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6.30.2005

Hurricane danger rising

Posted at Signs of the Times

WASHINGTON - Hurricane activity has increased and is likely to remain high for a decade or more, the head of the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday.

From the 1970s to the mid-1990s the number of hurricanes was low, Max Mayfield told the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee, but now frequency is increasing "and this period of heightened activity could last another 10 to 20 years."

Memories are still fresh of the four hurricanes that battered Florida last year. Forecasters predict 13 named storms, including seven hurricanes, could possibly threaten the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts this year.

Indeed, Tropical Depression Bret is currently producing heavy rains in Mexico.

Mayfield said the cyclic increase in tropical storms is made more dangerous because of the growth in coastal populations in recent years. An estimated 85 percent of coastal residents have never experienced a major hurricane, he said.

Mayfield said that even though forecasts and warnings have improved lately, being safe from such storms also requires personal responsibility.

"It really doesn't matter if you make a perfect forecast — if you don't get people to listen to you it's all for nothing," he said.

People in coastal areas need to have a plan and need to know where the nearest shelter is and what the evacuation plans are for their area, he said.

Asbury H. Sallenger of the U.S. Geological Survey added that the lack of experience with storms in recent years has resulted in construction of buildings that may not be able to stand up to them.

He pointed out the collapse of a five-story building in Orange Beach, Ala., when it was undermined by Hurricane Ivan.

Of special concern are the Florida Keys and New Orleans, where many people live in low-lying or below-sea-level areas that cannot be easily evacuated, Mayfield said.

"You need to make friends in high places. The problem is, neither of these areas have high places," he said.

Asked about the possibility of vertical evacuation in high-rise buildings in New Orleans, Mayfield said it is a refuge of last resort if people can't be evacuated.

After a major storm the power will be out, the water will be out and emergency personnel won't be able to care for thousands of people stuck in high rises, he said.

Overall, hurricanes claim 20 lives and cause $5.1 billion in damage in the average year. Those figures can jump many times in the event of a major storm like Andrew or Hugo.

Dennis McCarthy, director of the office of climate, water and weather services, told the committee that in a typical year there are 1,300 tornadoes in the United States, killing 58 people and causing $1.1 billion in damage. Floods account for $5.2 billion in damage and 80 deaths, he said, while lightning adds 53 fatalities annually
.

A recent study indicated that modern Doppler radar has sharply reduced the tornado death toll. McCarthy said the Weather Service is currently investigating radar improvements that could make forecasts even better.

6.29.2005

Conformity is a chemical reaction

Taking a small break from our Earth Changes, this is something that I thought was pretty relevant, considering the whole gist of Dubya's speech is about believing in the group mind. You're getting sleepy... collateral damage is worth it, Saddam had WMD's, 19 hijackers crashed four planes on 9-11, people who question the government are unpatriotic etc, etc.

The powers-that-be know how our brain functions, and they tailor their messages to that effect...

What Other People Say May Change What You See

By SANDRA BLAKESLEE NY Times
Published: June 28, 2005

A new study uses advanced brain-scanning technology to cast light on a topic that psychologists have puzzled over for more than half a century: social conformity

The study was based on a famous series of laboratory experiments from the 1950's by a social psychologist, Dr. Solomon Asch.

In those early studies, the subjects were shown two cards. On the first was a vertical line. On the second were three lines, one of them the same length as that on the first card.

Then the subjects were asked to say which two lines were alike, something that most 5-year-olds could answer correctly.

But Dr. Asch added a twist. Seven other people, in cahoots with the researchers, also examined the lines and gave their answers before the subjects did. And sometimes these confederates intentionally gave the wrong answer.

Dr. Asch was astonished at what happened next. After thinking hard, three out of four subjects agreed with the incorrect answers given by the confederates at least once. And one in four conformed 50 percent of the time.

Dr. Asch, who died in 1996, always wondered about the findings. Did the people who gave in to group do so knowing that their answers was wrong? Or did the social pressure actually change their perceptions?

The new study tried to find an answer by using functional M.R.I. scanners that can peer into the working brain, a technology not available to Dr. Asch.

The researchers found that social conformity showed up in the brain as activity in regions that are entirely devoted to perception. But independence of judgment - standing up for one's beliefs - showed up as activity in brain areas involved in emotion, the study found, suggesting that there is a cost for going against the group.

"We like to think that seeing is believing," said Dr. Gregory Berns, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who led the study.

But the study's findings, he said, show that seeing is believing what the group tells you to believe.[It's worth it, the war in Iraq]


The research was published June 22 in the online edition of Biological Psychiatry.

"It's a very important piece of work," said Dr. Dan Ariely, a professor of management and decision making at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study. "It suggests that information from other people may color our perception at a very deep level."[If you're not with us, your against us]

Dr. Brian Knutson, a neuroscientist at Stanford and an expert on perception, called the study "extremely clever."

"It had all the right controls and is a new contribution, the first to look at social conformity inside a brain magnet," he said.

Functional M.R.I. scanners detect which brain regions are active when people carry out various mental tasks.

The new study involved 32 volunteers who agreed to participate in a study on perception. "We told them others will be doing the same task, but you're the only one who will be in the scanner," Dr. Berns said.

The subjects were asked to mentally rotate images of three-dimensional objects to determine if the objects were the same or different.

In the waiting room, the subjects met four people who they thought were other volunteers, but who in fact were actors, ready to fake their responses.

To encourage cohesiveness in the group, the participant and the four actors played practice rounds on laptop computers, took pictures of one another and chatted.

