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How Washington ranchers are learning to cope with wolves, with lessons from Uganda

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 13:56:28 -0500

Bill Johnson lives with his seven border collies in a log house that he built himself in the Teanaway Valley, just over the Cascade Mountains that divide rural eastern Washington state from the more urban western part. Johnson’s been a cowboy here for about 16 years. When he started, there were no wolves around, but that changed about five years ago. He vividly remembers his first encounter with the returning predators. He was driving out of the valley one night when a deer ran across the road. “And these three large German shepherds ran across after the deer,” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘Those aren’t German shepherds, those are wolves. … Those are wolves! Can you believe it?’” A month later, the return of wolves to the area really hit home. Johnson was out with his dogs when one of them — Lance — disappeared. “Lance went off on his own and by the time I realized he was gone, it was too late,” Johnson says, his voice cracking and his eyes tearing up. It was the first animal he’d lost to a wolf. That night, Johnson saddled his horse and grabbed his gun. “I was going to kill every wolf in the Teanaway,” he says. Bill Johnson raises cattle but the first animal he lost to a wolf after they returned to the region was one of his beloved border collies. When that happened, Johnson says, he wanted "to kill every wolf in the Teanaway." Credit: Eilis O'Neil Johnson says a lot of ranchers in eastern Washington feel the same. “There are ranchers who operate on the premise that ‘the only good wolf is a dead wolf,’” Johnson says. “When the wolves first came here, their vision was that the wolf pack was going to run rampant through the Teanaway Valley and kill all the elk and all the deer, and then start working on the horses and the llamas and the cattle, and eventually they would start pulling children out of the sleeping bags at night.” It’s a common fear around here. Wolves have been unknown in Washington since the 1930s when they were largely eradicated. But, since 2008, Washington's wolf population has gone from zero to nearly 100, as wolves began moving back to the state from longstanding populations in Canada and reintroduced populations in the northern Rocky Mountains. Conservationists have championed the return of wolves to some of their original territory. But many ranchers and other rural residents see the animals as a threat to their way of life. It’s not an abstract fear. Since the first wolves returned, they’ve killed at least 27 cattle. Wolves were eradicated from Washington state in the early 20th century, but they've begun repopulating the state over the last decade. This photo was shot by the state's wildlife department in 2014. Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife The state generally protects the animals, but it does have a policy of culling any pack in eastern Washington that kills more than four cattle. It also offers to compensate ranchers for animals lost to wolves, but it turns out that ranchers don’t much like that idea. “With compensation, someone comes in and you have to write [everything] down, and it’s like you’re begging for this money,” says Carol Bogezi, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. Bogezi’s been talking about wolves with ranchers and cowboys like Bill Johnson for the past two years, enough time to know how many of them they feel. And getting to know them well has been key to her work here: trying to find ways to help rural residents become more accepting of wolves. The effort starts with the choice of attire for her conversations: a checked flannel shirt. And she says she starts every interview in the same way: “I’m not even from Seattle,” she tells each rancher, “so I won’t be telling you what to do!” “Not from Seattle.” It's a big icebreaker in these parts. For many folks in eastern Washington, Seattle represents the urban elite, people who like to pontificate about what others should do but have no idea what l[...]

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Researchers continue to watch a massive rift in Antarctica likely to create a Delaware-sized iceberg

