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By Robert Sanders, UC Berkeley News. For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 1. Excerpt: Hawaii’s unique animal and plant diversity has been declining on all but the Big Island for millions of years, long before humans arrived, according to a new analysis of species diversity on the islands by University of California, Berkeley, evolutionary biologists. The team concluded that the shrinking land areas of the older islands began putting stress on the flora and fauna several million years after the islands formed. Today, all of the islands except the Big Island of Hawaii – the only island still growing – have experienced a decrease in species diversity, albeit imperceptibly on human time scales, since even before the extinction caused by human activity. They reached this conclusion with a new method for analyzing the species diversity on the different islands in the multiple-island chain, deducing the history of diversification on each island with their new approach for 14 different groups, or clades, of birds, insects, spiders and plants.... http://news.berkeley.edu/2017/03/16/hawaiian-biodiversity-has-been-declining-for-millions-of-years/
By Meri Joswiak, Daniel Joswiak, and Tandong Yao, Earth & Space Science News, EoS (AGU). For GSS Climate Change chapter 8. Excerpt: The high-elevation region that includes the Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountain ranges has been dubbed the “Third Pole.” This region encompasses approximately 5 million square kilometers of unforgiving terrain, with an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level, and it straddles tense geopolitical borders. The Third Pole includes an estimated 100,000 square kilometers of glaciers. Cumulatively, this region holds the planet’s largest concentrated stock of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. The annual variability of snow extent affects global atmospheric circulation patterns, monsoon variability, and, more important, drinking and irrigation water that sustains roughly 1.5 billion people in downstream countries, including India, Nepal, China, and Bangladesh. Scientists from around the globe gathered last May at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University to address climate issues facing the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding mountain ranges. This Third Pole Environment (TPE) Workshop, the sixth in the series since TPE workshops began in 2009, drew more than 70 attendees from 14 different countries.... https://eos.org/meeting-reports/himalayan-climate-change-affects-regional-global-environments
By Katherine Kornei, Earth & Space Science News, EoS (AGU). For GSS Climate Change chapter 8. Excerpt: The black water, heavy with debris, came tumbling apparently out of nowhere, gushing over the rocky terrain and pushing boulders around like toys. This torrent is known as a glacial outburst flood, and it forms when water stored deep within a glacier is released without warning. A team of scientists witnessed this rare event firsthand as one spilled down the Lhotse Glacier near Mount Everest on 12 June 2016. Their view, captured on video, affords researchers and the public an up-close look at the mechanics of a glacial outburst flood. ...In 2016, a team of American researchers was working in Nepal near Imja Lake, one of the region’s largest glacial lakes. They were collaborating with local communities to improve awareness of glacial lake outburst floods, a perennial danger for those downstream of Imja Lake.... On the morning of 12 June, some of the scientists were doing fieldwork near Lhotse Glacier, an avalanche-fed glacier that originates at the peak of Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain in the world. Byers remembers hearing what sounded like a rock fall. She then saw a “black tongue of water, boulders, and silt” racing downhill toward the village of Chukhung. She grabbed her camera and shot the video. “I felt powerless to help people…and at the same time experienced utter fascination at the geologic process unfolding before my eyes.” “I have never experienced such adrenaline,” Byers said. “I felt powerless to help people…and at the same time experienced utter fascination at the geologic process unfolding before my eyes.” The glacial outburst flood that Byers and her colleagues witnessed slowly subsided over the next hour. But the trail below the researchers had been washed away, and the only route to Chukhung was over the glacier itself, crossing an ice bridge with water still moving rapidly below it, Byers recalled. The scientists raced over the ice bridge and down into Chukhung. They found that all of the villagers were accounted for and that the community had lost only one outhouse. The large rock wall that the community had built 1 year ago—using donations from the scientists after the 2015 earthquake—had held. “It was twisted in some places but enough to keep the floodwaters from destroying the village,” said Byers. ...Within a glacier, water travels in conduits, which can be as large as several meters across. Swiss cheese is “a very good analogy” to explain a glacier’s interior structure, said David Rounce, a glaciologist at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the research team. Sometimes those conduits can become blocked by ice or debris such as sand and boulders. When sufficient water pressure builds up behind the natural dam to cause it to burst, the torrent that’s released can be substantial.... “These floods are particularly difficult to prepare for because there is often no visual evidence of their threat,” said Duncan Quincey, a glaciologist at the University of Leeds who reviewed the paper.... https://eos.org/articles/glacial-outburst-flood-near-mount-everest-caught-on-video