Then the participant went into the M.R.I. machine. The participant was told that the others would look at the objects first as a group and then decide if they were same or different.

As planned, the actors gave unanimously wrong answers in some instances and unanimously correct answers in others.

Mixed answers were sometimes thrown in to make the test more believable but they were not included in the analysis.

Next, the participant was shown the answer given by the others and asked to judge the objects.

Were they the same or different?

The brain scanner captured a picture of the judgment process.

In some trials, instead of being told that the other volunteers had given an answer, they were told that a computer had made the decision. Dr. Berns said this was done to make sure it was social pressure that was having an effect.

As in Dr. Asch's experiments, many of the subjects caved in to group pressure. On average, Dr. Berns said, they went along with the group on wrong answers 41 percent of the time.

The researchers had two hypotheses about what was happening. If social conformity was a result of conscious decision making, they reasoned, they should see changes in areas of the forebrain that deal with monitoring conflicts, planning and other higher-order mental activities.

But if the subjects' social conformity stemmed from changes in perception, there should be changes in posterior brain areas dedicated to vision and spatial perception.

In fact, the researchers found that when people went along with the group on wrong answers, activity increased in the right intraparietal sulcus, an area devoted to spatial awareness, Dr. Berns said.

There was no activity in brain areas that make conscious decisions, the researchers found. But the people who made independent judgments that went against the group showed activation in the right amygdala and right caudate nucleus - regions associated with emotional salience.

The implications of the study's findings are huge, Dr. Berns said.

In many areas of society - elections, for example, or jury trials - the accepted way to resolve conflicts between an individual and a group is to invoke the "rule of the majority." There is a sound reason for this: A majority represents the collective wisdom of many people, rather than the judgment of a single person.

But the superiority of the group can disappear when the group exerts pressure on individuals, Dr. Berns said.

The unpleasantness of standing alone can make a majority opinion seem more appealing than sticking to one's own beliefs.

If other people's views can actually affect how someone perceives the external world, then truth itself is called into question.

There is no way out of this problem, Dr. Ariely said.

But if people are made aware of their vulnerability, they may be able to avoid conforming to social pressure when it is not in their self-interest.

6.24.2005

Strong Earthquake Risk to Central U.S



From Live Science

A colossal earthquake that caused damage from South Carolina to Washington D.C. and temporarily reversed the course of the Mississippi River nearly two centuries ago could be repeated within the next 50 years, scientists said.

Strain is building on a fault near Memphis, Tennessee that was the site of a magnitude 8.1 earthquake in 1812, according to new observations that settle a debate on the risk of another huge quake.

The odds of another 8.0 event within 50 years are between 7 and 10 percent, geologists said today. The assessment, based on new data from a recently installed array of sensors, puts to rest a 1990s claim that strain was not increasing.

Such a strong earthquake would rock the entire eastern half of the country and prove devastating to the local region. A lesser but still damaging quake of magnitude 6 or greater has a 90 percent chance of striking in the next five decades.

The new study, detailed in the June 23 issue of the journal Nature, reveals a vexing characteristic of the fault that traverses the region. The ground moves more near the fault, creeping a few millimeters every year, than it does farther from it.

"I can't explain how the movement is driven," said study team member Michael Ellis, a geologist at the University of Memphis.

That lack of understanding makes the task of pinpointing when the next quake might hit even more challenging.

Repeating history

In a three-month period in 1811-12, three major earthquakes rattled a broad expanse of the United States, causing damage as far away as Charleston, South Carolina and even rattling nerves in Boston. The quakes triggered landslides into the Mississippi River and, according to some boaters who were not drowned, sent part of the river running the other direction for a time.

The earthquakes were centered around New Madrid, Missouri. They measured 8.1, 8.0 and 7.8 and represent three of the four strongest earthquakes ever recorded in the lower 48 states.

Over the past 12 years, geologists have found evidence for other prehistoric calamities along the New Madrid fault. Sandy soil in some areas became liquefied in past events, leaving telltale "sandblows" when the material was squished to the surface. This tendency for soil east of the Rockies to liquefy, along with other differences in geology, means earthquakes there pack more potential for damage and are felt over a much wider region than western temblors. The sandblows indicate that three or possibly four earthquakes of magnitude 7.6 or better struck the region in the past 2,000 years, in addition to the incredible series of three in the early 1800s.


An earthquake East of the rockies is felt across a wider area. SOURCE: USGS

6.23.2005

Experts' Heads Shake After Quakes



Seismologists agree on one thing regarding last week's cluster of tremors: Nobody knows for sure what it portends, if anything.

By Hector Becerra, Times Staff Writer
Were last week's quakes in California connected? Maybe.

Did they relieve pressure on major fault lines? Perhaps, but not much.

Did they make a bigger quake more likely? Possibly.

These are not exactly the answers quake-rattled Californians are looking for.

But the recent temblors involve some of the issues that seismologists most often debate. And the more research they do, the more they sometimes disagree. Even husband and wife seismologists don't see eye to eye.

The quakes — including two felt across Southern California and a 7.2 temblor June 14 off the coast of Eureka that prompted a tsunami warning along the entire West Coast, followed by a 6.7 two days later — didn't cause much damage or injury.

They captured much attention because they came so close together and hit after a period of less-than-normal seismic activity.

One of the first questions Californians had after the series of temblors was whether there was some connection among the quakes.

Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, believes that the 5.2 Anza quake June 12 probably triggered the 4.9 Yucaipa quake four days later.

She noted that both quakes were within about 25 miles of each other and occurred on secondary faults — the Anza quake near the San Jacinto fault and the Yucaipa around the San Andreas.

Data have shown that even a modest earthquake can trigger another quake — even at that distance, she said.

One of her colleagues, Jones added, believes that the Yucaipa event might have been an aftershock of the Anza quake.

But Jones' husband, Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson, is skeptical, arguing that the temblors were too small and too far apart to have been connected

"But as you can see, some people disagree with me," he said with a laugh.

Fellow Caltech seismologist Thomas Heaton also believes that the two quakes may well have been just a coincidence.

There is general agreement that the Southern California quakes were not connected to the ones in Northern California, mainly because of the distance between them.

Another question arising from the quake cluster is whether these temblors make a massive quake more likely.

It has long been held that earthquakes relieve pressure on fault lines, potentially decreasing the threat of a massive quake.

But experts said it was not that simple.

Heaton believes that the quakes last week were too small to significantly reduce stress on major faults.

Comment: One scientist says it's a coincidence(hardly) while others say there could be a connection. These are EXPERTS, apparently, that are disagreeing with each other. The one thing that the scientists agree on is that the risk of a much larger and dangerous quake has not been lessened by the smaller quakes of late.

6.20.2005

Anatahan volcano roars anew

Article appeared on Signs of the Times

Tuesday, June 21, 2005



Anatahan's volcano roared in a series of eruptions Sunday afternoon, kicking up a cloud of ash to 50,000 feet and matching the intensity of the volcano's strongest historical eruption on April 6.

Seismicity on Anatahan had been increasing in the past days before Sunday's 2.6-minute eruptive pulse that started at about 3:25pm. The volcano had the highest tremor levels Saturday since early May.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Emergency Management Office said yesterday that ash and steam reached an altitude of 50,000 feet by 4pm based on infrared imagery. But the agencies said the situation lasted briefly and dissipated as the plume moved easterly. At about 5:42pm, a commercial pilot reported steam and ash at 37,000 feet.

The ash emissions prompted Gov. Juan N. Babauta to issue a public advisory, which reached the Saipan Tribune office past midnight yesterday.

"Eruption materials are being carried away to the east of Anatahan at atmospheric levels before 20,000 feet. As dust and small particulates are settling to lower levels of the atmosphere, trade winds will carry a small amount of the dust and particulates back in the general direction of Saipan and Tinian," the agencies said.

The advisory stated that the leading edge of the dust and particulates cloud could reach the vicinity of Saipan and Tinian at dawn yesterday but disperse in the afternoon.

EMO director Rudolfo Pua said, though, that Saipan and Tinian did not experience any hazy condition yesterday. He said the governor canceled the advisory yesterday afternoon, adding that Saipan and Tinian did not experience any ashfall.

After the strong eruption Sunday, the volcano continued emitting dense ash clouds rising to 8,000 feet and moving westerly. Yesterday morning, the EMO and the USGS said that dense ash and steam reached about 178 nautical miles to the west, with volcanic smog extending to 1,017 nautical miles west-northwest and 772 nautical miles northwest of the island.

The agencies maintained that aircraft should take extra precaution within 10 nautical miles of Anatahan, advising them to pass upwind of the island or beyond 10 nautical miles downwind. They pointed out that conditions could change rapidly, and volcanic activity could suddenly escalate.

During a strong eruption on April 6, the volcano expelled about 50 million cubic meters of ash that reached 50,000 feet. The agencies have yet to estimate the volume of ash emitted in Sunday's strong explosion. But the volcano has been continuously emitting huge amounts of ash in the last several weeks.
Last Saturday, the agencies also reported of a small swarm of 10 volcano-tectonic events with magnitudes between 0.5 and 1.75 that occurred beneath or within a few kilometers of Sarigan Island.

Sarigan, which is located about 95 nautical miles north of Saipan and is the next island north of Anatahan, is actually a volcano with no known historic eruption.

Volcano-tectonic events occur when stress changes happen to solid rock due to the injection or withdrawal of magma. Volcano-tectonic earthquakes can cause land to subside and can produce large ground cracks. These earthquakes can occur as rock is moving to fill in spaces where magma is no longer present. Volcano-tectonic earthquakes may indicate that volcanic eruption can occur at anytime.

6.18.2005

Hurricanes to get stronger

Article from the Guardian

Hurricanes are likely to get more extreme as a result of climate change, say scientists.

Computer models of the Earth's water cycle suggest that hurricanes will intensify as warmer temperatures draw more ocean water into the atmosphere.


The research follows a record number of hurricanes affecting Florida and typhoons striking Japan last year.

Kevin Trenberth, a researcher at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, who led the research, said warmer seas and increased atmospheric water vapour would add energy to the showers and thunderstorms that fuel hurricanes. "Computer models also suggest a shift ... toward extreme hurricanes," he said.

Most of the hurricanes that strike the US coastline are formed in the tropical north Atlantic, where sea-surface temperatures over the past decade have been the warmest on record.

"Over the 20th century, water vapour over the global oceans increased by 5% and that probably relates to about a 5% increase in intensity and probably a 5% increase in heavy rainfalls," says Dr Trenberth, whose research is published today in Science. "That relates directly to the flooding statistics."

Present models suggest a 7% increase in the moisture in the atmosphere for every degree celsius that the earth warms. As the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases and global temperatures rise, so the amount of water in the atmosphere goes up.