Tue, 21 Feb 2017 11:40:53 -0500

Imagine Delaware cracking off of the eastern seaboard of the United States, breaking up into little pieces and floating away. That’s roughly what Antarctic researchers are expecting to see as they watch a rift grow across a huge patch of ice called Larsen C, part of the globe’s fourth largest ice shelf and one of the most quickly-warming areas in the world. The rift on the ice shelf attached to the northernmost part of the Antarctic Peninsula first appeared in August 2014 and has been growing steadily, including more than 17 miles since December of last year. When the huge chunk of the shelf finally breaks off — and researchers are all but certain it will — it will be one of the largest ice calving incidents since they began studying ice shelves around the southern continent two decades ago.  Watch the rift grow across the Larsen C. By January 2017, it was more than 90 miles long. (Source: Project MIDAS) Two other stretches of the Larsen shelf — Larsen A and Larsen B, located just north of Larsen C — collapsed in 1995 and 2002. The Antarctic peninsula is the first area in the region to show the clear impacts of climate change and scientists have used it to study what further impacts of warming might be elsewhere on the frozen continent. But they say it’s too early to blame this new rift on Larsen C on climate change. “It’s less clear what’s happening on Larsen C is climate change,” says Martin O’Leary, a researcher at Project MIDAS, which has been monitoring the rift since it was first spotted. “We don’t have any evidence it will break up the way A or B did. We haven’t really observed a big one like Larsen C properly.” The Larsen-C rift opening over the last 2 years from #Sentinel1 — Adrian Luckman (@adrian_luckman) January 31, 2017 The rift now spans 90 miles and is expanding quickly. “There’s a sort of runaway effect,” O’Leary said. “The bigger the rift gets, the stronger the forces are on the loose bit and then it starts to grow faster and faster.” It’s sort of like a lever — the longer the crack gets, the more leverage the breakaway chunk of ice exerts on the section that’s still attached to the rest of the shelf. The rift formed from one of many cracks that are common in the softer sea ice at the edge of the shelf and then penetrated the harder glacial ice closer to shore. “If you look at the south end of the Larsen C, you’ll see loads of cracks coming in from the side,” O’Leary said. “For some reason in 2014, this one broke through. We still don’t know exactly why.” When Larsen B collapsed in 2002, satellite images were able to record the disintegration and scientists could observe like never before. Warmer air turned melt pools into lakes on both Larsen A and B, while warmer sea temperatures eroded the shelf from below. The melting on Larsen is not yet contributing to rising sea levels. When the ice shelves disintegrate into the ocean, sea levels do not rise because the ice shelf is already floating atop the ocean. But the shelves act like barriers for glaciers behind them, and when the shelf is gone, those glaciers can move into the sea and that triggers higher sea levels. In 2002, the Larsen B ice shelf disintegrated in a matter of weeks, losing about 1,250 square miles of area from Jan. 31 - March 17. (Source: NASA) Science in the Antarctic is still relatively new, and the processes are extremely complex, so there’s a lot scientists are still learning. “I don’t think we have a clear sense of whether this is a periodic calving or an unusual calving event,” explains Christopher Shuman, a researcher at the Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Center. “We don’t know for sure whether this is just a long recurrence period” — in other words, part of a longer natural cycle — “or whether this is a direct link to the kinds of changes we’ve seen farther to the north.”  Research shows several icebergs dropped off the Larsen B shelf before it began to e[...]

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Now blooming in the desert: Morocco's grand dream of energy independence

Tue, 24 Jan 2017 11:54:57 -0500

The Moroccan city of Ouarzazate sits on a dusty, red-earth plateau where the Atlas Mountains begin to descend into the Sahara Desert. Its dramatic landscape has made it a popular setting for movies and TV shows, from Middle Eastern epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Mummy” to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” But Ouarzazate’s location also makes it a perfect spot for a different kind of outsized production: Morocco hopes to get more than half of its energy from renewable sources in less than 15 years. This part of the country is one of the sunniest places on Earth, so it was a natural site for a sprawling complex of solar power plants named Noor, the Arabic word for "light." From a sleek new observation tower, you can see rows of gleaming, 20-foot-long curved mirrors stretching out in every direction across the barren plateau — about 500,000 in all. The curved mirrors concentrate the sunlight like lenses, focusing a huge amount of heat onto long rows of metal pipes filled with molten salts, heating the liquid up to more than 700 degrees. That heat is then used to boil water, make steam and spin turbines, just like a regular power plant. The technology is called concentrated solar power, or CSP, and as with the photovoltaic panels of more conventional solar power plants, the mirrors here follow the movement of the sun, from its rise over the desert in the east to sunset over the mountains to the west. The concentrated solar power (CSP) technology at Morocco's Noor plant uses thousands of curved mirrors like these to focus the sun's heat on tubes carrying a molten salt solution, heating the liquid up to roughly 700 degrees Fahrenheit. That heat is then used to generate electricity. When it's completed, the Noor plant will be among the largest solar power plants in the world. Credit: Youssef Boudlal But what sets this technology apart is that the power can stay on even after the sun has gone down. “After the sunset, the hot salt is giving back the thermal energy to the heat transfer fluid, and it goes to produce steam during the night,” says Youssef Stitou, a senior project engineer for Morocco’s renewable energy agency, or MASEN. The ability to store some of the sun’s energy for up to three hours after sundown addresses a common criticism of solar energy: that it's useless when the sun doesn’t shine. CSP is hardly a new idea — the first CSP plant was built in California more than 30 years ago — but the concept is starting to get a lot more traction. And it’s potentially transformational for countries like Morocco that have huge renewable energy resources. Related: Muslim environmentalists give their religion — and their mosques — a fresh coat of green Related: Donald Trump sees the future in coal. China sees the future in renewables. Who’s making the safer bet? Many countries are investing in renewable energy, but few are doing so as aggressively as Morocco. The first phase of the plant, Noor 1, started generating power in 2016, and by 2018, it could become the largest plant of its kind in the world. But CSP is also expensive. Just the first phase of this three-part project cost nearly a billion dollars. And it could be a risky investment, according to some renewable energy experts. “Whether they bet on the right technology, they will find out in the years to come,” says Christian Breyer, a professor of solar economy at Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland. Morocco is pumping up its solar capacity fast, but Breyer says it might not be fast enough to keep up with the speed of innovation in the industry. Photovoltaic panels and batteries to store their output have improved so quickly that they threaten to outshine concentrated solar plants like Noor. “From that point of view, we will see a race between these two technologies,” says Breyer. “It’s really the question how to get the technology cost-competitive, and for that, they have to grow very fast.” Morocco is hoping it[...]

