The Mississippi River continues swelling to heights not seen in nearly a century, as historic floods now surge through west Tennessee on a massive march to the Gulf of Mexico. The river stood at 47.6 feet in Memphis Sunday, and is expected to crest at 48 feet by Tuesday morning — the first time since 1937 it has risen above even 41 feet. And while the water appears to be moving slowly, looks can be deceiving, warns U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Vernie Reichling. "This water that we're seeing coming by is moving 2 million cubic feet per second," Reichling tells CNN. "To use an analogy, in one second that water would fill up a football field 44 feet deep."
The last time the Mississippi rose so high in Memphis was 1937, when a devastating flood covered 20 million acres and killed more than 500 people. The crest that year was 48.7 feet, and while the Corps doesn't expect this year's flood to match that, many locals remain cautious. "It's a very powerful river," says Bob Nations, director of preparedness in Shelby County, Tenn. "It looks like it's running very slowly, but it has a very strong current. We still don't know [exactly what] the river might do." The problem isn't limited to the Mississippi River, either — dozens of its tributaries are also backing up as they try to dump water into the flooded waterway, spreading the danger across vast rural areas. And while the main threat is currently near Memphis, it's just foreshadowing for people farther south, where the river is expected to crest in the coming days and weeks. The Corps plans to perform some high-stakes maneuvers to prevent disasters in Louisiana and Mississippi, and as is often the case with flood control, there will be winners and losers, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The Corps plans to open the Bonnet Carré Spillway in Louisiana today, sending freshwater surging through environmentally sensitive waters on its way to Lake Ponchartrain — and likely killing many oysters and other shellfish in the process. The Corps has warned it may need to open the Morganza Floodway, too, which would lower the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans but also force a dozen smaller towns to evacuate. All this comes after the Corps already flooded 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland to save the town of Cairo, Ill., from devastating floods. As the Journal reports, such drastic measures have sparked a re-examination of how the U.S. controls floods, possibly marking a turning point from the all-or-nothing tactics that have persisted since the Great Depression. The Corps is phasing in a policy that would allow more flooding to occur in the Mississippi's natural floodplains, working with local officials to manage development and minimize damage when the river runs wild. "We need a bend-but-don't-break approach to flood management," says Andrew Fahlund, senior vice president for conservation at American Rivers. "Right now, there's very little bending and the breaking has catastrophic consequences."
Japan's ongoing nuclear crisis was clearly triggered by a natural disaster: the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11. But many observers say it was also enabled by widespread human failures, namely an opportunistic nuclear industry and ineffective regulators who allegedly let unsafe conditions persist for years before the quake. And as the New York Times reports, some U.S. critics fear a similar regulatory breakdown could lead to a nuclear disaster on American soil, too.
The Times cites an example from 2007 at the Byron nuclear plant in Illinois, where the Exelon Corp. had repeatedly lowered its standards for the thickness of pipes that carry cooling water to key emergency equipment. As the old, corroding pipes wore down, the company simply reduced its standard for minimum safe thickness, eventually declaring that pipes just three-hundredths of an inch thick are safe, even though that was one-tenth of the original minimum thickness. When workers cleaning the pipes accidentally punctured them in '07, spurring a 12-day plant shutdown, it revealed that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission hadn't inspected the pipes for at least eight years prior, and that no one at the agency had noticed Exelon's creative methods of handling pipe corrosion. Yet despite how preventable the crisis was — and the plant's dangerous proximity to the city of Chicago — the NRC only dealt Exelon a reprimand for two low-level violations, the Times reports. The reasoning for the light punishment was apparently that disaster had been averted. "They always say, 'Oh, but nothing happened,'" says George Mulley Jr., a former investigator with the inspector general's office. "Well, sooner or later, our luck — you know, we're going to end up rolling craps."
As the Times reports, the Byron breakdown wasn't an isolated incident. The NRC has also taken three decades to install up-to-date fireproofing in plants after an accident in Alabama, and infamously backed down from the operator of a plant in Ohio, allowing a potentially dangerous hole to remain undiscovered for months. The number of civil penalties paid by licensed plant owners had fallen almost 80 percent since the late 1990s, which critics say is a sign of the agency's unwillingness to irritate the nuclear industry and its lobbyists. And all this comes after Congress created the NRC in the 1970s in an attempt to dismantle the cozy relationship between its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the nuclear industry. "It wasn't much of a change," says former NRC commissioner Peter Bradford. "The NRC inherited the regulatory staff and adopted the rules and regulations of the AEC intact."
