AmeriScan: August 20, 2002

* * *

Massive Glacial Dam Breaks in Alaska

YAKUTAT, Alaska, August 20, 2002 (ENS) - In a flood of icy water and chunks of debris, an ice dam formed by an advancing glacier broke last week in Alaska, turning Russell Lake back into Russell Fiord.

Hubbard Glacier, North America's largest tidewater glacier, had blocked the entrance to Russell Fiord since June, turning the channel into a lake. The rising lake level was posing a threat to nearby communities, national lands, fisheries and other marine life.

Now, "it looks like the lake will empty completely," said Jaqueline Lott, district ranger for the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. "The threat to Yakutat has been averted for the moment."

On August 14, the trapped water in the 70 square mile lake broke free to the ocean in a spectacular roiling and chaotic 36 hours. The rushing river created by the discharge was about 300 feet wide and 600 to 700 feet long, said Dennis Trabant, a glaciologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

glacier

In this photo from June 13, 2002, Hubbard Glacier has blocked the entrance to Russell Fiord. (USGS Photo by Bruce F. Molnia)
Trabant and a team from the Alaska Division of Emergency Services flew over the glacier after a water gauge installed in June showed that the lake level was dropping. The team estimated the discharge from the lake to be about 300,000 cubic feet of water per second. In a second flight six hours later, Trabant estimated that the flow had almost tripled.

The peak discharge of 1.9 million cubic feet of water per second was the world's second largest glacial lake outburst in historical times, exceeded only by the 1986 outburst from the same lake, which reached about 3.7 million cubic feet per second, said USGS glaciologist Rod March.

The blockage caused by the advancing glacier was not quite balanced by the melting and erosion of the ice dam. Early in the blockage, small amounts of water leaked from Russell Lake through the moraine dam into Disenchantment Bay. Despite this small leak, the dam held and lake level rose at an average rate of more than 0.8 feet per day due to runoff and glacial melt in the basin.

By late July, the dam had sealed off the lake, raising concern among nearby communities, government officials and land managers.

On August 11 and 12 heavy rains fell in the area - almost four inches on August 12 alone - which may have tipped the balance in favor of the dam's erosion, said Trabant. Other factors such as possible slow down of the glacier's movement or reduced growth of the moraine may also have played a role, he said.

The August 14 flood carved out a new 400 foot wide entrance into Russell Fiord, destroying the entire ice dam. Hubbard Glacier is expected to continue the advance it began more than 100 years ago, someday causing another closure of Russell Fiord.

"We're working closely with the USGS and the National Park Service to continue monitoring the glacier's movement," noted Tricia O'Connor, district ranger with the Tongass National Forest's Yakutat Ranger District. "This is a unique natural phenomenon, with some potentially serious effects on the local community and National Forest System lands. We want to be able to predict these effects as far in advance as possible."

More information on the Hubbard Glacier is available at: http://ak.water.usgs.gov/glaciology/hubbard

* * *

Genetic Diversity Impacts Ecosystem Functions

ATHENS, Georgia, August 20, 2002 (ENS) - The genetic diversity of species within a habitat affects ecosystem processes like nutrient use, say researchers from the University of Georgia (UGA).

"It is not just the quantity of species diversity that matters, it is also the quality of genetic diversity," said lead author Mike Madritch, an ecology doctoral student at UGA.

Madritch studied carbon and nitrogen fluctuations during decomposition of leaf litter and found a link between nutrient output and the genetic variation of the leaves.

The study was conducted on a turkey oak sandhills community at UGA's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina. Madritch and coauthor Mark Hunter, associate professor of ecology at UGA, analyzed the decomposition of nine different single tree litter treatments and one mixed treatment that contained litter from all nine trees of the same species.

They found a marked difference in the amount of carbon and nitrogen released based upon the parentage of the leaf litter.

"Diversity matters," said Madritch. "Our study shows that bringing a species population back from the brink of extinction to its original levels would not have the same effect on the environment as if the species never faced being endangered in the first place. When you build back from an endangered population, you necessarily are building from a limited gene pool, and we found that the variety in the genetic make up matters to the system."

The researchers also found that a loss in genetic diversity reduces the predictability of how an ecosystem will work.

Single tree litter treatments did not always yield less carbon and nitrogen than the mixed treatment. Sometimes the single tree treatments produced more nutrients and sometimes they produced less, but the researchers say the nutrients were always different than the mixed litter treatment.

