A U.S. space shuttle has undocked from the International Space Station for the final time, marking one more milestone as the retiring shuttle Atlantis begins its two-day trip home from the ISS. Atlantis separated from the orbital outpost Tuesday at about 2:30 a.m. Eastern Time — while orbiting roughly 220 miles above the Earth — and is slated to return from NASA's last-ever space shuttle mission early Thursday morning.

"Thanks so much for hosting us. It's a great station, and it's been an absolute pleasure," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson told the ISS crew as Atlantis floated away from the station. "We'll miss you guys," ISS flight engineer Ronald Garan called back as the shuttle left. "Godspeed." NASA's shuttles took 37 trips to the ISS over the years, proving key to the station's construction and upkeep, so the final shuttle crew made sure to pay homage to that legacy. U.S. astronauts placed an American flag that flew on 1981's inaugural shuttle mission on the passageway separating the shuttle and the space station, offering a symbol both for the end of one era and the beginning of another. "This flag represents not just a symbol of our national pride and honor, but in this particular case, it represents a goal," Ferguson said. "This flag will be flown prominently here by the forward hatch of Node 2, to be returned to Earth once again by an astronaut that launches on a U.S. vehicle, hopefully in just a few years." The crew also left an autographed model of a space shuttle on the ISS, further memorializing the vehicles' integral role in ISS history.

"During the course of the International Space Station construction, all those space shuttles that docked there left the legacy of this incredible, orbiting research facility that not only is going to be a stepping stone to exploring the rest of the solar system, it's also really improving life on our planet," Garan said Tuesday as Atlantis departed the ISS. While the shuttles will head to museums after they retire, NASA is now scrambling to groom their successors. Private space-flight companies are expected to take on much of the agency's workload in low-Earth orbit, and NASA said Monday it has struck a deal with United Launch Alliance in hopes of adapting the Atlas V commercial rocket to send astronauts to the ISS in coming years.

(Sources: CNN, Space.com, Agence France-Presse, Reuters)


North America's weather is getting wilder, and all the atmospheric madness is creating a new class of heroes, the New York Times reports: local TV weather forecasters. These often maligned meteorologists are becoming more and more sophisticated — both in terms of training and technology — and are increasingly protecting the public against the violent whims of Mother Nature, especially as global warming stirs the pot.

"The weather is more extreme, the floods are wetter and the droughts are drier," National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro tells the Times. "That's going to have real implications on society, and it elevates the need for more information and a need for those on-air personalities. It's beyond what to wear for the day or do I need to carry an umbrella." That was clear during this spring's relentless tornado outbreaks, when TV forecasters like Alabama's James Spann and Georgia's Glenn Burns were credited with saving countless lives. Spann particularly was singled out as a "hero" by Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama, since his quick warnings via Twitter, TV and Web streams likely kept the state's huge tornado death toll (nearly 250 fatalities) from climbing even higher. "If somebody is hurt or killed by severe weather, there isn't a person among us who doesn't think, 'What could I have done differently? What could I have done better?'" Sioux Falls, S.D., meteorologist Jay Trobec tells the Times. "In the old days, it was good enough to be able to rip and read the forecast from the National Weather Service."

Those days are now long gone, of course, and have been replaced by things like Burns' new $1.7 million "Klystron dual-polarization Doppler" radar system, only the second of its kind in the country. Burns, who has issued weather forecasts in metro Atlanta for 30 years, has emerged as something of a weather-forecasting rock star, and even commands a larger section of the WSB-TV studio than the station's news anchors. "Weather is the reason to watch a newscast," Burns tells the Times. "It's king."

(Source: New York Times)


The whitebark pine tree is a staple of western North America, serving as the backbone of high-elevation ecosystems throughout the Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Pacific Mountain System and Northern Rockies. But on Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced these iconic trees now face an "imminent" risk of extinction, due to a variety of factors that include climate change. The FWS has decided whitebark pines deserve protection under the endangered species list, but since it can't afford to add them, they'll be listed as "warranted but precluded" for now.

Whitebark pines have evolved to live in a marginal habitat, often marking a mountain range's "tree line," or the point above which trees can't survive. These frontier ecosystems are especially vulnerable to climate change, as North America's warming western mountains have begun to demonstrate. Whitebark pines were already weakened in the early 1900s by an invasive fungus called white pine blister rust, but they now face a full-scale assault as their habitat heats up, the Washington Post reports. Warmer weather has made life much easier for mountain pine beetles, which can increasingly survive montane winters to devour whole pine forests. Blister rust and pine beetles have recently left swaths of dead, brown whitebarks across the Western U.S. and Canada, and combined with the growing threat of wildfire, drought and other climatic X factors, the FWS estimates the species could disappear entirely within two or three generations — about 120 to 180 years.

The loss of whitebark pines would transform ecosystems all across the West, the Post reports, since animals ranging from grizzly bears to songbirds like the Clark's nutcracker depend on the trees' protein-rich seeds to fatten up for winter. "If you lose those forests, there are so many impacts, not just in wildlife, not just in grizzly bears, but in the whole hydrology of the ecosystem," a former FWS official tells the Post. Because of the agency's new listing, whitebark pines will remain a candidate under the Endangered Species Act, the Post reports, and will come under review annually.

(Source: Washington Post)


"Carmageddon" may not have been as apocalyptic as predicted, but that shouldn't give the impression that Los Angeles doesn't have a traffic problem. In fact, as the L.A. Times reports, environmental and public health groups sued the U.S. EPA on Monday, arguing the agency hasn't done enough to crack down on the thick smog that accumulates in the Los Angeles Basin.

According to the lawsuit, the EPA missed a deadline in May to declare whether the region's ground-level ozone endangers public health — a ruling that could lead to stricter pollution rules for cars, trucks, ships and refineries, the Times reports. L.A. has become the country's poster child for urban air pollution, namely the ground-level ozone that creates smog, and the American Lung Association's recent "State of the Air" report ranked the city as having the worst ozone pollution nationwide. Congress has established a one-hour exposure limit for ozone under the Clean Air Act, and the EPA was supposed to certify by May whether regional air districts are in compliance. If the agency finds L.A. doesn't meet national standards, the region's air-quality regulators would be allotted one year to submit a cleanup plan.

Only two regions in California — the Central Valley and the L.A. Basin — have failed to meet national ozone standards, and the EPA's "silence" about L.A. suggests the agency "knows we haven't met the standard and it is choosing to not make the determination," an environmental attorney involved in the lawsuit tells the Times. Ozone exposure has been linked to asthma attacks, respiratory hospitalizations and even premature deaths, and L.A. suffers from one of the highest urban asthma rates in the country, the ALA recently reported.

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Reuters)


The Atlantic Empress spills 90 million gallons of oil, China consumes more energy than the U.S., and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (shuttle Atlantis after undocking from ISS): NASA

Photo (TV weather forecaster in front of map): ZUMA Press

Photo (whitebark pine tree): U.S. National Park Service

Photo (thick smog over Los Angeles): NASA

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

Daily Briefing: Tues. 7/19/2011
Last shuttle heads home, pine trees in peril, EPA sued over L.A. smog, and more.