Nature, Science

U.S. to Be Treated to a Full Solar Eclipse in August

Americans are going to be treated to a full solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.
Americans are going to be treated to an amazing event on August 21. Photo via Pixabay

On August 21, the moon will come between the earth and the sun, casting a 70-mile shadow from Oregon to South Carolina in what is likely to be the most-viewed solar eclipse ever recorded.

Already being referred to as the “Great American Eclipse,” this will be the first coast-to-coast solar eclipse in 99 years.

“The US only covers 2 percent of the globe, so we get very few eclipses,” said Matthew Penn, an astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. “And to have one travel across the entire country is an unprecedented sort of opportunity. It’ll be a heck of a day.”

Penn will be running a project during the eclipse called Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse) that will attempt to record and put together a movie of the full eclipse in order to study the sun’s magnetic field. Data will be collected via telescopes, cameras, and computers operated by volunteers across the country.

The eclipse will first be visible from the Oregon coast around 9:05 AM on the 21st, after which a partial eclipse will be viewable across the entire US, including Alaska and Hawaii. Canada, Central America, and northern South America will also get a view at varying points throughout the day.

More than 200 million people currently live within a day’s drive of the eclipse, which means it’s likely to be seen by more people than any other eclipse in recent history.

Scientists are particularly excited about the part of the eclipse during which the sun’s corona, a magnetically energized region just above the sun’s surface, will be visible. Temperatures in this region will climb from 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit to nearly 4 million degrees—and scientists still don’t know why. So the chance to study the area more closely is pretty exciting, particularly since the innermost regions can only be seen during a total solar eclipse.

In addition to various individual Earth residents, 11 NASA spacecraft and more than 50 high-altitude balloons will be taking photos and studying the effects of the eclipse on the earth’s atmosphere.

If you want to see the eclipse, be sure to wear proper viewing glasses to avoid damaging your eyes. You’ll want shades with these specifications, provided by NASA:

  • Certification information with a designated ISO 12312-2 international standard
  • Manufacturer’s name and address easily accessible to assure legitimacy
  • Less than three years old and without scratches or wrinkled lenses
  • NO homemade filters (they’re not as safe as the properly manufactured kind)

Happy solar eclipse viewing!

Conservation, Nature, Science

Home On the Range? Not So Much for Large Carnivores

New research reveals that large carnivores have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.
Large carnivores like the cheetah have lost more than 90 percent of their historic ranges. Photo: Shutterstock

A recent study from the Oregon State University revealed that the six largest carnivores in the world have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.

The researchers mapped the current range of 25 large carnivores and compared them with historic maps from 500 years ago.

“Of the 25 large carnivores we studied, 60 percent (15 species) have lost more than half of their historic ranges,” said researcher Christopher Wolf.

“As many carnivores were historically sympatric [descended from one common ancestor] and are at high risk of future range contraction, conservation should be accomplished at the level of whole predator guilds [groups of species that exploit the same resources, or who exploit different resources in related ways] when possible,” the researchers wrote in their report.

What this means is that contracting the range of one species—either through physical barriers like fencing or the widespread use of land for herds of domestic cattle—can have dramatic effects on large carnivores’ ability to survive in their historic ranges.

“This means that scientifically sound reintroductions of large carnivores into areas where they have been lost is vital both to conserve the large carnivores,” Wolf said. “This is very dependent on increasing human tolerance of large carnivores—a key predictor of reintroduction success.”

The researchers also say that reintroduction programs would be most successful in rural areas with low human population density and limited agricultural and livestock-raising use.

“Also, more large protected areas are urgently needed for large carnivore conservation,” said co-researcher William Ripple.

The good news is that it is possible to help these animals by changing human attitudes about them.

“Many large carnivores are resilient, particularly when human attitudes and policy favor their conservation,” the researchers wrote. “This helps to explain the large carnivore recoveries observed in Europe and elsewhere (e.g., gray wolves in the continental United States).”

Additionally, the relationship between increasing agriculture use and range contractions can be limited when predator-friendly agriculture methods are used.

But human exploitation of former large carnivore ranges isn’t the only thing we need to be on the lookout for.

“In the face of newer threats like anthropogenic climate change, it is critical to continue to monitor large carnivore ranges to ensure the future of these species,” the researchers conclude.

Ultimately, the stability of large carnivore populations is highly dependent on human behavior. Whether that involves evolution of agriculture and ranching methods or limiting the effects of climate change, the ultimate success of reintroducing these species in their historic ranges is dependent entirely on us.

Nature, Science

The World’s Oceans Now Have A Health Record

The oceans now have a health record, thanks to a team of scientists at UC Santa Barbara

Thanks to a team of researchers at UC Santa Barbara, the world’s oceans now have a health record.

