As a new wave of storms moved in, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began blowing up a levee along the swollen Mississippi River Monday night, blasting open a 2-mile hole in hopes of saving Cairo, Ill., from disastrous floods. The explosion created "a thunderous boom and a brilliant flash," ABC News reports, and quickly unleashed muddy floodwaters onto surrounding Missouri farmland. Even as the breach lowered the Mississippi River by 3 to 4 feet, however, Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh tells CNN the fight against floodwaters is just beginning. "This doesn't end this historic flood," he says. "This is not going to be over when we operate this."

The river outside Cairo was at 61.3 feet at 11 p.m. Monday, well above the flood stage of 40 feet, and the National Weather Service expects it to crest this morning at 61.8 feet. Both the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, as well as many others in the region, have been pushed near or beyond record flood levels by months of relentless snow and rain, and they still aren't getting any relief. Parts of the area have received more than 2 feet of rain in the past three weeks alone, AccuWeather reports, and they're likely to see more today. That has created "enormous and unprecedented pressure" on the river system, Walsh says, forcing the Corps to strategically breach levees to save Cairo, home to 2,800 people at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. After it began blowing up part of the levee at [skipwords]Birds[/skipwords] Point, Mo., Monday night, the Corps installed more explosives this morning, beginning phase two of the three-phase project. Ultimately, the breaches will release enough water to cover some 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland, a sacrifice that displeases many locals.

"It's a sickening feeling," Missouri farmer Bob Byrne tells the Associated Press. "They're talking about not getting the water off until late July or early August. That knocks out a whole season." The Corps plans to eventually detonate more explosives at the floodway's southern end to drain the farmland, but Walsh acknowledges the pain felt by Byrne and other local farmers, who are also losing about 90 houses to the intentional breach. "It's a heart-wrenching story," Walsh tells CNN. "It takes a long time to recover from something like this." Still, he adds, the epic scale of the disaster has forced the Corps' hand. "Nobody has seen this type of water in the system," he says. "This is unprecedented."

(Sources: ReutersABC News, Associated Press, CNN, AccuWeather)


Unlike Osama bin Laden, many wild animals are worth far more alive than dead — and now a new study by Australian scientists has proven just how much more. In the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, each wild shark is worth nearly $2 million over the course of its lifetime, the researchers concluded, compared with just $108 if it's killed and sold for fins and meat. This offers a powerful statement about the economic value of conservation, the New York Times reports, and helps vindicate Palau's 2009 decision to declare its territorial waters a vast shark sanctuary.

"It clearly indicates that no matter how you slice it, a shark is worth more in the water than the sum of its parts when it's cut up and sold," says Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group, which financed the study. Palau is a remote country of more than 300 small islands, and has few tourist attractions — or major industries, for that matter — aside from diving. Diver tourism accounts for about 39 percent of its $218 million gross domestic product, and since 21 percent of divers say they visited Palau specifically to see sharks, that means shark eco-tourism contributes about 8 percent of the country's total GDP, the study found. Using that logic, the researchers concluded each of the 100 or so sharks inhabiting Palau's prime dive sites is worth $179,000 annually to the tourism industry, totaling a lifetime value of $1.9 million per shark. If those same 100 sharks were caught and sold for their fins and meat, they would be worth only $10,800 total — or $108 per shark. 

While the warm, clear seas around Palau may boost the value of its sharks over those in other areas — a similar study in the Maldives, for example, placed the per-shark value at $33,500 — the researchers say their broader point is what matters: Wildlife is often worth more alive than dead. On top of direct economic benefits to tourism, the ecological importance of a keystone predator like sharks is even harder to estimate, they point out, helping balance a rich diversity of commercially important marine life. "People understand that when you take all the wolves out of Yellowstone or the lions out of the Serengeti, that there’s going to be quite an effect on the ecosystem," Rand says. "It's the same with the oceans, where sharks are the top-order predators."

(Sources: New York Times, Mongabay)


It has been one month since a webcam broadcast the first of three bald eaglets hatching in a nest near Decorah, Iowa — delighting Internet audiences worldwide — and now the chicks are already edging into adulthood, Wired reports. "They're almost full-grown," says Bob Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit Raptor Resource Project that operates the eagle cam. "The parents will be there less and less every day now." Tens of thousands of people watched the eaglets hatch on April 2, 3 and 6, and the site has already drawn more than 70 million hits — but while the parents seem to be adjusting well, many online viewers may not be ready to let go.

When a snowstorm on April 19 iced over one of the two cameras and left the eagles wet and shivering, for example, many viewers apprently suffered more than the eagles themselves, Anderson says. "People were calling the police department and telling them to put umbrellas over them," he says, adding that the eagle parents "did a marvelous job. They just stood there and sheltered the eaglets." Despite the rough weather — and an errant stream of hawk droppings that knocked out the wide-angle camera last week — the chicks seem to be growing up well, Anderson says. They eat up to 1 pound of food daily, consisting mainly of [skipwords]fish and rodents brought home by the father, and they already weigh between 5 and 7 pounds each.[/skipwords]

"They really are putting the chow away, and they're growing fast," Anderson says. Their adult feathers are already starting to grow in, he adds, and while their characteristic dark body and white head won't appear till they're 5 years old, "in another month they'll look more like eagles." They're also getting too big to share the nest with their parents, who will likely be spending less and less time in the nest over the coming weeks. But anxious viewers shouldn't worry, Anderson says — these parents are seasoned pros. "This pair has hatched every egg and fledged every baby they've hatched," he says. "I would bet money that they'll fledge out fine."

(Sources: Wired, Raptor Resource Project)


In a troubling sign that computers could soon overthrow their human masters, researchers at the University of Washington have developed software that's capable of appreciating humor, PhysOrg reports. And not only is this program clever enough to laugh at our jokes, but it can even understand the classic "that's what she said" double entendre.

The ability to grasp a double entendre may not be the same thing as a true sense of humor, but for computers, it's still a giant leap. The specific type of entendre used in this study — the "that's what she said" joke — involves an apparently innocent phrase whose sexual second meaning is highlighted by suggesting it was spoken by an unnamed "she." The example the researchers used was the sentence "Don't you think these buns are a little too big for this meat?" 

To create the software, the researchers started by analyzing a huge amount of text, including 1.5 million erotic sentences and 57,00 standard sentences from literature. They looked for adjectives, nouns and verbs with high "sexiness" ratings, such as "hot" and "meat." The resulting software program, named DEviaNT (short for Double Entendre via Noun Transfer) rates potential jokes by looking at words that can be interpreted in multiple ways and might fit into the "that's what she said" scenario. Using jokes they gathered online, they trained DEviaNT to about 72 percent accuracy, although they say they can increase that to 99.5 percent. They plan to present their work at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in June, PhysOrg reports, and will continue trying to expand DEviaNT's joking ability.

(Source: PhysOrg)


[skipwords]Nazis seize a hydroelectric plant, Tony Hayward promises "massive response" to BP oil spill, and more.[/skipwords]

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Mississippi River at Hannibal, Mo.): Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Photo (reeftip shark): U.S. Geological Survey

Photo (screen grab from eagle cam): Raptor Resource Project/UStream

Photo (couple laughing with computer): ZUMA Press

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