The 83rd Academy Awards are Sunday night, and although much of the buzz centers around high-plains vengeance, high-tech backstabbing and highborn stuttering, several of the nominees have stirred up some high-stakes environmental drama, too. As Duke University professor and Green Grok blogger Bill Chameides writes, this year's slate of nominees continues a rich tradition of green films being celebrated on the red carpet.

Movies in general, and especially Oscar-nominated ones, have long reflected America's mood, Chameides points out — some of the top films of the 1940s focused on war, while many '60s flicks were fixated on social unrest and race relations. Eco-themed movies have been breaking into the big awards categories for decades, from 1948's "The Secret Land" to 2006's "An Inconvenient Truth." And as MNN's Noel Kirkpatrick writes, 2010 was a big year for environmental news — the Gulf oil spill, earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, floods in Australia and Pakistan, and wild winter weather in the U.S. and Europe — as well as environmental movies. Not all of them made the Academy's cut (sorry, "Yogi Bear") but a few big ones did. The man-versus-nature drama "127 Hours" is up for six awards, for example, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Historically, though, traditional eco-films tend to have the most success if they're documentaries, like Al Gore's '06 climate-change classic or 2010's dolphin-defending exposé "The Cove." And this year is no different, with two environmental flicks in both the feature-length and short-subject documentary categories. Up for Best Documentary are "Gasland," Josh Fox's critical look at hydraulic fracturing, and "Waste Land," a portrait of garbage-picking youth in Brazil. "Gasland" has spurred the most controversy, thanks largely to the gas industry's "Debunking Gasland" critique and Fox's "Affirming Gasland" rebuttal. But two lesser-known green films are also up for short-subject doc Oscars: "Sun Come Up," about sea-level rise in the Carteret Islands, and "The Warriors of Quigong," a tale of pollution-fighting villagers in China. And don't forget about the animated shorts — Geefwee Boedoe's tongue-in-cheek "Let's Pollute!" is also up for an Oscar in that category. For more on the 2011 Academy Awards, check out MNN's Arts & Culture category. And for ideas about what to serve at your eco-friendly Oscar party, MNN food blogger Robin Shreeves has some advice.

(Sources: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Green Grok, USA TodayMNN)


NASA's Discovery space shuttle thundered into space one last time Thursday, making its 39th and final liftoff as crowds of onlookers cheered from beaches and roadsides below. The launch had been delayed for months by fuel-tank cracks, and it was nearly set back again Thursday when an Air Force tracking-system computer suffered a glitch. But the problem was fixed and the countdown resumed, with Discovery finally taking off at 4:53:24 p.m. ET — just three seconds before the day's launch window ended. "This was a pretty successful day," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations. "It was just an amazing event."

There were still some tense moments as Discovery streaked across the sky, since the shuttle's troublesome fuel tank shed at least four pieces of insulating foam during the climb into orbit. Such debris has been a safety focus for NASA ever since it triggered the disintegration of the Columbia shuttle upon re-entry in 2003, but NASA said none of Discovery's loose foam posed a threat on Thursday. The shuttle's next step will be to dock with the International Space Station, which it's slated to do around 2:15 Saturday afternoon. Its six-member crew will then begin unloading several pieces of equipment they're ferrying to the space station, including a humanoid robot, a storage room and an external platform for spare parts. They're scheduled to remain at the station for a week before returning to Earth.

Discovery is the most heavily traveled of all NASA space shuttles, with 39 of the space agency's 133 total launches to its name. It has spent 352 days in orbit, circled the Earth 5,628 times and carried 246 different crew members, more than any other spacecraft in history. It's the first of NASA's three remaining shuttles to retire — Endeavour is scheduled for an April 19 liftoff, while Atlantis is tentatively set for a midsummer swan song. Many at NASA expressed sadness Thursday about Discovery's impending retirement — and the end of the shuttle program that it foreshadows — but they were also careful to point out how durable and reliable Discovery has been over the decades. "Discovery's a great ship," Michael Leinbach, the launch director, told reporters Wednesday. "This is her 39th mission; we'd have quite a few left in her had the program been extended."

(Sources: New York Times, Reuters, CNN)


Baby dolphins are dying in droves along the Gulf Coast, and scientists are left scratching their heads as they try to figure out what's going on. At least 29 fetal-sized dolphin calves have turned up along beaches in the northern Gulf of Mexico since the start of the year, which is nearly 15 times more than usual, according to Teri Rowles of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who calls the deaths "very concerning" but says it's too early to know if they're related to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Over the last two decades, U.S. officials have counted 51 cases of "unusual mortality events" among Gulf dolphins and manatees, and such dramatic die-offs are most often linked to toxic red-tide algae blooms that pop up around the Gulf every summer. But none of those events has ever involved a spike in dead dolphin calves, making this year's event especially strange. "We don't want to jump to conclusions on what is causing this," animal-mortality expert Randall Wells tells USA Today, but he adds that it inevitably stands out even from some of the most extreme events in past years. "In terms of historical numbers, this does stand out as unusual." The calves were most likely stillborn, and although some have begun to decompose, scientists say all of them died within the last few months.

