Before Japan can rebuild from the March 11 tsunami, it must dig out from some 26 million tons of tsunami trash. Only about 22 percent of the debris has been removed so far, but now a group that doesn't mind getting its hands dirty is ready to pitch in — for a price. The yakuza, Japan's mafia-like organized crime syndicate, is reportedly competing with Chinese gangs for lucrative cleanup contracts in the disaster zone, aiming to profit from the crisis.

The yakuza has been in charity mode for three months since the tsunami, the Guardian reports, helping Japan's overstretched government with basic emergency services and living up to its self-styled image as a "chivalrous organization." But according to the Japanese magazine Sentaku, the yakuza is now shifting gears, jockeying with other underworld elements in a race to cash in on the daunting cleanup effort. Police and government officials fear they're losing this race, the Guardian reports, with organized crime poised to enrich and empower itself with the mountains of debris, some of it contaminated by radiation. And after winning over the public with their post-tsunami generosity, some groups are too popular for authorities to villify. "If they help citizens, it's hard for the police to say anything bad," Japanese journalist Tomohiko Suzuki tells the Guardian. "The yakuza are trying to position themselves to gain contracts for their construction companies for the massive rebuilding that will come."

The yakuza typically takes a 3 percent cut from construction projects, an organized crime expert tells the Guardian, "a vast sum that keeps them afloat." The group also has a history of philanthropy after disasters, handing out food and water to survivors after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. And with many Japanese and Chinese gangsters now posing as legitimate businessmen looking for cleanup contracts, Sentaku notes that it won't be easy for authorities to lock them out of the process. "It appears to be an uphill battle to prevent the yakuza and other crime syndicates from benefiting from the multitrillion-yen reconstruction projects," the magazine reports.

(Sources: Sentaku, Guardian, MSNBC)


Wild weather has already cost the U.S. more than $32 billion in 2011, the New York Times reports, and hurricane season has barely even started. The country has been plagued by tornadoes, flooding, droughts and wildfires in a brutal six-month period, repeatedly raising an inevitable question: Is this global warming?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has just released a new report on the wild weather of 2011, which explains that precipitation extremes are increasing as Earth warms up and more sea water evaporates. Using that logic, it would seem to make perfect sense that these are the symptoms of a warmer planet — not just in 2011, but for decades in which weather extremes have been growing more common. "Looking at long-term patterns since 1980, indeed, extreme climatological and meteorological events have increased," says Thomas Karl, director of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, although he adds that it's not unprecedented. "But in the early part of the 20th century, there was also a tendency for more extreme events followed by a quiet couple of decades." 

Year-by-year weather is too finicky and complex to draw broad conclusions, and most scientists refuse to blame any specific storm, or storm season, on climate change. Yet they're increasingly acknowledging that climate change is having an effect on weather — and that we may already be seeing it. "Global warming is contributing to an increased incidence of extreme weather because the environment in which all storms form has changed from human activities," Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research tells the Times. "Records are not just broken, they are smashed. It is as clear a warning as we are going to get about prospects for the future."

(Sources: New York Times, NOAA)


Scientists at NASA have discovered a treasure trove of ancient black holes hiding deep in the cosmos, CNN reports, potentially offering valuable insight into these mysterious voids and their role in the universe. Using the Chandra X-ray Observatory to snap the deepest X-ray image ever taken, NASA found that "between 30 and 100 percent" of 200 galaxies they examined not only contained black holes, but actively growing, supermassive black holes. Based on that ratio, there could be 30 million of these supermassive black holes scattered throughout the early universe.

"Until now, we had no idea what the black holes in these early galaxies were doing, or if they even existed," says the University of Hawaii's Ezequiel Treister, lead author of a new study in the journal Nature that details the findings. "Now we know they are there, and they are growing like gangbusters." Treister and the other researchers believe at least 30 million black holes had formed by the time the universe reached its 1 billionth birthday — which might sound old, but is actually young for the 13.7 billion-year-old universe. They were hard to find because they're hidden by gas and dust, but with the help of X-ray and infrared images, the researchers managed to prove the existence of 10,000 times more black holes than were previously known to science. "We've solved the mystery of where the black holes have been," says Yale University astronomer and study co-author Kevin Schawinski. 

The discovery should help shed some light on how galaxies form, CNN reports, since scientists still aren't sure which came first: the galaxy or the black hole. The Chandra study suggests early galaxies already had central black holes, but both seem to be growing in unison. The same thing is also happening in modern star systems, with larger black holes typically surrounded by comparably large galaxies. "In some strange, indirect way, we may owe our existence to these black holes," astronomer Fulvio Melia tells CNN, "because many of the galaxies may not have formed at all if it weren't for the black holes being there first."

(Sources: CNN, TIME, e! Science News)


A bizarre new species of mushroom discovered in the forests of Borneo has been named after cartoon icon SpongeBob Squarepants, ScienceDaily reports. Spongiforma squarepantsii (pictured) is bright orange and spongey, turns purple when sprinkled with a chemical base, and smells "vaguely fruity or strongly musty," according to scientists who describe it in the journal Mycologia. 

It doesn't live in a pineapple under the sea, though — instead, it lives in the rainforest under a tree. The discovery of such a strange forest fungus suggests that even some of the wilder, more "charismatic" members of the fungal kingdom remain to be identified, says San Francisco State University researcher Dennis Desjardin, who helped find and identify S. squarepantsii. "We go to underexplored forests around the world, and we spend months at a time collecting all the mushrooms and focusing on various groups," Desjardin says. "And when we do that type of work, on average, anywhere from 25 percent to 30 percent of the species are new to science."

This newest species is one of only two known members in the Spongiforma genus, and while it's related to a group of mushrooms including the porcini, it looks dramatically different from that commonly eaten fungal cap and stem. "It's just like a sponge with these big hollow holes," Desjardin says. "When it's wet and moist and fresh, you can wring water out of it and it will spring back to its original size. Most mushrooms don't do that."

(Source: ScienceDaily)


The RSPCA is founded in London, the last dusky seaside sparrow dies, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (tsunami debris in Ofunato, Japan, on March 16): ZUMA Press

Photo (river flooding in Tunica, Miss., on May 10): ZUMA Press

Image (artist's rendering of a black hole): V. Beckmann/NASA

Photo (Spongiforma squarepantsii): Tom Bruns/U.C. Berkeley

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

Daily Briefing: Thurs. 6/16/2011
Mob cleans tsunami debris, NASA finds millions of black holes, 'SpongeBob fungus' discovered, and more.