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Plastic Bottles and Cave Divers Aid in Quest to Document an Elusive, Subterranean Critter

The Georgia blind salamander could be an indicator species for the health of the Floridan aquifer, but scientists don’t know if it’s thriving or declining

“Every biologist thinks his or her species of interest is the canary in the coal mine,” says John Jensen, state herpetologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “But the Georgia blind salamander, in my opinion, really fits this analogy better than most.” Jensen, who has worked with the species for two decades, explains his reasoning by pointing out the salamander’s habitat: aquifers. “It lives in the groundwater — groundwater that we rely on for drinking. If we are seeing declines or disappearances of blind salamanders, then we should be very alarmed.”

photo of Georgia Blind Salamander Photo by Jake ScottThe Georgia blind salamander's subterranean habitat makes it difficult to study. As a result, very little is known about the species. 

Yet to know if these salamanders are declining or disappearing, it’s first critical to know where they are, or are not, living in the aquifer. Georgia blind salamanders, along with other “stygobitic” species — that is, species that live in groundwater systems or aquifers, — are some of the most difficult species on earth to find. Scientists know they inhabit the Floridan aquifer, a vast, subterranean network of limestone passageways that underlies much of the southeastern United States, yet information on specific locations of salamanders is hard to obtain. Some parts of this network permit erect walking by humans, while many areas can only be accessed by crawling through “worm holes” — tight passages barely large enough for an adult body. Water-filled rooms and tunnels can only be navigated by scuba diving. The underworld hazards to surveyors are many and varied. There is the potential for getting lost or stuck, running out of air or encountering bad air (generally a result of carbon dioxide buildup from the decomposition of organic matter), or breathing air flecked with the fungal spores that cause histoplasmosis, an infection that can cause fever, coughing, and fatigue.

“Very little is known about this species,” Jensen admits, “beyond their general habitat and morphology. I have only seen blind salamanders in Climax Caverns [in southwest Georgia] and those pools took hours of caving to reach. The animals were in water directly below a southeastern myotis bat roost. The bats had contributed guano to the bottom of the pool, and this dark substrate really helped make the translucent salamanders visible.”

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Georgia blind salamanders first became known to science in May 1939. That spring, one individual was brought up in a water sample from a 200-foot well …more

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Air Pollution Taking a Steep Toll on Kathmandu Residents

Government has been slow to take action in one of the world's most polluted cities, say advocates

Nepal’s image as an unadulterated tourist destination — with its pristine mountains, snow covered peaks, and bright blue skies — is in jeopardy. Life in the country’s capital city doesn’t align with this immaculate representation. For years, Kathmandu’s rapidly growing population has struggled with increasing air pollution and the associated impacts on health.

At the same time, the government has struggled to monitor air quality in the city. In 2007, the last air monitoring station in Kathmandu broke due to lack of proper maintenance, effectively ending the city’s monitoring program. The program wasn’t replaced until August of this year, when Nepal’s Department of Environment installed three new air monitoring stations across the city.

photo of Kathmandu trafficPhoto by Slok Gyawali Increasing traffic is a primary contributor to poor air quality in Kathmandu.

The results from the new monitoring stations were disappointing but not surprising. Measures of both PM2.5 and PM 10 were significantly higher than standards set by the national government, recording PM 10 levels as high as 188 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) and PM 2.5 as high as 125 µg/m3 in central Kathmandu. Nepal’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards set limits at 120µg/m3 for PM 10 and 40µg/m3 for PM 2.5.

These results are concerning, but findings from other surveys are even worse. For example, in 2014, The Kathmandu Post reported data from the 2014 Yale Environmental Performance Index, which indicated PM 2.5 levels in Kathmandu measured above 500 micrograms per cubic meter, 20 times higher than the World Health Organization’s guidelines. Another report published in 2014 by Clean Energy Nepal showed that in certain areas of Kathmandu, PM10 level reached 781 μg/m3 and PM2.5 levels spiked to 260 μg/m3, well above the recently collected state data.

The numbers vary in accordance with when and where the data is collected. According to Clean Energy Nepal, given Kathmandu valley’s bowl shaped topography, pollution is worse in the winter due to thermal inversion: a layer of warm air acts a lid that traps cold air and pollutants closer to the ground. During the monsoon and autumn seasons — when the recent government data was collected — pollutants can escape more freely, which improves air quality in the city.

Air quality in Nepal doesn’t stack up well against that in other countries. Yale’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks countries from best to worst based on various environmental metrics, ranksmore

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Why Don’t We Grieve for Extinct Species?

An impassioned group of artists and activists is creating rituals for coping with extinction and environmental loss

In early 2010, artist, activist and mother, Persephone Pearl, headed to the Bristol Museum. Like many concerned about the fate of the planet, she was in despair over the failed climate talks in Copenhagen that winter. She sat on a bench and looked at a stuffed animal behind glass: a thylacine. Before then, she’d never heard of the marsupial carnivore that went extinct in 1936.

Passenger Pigeon Chalk Artphoto by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment / FlickrA commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction at the University of Michigan.