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EPA chief promised to make life easier for the companies he regulates

Tue, 21 Feb 2017 16:03:13 -0500

Scott Pruitt, in his first address to staff since he took over as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, urged civility and said he would “listen, learn and lead.” 

“We ought to be able to get together and wrestle through some very difficult issues and do so in a civil manner,” Pruitt told staffers Tuesday at the EPA headquarters in Washington, DC.

Signaling a shift in the agency’s priorities, Pruitt focused his remarks on creating a pro-business, regulatory environment rather than cleaning up air or water.

“Regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate,” Pruitt said. “Those that we regulate ought to know what's expected of them so that they can plan, and allocate resources to comply. That's really the job of a regulator.”

The agency can be “both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment,” Pruitt said.

Though he avoided specific policy proscriptions, Pruitt laid out his broad vision for the agency — shifting regulatory power back to the states and avoiding overreaching the authority bestowed upon the EPA by Congress.

Pruitt also name-dropped Founding Fathers and talked baseball in a speech that struck a conciliatory tone after his controversial nomination process.  

Current EPA staffers, organized by a federal employees union, called their congressional representatives last week in an attempt to block Pruitt’s Senate confirmation. Earlier in the month, hundreds of former staffers signed on to a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell questioning Pruitt’s qualifications.

Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times while he was attorney general of Oklahoma.

But the new administrator didn’t touch on that during his remarks to his staff.

Nor did he directly address the Trump administration’s plans to roll back two major environmental regulations from the Barack Obama era, which The Washington Post reports could be repealed by executive orders as early as this week.

The first rollback will target the Clean Power Plan, a rule requiring electric producers to cut carbon pollution by about a third by 2030. It’s the backbone of the US plan to meet carbon reductions promised in the 2015 UN Paris climate agreement. Reversing the plan was one of President Donald Trump's campaign promises.

Pruitt told a columnist from The Wall Street Journal last week that it’s not clear to him that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, which cause climate change.

The second regulation expected to be reversed by executive order in the coming days is a rule that extends federal authority to more waterways across the country.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks to agency employees in Washington, DC, on Feb. 21, 2017

Joshua Roberts/Reuters 

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Scientists skip international meeting due to fear of US travel