The sprawling metropolis of Hong Kong might not seem like a haven for wildlife, but wild monkeys have nonetheless found a way to prosper there, following the model of squirrels, coyotes and other urban animals by eating trash and abandoning their fear of humans. And now Hong Kong's macaques have grown so numerous and fearless that the city's government has turned to birth control, the AFP reports, after years of feeding bans have failed to have an effect.
"I think we still have plenty of space for wildlife," says Chung-tong Shek of the government's conservation department. "But the countryside and the city are adjacent to each other and sometimes there is conflict." Many of the city's 7 million human residents give frequent food handouts to local macaques, allowing the monkeys' population to surge beyond 2,000 in recent years, the AFP reports. That has been followed by a rise in complaints of problem monkeys, which have largely lost any fear of people and are sometimes on the verge of mugging Hong Kong residents, much as baboons are known to do in parts of Africa. Aggressive monkeys chase hikers for food outside Hong Kong, grabbing bags from their hands and reaching into their pockets, and more and more of them now seem to be infiltrating the city, too. "There is plenty of food inside the city in the garbage," Shek tells the AFP. "Some of [the monkeys] get lost in the city ... from time to time."
While previous birth-control efforts have included capturing male macaques and giving them vasectomies, the focus now is on sterilizing females. The goal is to raise the city's number of permanently or temporarily sterilized monkeys to more than 1,500, but as the AFP reports, the biggest hurdle is often catching the monkeys. Past tactics such as net guns, dart guns, snares, live decoys and small cages have ultimately failed, each working for only a brief period before the monkeys figure it out. The macaques have even begun to recognize individual conservation staff members, helping them avoid their potential captors altogether. The newest monkey-trapping strategy is to leave out large, baited cages for days at a time, letting the monkeys become comfortable with them before springing the trap. "It's very hard for people to catch a monkey," says Sally Kong, a spokeswoman for the city's conservation department. "We tried everything."
Mosquitoes are already springing to life across much of the U.S., especially in areas where weeks of intense rainfall have created extra puddles in which the insects can breed. And while malaria-carrying mosquitoes don't pose the threat in North America they do in many tropical parts of the world, a group of researchers studying African malaria mosquitoes have discovered a secret in how the bloodthirsty bugs target their hosts — potentially helping develop better mosquito repellents around the world.
Female mosquitoes are the only ones that drink blood, tracking down their hosts by following the clouds of carbon dioxide they exhale. Mosquitoes can often detect this CO2 from hundreds of feet away, and then come soaring in to stealthily steal some blood. Different mosquito species prefer to bite different parts of the body, and it's rarely wise for them to simply follow the CO2 trail right into a person's face, since that's a surefire way to get swatted. For the African malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae, humans' feet and ankles are the preferred place to bite, and now researchers at the Netherlands' Wageningen University have figured out how the insects find their way to our feet.
Once an Anopheles gambiae mosquito gets within a certain distance from its host, it diverts from the CO2 trail and dives toward the feet, apparently lured by the smell of bacteria. And not just any bacteria — the researchers have found that it takes a human-specific blend of 10 bacterial foot odors to pull the mosquitoes away from the scent of CO2. Ph.D. candidate Remco Suer has now identified nine of those 10 foot odors, as well as the olfactory neurons the mosquitoes use to detect them. And since these bacterial odors can override a mosquito's pursuit of CO2, Suer believes they could help inspire a synthetic repellent that prevents malaria mosquitoes from finding a host by making them think they're already surrounded by delicious feet.
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Photo (Mississippi River floodwaters in Clarksdale, Miss., on May 8): ZUMA Press
Photo (Byron Nuclear Power Plant in Ogle County, Ill.): Exelon Nuclear/NRC
Photo (wild macaques in Hong Kong in 2009): ZUMA Press
Photo (Anopheles mosquito): U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention