The heat wave now scorching the U.S. would be bad enough on its own: Twenty-three states are under heat advisories, parts of the Plains have seen 10 straight days of 100-degree heat, and the forecast for tonight's MLB All-Star Game in Phoenix is 103. But as the New York Times reports, the problem isn't just the heat — it's the lack of humidity. A relentless drought is also gripping the Southern U.S. from Arizona to the Atlantic, making the brutally high temperatures even more brutal. 

"It's horrible so far," one South Georgia farmer tells the Times, lamenting his failed attempts to grow cotton, corn and peanuts amid the drought. "There is no description for what we've been through since we started planting corn in March." The drought has spread into 14 states along the Southern tier of the U.S., causing agricultural agony that's forced the USDA's Farm Service Agency to issue more than $75 million in aid to ranchers so far, and another $62 million in crop-insurance indemnities. The drought has been bigger in Texas than anywhere else — with all 254 counties now designated disaster areas, and crop losses likely to exceed $3 billion — but states from Georgia, Florida and Louisiana to Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico are dangerously dry, too. All this may seem incongruous since 2011 has also been a year of severe storms, but as the Times reports, those violent outbursts weren't enough to overcome the La Niña-fueled dry spell. "A strong La Niña shut off the southern pipeline of moisture," explains David Miskus of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The 2011 drought is already resembling the historic drought of the mid-1950s, the Times reports, and some people are even comparing it to the Dust Bowl. "In the '30s, you had the Depression and everything that happened with that, and drought on top," says Donald Wilhite, a former director of the National Drought Mitigation Center. "The combination of those two things was devastating." And while the economy isn't as bad today as it was in the '30s, the drought is having some unexpected economic effects, the Times reports, from unstable beef prices and dying shellfish to power outages and canceled fishing tournaments. Ultimately, says agricultural and resource economist Michael Roberts, "the biggest losers are consumers."

(Sources: CNN, Associated Press, New York Times, U.S. Drought Monitor)


House Republicans are pushing a bill that would block the U.S. from raising energy-efficiency requirements of light bulbs, Bloomberg News reports, even though many of the same lawmakers voted for those efficiency requirements in 2007, when they were signed by GOP President George W. Bush. Keeping the standards would be "overkill by the federal government," Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said Monday during a debate over the new bill, which he introduced. "People don't want Congress dictating what light fixtures they can use."

The issue has been championed by conservative talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who recently swooned on air, "Let there be incandescent light and freedom — that's the American way." But many critics of the 2007 law incorrectly imply it would ban incandescent bulbs, a fallacy that Energy Secretary Steven Chu highlighted in a recent conference call with reporters. "These standards do not ban incandescent bulbs," Chu said. "You're still going to be able to buy halogen incandescent bulbs. They'll look exactly like the ones you're used to. They can dim. They cut out instantly. They look and feel the same." The difference is they're more energy-efficient, since traditional incandescent bulbs waste most of their energy as heat. That extra efficiency isn't cheap up front, something Barton focused on during Monday's debate. "If you're Al Gore, and you want to spend $10 a light bulb, more power to you," Barton said. 

But, while President Obama stopped short of issuing a veto threat for the bill, the White House did point out its long-term economic benefits. The newer, more efficient bulbs save large amounts of energy — and money — compared with older types, and the White House issued a statement Monday warning the GOP bill would rob Americans of $6 billion in energy savings in 2015. Plus, as MNN's Andrew Schenkel reports, even the descendants of Thomas Edison are criticizing House Republicans for deifying their forebear's original invention. "The technology changes," says Edison grand-nephew Robert Wheeler. "Embrace it." 

(Sources: Bloomberg News, Guardian, NPR, MNN)


North America's iconic monarch butterfly is in decline, and as the New York Times reports, chemical herbicides and genetically modified crops may be partly to blame. The orange-and-black-winged insects lay their eggs on milkweed, a plant that farmers are increasingly able to eradicate thanks to the pesticide Roundup and crops whose genes have been engineered to survive it. The evidence is still spotty and debated, but some experts say this trend seems to be wiping out monarch butterflies by wiping out a key part of their habitat.

"This milkweed has disappeared from at least 100 million acres of these row crops," says Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas insect ecologist and director of Monarch Watch. "Your milkweed is virtually gone." A study published earlier this year provided the first proof that monarch populations are falling, revealing that the area in central Mexico where they spend winter has shrunk over the past 17 years. That acreage is considered a good estimate of their population size, the Times reports, and while its shrinkage may be partly due to land development and illegal logging in Mexico — as well as severe weather along migration routes — the study attributes at least some of the decline to disappearing milkweed. It also links milkweed decline to the widespread use of "Roundup Ready" crops, which let farmers use the herbicide more liberally.

The problem with that, explains entomologist Lincoln Brower, is that Roundup "kills everything. It's like absolute Armageddon for biodiversity over a huge area." Its use has helped farmers squeeze more corn and soybeans from their fields — which is important during times of economic and meteorological upheaval — but evidence is mounting that it's also making the annual migration of monarch butterflies unsustainable. Still, Taylor does offer one ironic solution for Monsanto, the biotech giant that makes both Roundup and Roundup Ready crops: "I would implore them to develop a Roundup-resistant milkweed," he says.

(Source: New York Times)


A diver in Australia's Great Barrier Reef has captured what may be the first images of a wild fish using a tool, potentially adding dramatic new evidence of just how widespread the innovative behavior is. Scientists long assumed humans were the only animals to use tools, but it has since been shown that a variety of other creatures — from apes to elephants to crows — are capable handymen, too. The addition of fish to this club could force us to reexamine the intelligence of these ancient animals.

The fish in question is a blackspot tuskfish (pictured above), which was photographed smashing a clam on a rock until it cracks open, allowing the fish to consume the soft tissue inside. Scientists from Australia's Macquarie University have published a paper based on the photos, and say the visual evidence suggests the fish was adept at this type of tool use. "The pictures provide fantastic proof of these intelligent fish at work using tools to access prey that they would otherwise miss out on," Culum Brown of Macquarie University says in a press release. "It is apparent that this particular individual does this on a regular basis judging by the broken shells scattered around the anvil."

Defining "tool use" is always a bit subjective, since there's a gradient from simple to complex behaviors that can be interpreted differently. Some freshwater stingrays use jets of water to obtain hidden food, for example, which some scientists say amounts to a tool. Yet Brown argues there's little doubt whether the tuskfish's clam-smashing trick counts as tool use, and he says scientists are probably missing even more examples of aquatic tool use. "We really need to spend more time filming underwater to find out just how common tool use is in marine fish," he says in the release. "It really is the final frontier down there."

(Sources: PhysOrg, Wired)


Henry David Thoreau is born, sharks attack the Jersey shore, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (parched earth): U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Photo (incandescent and compact fluorescent light bulbs): Grove Pashley/Jupiter Images

Photo (monarch butterfly): U.S. National Park Service/Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Photo (blackspot tuskfish tool use): Scott Gardner/Macquarie University/Coral Reefs

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

Daily Briefing: Tues. 7/12/2011
Drought grips U.S., GOP wages battle of the bulb, fish uses tools, and more.