And that health record is revealing clues about what might be behind ocean improvements or declines.

Analyzing data from 220 countries, the team gathered five years’ worth of ocean “vital signs” in a variety of areas ranging from water quality to food provision to tourism potential in order to create an Ocean Health Index. Their conclusion: While ocean health appears to be stable, the oceans around many of the countries analyzed are changing for the worse.

“With five years of assessments about where oceans are healthy and not as healthy, we finally have enough information to get a clear signal of what might be causing changes,” said study lead author Ben Halpern, executive director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara.

Countries like Indonesia, Mexico, and Samoa, that are seeing improvements in their oceans are taking action to make things better, including improving management of wild-caught fisheries and creating marine protected areas.

On the other hand, the countries that saw a decline in ocean health where in consistent political turmoil. Many Arctic and sub-Arctic countries are seeing declines as well, due to the fact that coastlines are losing sea ice, which is a natural protection from storm damage and erosion.

“The Ocean Health Index created the first opportunity any of us has had to measure the health of our oceans in a comprehensive way and track changes with a single measure,” Halpern said.

According to the researchers, the index has scored the oceans’ overall health staying steady at a 71 out of 100. This shows that while the oceans aren’t dying, they aren’t thriving, either. The team will continue to collect data on ocean health every year.

“We believe the Ocean Health Index gives reason for hope by providing a detailed diagnosis of the state of ocean health and a framework that allows countries to identify and prioritize the most necessary resilience actions to improve ocean health,” said study co-author Johanna Polsenberg, senior director of governance and policy for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. “This is where our work is most valuable. It helps to identify and highlight the necessary steps to ensure a healthy ocean into the future.”

I don’t know about you, but after seeing all the news about dying reefs, pollution, and overfishing, I’m surprised the oceans are as healthy as they are. Hopefully this new information will help governments and scientists to improve their health.

Environmental Hazards, Nature

Invasive Carp Jumps Barrier to Great Lakes

A fisherman caught an invasive silver carp nine miles from the Great Lakes. Photo: Shutterstock

A live Asian carp has been caught 9 miles from Lake Michigan.

This is a big deal. These fish “are voracious eaters, able to consume 5 to 20 percent of their body weight each day, leaving far less of the microscopic plant and animal life (phytoplankton and zooplankton) to support native fisheries,” says Fisheries and Oceans Canada. They have been blamed for pushing out native species and lowering water quality.

There are four types of Asian carp that are considered a threat to the Great Lakes: bighead, silver, black, and grass.

Millions of dollars have been spent to construct an electrified barrier designed to keep the invasive carp from entering the Great Lakes. But this carp, weighing 8 pounds and measuring 28 inches long, got past that barrier. It was caught “with a gill net by a contracted commercial fisher,” the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee said in a statement.

“The news of an Asian carp found within nine miles of the Great Lakes is cause for serious concern,” Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman said in a statement. “The fishing industry in the Great Lakes is a $7 billion a year economic engine and it would be severely threatened if Asian Carp are allowed into the Great Lakes.”

This finding comes as the Trump administration considers cutting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $300 million-per-year program that helps states with environmental projects such as keeping invasive Asian carp out of the lakes.

“Asian carp are a very serious threat to our Great Lakes economy,” Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow tweeted. “The Trump Admin must immediately release the study they have been blocking so we can permanently stop the Asian carp!”

“This is one more reason why we must fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative again. I have fought proposed cuts from both the previous administration and the new one and I will continue to lead efforts in this Congress to ensure this critical initiative is fully funded,” Portman said.

The Illinois department of natural resources and the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee said, “It is important to note that this preliminary finding does not confirm that a reproducing population of Asian carp currently exists above the electric dispersal barriers or within the Great Lakes.”

Nonetheless, the group is launching “two additional weeks of intensive sampling in the area.”

Conservation, Nature, Science

Genetic Study of Elephants Reveals Information Vital to Conservation

New research reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are two distinct species.
New research reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are two distinct species. Photo: Shutterstock

Starting 1.5 million years ago, a species of giant elephant roamed across Eurasia until it went extinct about 100,000 years ago.

That species, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was thought to be most closely related to the Asian elephant. But new research says otherwise.

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently published a paper on the genetic evidence that led to this conclusion.

Since the early 2000s, scientists have been aware that there are two species of African elephants—the African forest elephant and the African savanna elephant. It was thought that the two species of African elephants were more closely related to one another than they were to the two species of Asian elephants. They also thought that P. antiquus was more closely related to Asian elephants than to African elephants.

Despite the scientific evidence, it has been difficult to convince conservation organizations that there are two distinct species of African elephants, which has led to conservation efforts that may not be as effective for one or the other species.

