workers at a steel mill and a power plant were the first to notice something strange about the Monongahela River last summer.

The water that U.S. Steel and Allegheny Energy used to power their plants contained so much salty sediment that it was corroding their machinery. Nearby residents saw something odd, too. Dishwashers were malfunctioning, and plates were coming out with spots that couldn't easily be rinsed off.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection soon identified the likely cause and came up with a quick fix. The Monongahela, a drinking water source for 350,000 people, had apparently been contaminated by chemically tainted wastewater from the state's growing natural gas industry. So the DEP reduced the amount of drilling wastewater that was being discharged into the river and unlocked dams upstream to dilute the contamination.

But questions raised by the incident on the Monongahela haven't gone away.


Scientists discover largest orb-weaving spider

Golden Web of Orb Spider
© Photo M. KuntnerThis photo shows a giant golden orb-web exceeding 1 meter in diameter: Nephila inaurata, Rodrigues, Indian Ocean.
Researchers from the United States and Slovenia have discovered a new, giant Nephila species (golden orb weaver spider) from Africa and Madagascar and have published their findings in the Oct. 21 issue of the journal PLoS ONE. Matjaž Kuntner, chair of the Institute of Biology of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts and a Smithsonian research associate, along with Jonathan Coddington, senior scientist and curator of arachnids and myriapods in the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, also reconstructed size evolution in the family Nephilidae to show that this new species, on average, is the largest orb weaver known. Only the females are giants with a body length of 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) and a leg span of 4 - 5 inches (10 - 12 centimeters); the males are tiny by comparison. More than 41,000 spider species are known to science with about 400 - 500 new species added each year. But for some well-known groups, such as the giant golden orb weavers, the last valid described species dates back to the 19th century.

Nephila spiders are renowned for being the largest web-spinning spiders. They make the largest orb webs, which often exceed 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter. They are also model organisms for the study of extreme sexual size dimorphism and sexual biology.

Green Light

US gives Shell green light for offshore oil drilling in the Arctic

Conservationists say the decision by the Obama administration to allow drilling in the Beaufort Sea repeats Bush era mistakes
Polar Bear on Iceberg
© Hans Strand/CorbisConservationists fear the decision to allow Shell to drill for offshore oil in the Arctic will threaten polar bears and endangered animals.

Conservation groups based in Alaska have accused the Obama administration of repeating the mistakes of George Bush after it gave the conditional go-ahead for Shell to begin drilling offshore for oil and natural gas in the environmentally sensitive Beaufort Sea.

The Minerals Management Service, part of the federal Interior Department, yesterday gave Shell the green light to begin exploratory wells off the north coast of Alaska in an Arctic area that is home to large numbers of endangered bowhead whales and polar bears, as well as walruses, ice seals and other species. The permission would run from July to October next year, though Shell has promised to suspend operations from its drill ship from late August when local Inuit people embark on subsistence hunting.


Europe: Chaos in the snow as winter bites early

snow-covered car
A snow-covered car stands at the side of the road in Deggendorf, Germany
of heavy snow have brought chaos, death and an early start to the skiing season to parts of Europe.

Skiers are being told they can expect a sensational season after three feet of snow led many Alpine resorts to open two weeks early.

But the unseasonably early cold snap also cut power to thousands of homes and caused at least three deaths.

Pistes are already open in Austria, and there has also been heavy snow in France, Italy and Switzerland. Similar early falls last year saw the best conditions in Europe for more than 20 years.


Sperm Whales Act as Carbon Sink

Sperm Whales
© AP Photo/Guam Variety NewsA sperm whale calf swims next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales about four miles off the coast of the Agat Marina in Guam. New estimates suggest sperm whales' feeding habits help take in carbon.
Sperm whales in the Southern Ocean deserve credit for their fine work pumping iron for climate change, researchers say.

These whales have been falsely accused of breathing out enough carbon dioxide to contribute to the greenhouse gas build-up causing climate change, says Trish J. Lavery of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

Of course the whales breathe, but earlier calculations overlooked the potential for whales to offset their emissions by introducing extra iron into the upper zone of water, Lavery said October 13 at the Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Quebec City, Canada. The extra iron that whales bring up from their deep feeding encourages plankton growth. That growth traps carbon, much as human-run iron-enrichment experiments in the ocean might, Lavery and her colleagues contend.

According to the team's calculations, sperm whales in the Southern Ocean should rank as carbon neutral at least. The animals may even be capturing a net 5 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere per year, Lavery says.


Flashback Mexican Corn Contamination From GM Crop Confirmed

© iStockphotoThe findings highlight the failure of efforts to shield Mexico from unauthorized GM corn, says on researcher
Genes from genetically-engineered corn have been found in traditional crop strains in Mexico, according to a new study likely to reignite a bitter controversy over biotech maize.

The study by scientists from Mexico, the United States and the Netherlands, appears in the latest issue of Molecular Ecology, and backs a 2001 study that sparked a row over the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Green activists say GM crops are a potential hazard, arguing that their genes could spread to related plants through cross-pollination.

Cloud Lightning

Tropical Storm Neki in Central Pacific threatens Johnston Island

The Central Pacific Hurricane Center is monitoring Tropical Storm Neki, which has formed far south of the Hawaiian islands and is expected to move safely away from the state.

At 11 a.m. today, Neki was 740 miles south of Honolulu, moving northwest near 15 mph, forecasters said, noting that this general motion is expected to continue over the next 36 hours.

Maximum sustained winds are near 40 mph with higher gusts and Neki is forecast to become a hurricane tomorrow.

Cloud Lightning

Hurricane Rick weakens to Category 3 storm off Mexico's Pacific coast, hurricane watch issued

Miami - Hurricane Rick has decreased to a Category 3 storm as it swirls off Mexico's Pacific coast but is still a dangerous storm that forecasters say could veer into resorts at the tip of the Baja California peninsula.

A hurricane watch has been issued for southern Baja California.


Early snow records set to be broken

© europics.atAustria’s provincial capitals are expected to see their earliest snowfalls in history today (Mon) as Arctic air sweeps the country.
Austria's provincial capitals are expected to see their earliest snowfalls in history today (Mon) as Arctic air sweeps the country.

Josef Haselhofer from Vienna's Central Agency for Meteorology and Geodynamics (ZAMG) said today (Mon) Arctic air would probably result in the first snow cover in provincial capitals before 20 October in history and said Innsbruck, Salzburg and St. Pölten were likely to see snow.

He said as much as 30 to 40 centimetres of snow was likely down to 1,200 metres and snow could fall as low as 400 metres later this week, adding it had already begun to fall in Vorarlberg. He also predicted low temperatures would be minus five degrees at higher elevations and zero degrees in the lowlands by Thursday morning.

Haselhofer warned of possible impassable snow drifts in some places and the danger of avalanches in low-lying areas.

Bizarro Earth

Water demand puts Canadian rivers at risk

Mackenzie River
© Rick Bowmer/Associated PressThe Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories is under threat, according to a WWF-Canada study released Thursday.
Increasing demands on Canada's fresh water is putting rivers at risk, according to a new report.

Growing more food, generating more electricity, expanding cities and industry are all taking a toll on Canada's rivers, according to the World Wildlife Fund Canada.

The report released Thursday, Canada's Rivers at Risk: Environmental Flows and Canada's Freshwater Future, examines the health of 10 major rivers from the perspective of water flow.

"As temperatures rise, and industrial water withdrawals and interest in hydropower increase, we must start planning now to protect river flows to ensure water security for the communities and economies that depend on them," said Tony Maas, director of fresh water with WWF-Canada.