For the first time in U.S. history, Congress is directly removing an animal from the endangered species list, dismissing both precedent and scientific advice to strip federal protections from the gray wolf. The controversial move was part of last week's 11th-hour budget deal, which contained a rider dictating that wolves in Montana and Idaho must be taken off the U.S. endangered species list and instead managed by state agencies. That defies a recent ruling by a federal judge preventing the Interior Department from "delisting" the species.

The measure is all but certain to pass, the AP reports, since Congress is under a tight deadline to approve a budget that's already months overdue. While the wolf delisting will have a minimal impact in budgetary terms, however, wildlife advocates are worried it will set a troubling precedent, letting Congress remove endangered-species protections instead of leaving the job to science-based federal agencies. "Now, anytime anybody has an issue with an endangered species, they are going to run to Congress and try to get the same treatment the anti-wolf people have gotten," Defenders of Wildlife regional coordinator Michael Leahy tells the New York Times. The wolf-delisting budget rider was backed by two Western lawmakers — Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho — who both face intense political pressure at home from hunters, ranchers and other anti-wolf activists. "We need to be able to manage them as a state to balance them with other wildlife and landowner impacts pertinent to livestock," a spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks tells the Times.

Gray wolves once roamed from Alaska and northern Canada all the way south into Mexico, but were virtually eliminated from the Lower 48 states by hunting, poisoning and habitat loss in the 19th and 20th centuries. They were added to the endangered species list in 1974, and were reintroduced to parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in the 1990s. They've since re-established small pockets of their former range, but conservationists say they're far from recovered, as supporters of the rider suggest. The budget plan will be up for a vote this week; if it passes as expected, wolf hunting would resume in Idaho and Montana this fall.

(Sources: New York Times, Associated Press)


Shale gas is widely touted as a "clean" fossil fuel that can serve as a bridge to renewable energy. But according to a new study by Cornell University researchers, it actually has a larger carbon footprint than coal, oil and conventional natural gas, at least over a 20-year period. That's largely because shale-gas wells leak large amounts of methane — a component of natural gas, but also a potent greenhouse gas, even more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. When leaked methane is calculated with the greenhouse gases emitted by burning shale gas, the fuel loses much of its green luster, the study's authors argue. 

"The large greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming," lead author Robert Howarth tells the AFP. "The full footprint should be used in planning for alternative energy futures that adequately consider global climate change." Shale drilling already faces scrutiny for its use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in which pressurized water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep underground to loosen rock and release more gas. While the EPA investigates claims that fracking poisons groundwater, however, Howarth says he's found an even bigger flaw with shale drilling — one that belies the very argument used to justify the current U.S. shale-gas boom. Plus, he points out that his team's calculations for methane leakage are based on "best practices" estimates, but that actual leakage rates could be much higher. "No one knows for sure to what extent industry uses best practices; and unfortunately, at least in the U.S., industry does not want government or the public to know," he says. "The [EPA] has proposed rules that would require industry to report methane emissions, but several companies have sued the EPA to try to prevent such reporting."

According to the U.S. Energy Department, the country's total natural gas output will grow by 20 percent in the next 25 years, at which point nearly half of all U.S. gas production will come from shale — up from just 16 percent in 2009. Shale gas is increasingly popular because vast deposits exist underneath the U.S., and because new drilling techniques like fracking make it more economical to extract. It has looked especially good to many ever since Japan's nuclear crisis began last month, too. But as Howarth argues, it's unwise to look at shale gas through green-colored glasses. "We should not proceed to view shale gas as a 'transitional fuel' to be used over the next few decades to replace other fossil fuels," he says, "but rather work harder to move toward truly green renewable fuels as quickly as possible, such as wind and solar."

(Sources: The Hill, BBC News, Agence France-Presse, e! Science News)


It may sound impossible, but climate change can actually affect the movement of tectonic plates, according to a new study, and could even influence earthquakes. Researchers from the Australian National University arrived at that conclusion by studying the tectonic plate underneath India, establishing a link between its motion over the past 10 million years and a specific climatic change — intensifying monsoons — over the same period. The monsoons have boosted rainfall in northeastern India by 13 feet annually, according to lead author Giampiero Iaffaldano, speeding up the Indian plate's movement by almost 1 centimeter per year.

"The significance of this finding lies in recognizing for the first time that long-term climate changes have the potential to act as a force and influence the motion of tectonic plates," Iaffaldano says. "It is known that certain geologic events caused by plate motions — for example the drift of continents, the closure of ocean basins and the building of large mountain belts — have the ability to influence climate patterns over a period of a million years. Now we know that the opposite holds as well: long-term climate change, or the natural changes in climate patterns over millions of years, can modify the motion of plates in a feedback mechanism." This isn't just of academic interest to geologists, either; Iaffaldano points out that a link between climate and tectonic movement could also mean a link to earthquakes — but he's quick to add that lots of other forces are at work, too.

"In order to understand the seismic potential of plate boundaries, it is important to identify all the possible factors that caused plate motion to change in the past. In that respect we have discovered that climate change could in fact be one possible candidate, something we did not consider until now," he says. "This new knowledge shall be used to analyse the past behavior of plates in the Earth's crust. Ultimately we aim at understanding what caused plate motions to change and which regions are currently more prone to large earthquakes. To that end, we may also have to consider the history of climate over the past million years."

(Sources: PhysOrg, ScienceDirect)


A day after Japan increased the threat level for its ongoing nuclear crisis — raising it to level 7, the highest possible — workers are still racing to remove highly radioactive water and cool down a pool of spent nuclear fuel, the Kyodo News agency reports. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the crisis-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, continued pumping out the polluted water from an underground trench to a nearby storage area, moving an estimated 200 tons by Wednesday morning. TEPCO plans to move 700 tons of the water by Thursday, and eventually a total of 60,000 tons, currently filling the basements of two reactors buildings and nearby trenches.

The contaminated water is believed to have come from the No. 2 reactor's core, where fuel rods have partially melted, and it has hindered workers' efforts to restore crucial cooling functions to several reactors at the plant. A spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency tells Kyodo that TEPCO also sprayed 195 tons of fresh water into a spent-fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor Tuesday night, after discovering that the water temperature had reached 194 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the normal range of 68 to 86 degrees. Malfunctioning equipment has prevented TEPCO from regularly monitoring the pool's water temperature, the spokesman says. Radiation levels in the air nearly 20 feet above the pool had spiked to 84 millisieverts per hour before Tuesday's water-spraying operation.

Meanwhile, a seawater sample taken near the plant Monday showed levels of radioactive iodine-131 about 23 times above the legal limit, but the NISA spokesman issued an assurance that it poses no health risks. He added that TEPCO will soon finish installing steel sheets near a seawater intake for the No. 2 reactor, and setting up a "silt fence," which are both aimed at blocking more radiation from seeping into groundwater and the ocean. 

(Source: Kyodo News)


Chicago River floods Chicago Loop, Brazilian rancher sentenced for murdering Amazon activist, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (gray wolf): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo (shale-rock outcrop): N.Y. State Dept. of Environmental Conservation

Photo (rainfall over mountains): ZUMA Press

Photo (girls wearing masks in Minamisoma, Japan): ZUMA Press