JAWS OF STRIFE 

Shark attacks were on the rise globally last year, according to an annual report released Monday by the Florida-based International Shark Attack File. The 79 attacks reported worldwide in 2010 were up 25 percent from the 63 reported in 2009, the ISAF found, the highest total in a decade. But that's not cause for alarm, explains ISAF director George Burgess. "Based on odds, you should have more attacks than the previous year," he says. "But the rate of attacks is not necessarily going up — population is rising and the interest in aquatic recreation grows. That will continue as population rises."

While the planet's overall number spiked, attacks in Florida — shark capital of the world — were at their lowest since 2004. The state still led the U.S. with 13 attacks, but that's well below its annual average of 23 over the past decade. "Maybe it's a reflection of the downturn in the economy and the number of tourists coming to Florida," Burgess speculates, "or the amount of money native Floridians can spend taking holidays and going to the beach." Regardless, the U.S. remained No. 1 in shark attacks overall with 36, followed by Australia (14), South Africa (8), Vietnam (6) and Egypt (6). Egypt saw perhaps the year's strangest attacks, with five occurring within five days, all attributed to just two sharks. "This was a situation that was hugely unusual by shark-attack standards," Burgess says. "It was probably the most unusual shark incident of my career." The Egypt attacks were caused by several human and natural factors, the ISAF concludes, including the dumping of sheep carcasses into the sea by livestock traders. Higher water temperatures likely also played a role there and elsewhere, according to the report, as 2010 tied for the warmest year on record.

In general, the ISAF warns against overreacting to shark-attack stats. People pose a far greater risk to sharks than vice versa — humans kill up to 70 million sharks each year, while sharks kill an average of just five humans. Demand for shark-fin soup in some Asian countries has worsened this problem, leading to overfishing that now threatens at least 110 shark species with extinction. "The sea is actually very forgiving, certainly from the standpoint of the animal life," Burgess says. "When you look at the big picture, it's kind of ironic that these animals which are apex predators, the top of the food chain in the sea, are so readily caught."

(Sources: MSNBC, Sydney Morning Herald, Underwater Times, ISAF)

BATTLE OF THE BULB 

The U.S. may be phasing out incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, but many Americans have yet to see the light, USA Today reports. CFLs use at least 75 percent less energy than incandescents — and therefore save money on home energy bills — but critics complain about quality of light and higher upfront cost. In fact, some are so wary of CFLs they're stockpiling incandescent bulbs ahead of the phase-out.

Sue Larkin of Tulsa, Okla., is one of the bulb hoarders, telling USA Today she has already collected hundreds of them. "I can't see a thing with the new bulbs and can't afford them anyway," she says, although perhaps she could afford them if she hadn't bought hundreds of incandescents. According to a recent survey by lighting company Osram Sylvania, most American do plan to switch to CFLs or other energy-efficient bulbs, but many are still lured by the lower initial cost of incandescents. About 13 percent of the survey respondents said they would stockpile 100-watt incandescent bulbs and continue using them after they're phased out in January 2012. The 75-watt bulbs will be phased out in 2013, followed by the 60-watt and 40-watt varieties in 2014. But that's short-sighted, argues Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Unless you prefer paying higher electricity bills, there's no reason to hoard old incandescent bulbs," he says.

In addition to their light quality and price tags, the mercury vapor in CFLs has turned off many health-conscious consumers, although it only poses a risk if a bulb breaks. Still, if CFLs are too troubling, there are other options besides stockpiling old incandescents, Horowitz points out. A 72-watt halogen incandescent is one alternative, giving off the same light as an old 100-watt bulb; while it costs $2 per bulb, it can save $3 in electricity over its 1,000-hour life span, he says. Bulbs made of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are also even more efficient than CFLs, and their currently high prices are expected to fall in coming years.

(Source: USA Today)

PLANT BANDITS 

A new trend of vigilante conservationism may inadvertently be putting some U.S. ecosystems at risk, according to a new study in the journal Nature. That's because people are taking it upon themselves to save endangered plants, capitalizing on laws that treat such plants very differently than endangered animals. While it is illegal to ship an endangered plant across state lines, for example, it's perfectly legal to sell or give it as a gift to anyone in-state, as well as to carry it across state lines by hand. "It dates back to a very old tradition of how we treat species," says Notre Dame biologist Patrick Shirey, co-author of the study. "Under common law, the person who owned the land owned the plants that were on the land, whereas the king owned the animals under English law."

Shirey and a colleague got the idea for their study after searching the phrases "seeds for sale" and "plants for sale" to see how many endangered plants were being sold online. They found that about 10 percent of plants on the U.S. endangered species list were advertised online, and more than 50 sellers were illegally offering to ship them between states. But the broader problem, the study suggests, is how easily someone can sell or give away an endangered plant in-state, only for it to then be transported somewhere else — potentially spreading plant diseases among ecosystems, or even creating an invasive species that puts native plants at risk. "You could drive to South Carolina and bring a plant up to Maryland, and you would not be violating federal law," Shirey tells NPR. 

One such vigilante conservationist, Connie Barlow, has been transplanting the endangered stinking cedar — a native of north Florida, where fewer than 1,000 remain — to North Carolina. Her reasoning, she explains to NPR, is that the tree "wanted" to be moved farther north. "I have a mystical side to me where I spent time communing with the plant, and trying to get a sense of what it wanted," she says. While Barlow may have good intentions, plant ecologist Mark Schwartz points out that she and other plant movers could be creating more problems than they're solving. "It takes a lot of thought and probably some science to understand the risks there," he says. "And volunteers generally aren't going through that assessment process. They're going out and doing things."

(Source: NPR)

BLIZZARD ALLEY 

The U.S. Midwest is barely one week removed from its brutal Groundhog Day blizzard, but the region is already bracing for yet another Snowmageddon, CNN reports. A large weather system has been building strength over the Rocky Mountains in recent days, and it's forecast to follow the footsteps of several other snowstorms this winter, churning south into the country's midsection before turning east toward the Atlantic Coast.

The storm is forecast to dump several feet of snow in the Mountain West, and up to 8 inches in Oklahoma and Arkansas by Wednesday morning, according to the National Weather Service. A winter storm warning already spans across much of Oklahoma — which was among the hardest-hit states in last week's snowstorm — and snow is expected as far south as central Texas, with the Dallas-Fort Worth area potentially receiving 2 to 4 inches for its second snowfall in a week. After blanketing parts of the Rockies, Great Plains and Midwest in white, the system is predicted to bring both snow and rain to the Deep South before finally unleashing a wintry mix on the East Coast and heading out to sea. 

And since this storm is yet another blizzard exported from the Arctic — thanks to an ongoing and unusually strong negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation — it will also leave a wave bitterly cold temperatures in its wake. "Maximum temperature departures are expected to run 30 to 40 degrees below average for the central U.S. [Tuesday]," the NWS reports, "with the same departures sinking south into Oklahoma and north Texas on Wednesday."

(Sources: CNN, NWS)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Three Mile Island nuclear plant gets its permit, dust storms devastate Australia, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (lemon shark surfacing in the northern Bahamas): ZUMA Press

Photo (boxes of incandescent bulbs at IKEA in 2010): Matt Rourke/AP

Photo (endangered dwarf wooly meadowfoam): U.S. Bureau of Land Management

Image (snowfall map of U.S. for Feb. 8, 2011): National Weather Service

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