“Here was this beautiful mysterious lost creature locked in a glass case,” she said. “It struck me suddenly as unbearably undignified. And I had this sudden vision of smashing the glass, lifting the body out, carrying the thylacine out into the fields, stroking its body, speaking to it, washing it with my tears, and burying it by a river so that it could return to the earth.”

Pearl felt grief, deep grief, over the loss of a creature she’d never once seen in life, a species that had been shot to extinction because European settlers had deemed it vermin. Yet, how do we grieve for extinct species when there are no set rituals, no extinction funerals, no catharsis for the pain caused by a loss that in many ways is simply beyond human comprehension? We have been obliterating species for over ten thousand years – beginning with the megafauna of the Pleistocene like woolly rhinos, short-faced bears, and giant sloths – yet we have no way of mourning them.

Still, Pearl didn’t push the grief under or ignore it. Instead, she sought to share it. In 2011 Pearl, who is the co-director of the arts group, ONCA, and the theatre group Feral in Brighton, helped organize the first ever Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Held every November 30th, it’s since become a day for activists, artists and mourners to find creative ways to share their grief for extinct species – and reinvigorate their love for the natural world.

“We hope the Remembrance events will function as funerals for humans do,” Rachel Porter, a co-founder of Remembrance Day for Lost Species and a movement therapist, said. “Such rituals are ancient, embedded within us. We are just placing this common ritual into an unfamiliar context.”

Most of these events are not large – they are not thousands of people marching on government buildings …more

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Rising Tides on The Golden Shore

Californians may soon have more sea to love than they can handle

I believe it’s Californians’ sense of entitlement to the coast and ocean, their understanding that it belongs to all of them—surfers, sailors, fishermen, the maritime industry, the tourist industry, the navy, the tribes, and every single beachgoer —that makes protecting California’s seas both so contentious and so effective. Because of their wide range of users, California’s ocean and shoreline can never be dominated by a single industry or interest.

San Francsico skylinePhoto by Albert de BruijnThe changing climate is transforming California’s coast and ocean in unprecedented ways.

In Massachusetts there’s a feeling the ocean belongs to the fishermen, and as a result New England’s waters have long been overfished and depleted. In Louisiana they know it belongs to the oil companies, and things like the BP oil blowout of 2010, the loss of their coastal wetlands, and the “cancer alley” that’s grown up along the lower Mississippi where the refineries are located is the price they’ve had to pay. In Florida the real-estate industry so dominates ocean and coastal uses that when you encounter bits of undeveloped “old Florida” it’s like finding a piece of paradise lost. In California, however, it’s the people who continue to fight over and protect their golden shore and deep blue sea.

According to the California Ocean Protection Act of 2004: California’s coastal and ocean resources are critical to the state’s environmental and economic security and integral to the state’s high quality of life and culture. A healthy ocean is part of the state’s legacy, and is necessary to support the state’s human and wildlife populations. Each generation of Californians has an obligation to be good stewards of the ocean, to pass the legacy on to their children.

South to north or river to sea, SeaWorld, Big Sur, the Golden Gate, the Beach Boys or, Beach Blanket Babylon, California’s ocean waters are historic, cultural, legal, and literary phenomena bonded to the very DNA of the state. Its passionate love affair with the ocean is ongoing, its pop-cultural references to it too vast to fully enumerate. The Endless Summer starts and ends in California. The original Treasure Island was filmed on Catalina, and Sea Hunt, in which Lloyd Bridges played underwater investigator Mike Nelson—inspiration for generations of divers and marine scientists—was largely shot in the waters off Catalina where actress Natalie Wood also drowned and a criminal investigation into her death was reopened forty-five years later. SpongeBob SquarePants was created by California marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg, …more

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UK Communities Are Standing Up to the Country’s Nascent Shale Gas Industry

Activists hold strong amid recent wins by fracking interests

The Ryedale region of Northern England is one of immense natural beauty. Its rolling hills and sublime moors are dotted with picturesque villages that are laced with thousands of years of proud, rich history that is palpably felt to this day. However, the region’s tranquillity has been rocked in recent months by a grave threat. The area is one of two in the UK that has been given the green light in the last year for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, despite local opposition. Fortunately, the decision is not yet final, and in the face of corporate behemoths, a number of grassroots campaigns are capturing the UK public’s imagination and support.  

photo of anti-fracking demonstration UKphoto by Victoria Buchan-Dyer Organizers protest fracking in Lancashire. Public support for fracking in the UK is declining.

Public interest in fracking intensified massively in the United Kingdom in 2007 when Cuadrilla Resources, a UK energy company, was granted a license for shale gas explorations. Cuadrilla’s first and only fracking job took place in March, 2011 near the town of Blackpool, but the operation was quickly halted due to seismic activity felt in the area after the drilling. Two small earthquakes — which have since been confirmed to have been directly caused by the fracking by a study commissioned by Cuadrilla itself — were detected in the region around the drilling site.