But when scientists looked at two lines of evidence from African and Asian elephants—wooly mammoths and P. antiquus—they analyzed mitochondrial DNA, passed down by mothers only, and nuclear DNA, which is a blend of genes from both parents.

The analysis revealed a surprise: not only was P. antiquus more closely related to African elephants than Asian ones, it was more closely related to the African forest elephant than to the African savanna elephant. A common ancestor of P. antiquus and the African forest elephant lived sometime between 1.5 million and 3.5 million years ago, while their closest shared ancestor with the African savanna elephant lived between 3.9 and 7 million years ago.

“With the new genetic evidence from Palaeoloxodon, it becomes almost impossible to argue that the elephants now living in Africa belong to a single species,” said Professor Alfred Roca, a co-author of the study.

How does this help conservation efforts?

First of all, by differentiating between the two species, conservation plans can be developed that preserve and hopefully boost both species’ populations. Secondly, it allows researchers to see the truth about elephant populations in Africa.

“More than two-thirds of the remaining forest elephants in Africa have been killed over the last 15 years or so,” Roca said. “Forest elephants are among the most endangered elephant populations on the planet.”

Roca added that since some conservation agencies don’t see African forest elephants as a different species, their conservation needs have been neglected.

Hopefully, with these new findings, that will no longer be the case.

Nature, Science

Dutch Toxic Landfill Site Now Capturing and Storing Carbon

The Volgermeerpolder, near Amsterdam, proves that peat bogs can be created artificially.
A peat bog. Photo: Shutterstock

The Volgermeerpolder, located near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is a toxic waste site that was capped with foil and an artificial wetland on top.

According to researchers at Radboud University, six years after the opening of the wetland, it appears that the new site is already forming peat, which can capture and store carbon.

How does this work? Peat contains high levels of carbon, which binds pollutants. There is already a large layer of peat beneath the toxic landfill, which is preventing toxins from leaking from the landfill into the groundwater. That layer of peat has eliminated the need to dig up the entire toxic site at the Volgermeer. Instead, authorities were able to cap the site with a layer of foil.

If the foil were to tear, another protective layer of peat is forming on top of that protective barrier. Growing peat from scratch has never been attempted before, but it appears to be working.

Peat grows at a very slow pace—only about 1 millimeter per year on average—and researcher Sarah Faye Harpenslager says this growth is something that can’t be measured directly.

“That one millimeter falls outside of the margin of error,” she said. “But we can measure whether carbon is being captured and stored by determining the difference in carbon dioxide levels by taking the amount of carbon dioxide that is captured by plants and then subtracting the carbon dioxide that is released when those plans decompose. The less plants decompose, the more peat that is formed. The Volgermeer is indeed capturing and storing carbon, so peat is clearly being formed even though you can’t see it.”

Harpenslager and her colleagues also compared peat formation in ponds with different bottoms—sand, clay, or a layer of organic topsoil. The topsoil was shown to be the more fertile. “In ponds with a thin layer of topsoil, peat-forming plants grow most prolifically and capture the most carbon,” Harpenslager said. “For peat o form, it is essential that peat-forming plants such as common reed, cattail, and water soldiers start to grow here.”

According to the researchers, the results of their study are not just applicable to capping of polluted land. Their research shows that peat could also be important for the capture and storage of greenhouse gases through need peat formation and preventing subsidence.

Conservation, Nature, Science

River Dolphins and Amazonian Manatees Get New Protection

The pink river dolphin, gray river dolphin, and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law.
The pink river dolphin is one of the species, along with the gray river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to a newly developed plan, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees in Peru will finally receive protection.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England worked with Peruvian officials for more than two years to develop that law.

“These species are only found in the Amazon,” said Dr. Joanna Alfaro, formerly of the University of Exeter. “Neighboring countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador already had legislation to protect them, but Peru did not. To bring about this legislation, we worked in lose collaboration with the Peruvian government, with support from [World Wildlife Fund] Peru, and held five workshops with local authorities.

Like other species of dolphins and manatees, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees face threats from climate change, fishing, and loss of habitat, not to mention pollution, noise, and boat traffic.

The new law, the National Action Plan for the Conservation of River Dolphins and the Amazonian Manatee, was approved by Peru’s Ministry of Production. It requires conservation and monitoring of habitats. It is also designed to bring about better management of the species’ habitats.

“We are delighted to have been a part in the development of this law, and we are excited to see the plan in full implementation,” said researcher Elizabeth Campbell. “It was a long process, but it showed how government agencies can work with non-governmental academics, private companies, and others.”

Professor Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, who supervised the research, said, “We believe this action plan will aid conservation and reduce the threats that dolphins and manatees face in the Amazon today. It is a great example where research was used as a baseline for the legal framework to protect biodiversity.”

The University of Exeter project was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a UK-based grant program that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. It provides funding to countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives in preserving that biodiversity.