"The alarming part of this discovery is that you cannot predict the effect that reduced genetic biodiversity will have on an ecosystem," said Hunter. "Therefore, deforestation is like playing Russian roulette with our future. We know that relying upon fewer trees to recycle nutrients will make a difference, but we don't know what kind of difference. It's a chance I don't think is worth taking."

Madritch and Hunter are convinced that conserving genetic diversity within a species is just as important as conserving species diversity for maintaining ecosystem functions.

"This research is especially important in the current mass extinction period," said Hunter. "Plants capture the energy that drives the planet. By continuing to destroy plant habitats, we reduce the available gene pool. In the end it could harm the biggest ecosystem of all: planet Earth."

The study was published this week in the Ecological Society of America's journal "Ecology." The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

* * *

Satellite Data Informs Wildfire Recovery

COLLEGE PARK, Maryland, August 20, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of university and government researchers are creating software that can use satellite data to provide agencies with faster, broader assessments of the severity of burn damage after a wildfire.

Even before a forest fire is out, federal land management agencies must assess burn damage and move to protect soil stability and water quality in the hardest hit areas. With some 5.5 million acres already burned this year and much of the fire season still ahead, these agencies face a daunting task.

They may soon get help from the work by scientists at the University of Maryland, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

"It is crucial for fire management and rehabilitation of the damaged area that a rehabilitation plan is established within 10 days after a fire is contained," said Rob Sohlberg, Maryland's leader on the project and a researcher in the university's department of geography. "Satellite based burn severity maps hopefully will accelerate this planning process."

This week, Sohlberg and two other Maryland researchers will travel to fire damaged areas in Oregon and California. Together with collaborators from the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management, they will conduct field assessments of the severity of fire damage.

The fieldwork will help the researchers understand what the USFS looks for at the ground level in terms of the hydraulic properties of the soil and the extent of vegetation damage. The researchers can then refine their software to ensure it can analyze satellite data and provide accurate fire damage information.

Because there is so much variability in the effects of fires, the researchers must develop a software program that is universal to all fires. In the past, assessment of the burn severity has been done by hand. But, with large wildfires, only a small percentage of the burned area can be sampled by personnel on the ground.

"Assessments based on satellite data can be made much faster, cover more area and be more consistent than the current manually developed assessments," Sohlberg said.

The researchers, who all went through fire fighter training, will travel to several fire locations, including the huge Biscuit Fire in the Siskiyou National Forest. Though under control, the Biscuit Fire is still burning in Oregon and California and has consumed more than 390,000 acres of timber.

The university is working with the USFS's Remote Sensing Applications Center to develop the new burn severity software. The project is funded by the Joint Fire Science Program, part of the National Interagency Fire Center, and the NASA Solid Earth and Natural Hazards program.

* * *

Engineering Students Tackle Fuel Cell Obstacles

STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania, August 20, 2002 (ENS) - A Penn State engineering graduate class has found solutions to many of the barriers preventing development of a hybrid fuel cell automobile using hydrogen fuel cells and battery storage.

"The professors asked the class to solve the problem of hydrogen odorization," said Jamie Weston, graduate student in energy and geoenvironmental engineering. "We quickly came up with a solution and, took the rest of the course to develop our solution and follow the problems as far as we could."

The students - Mike Sprague, Hui Long, Ramya Venkataraman, Patrick Flynn, Eric Wolfe and Weston - are all in Penn State's Energy and Geoenvironmental Engineering program. They took a hands on fuel science class taught by Alan Scaroni, head and professor, Andre Boehman, associate professor, and Sarma Pisupati, associate professor in the department.

Hydrogen is a colorless and odorless gas. The U.S. government mandates that all flammable gases must, by law, have an odor to help workers, emergency officials and property owners detect leaks.

But the chemicals used to add a smell to the gas limit the possibility of using the hydrogen in a fuel cell, because the substances often poison the cells. Fuel cells convert the chemical potential of hydrogen and oxygen to electrical potential with heat and water without burning the hydrogen. For a fuel cell to work, the hydrogen must be ultra pure.

The Penn State team says they have found a solution to that problem.

"We came up with a simple system that removes the odorant with adsorbers and then tests to ensure that all the odorant is removed before sending the hydrogen to solid storage and fuel cell," explained Weston.

