The U.S. Senate on Wednesday shot down efforts to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, rejecting four bills that would have curbed the agency's ability to address global warming. Republicans have vowed to prevent the EPA from placing limits on industrial emissions, and one of the failed measures was proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (pictured), R-Ky., and ardent climate skeptic Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. But in a sign of the issue's political complexity — both for Congress and President Obama — the other three measures were sponsored by Democrats.
None of the measures were likely to become law anyway, since Obama has said he'll veto any bill that blocks the EPA from tackling climate change. And the Democratic alternatives were toned-down versions of the McConnell-Inhofe measure, imposing less extreme limits as an attempted compromise. But some drew as many as 12 votes, and with four Senate Democrats also voting for the McConnell-Inhofe bill, the New York Times reports the White House "risks further party defections unless it moderates the scale and pace of its proposed carbon rules." Meanwhile, House Republicans have been moving even more forcefully against the EPA, with lawmakers in that chamber expected to pass a bill repealing the agency's scientific finding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger public health.
The EPA made that declaration in 2009, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed its authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. While McConnell described Wednesday's votes as evidence of a bipartisan majority opposed to the EPA rules, Obama praised lawmakers for rejecting the measures. "The administration is encouraged by the Senate's actions today to defend the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to protect public health under the Clean Air Act," the White House said in a statement. "By rejecting efforts to roll back EPA's common-sense steps to safeguard Americans from harmful pollution, the Senate also rejected an approach that would have increased the nation's dependence on oil, contradicted the scientific consensus on global warming, and jeopardized America's ability to lead the world in the clean energy economy."
California's drought may finally be over, but parts of the Southern U.S. are still battling severe to extreme dry spells that show no sign of letting up, USA Today reports. In fact, drought conditions are forecast to linger and even worsen for the next three months across the country's southern tier and Mid-Atlantic seaboard, according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center. Oklahoma has already seen its driest four-month period since 1921 — topping even the Dust Bowl days — while Texas' winter was its driest since the '60s. "It's in the top five historically, back to 1895," Texas' state climatologist tells USA Today.
The drought has been wreaking havoc with winter wheat crops in Texas, with more than half the state's harvest now rated "poor" to "very poor. And if rain doesn't start picking up soon, things could get even worse, potentially threatening summertime crops like cotton. "This could end up being one of the more devastating droughts, agriculturally speaking and for wildfires, if we don't start getting normal to above-normal rainfall before June," says National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy. Wildfires are a major concern — the Texas Forest Service has already suppressed 605 fires in 2011 that burned roughly 70,000 acres, compared with 149 fires that had burned just 5,221 acres this time last year. Nearly 180 of Texas' 254 counties are enforcing burn bans in hopes of preventing more wildfires, USA Today reports.
The droughts aren't restricted to the Southwest, either — water officials in South Florida reported last week that they're suffering through their driest dry season in 80 years. The water level in Lake Okeechobee has fallen nearly 3 feet below average, and persistent wildfires have also been scorching swaths of the state well into the Panhandle. Recent rains have helped a little, but experts say the drought is still far from over, and probably won't end while La Niña remains active. La Niña tends to reduce rainfall in the Southern U.S., and it has reached historic strength in recent months. "This was a fairly strong La Niña event," says climatologist Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center. "One of the strongest on record." La Niña is expected to continue through spring and into early summer.
Workers in Japan have begun injecting inert nitrogen gas into reactor No. 1 at the crisis-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Kyodo News Agency reports, a move aimed at diluting volatile hydrogen gas in hopes of preventing another explosion. The first stage of the operation went smoothly on Thursday, Kyodo reports, with officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co. planning to inject a total of 6,000 cubic meters into the reactor over six days. About 200 cubic meters of nitrogen were inserted between 1:30 and 9:50 a.m. Thursday, TEPCO says.
Hydrogen can build up in the reactors as a byproduct of the fuel rods overheating, potentially triggering explosions like those that rocked the Daiichi plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that inundated the region. While there's no shortage of problems to tackle at the plant, preventing hydrogen explosions is seen as a priority because such blasts could release more radiation and further damage the crippled reactors. Aside from the No. 1 reactor, TEPCO engineers say they're also considering injecting nitrogen to stabilize reactors No. 2 and No. 3. "The possibility of a hydrogen explosion in current conditions is not necessarily high," government spokesman Yukio Edano said Thursday. "But by injecting nitrogen, we can make the possibility very close to zero. So they decided to inject nitrogen."
Meanwhile, TEPCO also continued to dump low-level radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean Thursday, making room to store more highly contaminated water in storage tanks and other vessels — including an artificial island to be built off the coast. It plans to finish the dumping operation by Saturday. But it was also dealt another setback Thursday, when the water level temporarily rose in a trench of irradiated water, suggesting it may have begun leaking again after workers plugged it with "liquid glass" earlier this week. A TEPCO spokesman says the company will boost its monitoring of seawater radiation to watch for further leaks, and will also install iron sheets as a "silt fence" to stop any flows of contaminated water from the reactors.
A species of salamander that incorporates algae into its cells could offer humanity the secret to breathing underwater, the Daily Mail reports. While any such feat is still far from becoming a reality, the bizarre plant/animal hybrid may demonstrate that it's technically feasible, the paper suggests. The salamander is the only known vertebrate capable of photosynthesis, and scientists recently discovered just how deeply connected it has become with its algae — and how we might replicate that partnership.
The oxygen-producing algae have bonded so closely with the salamander's cells that the two are now inseparable, the Mail reports, creating a symbiotic alliance that benefits both participants. While it's unclear how exactly the salamanders and algae become intertwined, the perks for salamanders are clear: free oxygen, produced inside their bodies. "The algae inside the egg capsules provide oxygen to the embryo and the algae gets waste from the embryo which is rich in the nitrogen the plant needs," explains Ryan Kerney of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. "We also found algae DNA in the reproductive organs of the adult salamanders, so it seems possible that it is being inherited. We call that vertical transmission, but there is probably a mixture of this and the algae being absorbed from the environment."
The implications are tantalizing for humans, suggesting we may one day be able to breathe underwater by merging our DNA with that of oxygen-producing algae. Human DNA has already been heavily influenced by viruses and other microbes throughout the course of evolution, with some fully embedding themselves within our genome. So it's not implausible that we might be able to engineer a similar alliance with algae — and as the Mail points out, we probably wouldn't even have to grow gills like Harry Potter with his "gillyweed."
Everglades advocate Marjory Stoneman Douglas is born, Arctic explorer wins race to the North Pole (or does he?), and more.
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Photo (Sen. Mitch McConnell on April 5): ZUMA Press
Photo (parched soil): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Photo (control room at Fukushima Daiichi reactor No. 2): ZUMA Press
Photo (salamander embryos and algae): Roger Hangarter/Indiana University