However, the effect of climate change on hurricane numbers and landfalls is uncertain, said Dr Trenberth.

Models disagreed on how global warming might affect the wind sheer that can either support or discourage hurricane formation.

The number of hurricanes and typhoons tends to hold steady from year to year. When activity increases in the Atlantic, it often decreases in the Pacific, and vice versa. So, it is hard to make long term predictions on the number of storms or how they will move.

"There is no sound theoretical basis for drawing any conclusions about how anthropogenic climate change affects hurricane numbers or tracks, and thus how many hit land," said Dr Trenberth.

6.17.2005

California rockin and rollin



So, four quakes in less than a week has created much discussion over the instability of the Ring of Fire. From the msnbc article -

A 6.6-magnitude temblor hit about 125 miles off the coast of Eureka around 11:30 p.m. PT, rattling the ocean floor. In the afternoon, a 4.9-magnitude quake struck east of Los Angeles, startling people and knocking items off shelves and desks.

Four significant quakes have hit California this week: A magnitude-5.2 quake shook Riverside County on Sunday, and a magnitude-7.2 quake trembled Tuesday under the ocean 90 miles off Northern California.

A patchwork of faults crisscrosses California, and the Southern California Earthquake Center recently estimated that a major earthquake beneath Los Angeles could cause up to 18,000 deaths and $250 billion in damage.

Presgrave said it was unlikely the two Thursday quakes were linked to each other.

Lucy Jones, a USGS expert based in Southern California, told NBC News that quakes around 5.0 tend to happen four times a year in California, while those around 7.0 might occur once a year, or once every few years.

As for the possibility of an even bigger quake in the near future, Jones said, "We have a slightly increased chance around the places we've been having them in the last few days and that's part of life here."


All indications are that these latest rumblings have been quite intense, look at some of the reports...

"All of a sudden I heard a loud rumbling sound, kind of like thunder," said Nick Brandes, 25, manager of a store in Yucaipa. "At the front, all the customers were in a panic. They were all just in a hurry to get out."

Andrea Cabrera, an employee at the Walgreens drug store in Yucaipa, said the store "just had a few items falling, that's all." Customers "were just stunned, and they just stood there," she said.

Channon Kelly, 31, was eating her lunch in downtown Los Angeles when Thursday's quake hit.

"I almost jumped out of my seat," Kelly said. "I'm starting to get freaked out. We've had so many in the last week, the one Sunday and then in Northern California. I could hear the windows rattling and feel it all at the same time."

"I think this is leading up to the Big One
," said Mentone resident Cora Embry, who grabbed her young son and ran from her home when the shaking began Thursday.

"I feel a big earthquake coming. They say there is no such thing as earthquake weather, but there is."

Thursday's first temblor struck about 1:53 p.m., three miles northeast of Yucaipa, 72 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The quake, which struck roughly eight miles below ground, triggered rock slides in the San Bernardino Mountains and injured at least one Lake Arrowhead woman when it sent a chandelier crashing onto her head.

In areas close to the epicenter, residents described a shock that almost buckled their knees, caused large panes of glass to shiver and sent furniture pounding against the floor.

While seismologists characterized the earthquake as small - it was strong enough to toss items from shelves and crack walls, but not big enough to damage buildings - residents who lived near the epicenter said it seemed larger.

Redlands resident Susan Mosher was home studying for the bar exam when her dogs began barking, and the interior living room wall began cracking.

"We've had a lot of earthquakes - this is the first one that scared me," Mosher said.

Residents throughout the Los Angeles Basin felt a quivering.

6.14.2005

If big quake hits off coast, tsunami could be gigantic

David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor

Monday, June 13, 2005

If a giant magnitude 9 earthquake strikes someday along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, or if, against all odds, an errant asteroid plunges into the ocean many miles off California, a monstrous tsunami could drown low-lying lands all up and down the continent's western edge -- and now a UC Santa Cruz scientist has calculated the sweep of such an event.

Spurred by the tragedy of December's great Sumatra quake and the hundreds of thousands of deaths claimed by the waves that swept across the Indian Ocean, geophysicist Steven Ward has estimated the heights that a similar quake-spawned tsunami would reach, running up along the shores from British Columbia as far south as the tip of Baja California.

"We need to know what the tsunami dangers are along any coastal area," Ward says, "and as our instruments and technology and modeling techniques improve, so we can refine our ability to forecast what might happen."

Using knowledge gleaned from evidence of a magnitude 9 quake in the Cascadia subduction zone some 300 years ago, the behavior of last December's Sumatra quake, careful scrutiny of detailed ocean bottom data all along the Pacific Coast and what he calls "the laws of water physics," Ward has created a hazard map that shows what may happen should another major quake hit the same area in the future. The Cascadia zone is a region where the eastern edge of a great undersea slab of the Earth's crust, called the Juan de Fuca Plate, is continually diving beneath the west edge of the North American Plate and thrusting the continental side of the crust upward.

To model the event's effects, Ward assumes that in a huge quake on the Cascadia subduction zone, the two crustal plates would abruptly slip apart vertically by at least 50 feet in three successive blocks from south to north, generating a 9.2 magnitude quake. Aside from enormous quake damage on land for hundreds of miles, Ward estimates the resulting tsunami would pile a wave more than 20 feet high crashing onto the Oregon-Washington coast, inundating Seattle and the entire Puget Sound region as well as Portland and the mouth of the Columbia River.

