Another brutal heat wave is baking the U.S. this week, with heat accumulating in the Plains and Midwest before it spreads east in the coming days. More than 40 states will suffer highs in the 90s or higher this week, according to AccuWeather, and a variety of all-time temperature records will fall. The National Weather Service has already declared heat warnings and advisories in at least 17 states, and combined with humidity, the heat index has climbed beyond 125 degrees Fahrenheit in some places, CNN reports.

"This will likely be the most significant heat wave the region has experienced in at least the last five years," the NWS warns residents of several states from the Dakotas to Missouri. The heat wave, which was already in full swing across much of the country Sunday, is expected to continue building in the Plains and Midwest through Wednesday. That won't be the end of it, though — it'll just spread out across even more of the country Wednesday through Friday. "[T]he worst of the heat will likely come later in the week," AccuWeather reports, "as the center of the heat wave shifts eastward." Metro areas from Chicago to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., will all approach 100 degrees even without factoring in humidity, warns AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski, meaning heat indices could reach 110 or higher.

"That takes a toll on your body," NWS meteorologist Jacob Beitlich tells CNN. "When it's more humid, it's more difficult to cool down from sweating." Extreme heat is typically the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S., CNN points out, taking roughly 115 lives per year, but it's even more dangerous than usual during a week like this. Experts advise everyone to avoid prolonged outdoor activity when possible, especially during the hottest parts of the day, and to drink plenty of water. Elderly people, children and pets are particularly at risk.

(Sources: CNN, AccuWeather, Reuters)


Japan is racing to contain a scare over radiation-tainted beef, the Guardian reports, following news that some 143 cows ate straw contaminated by radioactive cesium from the leaking Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The Japanese government is expected to halt all shipments of beef from Fukushima prefecture, a special adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan says, although it remains unclear exactly how far the contaminated straw and beef have already spread.

"The most likely outcome is that we will ban beef shipments," special adviser Goshi Hosono said Monday on a Japanese TV program. "We are discussing the matter along these lines. We have to ensure food safety." The contaminated cattle were sent to meat-processing plants in six other regions outside Fukushima, including Tokyo, between March 28 and July 6, Fukushima officials tell the AFP. The health scare began last week, when news first surfaced that contaminated meat from 11 cows raised near the nuclear plant had been shipped around the country and probably eaten. Concerns then mushroomed Sunday, when Japanese media reported that beef from another 132 tainted cows was shipped to 36 of the country's 47 prefectures.

"We may need to increase our response by checking the distribution of contaminated straw," Kohei Otsuka, senior vice-minister for health, tells the Guardian. "We are currently considering Fukushima prefecture, but we may have to consider the need for a further response." The tainted beef contains up to 2,400 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium, the Guardian reports, nearly five times higher than the government's 500 becquerel/kg maximum. "This is not a number that would clearly cause abnormal effects on health even if the beef was eaten," points out Ritsumeikan University radiation expert Ikuro Anzai, although he adds that "it would be better to refrain from eating it until the situation becomes clear."

(Sources: Guardian, BBC News, Agence France-Presse, Yomiuri Shimbun)


Just one year after its leaking Macondo oil well was finally capped in the Gulf of Mexico, energy giant BP has suffered another oil spill, albeit much smaller and much farther from the spotlight. The spill occurred along a pipeline from BP's Lisburne oil field, the AP reports, and while it's unlikely to trigger an ecological calamity like the 2010 Gulf oil spill, it does pile one more problem onto the crisis-weary U.S. pipeline industry.

Pipelines are currently under lots of scrutiny in North America, thanks largely to the recent Yellowstone River spill and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas. The latest spill thus comes at a bad time both for BP — which is still trying to mend its reputation after the Gulf spill — and for North America's growing pipeline industry. According to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the spill occurred Saturday and released somewhere between 2,100 and 4,200 gallons of methanol and oily water onto the tundra. Cleanup is now under way, a BP spokesman tells the AP, adding that a cause for the leak will be determined "in due course."

A relatively small tundra spill may not be in the same league as last summer's Gulf disaster, but it's not without ecological consequences. The methanol, oil and water mixture has spread beyond a gravel pad onto the wet tundra surrounding the pipeline, says ADEC on-scene coordinator Tom DeRuyter. "You have actively growing plants and they're very susceptible to the contaminants," he says.

(Sources: Associated Press, Reuters)


It seems like the perfect retirement for an aging battleship: The U.S. Navy sinks it to the sea floor, getting it out of the way while creating an "artificial reef" that can provide a new habitat for fish and other marine life. But as the Washington Post reports, some environmentalists and government scientists are raising questions about how useful such manmade reefs really are for fish — and whether they're even safe.

"They're throwing debris down there and saying it's an economic opportunity, but they're not looking into the environmental impacts," says Colby Self, green ship-recycling coordinator for the Basel Action Network, and co-author of a recent report on the U.S. Navy's sinking program. Few studies have been conducted on the ecological effects of sinking old battleships, according to the Post, but state and federal scientists are increasingly investigating whether traces of toxic chemicals left in the ships might pose a danger to ocean health. They're also studying whether the unnatural crowds of fish around artificial reefs might make them more vulnerable to fishermen, potentially compounding overfishing problems. "Adding more habitat is not the issue," says James Bohnsack, a research fishery biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "You need to protect the fish populations."

The Navy tells the Post it's not shopping around its old ships as reefs, and merely waits for states to request them. "We let them decide what they want and if they have an interest in these ships," a Navy representative says. "We are not the experts on whether they are increasing [fish] populations or whether they are the attraction for divers and fishermen. But we want to make sure they're safe." Still, the superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary says it's worth letting scientists complete their studies before continuing the program. "There's no need to get any more artificial reefs done at this point, until we know the impact of what we've already done," she tells the Post.

(Source: Washington Post)


Huge hurricane hits Miami, BP announces capping of Macondo oil well, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (bright sun): U.S. National Institutes of Health

Photo (beef for sale in Japan): Tamaki Sono/Flickr

Photo (oil pipeline in Alaska): U.S. Geological Survey

Photo (artificial reef in Palm Beach, Fla.): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Mon. 7/18/2011
U.S. bakes in heat wave, beef scare sweeps Japan, BP spills oil in Alaska, and more.