Alaska's northern continental shelf is the next frontier for oil, at least according to Royal Dutch Shell. The energy giant has spent more than $4 billion to obtain drilling leases there, collect seismic data, study coastlines, fortify ice-breakers and other tasks in anticipation of drilling into the Arctic seabed. But as the Washington Post reports, many Alaskan Natives increasingly worry that oil drilling will damage their culture and their ecosystem. And as the Telegraph reports, those fears aren't unfounded: Shell's 1,300-barrel oil leak off the coast of Scotland last week has raised alarms about the company's ability to safely drill in harsh marine environments.

In fact, the Gannet Alpha leak is just the latest of several problems in the North Sea for Shell: Since January, the company has endured the death of a rig worker, a series of risky gas leaks, equipment collapsing into the sea and a 15,000-hour backlog of repairs. This has made 2011 a "challenging year," according to Glen Cayley, Shell's technical director for Europe. But despite such challenges, Shell can still feel good about its prospects in the Arctic — earlier this month, the U.S. granted the company conditional approval to start drilling exploratory wells there, an apparent validation of its five-year, $4 billion investment. "There is a prize over there," says Pete Slaiby, vice president of Shell Alaska. But as the Post reports, Alaskan Native communities are worried Shell's prize will come at their expense. Inupiat people have lived and hunted along the Chukchi Sea for centuries, and they say even the noise of drilling — not to mention potential oil or gas leaks — could alter the feeding and migration patterns of marine mammals on which they rely. "Our culture revolves around the ocean," one local resident tells the Post. "The ocean is very sensitive."

Last year's BP Gulf oil spill, combined with recent problems in the North Sea, has led Shell to emphasize the safety of its proposed drilling. The company will keep a capping stack, similar to the one used for last year's BP spill, in a dry warehouse between the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. It has refurbished a ship to navigate through Arctic sea ice, and says it could reach a leak site and drill a relief well within 34 days. Boom for oil spills is also being stored in an old gravel pit near the coast, just in case. Yet while there is some local support for drilling, which proponents say could bring jobs, many Inupiat say their way of life is at stake — an especially troubling thought in such an unforgiving landscape. "Are we willing to risk our subsistence way of life?" asks the mayor of Wainright, a coastal Inupait village. "We don't have gardens to grow vegetables, or potatoes or tomatoes."

(Sources: Washington Post, London Telegraph, Associated Press)


Processed food became the norm in school cafeterias decades ago, with frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets, crinkle fries and other pre-prepared meals replacing any semblance of food cooked from scratch. But as the New York Times reports, that trend is slowly beginning to reverse, led by a group called Cook for America and dozens of innovative schools in Colorado. And not only are they serving healthier food with fewer ingredients, but they're proving they can do it affordably, too. "It shows it's not just for the elite," says the nutrition services director for Colorado's Weld County District 6.

Cook for America has worked with roughly 100 school districts so far, the Times reports, training school cooks in healthier methods and running weeklong boot camps for kitchen workers. More than half of those 100 districts are in Colorado, a state that has long led the nation with its low obesity rate and is now trying to lead a food revolution in school lunchrooms. In Greeley, Colo., schools will cook 75 percent of meals from scratch this year, and aim to raise that to 100 percent by next school year. Greeley's old, premade burritos had more than 35 ingredients, including things like potassium citrate and zinc oxide, but the new ones have just 12, one of which is real cheddar cheese. Its Italian salad dressing has also dropped from 19 to 9 ingredients, with sugar — previously its fourth ingredient — now removed entirely. And, as Cook for America co-founder Kate Adamick argues, self-preparation is often cheaper than letting mass producers do all the work for you. "The biggest myth is that it costs more money," she says.

There are certainly challenges, however, with overhauling the way schools make lunch. Some new schools have small kitchens that were only designed to reheat factory food, for example, while many older buildings have antiquated electrical wiring that can't handle modern equipment. Plus, the specter of E. coli, salmonella and other food-borne illnesses scares away some school districts. "A lot of schools are looking to prepare more items from scratch, and starting to prepare more, but there are tremendous hurdles," acknowledges a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. Still, with obesity rates rising in much of the country, even many longtime cafeteria workers are buying into the trend. "We're going to teach children how to eat again," one 32-year lunchroom veteran tells the Times.