Crescent City in California's Del Norte County -- where a smaller tsunami killed 11 people in 1964 after a magnitude 9 Alaska quake -- would see a wave of more than 11 feet, and the tsunami sweeping the coast at the Golden Gate and Monterey Bay would be more than 10 feet . At Santa Barbara, Ward calculates, the wave height would be 6.5 feet, and smaller waves would crash against the shore as far south as the tip of Baja California.

"These calculations are still rough," Ward concedes, "but they do indicate a level of danger that needs to be considered."

The evidence of the great temblor 300 years ago was discovered along the coast of Washington and Oregon by Brian Atwater, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in Seattle. And Japanese scientists deciphering old tsunami records in their coastal towns calculated that the event had sent a major wave speeding across the Pacific in 10 hours to damage many coastal villages on Honshu, Japan's main island.

Another giant earthquake is nearly a certainty in the unstable coastal regions of Oregon and Washington, but many scientists are also considering the effect of an event that would have no precedent in recorded history -- and have concluded that an even greater tsunami might be generated if an asteroid were ever to plunge into the ocean off the West Coast.

6.11.2005

Arlene Soaks Florida, Gathering Strength



PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - A strengthening Tropical Storm Arlene soaked parts of Florida as its center moved toward the northern Gulf Coast, stirring memories of last year's devastating hurricane season.

Forecasters said Arlene, the Atlantic hurricane season's first named tropical storm, could become a weak hurricane before making landfall in the Deep South late Saturday, with the worst weather arriving east of the storm's center.

Arlene was then expected to move along the Mississippi-Alabama line, possibly reaching Tennessee by Sunday afternoon.

Tropical storm warnings and hurricane watches were posted from Florida to Louisiana, as Arlene's top sustained winds reached 60 mph, up from 45 mph earlier in the day. The wind speed was likely to increase, but forecasters said the biggest impact would be heavy rain.

Article posted at Signs of the Times

Avalanche threat lingers

From the Seattle Times

Summer is fast approaching, but the threat of avalanches lingers in many Western mountain ranges where it's been an unusual season for one of nature's more unpredictable phenomena.

Since late October, at least 27 people have died in the United States in avalanches, which is about the average. (An Alaskan student died earlier this month climbing Mount Logan in Canada's Yukon. )

What's unusual is that two of the deaths occurred in developed ski areas, including the most recent one last month in Colorado and another in January when a teenager was swept off a ski lift near Las Vegas.

In the previous 19 years, just three of the 416 known avalanche deaths in the nation — well below 1 percent — occurred within ski areas, according to the National Avalanche Center, in part because resort operators patrol their slopes.

"We at Squaw Valley have a group of us ... if it's a beautiful day or if it's a storm day, we communicate before we send anybody up onto the hill," said Jimmy King, mountain manager at Squaw Valley USA.

On a stormy day — and winds can average 150 mph over the ridges at the resort on Lake Tahoe's California side — workers start at the top with explosives to break up cornices and slabs of snow that fall harmlessly down the slopes.

"If I've got even just one single patroller that goes up there and says, 'I've got a problem, I don't like it,' we stop. We don't open to the public," King said.

Last month's slide at Arapahoe Basin near Breckenridge, Colo., occurred in the morning when snow usually is more stable. But in this case warm overnight temperatures had melted the snowpack, creating heavy wet slabs of snow, according to Scott Toepfer of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

In southern Nevada, an expert said there may have been no way to predict the slide that killed a 13-year-old snowboarder at Mount Charleston.

"When this avalanche released, it was unprecedented," said Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho, who investigated the slide.

6.08.2005

It's Not Just Eskimos in Bikinis

By Chip Ward, Tomdispatch.com. Posted June 7, 2005.

As long as we're talking about ice in distant climes, global warming seems like something that's happening elsewhere and to somebody else -- or some other set of creatures.


When we hear the term "global warming," we usually imagine collapsing Antarctic ice shelves, melting Alaskan glaciers, or perhaps starving polar bears wandering bewildered across an ice-free, alien landscape. Warnings about climate change tend to focus on the Earth's polar regions, in part because they are warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the dramatic changes underway there can be easily captured and conveyed.

We may not be able to see the 80% decline in the Antarctic krill population -- the tiny, shrimp-like creatures that are a critical food source for whales, seals, and sea birds -- but we can easily see satellite photos of state-sized chunks of ice shields separating from the continent. We can grasp the enormity of planetary glacial melting simply by comparing photos of glaciers taken just a decade apart.

But as long as we're talking about ice in distant climes, global warming seems like something that's happening elsewhere and to somebody else -- or some other set of creatures.

So when you hear about global warming, the odds are good that you never think of the yellow-bellied marmot. Probably, you've never even heard of the critters, but the big rodents, common not to the distant Arctic but to Rocky Mountain meadows, have been acting like so many canaries lately -- coal-mine canaries, that is. They may be the first among many species in the Lower 48 to die off, thanks to close-to-home global warming effects that we hear little about. They are dying of confusion.

As a term, global warming is so benign-sounding -- we all like "warmth," after all -- that it masks what's actually going on. Yes, temperatures overall are rising, low-lying islands are disappearing under the sea, and epic wildfires are becoming more routine. But some places like Europe could get much colder in a globally "warmed" world, if warm ocean currents shift away from them; while across the planet, however counterintuitive this might seem, floods are likely to be as commonplace as drought.

"Climate disruption" is probably a more accurate description of what we are experiencing than mere "warming." Although the radical break in climate patterns now underway will lead to rising oceans and expanding deserts, the most insidious changes may be more subtle -- and as unnoticed as the disappearance of the marmots may be.