Mon, 20 Feb 2017 17:22:14 -0500

On Saturday morning in a hotel ballroom in Boston, women and minority scientists schmoozed over scrambled eggs and fresh fruit at an awards breakfast from a foundation aiming to diversify the sciences. As the crowd tucked into their breakfasts and turned their attention toward the stage, four female engineers accepted awards for their research given out by the Elsevier Foundation and the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World. But one of the winners was missing. Sudanese electrical engineer Rania Abdelhameed Mokhtar decided to skip the conference after the Trump administration passed its Jan. 27 immigration and refugee ban. “I didn’t know, if I decided to go, what [would] happen in the next few days,” Mokhtar says. President Donald Trump’s executive order barring travel to the United States from Sudan and six other Muslim-majority countries has been suspended by a federal court.  But Mokhtar worried that new restrictions would be issued while she was in the United States or while she was en route from Sudan.      “I didn’t know how I would be treated in the airport,” Mokhtar says. “For how many days I would stay in the airport — one day, two days —  I didn’t know, so I preferred not to come.” The event was part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the largest general science gatherings in the world. The AAAS says Mokhtar is one of five scientists who skipped the conference due to the immigration order. Another is Sudanese physicist Mohamed Hassan. “It was very clear that people like me are no longer welcome to visit the United States,” says Hassan, head of The World Academy of Sciences, which works to advance science in developing countries. Scientific leaders worry tightening of borders will hurt science New US immigration policies have upended travel plans worldwide. But at this weekend’s scientific conference in Boston, the ban was seen as a problem not just for people but also for the pursuit of knowledge. “Any restriction on communication interferes with the good practice of science,” says Rush Holt, a physicist, longtime congressman and CEO of the AAAS. Holt argues that even in the internet age, there’s no substitute for scientists being in the same room together. “That’s often where you make your collaborative connections, you find people who have a technique you could use in your experiment, and you talk about how that technique would work,” Holt says. “That’s something that only happens in person.” Scientists sit in on talks given by colleagues in different disciplines, Holt says, asking questions “that could change the direction of your research.” With just a handful of immigration-order-related absences, the AAAS conference went as planned and organizers say more than 10,000 people attended. But talk of changing US immigration policy and how it might impact science was still a topic of conversation.        One Middle Eastern scientist says she packed only one bag to make it easier to get home if she wasn't allowed into the United States. Other researchers say they worried about the fate of their foreign-born colleagues. Neurologist David Schnyer, who studies mental illness and brain trauma at the University of Texas at Austin, says he just lost an Iranian applicant for a hard-to-fill position in his lab.  “He wrote me that the position interested him very much,” Schnyer says, but because he was Iranian, he “felt like he didn’t want to pursue something in the US at that time.” Schnyer says there aren’t many people qualified for the postdoctoral position he’s looking to fill, which requires specialized neuroimaging skills. “It’s disappointing,” Schnyer says. “I’m just not in the habit of worrying about where someone is coming from as much as are they a good scientist.” Nearly one in five scientists in the US is an immigrant. From 2003 [...]

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Trash and toxins found in the most remote corner of the ocean

Thu, 16 Feb 2017 17:25:36 -0500

The frigid deep sea is considered Earth’s final frontier.  

We know little about life in the deepest parts of the ocean, but new evidence shows we’re already having an impact on it.

Recent tests on shrimp-like crustaceans that live more than six miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean in the Mariana Trench show high levels of long-banned, cancer-causing pollutants in their bodies.

"We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth," said Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University, who co-authored a study this week in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The pollutants likely came from plastic waste and dead animals sinking to the ocean floor, researchers say.

“[These chemicals] don’t like water, and so they will stick to things in the water like plastic, and then that plastic will settle,” says co-author Stuart Piertney of the University of Aberdeen. “Because these deep-sea trenches are the very bottom of the sink for the oceans, there’s a sort of inevitability that they’re going to end up there.”

Jamieson and Piertney’s team used a specially built underwater lander to collect and test bottom-dwelling crustaceans called amphipods from the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench and Kermadec Trench.  

The tests revealed high levels of pollutants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned in the US almost 40 years ago for causing cancer and wreaking havoc with hormones.

These are some of the deepest, darkest places on Earth, less well-known to mankind than the surface of the moon. The high pressure there makes life impossible for all but the heartiest creatures.

The researchers used mackerel-baited traps to catch the shrimp-like carrion feeders, then analyzed them for traces of chemicals.

"The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants in one of the most remote and inaccessible habitats on Earth really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet," said Jamieson.

The research was carried out in the ocean's hadal zone, between about 3 and 7 miles deep, and comprised of deep trenches in the sea floor caused by tectonic plate activity.

It is believed that some 1.3 million tons of PCBs — which can persist in the environment for decades — were produced from the 1930s to 1970s.

About 65 percent of the total is thought to be in landfills or still in electrical equipment today, and the other 35 percent in coastal sediment and the open ocean.

The scientists also found traces of another long-lived pollutant in the amphipods — polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) used in flame retardants.

In the Mariana Trench, the highest PCB levels in samples were 50 times higher than in crabs from paddy fields fed by the Liaohe River, one of China's most polluted.

The team inferred that pollutants must be pervasive "across the world's oceans and to full ocean depth."

Piertney says scientists don’t know enough about the amphipods they tested to tell how the toxins are impacting them.

The same goes for the greater deep-sea ecosystem at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

“We know absolutely very little about the deep sea, full stop,” Piertney said. 

Hirondellea gigas, a type of crustacea, are voracious scavengers that consume anything that comes down from the surface.

Courtesy of Dr. Alan Jameison, Newcastle University 

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One US tech company is using its brand to speak out against Trump's ban — in Arabic

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 14:50:02 -0500

A consortium of tech companies have filed a brief in support of the ACLU lawsuit against President Donald Trump's immigrant and refugee ban.