Some chemicals in crude oil, and in dispersants used to break up the oil spill, have been linked to reproductive effects in dolphins and other marine mammals, Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council points out. It is therefore feasible that some pregnant dolphins exposed to oil from the BP spill went on to miscarry their calves. But the Gulf is too large and complex an ecosystem for scientists to be satisfied with such a clear-cut explanation, Wells adds: "Effects can be cumulative, where animals weakened by chemical exposure face cold weather or some long-term trend that leads to sudden losses among their most vulnerable." Six of the dead calves are currently being studied at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., where their bodies will be tested for toxins related to the oil spill. 

(Source: USA Today)


Fire ants are spreading around the globe, and many of the invasions can be traced back to a country that was itself invaded by the stinging ants some 80 years ago: the U.S. That's according to a new study published Friday in the journal Science, which reports that fire-ant outbreaks in China, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand all originated in the U.S., spreading much like a cold, from carrier to carrier instead of all radiating out from one original source.

Fire ants are native to South America, and they first infiltrated the U.S. in the 1930s, likely sneaking in aboard cargo ships docking at the Port of Mobile in Alabama. Their economic damage in the U.S. is now estimated to be $6 billion per year, since they can wreak havoc with agriculture and plague families' back yards all summer long. "Fire ants are very annoying pests, and they cause people to suffer," researcher Marina Ascunce tells UPI. "People who are allergic can die [from ant stings]." Even though fire ants can be transported easily, the researchers were surprised to find that the U.S. has become such a large accidental exporter of the pests. "I thought that at least one of the populations in the newly invaded areas would have come from South America, but all of the genetic data suggest the most likely source in virtually every case was the southern United States," Ascunce says.

The U.S. has traditionally been a receiver of invasive species more than a producer of them, with Old World pests like Dutch elm disease, Asian carp, zebra mussels and Burmese pythons disrupting a wide variety of unsuspecting New World ecosystems in recent centuries. But now that scientists know the country has also been churning out fire ants overseas, it may help efforts to prevent further infestations. "By knowing where they are coming from, biological controls can be more focused," Ascunce says. "We can also improve screening or monitoring in source areas or on key transportation routes."

(Sources: Associated Press, United Press International)


The story of a young child's death in central Alaska has resurfaced nearly 12,000 years after the tragedy occurred, thanks to an amazing discovery that has revealed a trove of secrets about some of the earliest American settlers. Archaeologists from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks found the child's remains in an ancient family's abandoned fire pit, and they've been able to tease a surprising amount of information just from the scraps of charred bones that are left intact.

"This is a child people loved, took care of," says archaeologist Ben Potter, who led the team and co-authored their report in this week's issue of Science. "The fact the house was abandoned speaks to that." The house in question was a small tent-pole home with a fire pit inside, where the family normally cooked food like rabbits, squirrel, grouse and salmon. When the child died at roughly 3 years of age, his or her presumed parents placed the body in their fire pit, burned it, and abandoned the house, never to return. In fact, no one has burned anything in that fire pit in the 11,500 years since the child died. "The cremation was the last event to take place in the hearth," Potter tells the Washington Post.

Since this site is one of the oldest human settlements found in the Americas, it offers scientists a wealth of information about the continents' invasion by Siberian settlers. Only seasonal hunting camps had been found in this area dating to such a distant time, but the array of food found in the fire pit — such as salmon, a summertime staple in Alaska — suggests the family wasn't highly nomadic. The house is also more elaborate than most temporary dwellings, with the 6-foot-wide fire pit and four post-holes surrounding it, likely used to prop up a canvas of sod or animal hide. The find isn't just exciting for scientists, but also to Alaskan natives, many of whom are eager for information about potential ancestors. "Words truly fail me in describing how excited we are and how almost reverent this find is for us," says Joann Polston, first chief of Healy Lake Traditional Council.

(Source: Washington Post)


New York bans fishing in the Hudson River, Al Gore wins an Oscar, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Oscar statues at L.A.'s Kodak Theatre): Globe Photos

Photo (smoke left by Discovery's liftoff on Feb. 24): ZUMA Press

Photo (dolphin calf): NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center

Photo (fire ants): [skipwords]USDA Agricultural Research Service

Photo (tundra plain in Alaska): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service[/skipwords]

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