The intricate and precisely timed collaborations of plants, animals, birds, and insects, fine-tuned over endless thousands of years of evolution, is inevitably short-circuited when the weather goes whacky over periods of time that are the geological equivalent of a wink. When environmental events and biological events that once fit together lose their synchronicity, the consequence can be extinction. Even the Pentagon realizes that, if dependable local weather patterns become erratic, chaos can ensue as, for instance, crops begin to fail. Some of the less adaptable wild creatures, great and small, who share our American backyards are already coping with the kind of eco-havoc we can as yet only imagine for ourselves. For them, a more accurate description of what is happening might be Eco-Topsy-Turvy or, perhaps, Climate Helter-Skelter.

Take that marmot, for example. The yellow-bellied marmot's hibernation habits are guided by ancient circadian rhythms that are cued by seasonal changes in light and temperature. Like their cousin Punxsutawney Phil, the marmots awake from winter hibernation in their underground burrows and surface when they sense that the earth is warming. In recent years, conservationists have been reporting that marmots are emerging from their holes a month sooner than expected. But if the ground warms before deep snowpack melts, which is now often the case, the emerging marmots cannot get to their food and they starve.

For the purple larkspur, which shares the marmot's meadow, the problem is the opposite. When spring temperatures grow warmer ever earlier, snow cover melts earlier as well and the larkspur, one of the first plants to bloom in American alpine meadows, puts out vulnerable buds weeks too soon -- for even if the snow cover has mostly melted, frost remains a serious threat in early spring and a single cold night will wipe out those tender buds. No buds, no seeds. No seeds, eventually no larkspurs.

No larkspurs, no nectar for queen bumblebees which produce worker bees for hives and no larkspur blossoms for hummingbirds. When pollinators like bees and hummingbirds disappear from a landscape that depends on them to carry out its annual renewal, a cascade of ill-effects ripples through the ecosystem.

Changes in snow patterns also present wolves with an unusual challenge. The re-introduced wolf, that symbol of our determination to restore the health of ecosystems that long suffered their loss, uses snow as an ally in chasing down and eating elk. The elk are weakened by starvation in winter and cannot as easily escape the nimble wolves through dense snowpack or across sheets of slippery ice. In Yellowstone this past winter, snow and ice were sparse and the elk generally got away from the wolves. It wasn't just wolves that went hungry. Other animals and birds, including endangered Grizzly bears, depend on sharing carcasses the wolves leave behind to make it through the winter, so they also fared poorly.

When there is less snowpack to melt and rivers are thin, endangered and diminished stocks of salmon have less habitat and less mobility. In addition, salmon spawning cycles are adapted to the rhythms of local stream-flows as they have been experienced over tens of thousands of years. Adult salmon return from the ocean to the mouths of rivers to begin their spawning runs upstream just as those rivers are peaking and conditions for swimming are optimal. Or should be.

When warmer spring temperatures thaw snowpack too soon, rivers peak earlier and the mature salmon arrive too late to make the journey up shallow rivers depleted by drought (and by what we draw off to keep exotic lawn grasses and golf greens vibrant). No journey, no spawning, and soon enough, no salmon. As conservation biologists have shown us, salmon are the glue that holds the food-webs and nutrient cycles of Northwest ecosystems together. Goodbye evolution, hello helter-skelter.

A report co-written by University of Texas biologist Camille Parmesan and University of Colorado ecologist Hector Galbraith for the Pew Center for Global Climate recently assessed 40 scientific studies linking climate change with observed ecological changes. A growing body of evidence, they found, shows that sudden climate change is not just about Eskimos in bikinis. Significant changes are underway even in temperate regions. The geographic ranges of many plant and animal species are either contracting altogether or shifting northwards, causing species like the Red Fox to compete with the Arctic Fox for food and territory.

Flowering patterns, breeding behaviors, and the timing of migrations are all undergoing change. The distribution of plants, insects, animals, and even soil bacteria is shifting rapidly in response to recent alterations in weather patterns. The question is: Can plants and creatures adapt fast enough to survive such rapid changes? Can evolution run on "fast-forward"?

If trying to evolve at warp speed while Mother Nature is having hot flashes isn't enough, birds and animals in the Lower 48 are also struggling to adapt to such changes within habitats that have been drastically reduced, fragmented, and often contaminated by human development over the past century. First, wildlife was thrown off the mother-ship; now the lifeboats, the isolated remnant habitats left to them, are being battered by fickle weather. No doubt the extinction wave already underway, thanks to man-made assaults on wild habitat, will only accelerate as climate disruption kicks in, swamping those last remaining wild refuges.

On land, the powerful impact of habitat degradation and loss makes it hard for conservation scientists to sort out which wildlife behavioral changes are due to ongoing stress and which may be the result of sudden climate change. All this is made even more complex by the fact that species adapting to climate change face man-made limitations and barriers as they try to compensate by moving northward or to higher ground. Their potential escape routes are regularly blocked by roads, fences, buildings, and human activity.

On the sea, however, where man-made barriers are fewer, changes have been tracked and measured that are clearly linked to climate change. In the coastal waters of Monterey Bay where the ranges of northern and southern Pacific fish overlap, for example, scientists have tracked changing species distribution. Northern species are heading further north while southern species have greatly increased their dominance in the bay. Typically, Humboldt squid, which until recently ranged from Southern California to South America, have now been spotted as far north as Alaska.