By JoAnna Wendel, Earth & Space Science News, EoS (AGU). For GSS A Changing Cosmos chapter 7. Excerpt: It’s a flying saucer! No, a celestial empanada! Or space ravioli? Nope—the weird raw images dropped by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory this week feature Saturn’s tiny moon Pan and its equatorial fringe in unprecedented detail. The Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, will crash into Saturn later this year. But its final descent brings the spacecraft closer than ever before to Saturn’s rings and offers scientists a wealth of new research opportunities.This is because the spacecraft has entered its “ring grazing orbits,” Carolyn Porco, leader of the imaging science team for Cassini and current visiting scholar at the University of California in Berkeley, told Eos. ...This close orbit allows the spacecraft to take close-up pictures of moons like Pan, which orbits Saturn at a distance of 134,000 kilometers. The new images of the 35-kilometer-wide moon feature a resolution as fine as 150 meters....Scientists have known about Pan’s tutu-shaped waistline for a long time. Ten years ago, Porco and her team wrote two papers describing how the bulge could have formed. From computer models, the researchers suspect that as the moon coalesced, material from Saturn’s rings fell onto the tiny moon’s equator and built up its disklike silhouette.... https://eos.org/articles/new-images-of-pan-saturns-walnut-moon-in-unprecedented-detail
By Duane Froese et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 2. Abstract: The arrival of bison in North America marks one of the most successful large-mammal dispersals from Asia within the last million years, yet the timing and nature of this event remain poorly determined. Here, we used a combined paleontological and paleogenomic approach to provide a robust timeline for the entry and subsequent evolution of bison within North America. We characterized two fossil-rich localities in Canada’s Yukon and identified the oldest well-constrained bison fossil in North America, a 130,000-y-old steppe bison, Bison cf. priscus. We extracted and sequenced mitochondrial genomes from both this bison and from the remains of a recently discovered, ∼120,000-y-old giant long-horned bison, Bison latifrons, from Snowmass, Colorado. We analyzed these and 44 other bison mitogenomes with ages that span the Late Pleistocene, and identified two waves of bison dispersal into North America from Asia, the earliest of which occurred ∼195–135 thousand y ago and preceded the morphological diversification of North American bison, and the second of which occurred during the Late Pleistocene, ∼45–21 thousand y ago. ...After their invasion, bison rapidly colonized North America during the last interglaciation, spreading from Alaska through continental North America; they have been continuously resident since then. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/03/07/1620754114.abstract See also New York Times article A Start Date for the Bison Invasion of North America by Nicholas St. Fleur.
By Damien Cave and Justin Gillis, The New York Times. For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 7 and Climate Change chapter 8. Excerpt: SYDNEY, Australia — The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has long been one of the world’s most magnificent natural wonders, so enormous it can be seen from space, so beautiful it can move visitors to tears. But the reef, and the profusion of sea creatures living near it, are in profound trouble. Huge sections of the Great Barrier Reef, stretching across hundreds of miles of its most pristine northern sector, were recently found to be dead, killed last year by overheated seawater. More southerly sections around the middle of the reef that barely escaped then are bleaching now, a potential precursor to another die-off that could rob some of the reef’s most visited areas of color and life. “We didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years,” said Terry P. Hughes, director of a government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Australia and the lead author of a paper on the reef that is being published Thursday as the cover article of the journal Nature. “In the north, I saw hundreds of reefs — literally two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead.” The damage to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s largest living structures, is part of a global calamity that has been unfolding intermittently for nearly two decades and seems to be intensifying. In the paper, dozens of scientists described the recent disaster as the third worldwide mass bleaching of coral reefs since 1998, but by far the most widespread and damaging. The state of coral reefs is a telling sign of the health of the seas. Their distress and death are yet another marker of the ravages of global climate change.... https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/15/science/great-barrier-reef-coral-climate-change-dieoff.html