All the big companies have joined — Google, Facebook, Apple and more than 100 others — as has a much smaller New York City tech company, Little Bits.

Ayah Bdeir, 33, is CEO and founder of the company, which makes electronic kits for kids. Bdeir decided a way to speak out against the ban was to put up a large billboard in Times Square. The billboard advertises her company's motto — "We invent the world we want to live in" — in Arabic as well as in English.

"We did it because we wanted to contribute in helping to associate the Arabic language with a positive message," says Bdeir. "This is an issue that we take to heart. It's something that we really believe in."


Ayah Bdeir, 33, CEO of Little Bits


Courtesy of Little Bits

Bdeir's parents are from Syria, one of the countries targeted by Trump's ban. She was born in Canada and raised in Lebanon. She says even with the recent decision to suspend the ban, she is not traveling out of the US for the time being. She's nervous that any country could be added to the ban while she is away.

"It's a lot of ambiguity and wait and see," she says. "I can't afford to not be let back in because I run the company."

Bdeir says any travel ban will hurt high-tech companies and other important industries in the US.

"The ban causes a lot of concern when it comes to being able to employ and attract the best talent ... in the world," she says. "One of the most beautiful things about the United States is that it's a destination for some of the most ambitious people in the world that seek coming to America to better themselves and their families."

The Little Bits Billboard in Times Square

Courtesy of Little Bits

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The future of global women's rights under Trump? 'It could be devastating.'

Thu, 09 Feb 2017 14:49:15 -0500

The request from Donald Trump's transition team set off alarm bells within the small world of groups that promote global women's rights.  Trump’s team wanted details about the US State Department’s spending on gender equality, and names of people whose primary function was to promote gender issues.  “It wasn’t a benign request,” said Ambassador Cathy Russell, head of the Office of Global Women's Issues in Barack Obama's State Department, whose office fielded the request. "They were looking for the family planning money and the LGBT programming and spending." She didn’t give them the information. Weeks later, President Trump signed an executive order cutting off US funding to global women’s health organizations worldwide if they counseled, referred or advocated for access to abortion. Trump has also threatened to end funding for the UN and specifically the UN Population Fund, which provides contraceptives to tens of thousands of women in Africa and in some of the poorest regions of the globe. Some of his advisers have described US gender programs as “dangerous” and part of a “radical feminist agenda” that promotes prostitution, sexual promiscuity and breaks up families around the world. All of this has rattled the tightly knit, yet influential world of women’s rights advocates in Washington, DC, many of whom worked closely with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state and considered her a champion of global women’s issues. Some among these groups accuse the current administration of showing little interest in advancing women’s rights — others fear something worse: a conspiracy-laden, anti-abortion-driven agenda to dismantle decades of work promoting women’s inclusion in national security, access to family planning and economic empowerment. “Whoever the administration is talking to has a hobby horse and age-old commitments to oppose things like the rights of women,” says Melanne Verveer, former chief of staff to Hillary Clinton and a former head of the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues. “It’s where that crowd comes from and they’ll flex their muscle now, but the degree to which, and the specifics of, I don’t know.” On listservs and in planning meetings, women’s advocacy groups — most of whom have close ties to Clinton, are watching for any signs of who has the president's ear. Internally, they’re strategizing over whether they should quietly work behind the scenes, or campaign openly in opposition to any threats to funding for women’s issues.  The ascension of global women's issues  In the two decades since the UN’s 1995 Beijing conference for women, billions of public and private dollars have gone toward advocating for and advancing issues that affect women globally, as well as the inclusion of women in typically male-dominated sectors, like defense and national security.   Supporters say this effort is bipartisan, research-backed and that promoting women rights internationally has demonstrated effectiveness in increasing global stability, reducing poverty in developing nations and fueling economic growth. Many nations now recognize including women and advancing women’s rights as integral parts of their foreign policy, including Canada, the UK, Japan, Australia and the Scandinavian countries. However, some of Trump’s advisers include representatives of right-wing, religious organizations with a deeply suspicious view of the ascension of global women’s issues. These include Trump’s top adviser, Steve Bannon, whose website Breitbart News has pushed out sexist, misogynistic content, and conservative Catholic groups like C-Fam, which is deeply critical of the current UN and the State Department's agenda on women, accusing it of forcing risky, untested birth control drugs onto women; ignoring child marriage and female genital mutilati[...]

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