Ocean studies confirm that species are responding as best they can to the changes in their historical habitats and food webs. In the ocean, as on land, when species overlap and invade one another's territories, ecological relationships between interdependent species are broken and chaos can follow. Again, it becomes a helter-skelter world.

Soil itself -- the ground we walk on -- is also a habitat that is shaped by climate regimes and patterns. Berkeley professor John Harte's research shows that, across the West, sagebrush is replacing mountain meadows because of warmer temperatures at higher altitudes. Mountain meadows are lush with diverse grasses and wildflowers. The litter from wildflowers -- the leaves, flowers, and stems that fall into the soil each autumn -- is easy for microorganisms to digest. Sage litter is thinner and less diverse. It makes poor soil. Warming will also result in accelerated evaporation from soils. Microorganism and insect pests that can survive the winter in drier, warmer soils will flourish and do more damage to crops and trees. The bark beetle, for instance, thrives in drought and is devastating Western forests, while generating more dead timber to fuel future catastrophic fires.

Humans are not exempt. If ecosystem relationships become disconnected and ecological processes break down, we will eventually suffer as well. Adaptability and the inclination to take over neighboring yards when ours are used up or fall apart can keep us from consequences for only so long. Although we live in a culture that encourages and enables us to think, feel, and act as if we were above and beyond nature (or, perhaps, beside it -- nature being what we visit by car on weekends), we are, in fact, embedded in the natural/physical world. Like it or not, the fluids that sustain our lives come from watersheds. Our food is a synthesis of soil, sunlight, and rain. We depend on the biological diversity, ecological processes, and powerful global currents of wind and water that are the operating systems of all life on Earth. Signs that these operating systems are faltering should be a wake-up call for us to begin real planning to kick our fossil-fuel addiction, while creating laws, policies, and projects that aim at ecological preservation and restoration.

But we don't act and doubt reigns supreme. The cynical Bushites say they want to make a culture that values life while they sow whatever doubt they can about the reality of global climate disruption. Worse yet, they are intent on obstructing the rest of the world from taking collaborative steps to reduce human influence on the planetary climate that is the very basis of all life, including that of fetuses and persistently vegetative legislators.

Because the patterns we are trying to understand are so vast in scale, so long in scope, and fluctuate chaotically over time, it is hard to tease out trends from the variations that are possible. Could the dramatic climate changes we are experiencing just be another spike in a long, spiky record of the earth's climate? Maybe significant numbers of us can continue to believe this a while longer; but as the scientific evidence mounts and man-made influences seem ever more likely to be the culprits, the fear that we could cross a kind of climate tipping-point with catastrophic consequences for life on Earth will become more palpable. Yes, there are unknowns in the global climate prediction game, but does Russian Roulette make more sense if you can show that there is only one bullet in the chamber instead of two?

If inaction risks drought, flood, monster storms, pestilence, epidemics, extinctions, ecological dysfunction, refugees, war, and more squalor (as even the Pentagon suspects may be the case), not to mention all that potential underwater real estate in Manhattan, Miami, and New Orleans, then we would be prudent and wise to take precautionary actions now. That we continue to ignore the signs all around us is not just a political failure, though it certainly is that. It is undoubtedly also a failure of empathy and awareness. I suspect we will not find the political will to stop the damage we are doing until we begin to see ourselves within the picture frame and realize that it is in our self-evident self-interest to act boldly and soon.

So, get in the picture. Put on those Ray-Bans and stand in the purple mountain meadow next to that yellow-bellied marmot -- the one blinking in the snow-reflected sun. Face the camera. Say "cheese!" Now that's a shot you can show your grandchildren when they ask you, "What's a marmot?" -- or "What's a meadow?"

Chip Ward is a political activist who is organizing resistance to the dumping of nuclear waste in Utah's deserts. He is the author of Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land (Shearwater/Island Press) and is the assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System.

Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming

From the NY Times

By ANDREW C. REVKIN

A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents.

In handwritten notes on drafts of several reports issued in 2002 and 2003, the official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors, including some senior Bush administration officials, had already approved. In many cases, the changes appeared in the final reports.

The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties," tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust.

Mr. Cooney is chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues.

Before going to the White House in 2001, he was the "climate team leader" and a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group representing the interests of the oil industry. A lawyer with a bachelor's degree in economics, he has no scientific training.

The documents were obtained by The New York Times from the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit legal-assistance group for government whistle-blowers.

The project is representing Rick S. Piltz, who resigned in March as a senior associate in the office that coordinates government climate research. That office, now called the Climate Change Science Program, issued the documents that Mr. Cooney edited.

A White House spokeswoman, Michele St. Martin, said yesterday that Mr. Cooney would not be available to comment. "We don't put Phil Cooney on the record," Ms. St. Martin said. "He's not a cleared spokesman."

In one instance in an October 2002 draft of a regularly published summary of government climate research, "Our Changing Planet," Mr. Cooney amplified the sense of uncertainty by adding the word "extremely" to this sentence: "The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult."

In a section on the need for research into how warming might change water availability and flooding, he crossed out a paragraph describing the projected reduction of mountain glaciers and snowpack. His note in the margins explained that this was "straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings."

Other White House officials said the changes made by Mr. Cooney were part of the normal interagency review that takes place on all documents related to global environmental change. Robert Hopkins, a spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that one of the reports Mr. Cooney worked on, the administration's 10-year plan for climate research, was endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences. And Myron Ebell, who has long campaigned against limits on greenhouse gases as director of climate policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian group, said such editing was necessary for "consistency" in meshing programs with policy.

