FIRE AND YELLOWSTONE 

Climate change is poised to bring more giant wildfires to Yellowstone in coming decades, potentially transforming the region's iconic forests into scrub and grasslands by the end of the century, scientists warn in a new study. While major wildfires typically sweep through Yellowstone once every 100 to 300 years, the effects of global warming could boost that frequency to once every 10 years, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"What surprised us about our results was the speed and scale of the projected changes in fire in greater Yellowstone," says lead author Anthony Westerling, a professor of environmental engineering and geography at the University of California-Merced. "We expected fire to increase with increased temperatures, but we did not expect it to increase so much or so quickly. We were also surprised by how consistent the changes were across different climate projections." The researchers gathered climate data from 1972 to 1999, compared it with the frequency and size of large fires around Yellowstone during the same period, and used those statistical patterns to project how global warming will influence the region's fires through 2099. According to their simulations, fire-free years will become rare by 2050 and virtually absent after that; by 2075, the average area burned will surpass Yellowstone's historic season of 1988, when flames engulfed more than 1,200 square miles. Such a dramatic increase in fire frequency would likely trigger a major ecological shift, the study warns, with fewer dense forests and more open woodland, grass and shrub vegetation.

A warming of just 0.9 degrees during spring and summer has recently distinguished extreme fire years from normal ones, USA Today reports, and some climate models predict Yellowstone's temperatures could rise by 8.1 to 9.9 degrees over the next century. "Yellowstone is fairly close to the tipping point," Westerling says. "There's no analog for this within the past 10,000 years." The fiery trend can't continue forever, though — as USA Today points out, by 2075 "there may not be much left to burn." 

(Sources: Nature, USA Today, Sacramento Bee, UC-Merced)

LAST AUCTION HERO 

A college student who disrupted a federal land auction in 2008 — falsely bidding $1.8 million to block oil and gas drilling in Utah's red rock country — is due to be sentenced this afternoon, even though the auction he disrupted was later nullified by the U.S. Interior Department. Tim DeChristopher, a University of Utah economics student, could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $1.5 million, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"It is all up the judge. He can pretty much do what he wants," DeChristopher tells the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. "I do think I will serve some time in prison. That is what I think will be the next chapter in my life." DeChristopher says he didn't have a clear plan when he showed up at the Salt Lake City auction in December 2008, hoping only to create a disruption that would prevent or hinder drilling near Utah national parks. He had just taken a final exam, he tells the Guardian, and was unshaven and dressed casually. "I certainly didn't look like anyone who was there," he says. "I didn't pretend to be an oil executive or anything." But he said yes when officials asked if he wanted to bid on land, and before long he had placed winning bids on 14 plots of land for which he knew he couldn't pay. 

The Obama administration later canceled most of the sales due to concerns about how they were conducted under the Bush administration, but a federal judge wouldn't let DeChristopher's lawyers argue that point during court proceedings. While the case has won DeChristopher hordes of supporters — including celebrities such as Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah and folk singer Peter Yarrow, who calls him a "hero" — he suspects he's being punished mainly to set an example. "I don't think this case has been about what happened at the auction," DeChristopher tells the Times. "This case has been about the political views I've expressed and that I've encouraged people to commit civil disobedience." Sentencing is scheduled for 3 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET).

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Guardian)

PIPELINE POLITICS 

Under the shadow of Washington's ongoing debt debate, House lawmakers are expected to vote today on a bill that would accelerate the approval process for a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, the Hill reports. If passed, the bill would force President Obama to make a decision by Nov. 1 on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would link tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to oil refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. 

The $7 billion project has come under increased scrutiny lately, due to frequent spills along a similar pipeline owned by the same company, TransCanada, as well as the recent Exxon Mobil oil spill in the Yellowstone River. If the vote takes place today, it would also coincidentally fall on the one-year anniversary of another pipeline spill last summer, which released 840,000 gallons of oil into Michigan's Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River. The oil and gas industry supports the Republican-led effort to speed up approval for Keystone XL, but environmental activists argue it's reckless considering the project is still under environmental review by the State Department (although the [skipwords]EPA[/skipwords] has openly criticized that review as inadequate). The White House calls the GOP bill "unnecessary," contending the State Department will make a decision on the permit application by the end of the year anyway.

"[T]he bill conflicts with long-standing Executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the President and the Secretary of State, and could prevent the thorough consideration of complex issues which could have serious security, safety, environmental, and other ramifications," the White House said in a statement. The House is likely to approve the bill despite Democratic objections, the Hill reports, but its fate in the Senate remains unclear.

(Sources: The Hill, Guardian, MNN, Reuters)

BOSON BUDDIES 

The world's most sought-after subatomic particle has been playing hard-to-get for years, but scientists say recent experiments offer "tantalizing" hints that it really exists, and they even expect to have final proof by sometime in late 2012, the AFP reports. Two giant physics labs are currently in hot pursuit of the Higgs boson — informally known as the "God particle" — fueling a rivalry to see who can find it first.

"We know everything about the Higgs boson except whether it exists," Rolf Heuer, director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), said during an online news conference Monday. "We can settle this Shakespearean question — to be or not to be — by the end of next year." Meanwhile, scientists at the U.S. Energy Department's Fermilab (pictured above) have also recently reported seeing hallmarks of the Higgs boson in their particle accelerator, and both labs have significantly narrowed down the range of mass in which the boson might be found. "The search for the Higgs boson is entering its most exciting, final stage," a Fermilab spokesman said in a statement issued last week. According to the AFP, the Higgs boson "could easily earn a Nobel Prize for the scientists who can take credit for the breakthrough."

First theorized in 1964, the Higgs boson is the missing piece in an otherwise established theory, known as the Standard Model, which explains how the universe operates at a subatomic level. For all its brilliance, the Standard Model fails to explain why most elementary particles have mass, and the existence of the mass-providing Higgs boson could finally offer a satisfactory explanation, Heuer tells the AFP. But even if the particle doesn't exist, that's still important knowledge to have, he adds: "If you find the Higgs [boson], the Standard Model is complete. If you don't find it, then the model has a serious problem. Both outcomes are discoveries."

(Sources: Agence France-Presse, MSNBC)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

L.A. gets its first taste of smog, major earthquake flattens Skopje, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (wildfire in Yellowstone): U.S. National Park Service

Photo (Utah's Canyonlands): U.S. National Park Service

Photo (pipeline under construction): ZUMA Press

Photo (Fermilab): U.S. Energy Department

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