By Sam McNeil | AP. For GSS Climate Change chapter 8. Excerpt: BANDAR AL-ROWDAH, Oman — The Gulf of Oman turns green twice a year, when an algae bloom the size of Mexico spreads across the Arabian Sea all the way to India. Scientists who study the algae say the microscopic organisms are thriving in new conditions brought about by climate change, and displacing the zooplankton that underpin the local food chain, threatening the entire marine ecosystem. ...Across the planet, blooms have wrecked local ecosystems. Algae can paralyze fish, clog their gills, and absorb enough oxygen to suffocate them. Whales, turtles, dolphins and manatees have died, poisoned by algal toxins, in the Atlantic and Pacific. These toxins have infiltrated whole marine food chains and have, in rare cases, killed people, according to the U.N. science agency. ...satellite technology has enabled scientists to link the algae to higher levels of air and water pollution in recent decades, but Bontempi said questions remain. “We know that our Earth is changing,” she said. “It may be in a direction we might not like.” Scientists based at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University trace Oman’s blooms to melting ice in the Himalayas. Less ice has raised temperatures in South Asia and strengthened the Indian Ocean’s southwest monsoon. As this weather front moves across the Arabian Sea every year, it churned up oxygen-poor water thick with nutrients that have fueled the rise of a 1.2-billion-year old algae called noctiluca scintillans.... https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/growing-algae-bloom-in-arabian-sea-tied-to-climate-change/2017/03/15/01877bbc-0957-11e7-bd19-fd3afa0f7e2a_story.html
By Nicholas Casey, The New York Times. For GSS Population Growth chapter 3. Excerpt: By fathering hundreds, a giant tortoise in the Galápagos Islands reversed the threat of extinction. Another, earning the name Lonesome George, was unable to do the same. ...Then came Diego, returned to the Galápagos in 1977 from the San Diego Zoo. ...The tales of Diego and George demonstrate just how much the Galápagos — a province of Ecuador — have served as the world’s laboratory of evolution. So often here, the fate of an entire species, evolved over millions of years, can hinge on whether just one or two individual animals survive from one day to the next. ...Abingdonii and hoodensis were easy prey for the buccaneers and whalers who poured onto their islands in previous centuries and saw only defenseless, slow-moving meals that could easily be carted away. Nor did it help that the giant tortoises of the Galápagos can survive for up to a year in the hull of a ship, meaning they provided a near-endless supply of fresh meat as they were stacked below decks by the hundreds. They were even tossed overboard when a ship needed to lose ballast for a quick getaway. ...Among those who dined on giant tortoise flesh: Charles Darwin. “We lived entirely on tortoise meat, the breastplate roasted … with flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup,” Darwin wrote in 1839, near the peak of the tortoise plunder in which some 200,000 were killed or carried away from the islands.... https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/world/americas/galapagos-islands-tortoises.html
By Hiroko Tabuchi, The New York Times. For GSS Energy Use chapter 9. Excerpt: When Georgia repealed its generous $5,000 tax credit on electric vehicles in July 2015, and instead slapped a $200 registration fee on electric cars, sales quickly tumbled. ...A slowdown in the country’s shift toward battery-powered vehicles could leave the American auto market a global laggard, electric vehicle proponents warn. ...Sales of electric vehicles are estimated to have jumped more than 70 percent last year in China, which now has the world’s biggest market for electric cars, with about 630,000 units on the road. Canada, France and Sweden each had growth in electric vehicle sales of 50 to 70 percent in 2016, compared with the year before.... ...Several other states have imposed new registration fees on electric vehicles. Lawmakers pushing for the fees say that because owners of battery-powered cars do not pay gasoline taxes, they should help pay for infrastructure in some way.... https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/business/energy-environment/electric-cars-hybrid-tax-credits.html
By Kimiko de Freitas-Tamura, The New York Times. For GSS Energy Use chapter 4. Excerpt: ...Hundreds of toxic wild boars have been roaming across northern Japan, where the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant six years ago forced thousands of residents to desert their homes, pets and livestock. ...As Japan prepares to lift some evacuation orders on four towns within the more than 12-mile exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant later this month, officials are struggling to clear out the contaminated boars. Wild boar meat is a delicacy in northern Japan, but animals slaughtered since the disaster are too contaminated to eat. According to tests conducted by the Japanese government, some of the boars have shown levels of radioactive element cesium-137 that are 300 times higher than safety standards. ...And in a government survey last year, more than half of Fukushima’s former residents said they wouldn’t return, citing fears over radiation and the safety of the nuclear plant, which will take 40 years to dismantle.... https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/world/asia/radioactive-boars-in-fukushima-thwart-residents-plans-to-return-home.html See also Struggling With Japan’s Nuclear Waste, Six Years After Disaster by Motoko Rich.