A vast pool of icy freshwater that's been trapped in the Arctic for 12 years could soon escape, potentially with dramatic consequences, scientists reported Tuesday. If the freshwater suddenly flushes out into the Atlantic Ocean, as some oceanographers expect, the salinity shift could redirect ocean currents and wreak havoc with weather patterns in Europe. The pool has already grown by about 20 percent since the 1990s, and now contains as much freshwater as Lake Michigan and Lake Huron combined.
Formally known as the "Beaufort Gyre," the pool is fed by meltwater from glaciers and outflow from rivers, mainly in Canada and Siberia. It's currently in the Arctic Ocean just north of Alaska and Canada, where a clockwise wind pattern has kept it bottled up for the past 12 years. But those winds can't keep the freshwater contained forever — they normally change at intervals of five to 10 years, and may have even offered a glimpse of things to come when they briefly shifted in 2009. "When the general atmospheric circulation pattern does shift, the fresh, cold water is expected to enter the North Atlantic, with unpredictable impact on an ocean-current system important to both European weather and marine food chain," said a group of researchers from 17 scientific institutions collaborating on the project. "Signs of such an atmospheric shift appeared in 2009 but the episode was too short to cause a major flush."
One of the main concerns is that the surge of cold freshwater could disrupt a giant oceanic "conveyer belt," known as the Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation, that carries warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to Europe. A complete disruption would likely transform Northern Europe into a much colder place, although rising air temperatures may temporarily mask that effect in some places. But it's not just people who might suffer — ocean-dwelling plants and animals aren't exactly the biggest fans of freshwater, the researchers point out. "Freshwater is not really something that marine organisms can tolerate," project leader Carlo Heip tells Science News. If drifting plankton run into this pool of freshwater, "you could expect that there would be very large mortality."
Workers at Japan's disaster-plagued Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have contained at least one leak that was seeping radiation into the sea, the Los Angeles Times reports, but the country's atomic troubles are still far from over. Tokyo Electric Power Co. revealed Tuesday that it has detected iodine-131 at 7.5 million times the legal limit in a sample of seawater taken near the plant, while other samples showed radioactive cesium at 1.1 million times the limit. Meanwhile, TEPCO also announced plans to inject nitrogen into one of the reactors to reduce the chance of a hydrogen explosion.
The containment of reactor No. 2's radiation leak came at 5:38 a.m. local time Wednesday, after TEPCO had injected nearly 1,600 gallons of chemical agents, including sodium silicate, aka "liquid glass." That followed days of unsuccessful attempts with other materials, such as concrete and shredded newspaper. The highly radioactive water detected in the Pacific Ocean is believed to have come from this leak at reactor No. 2, so the plugging operation should theoretically stop radiation levels from rising further. But there could still be another, undetected leak, and Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has ordered TEPCO to continue monitoring the leak site at reactor No. 2 to make sure it's completely stopped. Even if it has, NISA also noted it's possible that pressure buildup could cause the radioactive water to find a new opening somewhere else.
Meanwhile, TEPCO continues to dump low-radioactive water into the Pacific to open up storage space for more highly contaminated liquids. The company plans to release 11,500 tons of the water by week's end, but on Tuesday had released less than 25 percent of that amount, the Times reports. The Japanese government also instituted a new radiation limit on fish Tuesday, after a sand eel off the coast of Kitaibaraki showed 4,000 becquerels of iodine-131 per kilogram, and 447 becquerels of cesium-137, which is considered more dangerous because of its longer half-life. The new standard is 2,000 becquerels per kilogram of fish, the same limit set for vegetables.
A family of bald eagles in Iowa has become an Internet sensation, the AFP reports, rivaling even Charlie Sheen for sudden online popularity. Living quietly in a nest 80 feet high over Decorah, Iowa, the eagles' fame comes courtesy of a live webcam
operated by the Raptor Resource Project, which lets people around the world spy on the parents and their eaglets. The video stream has attracted 11 million views so far, according to the project's website, with up to 150,000 viewers often tuning in at a single time.
"Why viral, I'm not really sure," says Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Resource Project, of the webcam's popularity. "The world just likes to hear something good instead of negative. This is all positive; this makes people feel good." The eagles have been living together since the winter of 2007-'08, and have successfully hatched eaglets every year since. The RRP has been broadcasting images of the nest mainly for schools and universities, but recently began using a new site called UStream. Traffic spiked in late February when the mother eagle laid three eggs, two of which have now hatched. The third egg is expected to hatch any day now, AFP reports.
The first egg hatched on April 2, followed by the second a day later. On Wednesday morning, the third egg could be seen jostling around as one of the parents fed scraps of meat to the two hatched chicks. There are remains of several meals scattered around the nest, including a muskrat, rabbit, crow and trout. The eagles can regularly be seen bracing against the wind, shifting around in the nest or tending to the chicks, offering an uncannily up-close view of wild animals' intimate moments. This adds a level of serenity to the feed, something its producers hope to maintain in the RRP chat room. The site lists 10 rules for participating in online chats, the first of which is: "Be respectful, polite, and focused on eagles."
It's April, and for veteran mountaineer Apa, that means it's once again time to start cleaning up Mount Everest. The 51-year-old Nepalese sherpa has scaled the world's tallest peak a record 20 times, and as the AP reports, he has developed a sense of responsibility for the mountain. For the past four years, that has manifested itself in the form of a springtime hike to clear debris scattered on Everest's slopes from past expeditions.
"I want to do this for my country, my people and for Everest," Apa, who uses only one name, tells the AP. He and a team of fellow mountain climbers departed from Katmandu on Wednesday, starting a cleanup journey that's expected to remove 11,000 pounds of garbage from Everest. The team plans to bring down 8,800 pounds of trash from the lower part of the mountain and another 2,200 pounds from areas near its 29,035-foot summit. The group will receive 100 rupees ($1.40) for every kilogram of garbage they carry down. Nepal now requires climbers to bring back everything they carry up the mountain or lose their deposit, but the slopes are still widely dotted with litter from past climbs, Apa says.
Apa first climbed Mount Everest in 1989 and has since returned almost annually. His devotion has transformed into activism as well, as he now leads campaigns to raise awareness not only about garbage left on the mountain, but also about dangers many Himalayan peaks face from global warming. The trail up Everest was covered with ice and snow when he first climbed it, but Apa says swaths of bare rocks are now visible. Deep chasms have also been revealed by the melting ice, potentially making expeditions more dangerous for future climbers.
Toxic-waste warrior takes on polluters, the Dalai Lama warns of poaching, and more
Photo (Arctic sea ice at sunset): U.S. Geological Survey
Photo (Fukushima Daiichi workers on April 5): ZUMA Press
Photo (mother eagle on nest): Raptor Resource Project/UStream
Photo (Mount Everest at night): ZUMA Press