The students also developed a method of storing hydrogen for hybrid fuel cell vehicles as a solid, which is considered safer than storing compressed hydrogen gas. The students chose a metal hydride system based on magnesium. The hydrogen in the magnesium hydride is stable up to 554 degrees Fahrenheit, but once heated above that temperature, hydrogen gas is released.

The five passenger General Motors Precept electrical vehicle would require the energy from about 23 pounds of hydrogen to travel 500 miles, the researchers told attendees at the annual American Chemical Society meeting in Boston on Monday. The students designed their system for this 500 mile limit.

In the students' system, the battery stacks in the hybrid car would power electric heating units to heat sections of the magnesium hydride and release controlled amounts of hydrogen for the fuel cells.

"Batteries are now being reduced in size, so the weight of the batteries and the hydrogen fuel system will not make the car too heavy," said Weston. "Because most of the hydrogen is stored as a solid, the automobile may be as safe as today's cars."

* * *

Settlement Reached Over Anacapa Island Rat Poisoning

VENTURA, California, August 20, 2002 (ENS) - Animal groups have reached a settlement with the federal government over a controversial plan to poison rats on Anacapa Island.

The Fund for Animals and the Channel Islands Animal Protection Association (CHIAPA) sued the government over the use of brodifacoum on Anacapa Island because of its proven track record of killing non-target birds and animals. Phase II of the poisoning, involving west and middle Anacapa Island San Miguel Island and the Farallon Islands, was slated to begin next month.

The poison distribution was part of a restoration by several federal agencies aimed at removing invasive black rats from Anacapa Island. Non-native rats are responsible for an estimated 40 to 60 percent of bird and reptile extinctions in the world, and on Anacapa, they prey on birds, reptiles, plants and invertebrates.

But the first phase of the poisoning killed birds from at least 10 species, including white-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows, Western meadowlarks, American kestrels and burrowing owls.

Wildlife groups charge that the non-target death toll from the poisoning is probably even higher because the NPS's monitoring efforts were insufficient to find all birds affected by the poison. The slow acting poison could have allowed many birds to leave the island before dying, the groups said.

"Phase I took place under cover of darkness because there was no independent review of the NPS's monitoring and collection of dead and dying birds and mammals," noted Scarlet Newton of CHIAPA. "The NPS has yet to furnish a body count of the rare Anacapa deer mouse, poisoned in Phase I."

In its Migratory Bird Treaty Act Summary Report, the NPS estimated that 736 protected birds from 27 different species could be affected by Phase II of the poisoning.

Under the settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) must conduct a new environmental assessment on whether to issue the National Park Service (NPS) a permit to kill migratory birds with the poison, and give the public 30 days to comment on the assessment before making a decision.

A neutral observer will be allowed access to the island during Phase II for independent monitoring. The parties also agreed to work together to assist injured and dying animals affected by the poison, beginning with the NPS delivering to the plaintiffs a written description of its protocol for the humane handling and euthanasia of such animals.

"The agencies now have to take a new look at the impacts of this toxic plan, especially the disastrous impacts on migratory birds, and make a new decision before continuing the poisoning," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of The Fund for Animals. "This is a victory for the public's wildlife and for an open public process."

* * *

Lawsuit Seeks Protection for California Plant

SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 20, 2002 (ENS) - Conservation groups filed suit Monday to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to take final action to list the Scott's Valley polygonum and designate its "critical habitat" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society filed the suit in federal district court in San Francisco.

On November 9, 2000, the USFWS published a proposed rule to list the Scotts Valley polygonum as an endangered species. On February 15, 2001, the USFWS published a proposed rule to designate 310 acres as critical habitat for the species.

Under the ESA, the USFWS has one year from the date of a proposed action to take final action to list a species or designate its critical habitat. The agency has yet to take final action to protect the species or designate its critical habitat.

The Scotts Valley polygonum is a small annual plant in the buckwheat family that produces white flowers from May through August. The Scotts Valley polygonum is known to exist in just 11 small colonies at two sites in the northern Scotts Valley area of Santa Cruz County, California. All of the colonies are on private lands.

The Scotts Valley polygonum is found on sloping to level shallow soils over outcrops of Santa Cruz mudstone and Purisima sandstone. The species occurs with other small native, annual herbs in patches known as wildflower fields within a more extensive grassland habitat.

