NY Gov. Andrew CuomoNew York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to lift the state's moratorium on the controversial natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, according to an announcement made on June 30. Ironically, the announcement comes on the heels of a French parliament vote to ban the controversial method, making France the first country to make fracking illegal. Fracking has gained widespread condemnation by environmentalists, who argue that it contaminates drinking water and endangers watersheds. The process involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into rock to release the gas trapped inside. Those chemicals can then find their way into the local watershed. These environmental concerns have slowed a natural gas drilling boom in shale formations such as the Marcellus Shale that lies beneath much of Pennsylvania and several surrounding states, including New York. But those awareness efforts could be undermined by Cuomo's decision. Natural gas industry officials say opponents have exaggerated the environmental impact, while the economic benefits to the state would be significant. For instance, natural gas drilling in New York state could lead to $11.4 billion in economic output and raise $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to a study led by Timothy Considine, a professor of energy economics at the University of Wyoming. "Governor Cuomo has made a courageous and sound decision based on the facts and the merits of shale drilling," Considine said. "The upstate New York economy is quite depressed and needs a shot in the arm. This will be very good for that particular region." State officials did note that the ban is expected to be upheld in environmentally sensitive areas, such as the massive watershed in upstate New York that provides drinking water to millions of people in New York City. Surface drilling would also be banned "on state-owned land including parks, forest areas and wildlife management areas." Environmentalists question whether that compromise will be enough to protect the state's drinking water, however. "New York is rushing into uncharted and dangerous territory," said Dusty Horwitt, senior council with the Environmental Working Group. "With drilling companies dumping radioactive wastewater into rivers just across the border in Pennsylvania while flagrantly violating federal law by injecting diesel fuel underground without permits, New Yorkers cannot be assured that drilling can be conducted safely."

(Sources: Scientific American 1, 2, Huffington Post, Reuters)


wildfireThe megafires currently ravaging through the U.S. Southwest represent more than just one extreme fire season — they may actually alter the ecosystem of the region forever, according to ecologists monitoring the situation. "If a few acres burn, a forest can recover. But at really large scales, the opportunity to recover is limited," said forest ecologist Dan Binkley of Colorado State University. "The large-scale devastation has taken away the ecological future." Although the U.S. Southwest is no stranger to fires and drought, megafires like the current record-setting blaze in Arizona used to occur only once every few centuries, giving the ecosystem plenty of time to recover. Lately though, the fires have become much larger and more frequent, leaving little room for healthy regrowth. Ecologists think the primary reason for the change in frequency and intensity of the fires may be the Sunbelt's massive population explosion. As the population increased, officials took special effort to put out every small fire to protect human settlements. Without the natural spread of fires, shrubs were allowed to grow, needles and twigs gathered on the ground, and low-hanging branches multiplied. This slowly turned the region into a tinderbox, ripe for the advent of megafires like the ones witnessed today. The end result is that the Southwest's ponderosa forests may not come back for at least the next few centuries, if not millenniums. Instead there will be pine and Gambel oak and New Mexico locust trees. "It will convert to a more shrubby ecosystem. The system will have gone past the tipping point," said fire ecologist Don Falk of the University of Arizona. "Fire is not something that happens to ecosystems. It’s not like a hurricane or tornado or earthquake. It’s something they do. When you exclude it from the system, you’ll pay the price later."

(Source: Wired)


A team led by scientists from the University of Manchester has revealed for the first time what ancient, dinosaur-era birds may have looked like in full color. Their study used high-tech X-rays to pick out the chemical fingerprints of pigments that once tinted ancient birds' feathers, which until now paleontologists could only imagine. The type of X-ray source used by the scientists is called a synchrotron, essentially an X-ray capable of uncovering what metals remained within the ancient fossilized feathers. "These trace metals, specifically copper, is a [marker] for a dark pigment called eumelanin," explained Dr. Roy Wogelius of the research team. The first two fossils to get the high tech treatment were a 110-million-year-old Gansus yumenensis, the oldest example of a modern bird in the fossil record, and a 120-million-year-old Confuciusornis sanctus, the earliest beaked bird. "[Eumelanin] controls the dark and light patterns of an animal, so for Confuciusornis sanctus, for example, we can see that its body and the neck were black and its wings were patchy," said Wogelius. The discovery should immediately help give textbook illustrators, diorama makers and Hollywood special-effects artists a more realistic palette for their depictions of the ancient animals. The newly revealed pigment patterns should also increase our understanding of the evolution of behaviors such as camouflage, communication and mate selection. "Synchrotron radiation has revolutionized science in many fields, most notably in molecular biology," said Uwe Bergmann, co-author of the study. "It is very exciting to see that it is now starting to have an impact in paleontology, in a way that may have important implications in many other disciplines."

(Sources: Science Daily, BBC, USA Today)


Drinking wine may soon become a suitable supplement for exercise, according to a new research study on the "healthy" ingredient in red wine, resveratrol. The study has shown that resveratrol may help counteract the negative effects that sedentary lifestyles have on people. It may even someday help astronauts combat the negative effects of weightlessness during spaceflight. "There are overwhelming data showing that the human body needs physical activity, but for some of us, getting that activity isn't easy," said Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of FASEB Journal, which published the study. "A low gravity environment makes it nearly impossible for astronauts. For the earthbound, barriers to physical activity are equally challenging, whether they be disease, injury or a desk job. Resveratrol may not be a substitute for exercise, but it could slow deterioration until someone can get moving again." Red wine: exercise in a bottle — it's a tagline that seems almost too good to be true. So far the results have only been tested in rats, though researchers should have no trouble finding human subjects willing to try it out. The rats underwent simulated weightlessness by hindlimb tail suspension, and were given a daily oral load of resveratrol. The control group showed a decrease in soleus muscle mass and strength, the development of insulin resistance, and a loss of bone mineral density and resistance to breakage. The group receiving resveratrol showed none of these complications. "If resveratrol supplements are not your cup of tea," Weissmann added, "then there's good news. You can find it naturally in red wine, making it the toast of the Milky Way."

(Source: eScienceNews)

— Today's Daily Briefing was reported by Bryan Nelson. Russell McLendon is out on assignment.

Want to receive the day's eco-news in your inbox? Click here to sign up for the Daily Briefing newsletter.

Photo (protesters): ProgressOhio/Flickr

Photo (wildfire): Wiki Commons/USDA Forest Service

Photo (fossil): Wiki Commons

Photo (wine): Wiki Commons/Mick Stephenson

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

Weekend Briefing 7/1/2011
New York may lift fracking moratorium, fires may forever change Southwest ecosystem, and more.