HIGH AND DRY 

While much of the Southern U.S. remains gripped by a months-long drought, the dry spell in Texas is reaching "unprecedented territory," the U.S. Drought Monitor warned this week. Nearly 94 percent of the state is now under "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, up 2 percent from last week, and climate records suggest Texas is suffering its driest 10-month stretch in more than a century of recorded data. The state has received just 6 inches of rain since January, according to the National Weather Service, which is 40 percent of its normal total for this point in the year.

"I've noticed in the last two weeks that the desperation level is increasing, from the number of calls I'm receiving from worried ranchers and farmers," extension agent J. Cody Dennison in Waller County, Texas, tells the Houston Chronicle. "It's so bad that deer are coming into peoples' sprinkled yards to find food and water to keep alive." The drought is devastating Texas agriculture — cotton production is expected to drop by 43 percent this year compared with 2010, corn by 41 percent, winter wheat by 60 percent, sorghum by 46 percent and soybeans by 61 percent. Ranchers are also scrambling to sell off cattle and other livestock, the Chronicle reports, because they don't have enough food and water to keep them alive. According to Texas' agriculture extension service, the state is poised to double its worst-ever drought-related loss of $4.1 billion in 2006. "The 2006 drought hit only the bottom third of our state," explains Travis Miller of the extension service, "but this one is more extreme and striking 90 percent of the state."

The drought may be worst in Texas, but several other states are dangerously dry, too. Extreme or exceptional drought now covers nearly 93 percent of Oklahoma, while high heat and low rainfall are killing corn crops throughout much of the Plains and Midwest. Roughly half of Georgia, Louisiana and New Mexico are also under an extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. But for many farmers in Texas, the worst news isn't how bad the drought is now — it's the fact that forecasters say it could last for another year. "The worst part is the helplessness," an extension agent from Wharton County, Texas, tells the Chronicle. "There's nothing a rancher or farmer can do from a management standpoint to fix it. It's totally out of their control."

(Sources: MSNBC, Houston Chronicle, U.S. Drought Monitor)

ROOT OF THE PROBLEM 

The U.S. EPA on Thursday banned the sale of Imprelis, a weed killer that has been linked to thousands of tree deaths nationwide after hitting the market earlier this year. DuPont, which makes Imprelis, already suspended sales of the herbicide last week and announced plans for a refund program. But as the Detroit Free Press reports, the company knew before Imprelis went on the market that it can harm trees, and only revealed that information after the EPA asked it to submit "all studies and data, completed or in progress" that relate to the toxicity of Imprelis to trees.

According to an EPA statement, the agency decided to ban Imprelis after reviewing data from DuPont that showed at least three kinds of evergreen trees — balsam fir, Norway spruce and white pine — are vulnerable to damage or death from the chemical. The tests that produced those results were conducted before the EPA approved Imprelis last fall, but DuPont spokeswoman Kate Childress tells the New York Times that the data only showed vulnerability when trees were exposed to high stress. "We did them to understand the tolerance and sensitivity of these species under extreme conditions," she says. Imprelis has been "highly effective" at killing clover, dandelions and other weeds, the Times reports, but evergreen trees often begin dying within weeks of the herbicide's first applications. According to some agricultural experts, the death toll could eventually climb to hundreds of thousands of trees.

"We expect at the end of the day there's going to be more than a billion dollars of damage or as much as several billion," says a partner in a law firm that has filed lawsuits against DuPont over the tree deaths. "You are talking about a lot of people who have dead trees 40 to 50 feet tall, 30 or 50 years old that each cost $20,000 or $25,000 to replace." The EPA is investigating whether the plague was caused by misuse of Imprelis, inadequate directions or warnings on the label, its persistence in soil, or other factors. As the Times reports, it's causing problems for composters, too — DuPont warns that Imprelis-treated grass clippings shouldn't be composted, since the chemical doesn't break down. "You have to ask why the EPA would allow a chemical out there that doesn't break down," the managing editor of BioCycle Magazine tells the Times. "It could be a problem for months or years to come."