In its proposed rule to list the species, the USFWS concluded that, "the Scotts Valley polygonum is threatened with extinction by habitat alteration due to secondary impacts of urban development occurring within close proximity of the species, changes in hydrologic conditions; soil compaction; increased disturbance by humans, pets, and bicycle traffic; the inadvertent application of herbicides and pesticides; dumping of yard wastes; and the introduction of nonnative species."

David Tibor, rare plant botanist for the California Native Plant Society, said the rare plant is " known from less than an acre of occupied habitat in the world, and continues to face a multitude of threats. It requires immediate listing under the federal Endangered Species Act to assist in its protection and recovery."

* * *

BLM Develops Mountain Biking Plan

WASHINGTON, DC, August 20, 2002 (ENS) - The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released a Draft Strategic Action Plan for the management of mountain bicycling activities on public lands.

Mountain bicycling was an emerging use on public lands when most of the BLM's existing land use plans were developed, so their use was not addressed. When implemented, the National Mountain Bicycling Strategic Action Plan would promote environmentally sound use of mountain bicycles and other nonmotorized vehicles on BLM managed public lands.

The plan would ensure that mountain bicycling opportunities are recognized and provided for on public lands where appropriate and would provide guidance to the BLM field offices, interest groups and individuals for implementing on the ground actions and resource protection measures.

An estimated 13.5 million mountain bicyclists now visit public lands each year, making what was once a low volume, easily managed activity much more complex. Advancements in bike technology also allow millions of mountain bicyclists to reach increasingly remote areas.

BLM managers hope to balance quality cycling experiences with environmental protection, while reducing conflicts between different land users and providing educational experiences.

The BLM encourages the public to share experiences and ideas related to mountain bicycling use on public land and give recommendations on the draft plan during the public comment period from August 19 through September 25.

The draft plan is available online at: http://www.blm.gov/mountain_biking/index.htm, and comments can be submitted electronically at the same site.

The National Mountain Bicycling Strategic Action Plan is the second of three national action plans focusing on recreational uses of the public lands and comprehensive travel management planning. The first was the National Management Strategy for Motorized Off-Highway Vehicle Use on Public Lands (National OHV Strategy), finalized in January 2001. A third and final strategy will be developed after completion of the Mountain Bicycle Strategic Action Plan to meet the needs of nonmotorized/nonmechanized visitors, such as hikers and horseback riders.

* * *

Eternal Reef Offers Alternative to Cremation Urns

ATLANTA, Georgia, August 20, 2002 (ENS) - An Atlanta company offers an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burials - adding ashes to artificial reefs.

Eternal Reefs, Inc. incorporates cremated remains into a concrete mixture used to cast Reef Ball artificial reef formations. The artificial reefs are dedicated as permanent living memorials while bolstering natural coastal reef formations.

The company was created to provide an alternative to keeping a loved one's ashes. According to the company's website, "an Eternal Reef combines a cremation urn, ash scattering and a burial at sea into one meaningful permanent environmental tribute to life."

reef ball

One of Eternal Reefs memorial reef balls. (Photo courtesy Eternal Reefs)
"The entire consciousness of memorialization is changing," said Don Brawley, president of Eternal Reefs Inc. "People want to do the right thing with their loved ones' remains, and we offer the only environmentally positive burial option."

The company has created and added to designed reef sites in Sarasota and Marco Island, Florida, working with municipalities to use their permitted locations for deployments. Eternal Reefs Inc. inaugurated the first community reef in the United States in Charleston, South Carolina, partnering with McAlister-Smith funeral home. The Charleston launch was the first community reef in which 25 memorials with cremated remains were deployed at the same time.

On Monday, Eternal Reefs announced that Ft. Lauderdale, Florida will be the next U.S. reef site to include its memorial reef balls. The Ft. Lauderdale deployment is scheduled for October 1, 2002. Eternal Reefs will provide Broward County, Florida with 15 Reef Ball memorial reefs to help develop local reef ecosystems.

Cremation is growing in the United States, and by 2010, the procedure may be included in 40 percent of funerals, according to the Cremation Association of North America. About 45 percent of the families that have chosen cremation still have the remains at home sitting on a shelf or in a closet.

More information about Eternal Reefs Inc. is available at: http://www.eternalreefs.com

More information about Reef Balls is available at: http://www.artificialreefs.org