Friday the 13th brought even more misfortune to the Mississippi River Delta this week, with powerful storms piling on top of already-historic flooding. But while more rain is the last thing anyone in the Delta wants, the region's bad luck is bigger than any single day — Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi still face weeks of high water, fueled by months of unusually heavy rain and snow. And as USA Today reports, this is part of a trend of billion-dollar disasters in 2011: The U.S. has already seen five weather disasters this year that cost more than $1 billion each, setting a modern record for the most such catastrophes so early in a year. And so far, Mother Nature shows no signs of letting up.

"Nobody can wrap their heads around what's going to happen," Baton Rouge resident Caroline George tells CNN. "I've never seen the river anywhere near where it is now." While the floodwaters aren't expected to crest in Baton Rouge for a few more days, they're already wreaking havoc farther north, reaching nearly 55 feet in Vicksburg, Miss., well above both the city's flood stage of 43 feet and its "major flood" stage of 50 feet. Vicksburg's record of 56.2 feet was reached during the Great Flood of 1927, but that will likely be surpassed within days, the National Weather Service predicts, as the river crests around 57 feet. And that's not just bad news for local residents who stand to lose homes or cropland, the AP reports: Mississippi is also the top U.S. producer of farm-raised catfish, and much of the state's $200 million industry could be swept away by the mighty Mississippi. "If these ponds get flooded, the fish will just become part of the flood," a spokesman for Catfish Farmers of America tells the AP. "Once the water subsides, there are going to be a lot what you call junk fish in there. You have to drain the pond, get everything out and start over." 

Meanwhile, Louisianans are bracing for the crest's arrival in their state, and Gov. Bobby Jindal said Friday it's "extremely likely" the Morganza Spillway will be opened by Saturday night or Sunday morning, unleashing floodwaters for the first time since 1973. That will flood swaths of economically important farmland and shellfish beds, all in hopes of sparing larger cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is basing its decision on how quickly the river flows past a specific river landing, with a flow rate of 1.5 million cubic feet per second serving as the catalyst for opening the spillway. That rate is expected by Saturday, the Baton Rouge Advocate reports, but Jindal warned residents not to wait for the official declaration. "My message to our people is that they don't need to be delaying," he said. "Move their valuables. Think about where they would go."

(Sources: CNN, USA Today, OurAmazingPlanet, Associated Press, Baton Rouge Advocate)


Scientists have discovered a new branch in the tree of life, adding a mysterious but widespread class of creatures to the ranks of animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. Dubbed "cryptomycota" (pictured), the newly identified organisms are related to fungi, yet are different enough that researchers believe they belong in their own group. Unlike any other known fungi, cryptomycota apparently don't have cell walls, long considered a defining trait of the fungi kingdom. Instead, Wired reports, they seem to live as naked cells, devoid of the chitin-based skin their distant relatives enjoy.

"People are going to be excited," says University of Michigan mycologist Timothy James, suggesting a level of intrigue beyond mere newly discovered species. If cryptomycota does turn out to represent a new "clade," or branch of life, it would mark the kind of sweeping biological milestone that rarely occurs anymore. And the researchers aren't just speculating about cryptomycota's uniqueness based on visual cues — they also analyzed its DNA, confirming both that it belongs on the same biological branch as a known fungi genus called Rozella, and that it probably deserves a branch of its own. Plus, they found its DNA "almost everywhere" in the environment, suggesting this previously unknown life form has been right under our noses all along. "Almost everywhere we looked we found this novel group," says co-author Thomas Richards, "including pond water, lake water, freshwater sediments and marine sediments."

So far the researchers have identified three stages to the cryptomycota life cycle, Richards tells NPR. "One is where they attach to a host, which are photosynthetic algae. Another stage ... they form swimming tails so they can presumably find food. And [there's] another stage, which we call the cyst phase, where they go to sleep." The next step in demystifying cryptomycota, he adds, is to try to grow captive specimens in a lab so more can be learned about their ecological roles. "At the moment it's a bit too early to be sure about what role they play in the environment," Richards says. "But one thing we can be certain of is, because they're so diverse, they're probably playing many, many different roles in many different environments."

(Sources: NatureWired, NPR)


As representatives from the world's eight Arctic nations met in Greenland this week to discuss dangerous climatic changes at the top of the world, TIME magazine reports on one intriguing benefit that polar warming might bring: less piracy. It's already widely expected that melting sea ice will open up new shipping lanes through the Arctic (not to mention new oil and gas fields), and as TIME's Krista Mahr reports, that could give global shipping companies a much-needed bypass around pirates in the Indian Ocean.

