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Did you know that that the United States uses less water today than 35 years ago and that there might be caves on Mars? In this edition of Science Picks, learn more about these stories, as well as the latest on carbon storage in the Arctic and faulty wallboard from China that may be making Florida residents sick. Also, discover why bats are dying near wind turbines and how endangered whooping cranes are being saved.
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The United States uses less water today than it did 35 years ago, despite a 30 percent population increase. Declines in water use are partly attributable to alternative cooling methods at power plants and more efficient irrigation systems. According to the latest USGS water use report, nearly half of all water used in the United States goes to cooling thermoelectric power plants. Irrigation accounts for 31 percent. Eleven percent of water is used for public supply, and the remaining 9 percent is used for industrial, livestock, aquaculture, mining and rural domestic uses. For details, listen to episode 108 of the USGS Corecast or check out the full report. For more information, contact Susan Hutson at sshutson@xxxxxxxx or (901) 246-5330.
Caves Provide Martians (or Scientists) a New Place to Hide
Caves might lie beneath a series of depressions discovered on Mars. These caves could provide shelter for future Mars exploration missions. They could also shed light on whether microbial life forms have ever existed on the "Red Planet." The depressions were detected by the USGS Astrogeology Science Center using high-resolution images conveyed through Mars-orbiting satellites. Scientists believe some of these caves were created from a massive volcano, when solid ceilings of cooled material formed over lava channels during ancient volcanic eruptions. Sections of these ceilings collapsed at some point to form the observed skylight entrances, or caves. For more information, check out the USGS Newsroom or contact Glen Cushing at gcushing@xxxxxxxx or (928) 556-7201.
Thawing Arctic May Mean More Atmospheric Carbon
One of the world’s most important sinks of carbon could start to release its contents into the atmosphere. A new study by the USGS and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks shows that the Arctic has been responsible for up to 25 percent of the earth’s carbon sink in recent decades. The carbon enters the Arctic from the atmosphere and is trapped in the permafrost, the frozen layer of soil underneath the land’s surface. This layer is an effective carbon sink because the permafrost is too cold to for the carbon to decompose very quickly. However, global warming is causing the permafrost to thaw, exposing the previously frozen soil to decomposition and erosion, and could make the permafrost a source of atmospheric carbon, rather than a sink. For more information, check out the USGS Newsroom or contact Dave McGuire at ffadm@xxxxxxxx or (907) 474-6242.
Recently, homeowners in Florida began reporting respiratory tract infections, sinus problems and nosebleeds, as well as damage to electrical wiring in homes. Experts believe these conditions are caused by faulty wallboard. Wallboard is made out of the mineral gypsum. The USGS collects information from gypsum producers as well as gypsum production information from other countries. Based on these data, experts believe the faulty wallboard is manufactured in China. Gypsum is a byproduct of coal-burning powerplants, and many wallboard manufacturers use this source of gypsum in their manufacturing process. This production process in the United States is similar to that in China, and experts are trying to determine the chemical differences between the wallboard originating in the two different countries. For more information, the USGS publishes a monthly Mineral Industry Surveys on gypsum, or contact Rob Crangle at rcrangle@xxxxxxxx or (703) 648-6410.
Welcoming a New Director
The USGS will welcome Marcia McNutt as its new director on Nov. 5. She will also serve as the Science Advisor to the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. She is a former USGS scientist who began her career as an earthquake specialist. McNutt most recently served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. She has also been a member of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and participated in 15 major oceanographic expeditions. She has published 90 peer-reviewed scientific articles. Her research has ranged from studies of ocean island volcanism in French Polynesia to continental break-up in the Western United States. Details are available in an online press release. For more information, contact Mike Gauldin at mgauldin@xxxxxxxx or (703) 648-4054.
Feeds (science updates and happenings)
Wind Energy: A Scare for Bats and Birds
Wind energy is a promising source of “green energy.” However, unprecedented numbers of certain bat species are consistently dying at wind turbines, and birds are also affected. USGS scientists are investigating what makes bats and birds vulnerable to turbines, as well as the extent to which turbines may be affecting their populations. Scientists are also looking into possible solutions for reducing bat mortality at wind energy facilities. Learn more by listening to episode 107 of the USGS Corecast, or check out the USGS Fort Collins Science Center Web site for details. Contact Paul Cryan at cryanp@xxxxxxxx or (970) 226-9389 for more information.