(Sources: Detroit Free Press, New York Times)

PREGNANT PLESIOSAUR 

[skipwords]Scientists have found evidence that a type of aquatic dinosaur — a reptile — gave birth to live young rather than laying eggs, according to a new study published in the journal Science. Most modern reptiles and even birds lay eggs, so the idea of a 78 million-year-old reptile giving birth like a mammal raises some intriguing questions about dinosaur biology, scientists say. "It's a very interesting find," paleontologist Adam Smith tells the BBC, adding that it "has been a long time coming."

Scientists have speculated for more than 200 years about how plesiosaurs might have reproduced, since many argued the animals were too big and cumbersome to drag themselves onto a beach and lay eggs — suggesting they may have given birth to live young. That's rare but not unprecedented among reptiles, although paleontologists have been stymied by not finding any fossils to support the theory. "The lack of fossil evidence of a pregnant plesiosaur was frustrating," says Frank O'Keefe, lead author of the new study in Science. For that study, researchers at the U.S. Natural History Museum in Los Angeles examined a plesiosaur fossil that had been found by amateur paleontologists in Kansas back in 1987. The fossil had sat in storage until 2008, when O'Keefe and his colleagues decided to look it over before showcasing it as part of the museum's new Dinosaur Hall. To their surprise, they found an infant inside the body of an adult.

They could tell the two were members of the same species, the Los Angeles Times reports, and the lack of corrosion on the young dinosaur's bones suggested it hadn't been exposed to stomach acid, meaning it wasn't eaten by the adult. That left just one likely explanation: The fossil was from a mother plesiosaur that died while she was pregnant. The researchers also speculate that plesiosaurs may have been doting, even social parents, although they admit there's little direct evidence of that. "When you get right down to it, behavior doesn't fossilize, so we are stuck trying to make these inferences using modern animals where we can observe their behavior," O'Keefe tells the BBC.[/skipwords]

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, BBC News)

SPACE INVADERS 

Earth's annual Perseid meteor shower peaks this weekend, Space.com reports, with up to 100 meteors expected to streak across the sky per hour at some points Friday and Saturday. The International Space Station will also make a cameo during the cosmic display, visible over many U.S. cities during the early-morning hours. But there is one thing that could spoil the show for many skywatchers this weekend: the moon, which will be full and frustratingly bright.

Still, the moon can't completely hide the meteor shower, Florida Today reports — many of the fastest and brightest Perseids, including the occasional fireball, will still be visible despite the lunar glow. The best time to look up will be the pre-dawn hours, experts say, since the meteor shower will be high in the sky at that point and the moon will be low in the west. The Perseids will peak Friday night, but they'll continue to taper off throughout the next week, so don't give up if you don't see any right away. If you're looking for the space station, major cities including Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York are all expected to have good viewing opportunities, and you can check NASA's space station tracker to find other local flyby times.

To be fully immersed in Perseid fever, you may want to join NASA's "all-night" viewing party, hosted online Friday night into Saturday morning by astronomers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Ala. The online chat kicks off at 11 p.m. Friday, and will continue till 5 a.m. Saturday. And as Space.com points out, it helps to be patient while looking for meteors, even during a relatively action-packed shower like the Perseids. Meteor streaks tend to occur in bunches, often with wait times in between, and astronomer Jim Gaherty suggests allotting at least one or two hours of skywatching to catch a good glimpse of this year's shower.

(Sources: Space.com, Florida Today, NASA)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

[skipwords]Hurricane batters North Carolina, snail darter is discovered in Tennessee, and more.[/skipwords]

Russell McLendon

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Image (U.S. drought map, Aug. 11): U.S. Drought Monitor

Photo (Norway spruce forest in mist): ZUMA Press

Image (plesiosaurs illustration): National Science Foundation

Photo (Perseid meteor shower in 2007): Joe Westerberg/NASA

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