(Sources: New York Times, Cook for America)


You may want to think twice the next time you're about to walk into the den of a hibernating bear. According to a new study in the journal BMC Physiology, even a bear deep in its winter slumber knows when a human is nearby — and prepares itself in case it needs to attack. By monitoring the heart rates of wild American black bears as they hibernated, the study's authors found that the animals' heart rates increased when someone approached, even if the intruder was silent and the bear seemed to be fast asleep.

The study aimed to better understand the physiological changes that take place while a bear hibernates, but it also accidentally revealed how aware they remain despite appearing to be oblivious. The researchers say they made every effort not to disturb the bears with loud noises, yet their heart rates still spiked, presumably in preparation for a sudden attack. "When we retrieved our data, even though we tried to be as quiet as possible, the bears' heart rates increased before we reached the entrance to their winter den and remained elevated for a number of days," lead author Timothy Laske tells the London Independent. "This confirms that despite apparent deep sleep, bears are always alert to danger and ready to act. ... Black bears often make their way into suburban areas, which can be dangerous and stressful for both bears and humans. Understanding the silent effect of humans and the environment on bears will also allow better bear management."

American black bears are one of the largest animals that hibernate, spending half the year in this sleepy state without getting up for food or water. Heart monitors inserted into 15 wild bears provided the researchers with daily cardiac data throughout the year, showing a summertime heart rate of 200 beats per minute that leaps to around 250 beats when human hunters are nearby. It may drop as low as 14 beats per minute during hibernation, but bears can still awaken quickly and defend themselves if needed — a critical adaptation, the researchers say, since large animals like bears can't easily hide from predators by burrowing underground.

(Source: London Independent)


Most meteorologists make a living trying to predict the future. But as the New York Times reports, a special subset of forecasters have carved out a niche by reconstructing the past instead. These "forensic meteorologists" are called into courtrooms to offer scientific insight on a variety of weather-related claims, testifying on issues like rainfall-inundated drainage systems, snow-collapsed roofs and the plausibility of a murder suspect's snowboarding alibi. And with climate change expected to fuel wilder, more dangerous weather in coming years, they may see business start to boom even more than it already is.

Forensic meteorologists' testimony is often considered as rock-solid as other types of scientific evidence, such as DNA and fingerprints, so they must be careful not to let any subjectivity creep into their assessments, the Times points out. AccuWeather senior forensic meteorologist Stephen Wistar tells the Times he has mainly contributed to civil cases, although he has testified in some criminal cases, too. In two recent cases, he was called to testify about whether snowfall that crushed roofs was normal or above-average. He concluded the snow was typical in one case, but more than usual in the other. "Our job is to determine how much the snowpack weighed at the time of collapse," Wistar says. "If there's such an extreme amount of snow, it may just be that no one expects a building to be designed to handle that." In another case, weather expert Howard Altschule was called to assess a murder suspect's claim that he received a cut from snowboarding, not during a killing. The prosecutors had planned to just rely on weather reports, but Altschule went a step further, using radar maps to not only show a lack of snow, but to show that light rain would have melted any pre-existing snow. "It was the right proof to put in front of the jury," the district attorney says.

Severe weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and floods often cause extensive property damage, so experts like Wistar and Altschule may see rising demand as global warming creates wilder weather — thanks to increased moisture in the atmosphere from an increasingly warm climate. And just like DNA or fingerprints, Wistar says forensic meteorologists' job is simply to translate the evidence they're trained to understand. "Wherever the data takes us, we just tell the truth," he says.

(Source: New York Times)


Mining group defends mountaintop removal, report warns of "devastated" coral reefs, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (oil-drilling rig in Alaska's Beaufort Sea): U.S. Department of the Interior

Photo (healthful foods at a school lunch line): U.S. Department of Agriculture

Photo (adult American black bear): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo (thunderstorm over Warsaw, Poland): Dariusz Wierzbicki/Wikimedia Commons

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

Daily Briefing: Wed.
Arctic oil worries natives, school lunches get real, sleeping bears still trouble, and more.