The earthquakes put a damper on the budding industry, one that members of the UK government seem keen to overcome. Former Prime Minister David Cameron said that the country would go “all out” for shale gas. George Osborne, a longtime member of parliament, urged politicians to fast-track fracking measures in an internal letter last year, which was leaked in January. In December 2015, the UK government awarded rights to energy companies to explore potential fracking sites in 159 onshore blocks across England with the aim to begin the drilling process in many areas by the end of 2016. And just last month, the UK government overturned a local decision by the Lancashire county council to reject a proposal for four fracking wells in the region. Drilling may begin next year.

In the face of the politicians’ obstinate stance on the issue, huge numbers of British people are standing together in defiance of the proposed drillings. In October, the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy reported that public support for fracking had fallen to 17 percent from …more

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‘Extraordinarily Hot’ Arctic Temperatures Alarm Scientists

Researchers say warmer air and sea surface could lead to record lows of sea ice at north pole next year

The Arctic is experiencing extraordinarily hot sea surface and air temperatures, which are stopping ice forming and could lead to record lows of sea ice at the north pole next year, according to scientists.

photo of a arctic sea icephoto by Mike Beauregard Arctic sea-ice, Nunavut, Canada. Temperatures in the Arctic have been peaking 20 degrees Celsius higher than normal for this time of year.

Danish and US researchers monitoring satellites and Arctic weather stations are surprised and alarmed by air temperatures peaking at what they say is an unheard-of 20 Celsius higher than normal for the time of year. In addition, sea temperatures averaging nearly 4 Celsius higher than usual in October and November.

“It’s been about 20 Celsius warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean, along with cold anomalies of about the same magnitude over north-central Asia. This is unprecedented for November,” said research professor Jennifer Francis of Rutgers university.

Temperatures have been only a few degrees above freezing when -25 Celsius should be expected, according to Francis. “These temperatures are literally off the charts for where they should be at this time of year. It is pretty shocking. The Arctic has been breaking records all year. It is exciting but also scary,” she said.

Francis said the near-record low sea ice extent this summer had led to a warmer than usual autumn. That in turn had reduced the temperature difference between the Arctic and mid-latitudes. 

“This helped make the jet stream wavier and allowed more heat and moisture to be driven into Arctic latitudes and perpetuate the warmth. It’s a vicious circle,” she added. 

Sea ice, which forms and melts each year, has declined more than 30 percent in the past 25 years. This week it has been at the lowest extent ever recorded for late November. According to the US government’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), around 2 million square kilometers less ice has formed since September than average. The level is far below the same period in 2012, when sea ice went on to record its lowest ever annual level.

Francis said she was convinced that the cause of the high temperatures and ice loss was climate change. “It’s all expected. There is nothing but climate change that can cause these trends. This is all headed in the same direction and picking up speed.”

Rasmus Tonboe, a sea ice remote sensing expert at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen, said: …more

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Wolverines Face Recovery Roadblocks

Rebounding populations in Pacific Northwest contend with reduced habitat connectivity, climate change

Aja Woodrow plods alongside the road toward a road-killed deer near the town of Cle Elum in central Washington. He’s carrying a Pulaski — a combination axe/grub hoe commonly used for wildland firefighting. Today, however, Woodrow intends to put it to a more macabre use: severing the deer’s head.

This may sound like a scene from horror movie, but Woodrow has wildlife conservation on his mind. He’s a US Forest Service biologist working in partnership with the Washington Department of Transportation on a study of wolverine movement in the North Cascades. Road-killed deer and elk just happen to be effective, cheap, and plentiful wolverine bait.

photo of a wolverinephoto by Jarkko Järvinen Wildlife biologists are studying the impact Interstate 90, which bisects the Cascade mountain range, on wolverine recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

Long absent from Washington’s Cascade mountain range, wolverines are staging a comeback. Biologists began documenting wolverines in more remote parts of the Cascades in the 1990s, and in 2006, the Forest Service began tracking wolverines to monitor the depth of the recovery. A decade later, wolverines are flourishing in the area. They’re nearly everywhere we would expect to see them in the North Cascades, and biologists discover new individuals each year. However, a huge barrier lies in the way of the wolverine’s continued recovery and expansion into the rest of the Cascades: Interstate 90, which bisects the mountain range.

Reduced habitat connectivity brought about by infrastructure projects is a growing problem around the world. As humans continue to build infrastructure to make our lives easier, that infrastructure becomes a barrier to movement of wildlife between patches of suitable habitat. This can be particularly problematic for small critters with low mobility like turtles, lizards, and salamanders, but it’s a problem for larger, more mobile animals like deer, wolves, and wolverines as well.

Adam Ford, an assistant professor of biology at the University of British Columbia-Okanogan, has studied the impact of roads on everything from leopard frogs to mountain lions. With some notable exceptions (e.g. the proverbial deer in the headlights), animals tend to shy away from roads, he says.

“Animals can hear cars, they can smell the effluents from cars, and of course they see them moving,” Ford says, all of which can cause animals to be averse to crossing roads. “Generally speaking, the wider the road, the more traffic on it and the larger the zone of influence the road has on the surrounding …more

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