DERAILED: Newly elected GOP governors in at least two states say they'll put the brakes on federally funded high-speed rail projects, chipping away at the Obama administration's planned upgrade of U.S. transit networks. The incoming governors of Wisconsin and Ohio both describe high-speed rail as a waste of money, and both vow to scrap the idea once they take office in January. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin says his state's high-speed derailment now seems inevitable, telling the AP that, while he still believes the project is a good idea, he realizes it would be futile to force it at this point. "I could play brinksmanship with this issue and I could just plow forward and put people out at job sites," Doyle says. "And while obviously part of me says, 'Just do that,' I really have to actually consider what the practical consequences of this are." Moving ahead could spur lawsuits, layoffs of workers who haven't been hired yet, and general disruption when Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker takes office, Doyle says. Another outgoing Democrat, Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, faces a similar situation, with his GOP successor demanding that he cancel all passenger rail contracts immediately. "As you are aware, I am opposed to this program and will terminate it upon taking office," Gov.-elect John Kasich wrote Strickland on Monday. "Given that, I am sure that you will agree that it would simply be wasteful to spend any additional money on this program." Both Walker and Kasich want to spend the funds on other things like roads and bridges, but U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has mandated it only be spent on high-speed rail — and other states seem happy to take the money if Ohio and Wisconsin don't want it. Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo of New York, for one, already sent LaHood a letter expressing his interest if the two states bail on their projects. And on top of losing funds and jobs the rail lines would have brought, the new governors' decisions may also have other economic consequences, the AP reports: Train maker Talgo Inc., for example, says it won't promise to remain in Milwaukee or create its projected 125 jobs if Wisconsin opts out of the deal. Yet not everyone has given up on the two projects, and unlike Doyle, Strickland is pushing ahead with Ohio's high-speed plans. "Even for those who would send these resources and 16,000 Ohio jobs to New York or some other state, there is nothing to fear from obtaining the good information that this study will provide to policy makers in the near term as well as the long term," a Strickland spokeswoman says. "So even if the governor-elect chooses not to support rail when he takes office, future governors or legislators with a vision for a modern Ohio will have better information as a result of this work." (Sources: Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal)
TWEAKED BEAKS: Birds in the U.S. Northwest are developing beak deformities at an unprecedented pace, federal scientists reported Monday, hinting at a broad environmental problem in the region. Record numbers of black-capped chickadees, northwestern crows and other wild birds across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are showing signs of the condition, known as "avian keratin disorder," which hinders their ability to feed and clean themselves. The keratin layer of affected birds' beaks becomes severely overgrown, resulting in elongated and often crossed beaks (pictured), sometimes accompanied by abnormal skin, legs, feet, claws and feathers. And while such beak deformities have been seen for years in different regions, they've become progressively more common, scientists say — and this year has been especially bad. "The prevalence of these strange deformities is more than 10 times what is normally expected in a wild bird population," says USGS research biologist Colleen Handel. "We have seen effects not only on the birds' survival rates, but also on their ability to reproduce and raise young. We are particularly concerned because we have not yet been able to determine the cause, despite testing for the most likely culprits." The disorder was first noticed in significant numbers around 1999, and then spread rapidly over the next decade, affecting 6.5 percent of Alaska's adult black-capped chickadees each year, as well as up to 17 percent of its adult northwestern crows. Biologists have documented more than 2,100 individual cases, and have also seen the disorder spread to other species, such as nuthatches and woodpeckers. And that ability to affect different birds living in different habitats is bad news, says USGS wildlife biologist Caroline Van Hemert, who published the findings with Handel. "They're eating different things, they live in different habitat," she says. "They're kind of occurring in different parts of their habitats and ecosystems and they're still affected by what seems to be the same problem." Beak-deformity outbreaks in other places have been linked to environmental pollutants, such as organochlorines in the Great Lakes or selenium in California, but experts are struggling to find the source of this one. "We're seeing ecologically unique species affected across a wide range of habitats," Van Hemert says. "The scope of this problem raises concern about environmental factors in the region." (Sources: USGS, Dot Earth, AP)
ACID TEST: Near-record rates of coral bleaching this year have been making headlines for months, but as a new study published Monday points out, the twin danger of ocean acidification also poses an imminent threat to coral reefs around the planet. A wide array of research has already outlined the dangers of acidic ocean water to adult corals, but the new study — published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — is among the first to reveal its effects on young corals still in the early stages of their lives. "There have been very few, if any, studies that had looked at the effects on early life-history stages, such as fertilization, larval settlement and recruitment," says University of Miami marine biologist Rebecca Albright, who led the study. Recruitment is the process by which a coral reef brings in young, free-swimming coral polyps to replace older or dead corals, and Albright's research team discovered that ocean acidification could reduce new coral recruitment by up to 73 percent globally over the next century. The researchers focused specifically on elkhorn coral (pictured), a species that was once prolific in tropical seas like the Caribbean, but was added to the U.S. endangered species list in 2006 following decades of dramatic population declines. "In order for that species to not go extinct, we have to be replacing them as we're losing them," Albright tells USA Today. "The implications of this work show that ocean acidification … is interfering with that ability of the corals to be replaced." While rising ocean temperatures spur coral bleaching by forcing corals to expel their symbiotic algae — turning once-vivid reefs a ghostly white and often killing the corals — ocean acidification is a more subtle process, triggered by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which makes sea water more acidic as it's absorbed by the oceans. Acidic sea water eats away at the calcium carbonate reefs that corals build, and as if it wasn't bad enough, scientists also say coral bleaching and ocean acidification are confounding problems — meaning each one makes the other worse. It amounts to a dire outlook for the world's oceans, where conditions have remained much more constant throughout history than the relatively chaotic climate shifts on land. "We're affecting the chemistry of the oceans at an unprecedented rate," Albright says. "It's a rate that hasn't been known to occur naturally for the last 60 million years." (Sources: USA Today, e! Science News)
EYE ON HURRICANES: Tropical cyclone forecasts have been getting more and more accurate for years, and according to a new study, they may soon become accurate even years before the cyclone season they're predicting. The breakthrough technique capitalizes on hurricane seasons' tendency to wax and wane over multi-decade cycles, and researchers report that when they retroactively used their model to forecast Atlantic hurricane seasons from 1960 to 2007, it was surprisingly successful. "This is the first time anyone has reported skill in predicting the number of hurricanes beyond the seasonal time scale," says U.K. Met Office climate modeler Doug Smith, who published the findings with his colleagues online in the journal Nature Geoscience. While they can accurately predict the severity of seasons years in advance, however, the model doesn't tell forecasters why storms are becoming more frequent — a trend that some have blamed on global warming, although such a link is difficult to prove or disprove. Smith and his fellow researchers are still fine-tuning their far-sighted prediction methods, but as the active 2010 hurricane season winds down on Nov. 30, they're already preparing to issue a forecast in the next few months predicting Atlantic hurricane activity in 2011, 2012 and beyond. (Source: Wired)
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Photo (railroad crossing): Photo 24/Jupiter Images
Photo (black-capped chickadee with beak deformity): USGS
Photo (snorkelers and elkhorn coral): ZUMA Press
Photo (Hurricane Isabel): NASA
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