Russia is going all-out in the Arctic, the New York Times reports, unabashedly hunting for oil and gas in the remote region despite the looming specter of spills. While the U.S. and Canada restrain themselves for both safety and environmental concerns, Russia has come to believe it has no other choice but to excavate one of the planet's harshest environments. Russia's economy hinges on oil and gas, which make up about 60 percent of all its exports, and with onshore reserves declining across Russia, the country is betting that its destiny is offshore, buried under the sea.

"The future is on the shelf," says Artur Chilingarov, a member of Russia's parliament, referring to Siberia's continental shelf. "We already pumped the land dry." The Russian government recently signed an Arctic exploration deal with BP, the British oil giant behind last year's Gulf oil spill, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin figures the spill has made BP the safest company to hire for offshore drilling. "One beaten man is worth two unbeaten men," Putin said of the BP deal last month, quoting a Russian proverb. The Times reports that other Western oil companies are now following BP's lead into Russia, recognizing the government's relative lack of environmental concerns makes it a more promising fossil-fuel frontier than North America. The Arctic overall holds one-fifth of the world's untapped, recoverable oil and gas reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and 70 percent of its most significant fields are in Russia. 

An Arctic oil spill would be vastly different than one in the Gulf of Mexico, both because of the region's unique wildlife and because of how difficult it would be for response crews and cleanup equipment to get up there. That's much of the reason why the U.S. has been so reluctant to let Royal Dutch Shell drill off the north coast of Alaska. But Russia's Kara Sea, where BP plans to drill, is also haunted by another environmental danger: The Soviet navy dumped nuclear waste there for years, including multiple reactors from nuclear submarines. Russian officials insist drilling in the sea won't churn up any old radiation, but Chilingarov tells the Times he isn't worried anyway. "In small doses, radiation is good for growth," he says.

(Sources: New York Times, United Press International)


King tides are coming to California, bringing the state its highest tides of the season. But the twice-a-year phenomenon may not be alone — this winter's king tides are accompanied by heavy rain, a dangerous combination that could spark coastal flooding, the Los Angeles Times reports. Some oceanfront communities are already scrambling into action, with parts of Orange County, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area preparing pumps, sandbags and tide valves in anticipation of the high water.

King tides occur in many parts of the Pacific Ocean, triggered by the combined gravitational forces of the sun, Earth and moon pulling on the sea. California's coastal waters are expected to begin surging today, and will likely peak sometime Thursday morning. "Come January and February, we kind of know to expect it," a bartender in Sunset Beach tells the Times. But according to many environmental groups, this year's king tides also foreshadow what else Californians can expect as global warming pushes sea levels higher and higher. In fact, the upcoming king tides will arrive just after a new study by University of Arizona researchers has warned that 9 percent of all land in 180 U.S. coastal cities may be flooded by 2100 as sea levels rise. "According to the most recent sea-level-rise science, that's where we're heading," says the study's lead author. "Impacts from sea-level rise could be erosion, temporary flooding and permanent inundation."

And as king tides swell into California, many environmentalists and concerned citizens say the potential floods offer a preview of what global warming might bring. That may be troubling, but as the Santa Monica Baykeeper's Liz Crosson points out, it might be good practice, too. King tides "provide us a glimpse of what might happen," she tells the Times, "and also give us an opportunity to think about how to adapt to the inevitable."

(Sources: Los Angles Times, ScienceDaily)


Could anti-whaling activists actually be winning the war against Japanese whalers? It seems their persistence is at least making waves: Japan has temporarily suspended its annual whale hunt in the Antarctic, following a campaign by the ocean-conservation group Sea Shepherd to obstruct the whaling fleet's mother ship. An official with Japan's fisheries agency tells the Guardian the decision was made after the mother ship was "harassed" by Sea Shepherd activists. "Putting a priority on safety, the fleet has halted scientific whaling for now," Tatsuya Nakaoku says. "We are currently considering what to do next."

Japan conducts annual whale hunts in the Antarctic under the guise of "scientific research," exploiting a loophole in the international treaty that has banned commercial whaling for 25 years. The international community condemns the hunts, but Sea Shepherd takes a more hands-on approach, actively disrupting the whaling ships' hunts with a variety of nonviolent tactics. And with Japanese whalers reported to have killed only 30 to 100 whales since arriving in the Southern Ocean late last year, some whaling critics sense a momentum shift. "I see victory on the horizon," a Sea Shepherd spokesman tells Australia's ABC News. "I think certainly our actions down there have contributed to them possibly calling off their season early."

The Bob Barker, Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling ship, located the Japanese fleet almost as soon as it reached the Antarctic whaling grounds this season, and immediately began hounding the Nisshin Maru, its mother ship. The fleet's harpoon ships can't kill whales unless the mother ship is nearby to process them, and the activists' strategy appears to have paid off. Japan had planned to kill about 900 minke and 50 fin whales this season, and even if it continues its hunt through mid-March as scheduled, it's unlikely to reach its quota.

(Sources: Guardian, BBC News, ABC News)


A Scottish deerhound named "Foxcliffe Hickory Wind" won Best in Show at New York City's Westminster dog show on Tuesday, the first time that breed has ever won the show's top prize. But while Hickory's grace and diligence reminded many viewers why dogs are known as "man's best friend," another Scottish dog is proving this isn't an exclusive relationship. Luna, a black lab (not pictured), is one of several dogs employed by the U.K.'s Conservation Dogs, a group that uses canines to track endangered species in the wild. And as Luna demonstrates, dogs can be Mother Nature's best friend, too.

Dogs have been used to help humans hunt wild animals for millennia, so the concept isn't exactly new to them — except maybe for the restraint required once they actually track an animal down. But their almost supernatural sense of smell makes them an invaluable tool for finding elusive creatures like newts and toads, especially when the animals are so scarce. "Some estimates suggest that [dogs'] sense of smell is at least 100,000 times more sensitive than ours," Louise Wilson, director of Conservation Dogs, tells the London Independent. "As a result, scat-detection dogs have been able to demonstrate greater success at locating scats than human search teams using visual detection. Research suggests that dogs are at least 96 percent effective." 

Wilson and Luna are currently tracking endangered pine martens in Scotland, where Wilson explains the dog's knack for finding scat helps scientists figure out just how endangered a species really is. "By collecting scat samples, we can help get a population count for a location," she says. "This allows conservationists to formulate an estimate for a larger area. Conservationists need to find out what is reducing the populations. Is it disease? Predators? Loss of habitat? We need to know the reproduction rates. We can then address issues that cause these animals to become endangered."

(Sources: Independent, MNN)


"Extinct" fish found alive, Kyoto Protocol takes effect, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (sea ice in the Arctic Ocean): U.S. Geological Survey

Photo (California flooding in December 2010): ZUMA Press

Photo (whaling and anti-whaling ships clashing): AP News

Photo (tracking hound): Steve Helber/AP

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

Daily Briefing: Wed. 2/16/2011
King tides hit California, dogs sniff out rare species, Japan whalers retreat, and Russia is oil hunting in the Arctic.