Ecosystems

Love that fresh smell after a rain?
May 2, 2016 11:21 AM - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Most of us think of that sweet smell after a storm as the aftereffect of rain that has rinsed the air of pollutants and dust. But it turns out that rain also triggers the release of a mist of particles from wet soils into the air, a finding with consequences of its own for how scientists model our planet's climate and future.

The evidence comes in the form of tiny glassy spheres, less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair, discovered at the Great Plains of Oklahoma after a rainstorm and put under scrutiny by scientists at several U.S. Department of Energy facilities. The study appears May 2 in Nature Geoscience.

According to the authors, scientists have largely assumed that organic particles from the soil enter the air through erosion by wind or through agricultural work. The effects of rain splash haven't been part of the discussion.

But the team's field observations indicate that up to 60 percent of particles that are airborne after a rainstorm in certain areas, such as grasslands and tilled fields, come from the soil. These organic particles are carbon-based and come from decaying vegetation and organisms. The tiny bits of organic matter can hold tremendous sway over our climate, playing a role in the fate of sunlight as it hits Earth.

Authors of the study are from two DOE Office of Science user facilities — EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — as well as the Berkeley Lab and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Chemist Alexander Laskin led the team at PNNL and chemical scientist Mary Gilles led the group at the Berkeley Lab.

Carbon dioxide fertilization is greening the Earth
April 28, 2016 07:08 AM - Samson Reiny, NASA

From a quarter to half of Earth’s vegetated lands has shown significant greening over the last 35 years largely due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change on April 25.

Coral Reef Discovered Near Mouth of Amazon River
April 27, 2016 07:07 AM - Jessica Ramos, Care2

While currently more than half of the world’s coral reefs are potentially threatened by humans, scientists just made an incredible discovery: a coral reef the size of Delaware flourishing near the mouth of the murky and Amazon River in Brazil.

Coral reefs don’t typically thrive in murky waters, which makes the discovery even more shocking.

Long-eared bat denied habitat protection under the Endangered Species Act
April 26, 2016 12:13 PM - Center for Biological Diversity

Although northern long-eared bat populations have declined by 90 percent in their core range, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today said it will not protect any of its critical habitat, saying it would not be “prudent” for the species. Under the Endangered Species Act, the government can opt not to designate critical habitat if there is factual evidence that a species would be placed at greater risk of extinction from poachers, collectors or vandals. But in the case of the northern long-eared bat, which is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, there is almost no evidence that the species is at risk from these types of threats. Instead its dramatic decline has been driven mostly by disease and habitat loss.  

“This is a terrible turn of events for the northern long-eared bat,” said Tanya Sanerib, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If you don’t protect the places endangered species live, it becomes that much harder to save them. This is yet another instance where the Fish and Wildlife Service has gone out of its way to appease special interests rather than protecting our most vulnerable animals.”

 

Chernobyl, three decades on
April 26, 2016 06:45 AM - Steven Powell, University of South Carolina

It was 30 years ago that a meltdown at the V. I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station in the former Soviet Union released radioactive contaminants into the surroundings in northern Ukraine. Airborne contamination from what is now generally termed the Chernobyl disaster spread well beyond the immediate environs of the power plant, and a roughly 1000-square-mile region in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia remains cordoned off, an exclusion zone where human habitation is forbidden.

The radiation spill was a disaster for the environment and its biological inhabitants, but it also created a unique radio-ecological laboratory.

The ohia tree is in trouble
April 25, 2016 01:08 PM - Richard Schiffman, Yale Environment360

The ʻohiʻa is Hawaii’s iconic tree, a keystone species that maintains healthy watersheds and provides habitat for numerous endangered birds. But a virulent fungal disease, possibly related to a warmer, drier climate, is now felling the island’s cherished `ohi`a forests.

Hawaii’s isolation, 2,390 miles from the North American mainland, has given the island chain a unique array of species found nowhere else, including the ʻohiʻa lehua, an evergreen in the myrtle family with delicate pom-pom-shaped flowers composed of clusters of showy stamens in a range of hues from red and orange to pale yellow. In 2010, homeowners on the Big Island of Hawaii began reporting that ʻohiʻa in their upland rainforest were dying without apparent cause. Researchers named the mysterious condition “Rapid ʻOhiʻa Death” (ROD). 

On Google Earth, you can see the telltale brown streaks in the Puna forest reserve, Hawaii's largest remaining upland rainforest located on the slope of Kilauea volcano, where many ʻohiʻa lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) trees have already succumbed. If you scroll over 60 miles to the west to the other side of the island, the green canopy behind Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast — where Captain James Cook first set foot on Hawaii and was later killed — is pocked with the bleached skeletons of dead and dying trees. 

Scenes like these have become commonplace in the American West, where several conifer species, weakened by long-term drought and warmer temperatures, have been decimated by bark beetles. Researchers are wondering if climate change may also have stressed ʻohiʻa trees, perhaps helping to trigger the current outbreak on Hawaii. 

The fungus clogs the vascular system of the trees, making them wilt and die as if from a drought.

An overall decrease in trade winds has created drier conditions in recent years in parts of the islands, at the same time that rising temperatures have warmed things up in the cool upland forests where ʻohiʻa thrive. 

Do you live in one of America's worst cities for air pollution?
April 25, 2016 07:16 AM - Llowell Williams, Care2

The American Lung Association has released its annual “State of the Air” report and its findings are troubling. Most Americans live in counties with air pollution so bad that it is a severe risk to their health. According to the report, that means 166 million people are at risk of an early death and significant health problems including asthma, developmental damage and cancer.

Without a doubt the most concerning discovery made by the American Lung Association was that short-term particle pollution had increased sharply since last year’s report: “Short-term spikes” of particle pollution hit record levels in seven of the 25 most polluted U.S. cities in this period.

Australian river on fire with fracked coal seam gas
April 23, 2016 03:13 PM - Australian Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham, The Ecologist

So much methane is bubbling into a river surrounded by hundreds of fracking wells that it's a fire hazard! Local campaigners blame the coal seam gas industry for the gas releases which are spreading along Queensland's river Condamine and gaining in intensity.

So much methane gas is now bubbling up through the Condamine River in Queensland, Australia that it exploded with fire and held a large flame.

Gas seeping into the river began shortly after coal seam gas operations started nearby and is growing in volume and the stretch of river affected is expanding in length.

 

Sandhill cranes vs windmills
April 21, 2016 11:37 AM - USGS Newsroom

The current placement of wind energy towers in the central and southern Great Plains may have relatively few negative effects on sandhill cranes wintering in the region, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study published today.

Midcontinental sandhill cranes are important to sporting and tourism industries in the Great Plains, an area where wind energy development recently surged. Scientists with the USGS compared crane location data from the winters of 1998-2007 with current wind tower sites in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico prairies. Findings showed only a seven percent overlap between cranes and towers, and that most towers have been placed in areas not often used by cranes during the winter.

 

Ocean currents push phytoplankton and pollution faster than thought
April 20, 2016 06:50 AM - Princeton University

The billions of single-celled marine organisms known as phytoplankton can drift from one region of the world's oceans to almost any other place on the globe in less than a decade, Princeton University researchers have found.

Unfortunately, the same principle can apply to plastic debris, radioactive particles and virtually any other man-made flotsam and jetsam that litter our seas, the researchers found. Pollution can thus become a problem far from where it originated within just a few years.

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