The idea was floated not at the Arctic Council meeting in Greenland, but halfway around the world at a business conference in Hong Kong. Felix Tschudi, chairman of the Tschudi Shipping Co. in Norway, explained his company's plans to start transporting iron ore from Norway to China via the "Northeast Passage," a once-legendary shipping channel through Arctic sea ice that's gradually becoming a reality. His plan has attracted interest from the Russian government, Tschudi tells TIME, and with Russia's help, his company successfully completed its first trip through the Northeast Passage last summer. While Tschudi admits using that shortcut didn't end up saving significant money over the longer route through the Suez Canal, it did save the company both time and fuel. But perhaps most importantly, it also helped it avoid the numerous pirates lurking in the Gulf of Aden, where their presence has been growing steadily since 2008.

Piracy problems have continued to worsen despite shipping companies' efforts to boost security, TIME reports — a record 1,016 crew members were taken hostage by pirates last year, up from 867 in 2009. And while the Arctic Council reached agreements this week on how to handle search-and-rescue and oil-spill operations in the remote region, Tschudi points out that Russia's enthusiasm for paving a pirate-free path through the Arctic could help that country gain an edge in the increasingly intense regional posturing. "[The Russians] want this to happen and they realize it's in their interest to have people using the passage," Tschudi says. "It brings down costs for everyone." But, as with many benefits of global warming, this one may be temporary, since an ice-free Arctic could eventually become as appealing to ambitious pirates as it currently is to shipping companies.

(Sources: TIME, Reuters, Washington Post)


The two-month-old nuclear crisis in Japan is worse than previously reported, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted Thursday, revealing that uranium fuel rods at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's No. 1 reactor have partially melted down. Japan's nuclear safety agency also said it believes the semi-melted fuel has fallen to the bottom of its pressure vessel, which holds the reactor core together, and may have even leaked into its concrete base. "There must be a large leak," Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager at TEPCO, told reporters. "The fuel pellets likely melted and fell, and in the process may have damaged the pressure vessel itself and created a hole." The discovery was made after emergency workers recently entered the reactor building for the first time since it was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

There is no risk of further hydrogen explosions like those that blew off the reactor's roof in March, TEPCO officials say, but they still plan to flood the container with water in an attempt to keep the fuel cool. Greenpeace is asking the company to abandon that plan, though, since the molten fuel likely damaged the reactor's containment vessel. "Flooding a reactor that has fuel [that has fallen] through the pressure vessel is not a good idea," Shaun Burnie, nuclear adviser to Greenpeace Germany, tells the Guardian. In a worst-case scenario, Burnie adds, large amounts of cold water hitting the hot fuel could actually trigger an explosion, causing major damage to the reactor and creating a "high risk of atmospheric release running for days, if not weeks." The flooding plan is riddled with "potential risks," says independent nuclear-engineering consultant John Large. "It seems to be poorly thought through."

TEPCO has already been using large amounts of water to keep the reactors from overheating, leaving the utility with some 70,000 tons of radiation-tinged water that must be stored. It's currently pumping the radioactive water into a storage building near the plant, while it sets up a system to decontaminate it. Matsumoto told reporters Thursday that TEPCO will reconsider its plans for flooding the reactors in light of the new discoveries, but stopped short of abandoning the strategy. "We have to revise the flooding method," he said. "We can't deny the possibility that a hole in the pressure vessel caused water to leak." The New York Times reports that this week's revelations could hinder TEPCO's goal of resolving the crisis within nine months, but David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists says there's still reason to be cautiously optimistic. "As bad as things are," he tells the Times, "they're getting better."

(Sources: Guardian, New York Times)


First woman scales Mount Everest, WWF warns Coral Triangle could vanish by 2100, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (flooded Mississippi River in Memphis on May 10): Allen Elliotte/Flickr

Photo (two cryptomycota cells): Meredith Jones/Nature

Photo (Russian trawler in the Arctic Ocean): ZUMA Press

Photo (Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant): ZUMA Press

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

Weekend Briefing 5/13/2011
U.S. sets disaster record, new branch of life found, climate change vs. pirates, and it turns out the nuclear crisis in Japan is worse than originally believed.