Whooping Cranes are Flying High!
The Class of 2009 whooping cranes has begun its journey! Twenty-one young whoopers hatched in captivity are now migrating 1,285 miles from Wisconsin to Florida, guided by ultralight aircraft. These migrating cranes were raised in captivity, cared for by USGS scientists wearing crane costumes to mask the human form and ensure the cranes remain wild. After being guided by the ultralight aircraft to their wintering habitat in Florida, amazingly these cranes will be able to find their way back to Wisconsin on their own in the spring. In the 1940s there were only 15 of these large, white birds. Today there are 350 whoopers living in the wild, and another 150 in captivity. Watch these cranes in a video or learn more about this project online at http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/Cranes.htm. For more information, contact John French at jbfrench@xxxxxxxx or (301) 497-5702.
Hazards Remain After the Smoke Clears
Though the recent southern California Station Fire is over, communities immediately downstream of burn areas shouldn’t relax just yet! The charred area presents a new danger: debris flows formed by rain, soil, rock, vegetation and other wreckage. This mixture can create menacing slurry, capable of destroying bridges, roadways and structures. USGS scientists found that some watersheds in the burn area can generate debris flows with enough material to fill a football field 60 feet deep with mud and rock. The USGS identified and mapped areas with debris flow hazards to assist state and local planners as they work to protect lives and property from these potentially destructive events. For details, check out the USGS Newsroom or a USGS Fact Sheet on fires and debris flows in southern California. For more information, contact Paul Laustsen at plaustsen@xxxxxxxx or (650) 329-4046.
Giant Snakes Threaten Ecosystems
Introduced giant constrictor snakes pose major risks to ecosystems in the United States. Already in South Florida, breeding populations of boa constrictors and Burmese pythons have become established and appear to be spreading. Other constrictor snakes caught in the wild include anacondas and other python species. These non-native snakes are likely to thrive in suitable environments because they mature early, produce many young, travel long distances, and can eat native birds and mammals. Adequate control tools have not been established, although several are being tested. A new USGS report documents the occurrence of these snakes, the potential for further invasion, and ecosystem risks in the United States. For more information, including the full report, pictures and video, check out the USGS Newsroom. Contact Catherine Puckett at cpuckett@xxxxxxxx or (352) 264-3532 for more information.
Story Seeds (points to ponder or investigate)
Streamgages: the Silent Superhero
Whether you drink water from your tap, use electricity or canoe down your local river, chances are, you benefit from USGS streamgages. A streamgage measures the height and how much water is flowing in a river or stream. This information is used by drinking water suppliers, water treatment plant operators, engineers, wildlife managers, recreationalists and many others. There are over 7,500 streamgages in the United States that transmit real-time data by satellite every one to four hours. This streamflow information is available to everyone for free online. The amount of water in rivers or streams is not constant, and knowing how much water is available is critical to those who use and manage the water. Details on the importance of streamgages are available in a USGS Corecast video or on the National Streamflow Information Program Web site. For more information, contact Mike Norris at mnorris@xxxxxxxx or (603) 226-7847.
Why Celebrate GIS Day on Nov. 18?
Scientists find geographic information systems (GIS) indispensable. These systems are used to store, view and analyze information, especially maps. They can contain data about human populations, storm damage, migratory bird routes and the location of crops. Geographers at the USGS National Wetlands Research Center measure coastal land loss along the Gulf Coast by combining information from aerial photography, satellite images, radar and elevation data into GIS. Using GIS, they can accurately map the 1900 square miles of coastal lands that Louisiana has lost since the 1930s. These systems are especially important after events like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which together caused the loss of 217 square miles. Scientists also use GIS to forecast what land loss may occur in the future, which is critical information for restoration projects that save wetlands. Learn details about historical and projected Louisiana land loss (PDF). For more information, contact Scott Wilson at wilsons@xxxxxxxx or (337) 266-8644.
USGS provides science for a changing world. For more information, visit www.usgs.gov.
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