But critics said that while all administrations routinely vetted government reports, scientific content in such reports should be reviewed by scientists. Climate experts and representatives of environmental groups, when shown examples of the revisions, said they illustrated the significant if largely invisible influence of Mr. Cooney and other White House officials with ties to energy industries that have long fought greenhouse-gas restrictions.

In a memorandum sent last week to the top officials dealing with climate change at a dozen agencies, Mr. Piltz said the White House editing and other actions threatened to taint the government's $1.8 billion-a-year effort to clarify the causes and consequences of climate change.

"Each administration has a policy position on climate change," Mr. Piltz wrote. "But I have not seen a situation like the one that has developed under this administration during the past four years, in which politicization by the White House has fed back directly into the science program in such a way as to undermine the credibility and integrity of the program."

A senior Environmental Protection Agency scientist who works on climate questions said the White House environmental council, where Mr. Cooney works, had offered valuable suggestions on reports from time to time. But the scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because all agency employees are forbidden to speak with reporters without clearance, said the kinds of changes made by Mr. Cooney had damaged morale. "I have colleagues in other agencies who express the same view, that it has somewhat of a chilling effect and has created a sense of frustration," he said.

Efforts by the Bush administration to highlight uncertainties in science pointing to human-caused warming have put the United States at odds with other nations and with scientific groups at home.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who met with President Bush at the White House yesterday, has been trying to persuade him to intensify United States efforts to curb greenhouse gases. Mr. Bush has called only for voluntary measures to slow growth in emissions through 2012.

Yesterday, saying their goal was to influence that meeting, the scientific academies of 11 countries, including those of the United States and Britain, released a joint letter saying, "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.

6.02.2005

Australian drought third worst on record

From Yahoo

Wednesday June 1, 2:21 PM

-- Australia's agricultural heartland is experiencing its worst drought in 60 years, the National Climate Centre said, while the government said the dry-spell is affecting economic growth.

The four-year drought was the third worst on the dry continent in recorded history after one between 1895 and 1903 and the 1938 to 1946 drought, senior climatologist Grant Beard told AFP.

"We are talking about four years of pretty bleak conditions in the current situation... the other ones we are talking about went longer," he said.

Low rainfall and extremely high temperatures have created the worst drought in six decades in Australia's Murray Darling region, Beard said. The area generates about one-third of the nation's agricultural output.

"In terms of the Murray Darling basin, the drought there is the worst since the 1940s," he said of the water catchment area which stretches south from Queensland to New South Wales and Victoria and east into part of South Australia.

"Temperatures have also been quite above average at record or near record levels," Beard said. "Particularly, the last five months it's been extraordinarily warm across a large part of the country."

The drought affects the eastern coastal states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, as well as South Australia and the lush southern island of Tasmania. Many parts of Australia have not a single drop of rain in April, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

The New South Wales government has declared 90 percent of the state in drought and on Tuesday introduced tough new water restrictions on homes as dam levels dropped below 40 percent capacity.

Treasurer Peter Costello said Wednesday the dry spell was starting to cut into economic growth as agricultural incomes had not fully recovered from the 2002-03 drought.

"The impact of drought now evident in four quarterly falls in agricultural production is now affecting the measure of overall economic growth," he said.

One-fifth of Earth's bird species in danger

JOHANNESBURG, June 1 (Reuters) - More than a fifth of the planet's bird species face extinction as humans venture further into their habitats and introduce alien predators, an environmental group said on Wednesday.

While there have been some success stories of species that reappeared or recovered, the overall situation of the world's birds is worsening, BirdLife International said in its annual assessment of the feathered fauna.

"The total number (of bird species) considered to be threatened with extinction is now 1,212, which when combined with the number of near threatened species gives a total of exactly 2,000 species in trouble -- more than a fifth of the planet's remaining 9,775 species," BirdLife said.

Several species from Europe appear in the list for the first time, including the European roller, for which key populations in Turkey and European Russia have declined markedly.

BirdLife, a global alliance of conservation groups, said 179 species were categorised as critically endangered, the highest level of threat. They include the Azores bullfinch, one of Europe's rarest songbirds that has fewer than 300 left.

Article found at Signs of the Times

6.01.2005

Calif. landslide sends six homes crashing



LAGUNA BEACH, California (AP) -- A landslide sent six expensive homes and a section of street crashing down a hillside Wednesday and damaged a dozen or more other houses.

At least two people were taken to a hospital for treatment of minor injuries, officials said. Crews were apparently able to evacuate many other residents before the hillside collapsed.

"The pipes started making funny noises and the toilet sounded like it was about to explode," said Carrie Joyce, a fire department office manager who lives in the neighborhood.

"I could see one house, huge, we call it the mausoleum, 5,000 square feet or more. It had buckled, the retaining wall in the front of it was cracked. It just looked like the whole house was going," she said.

Six homes had "major damage," fire Capt. Danell Adams said. The mayor of the Orange County coastal enclave said as many as 20 had some damage.

The soil continued moving beneath the homes.

Television helicopter footage showed smashed homes, trees, cars and a section of heavily built-up Flamingo Road that had plunged down the hillside about a mile inland from the beach.

Some of the houses remained nearly intact but others were ripped apart and created trails of debris.

Emergency officials were called at about 5 a.m. and "we believe we evacuated the people who could be in harm's way," Mayor Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider told KTTV