AmeriScan: February 26, 2003

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Methane Eruptions Could Fuel Global Warming

WOODS HOLE, Massachusetts, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - New research suggests that warming oceans could cause "intense eruptions" of methane from the sea floor, leading to "catastrophic" global warming.

Scientists have found new evidence indicating that during periods of rapid climate warming, methane gas has been released from the seafloor in intense eruptions. In a study published in the current issue of the journal "Science," Kai-Uwe Hinrichs and colleagues Laura Hmelo and Sean Sylva of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) provide a direct link between methane reservoirs in coastal marine sediments and the global carbon cycle, an indicator of global warming and cooling.

Molecular fossils from methane consuming bacteria found in sediments in the Santa Barbara Basin off California deposited during the last glacial period - 70,000 to 12,000 years ago - indicate that large quantities of methane were emitted from the seafloor during warmer phases of the last ice age. Methane, one of the major greenhouse gases, is stored on the seafloor as an ice like solid known as methane hydrate.

Previous evidence for such massive eruptions was based on isotopic properties of calcite shells of foraminifera, microscopic marine animals called forams. Because a variety of factors could lead to very similar signals in their shells, that evidence has remained controversial.

The preserved molecular remnants found by the WHOI team result from bacteria that fed exclusively on methane and indicate that large quantities of this powerful greenhouse gas were present in coastal waters off California. The team studied samples that were deposited between 44,000 and 37,000 years ago.

"For the first time, we are able to clearly establish a connection between distinct isotopic depletions in forams and high concentrations of methane in the fossil record," said Hinrichs, an assistant scientist in the Institution's Geology and Geophysics Department.

"The large amounts of methane presumably released during one event about 44,000 years ago suggest a mechanism different from those underlying the emissions at warmer periods, i.e. slow decomposition of methane hydrate triggered by warming of bottom waters," Hinrichs continued. "The sudden release of these enormous quantities of methane was probably caused by landslides and melting of the methane hydrate."

Since there was already indirect evidence of methane eruptions in the Santa Barbara Basin area, Hinrichs and colleagues looked for fossil remnants of bacteria that would have flourished only under high concentrations of methane. In a 44,000 year old sediment sample, a distinct type of biomarker representing bacterial communities that oxidize methane in the absence of oxygen provided evidence for an abrupt, catastrophic release of methane, presumably trapped as hydrate below the sea floor.

The WHOI team's data, from sediment cores taken by the Ocean Drilling Program off southern California, show that substantial quantities of methane were released at least several times during the past 60,000 years, leading to periodic fluctuations in the levels of methane in deep waters in the Santa Barbara Basin.

The researchers say increased bottom water temperatures could mobilize or release large amounts of methane hydrate in shallow waters. According to some current estimates, there are about 10,000 billion tons of methane stored beneath the ocean and on continents.

In comparison, the contribution of humans to the atmosphere's inventory of greenhouse gases by fossil fuel burning amounts to about 200 billion tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. If even a small portion of the stored methane were to escape into the atmosphere, the resulting greenhouse warming would be catastrophic.

"It was a surprise to find this sort of evidence," said Hinrichs, who was looking for evidence indicating mechanisms other than methane. "Although this research tells us something about the amount of methane consumed by bacteria in the ocean, it doesn't tell us anything about methane emissions into the atmosphere because neither forams nor methane biomarkers record the portion of methane that escaped out of the ocean."

"But one thing is for sure," he said, "our results clearly show that relatively minor environmental changes can have a major impact on sensitive coastal regions with yet unknown consequences for climate and biota."

Hinrichs plans to look for similar evidence elsewhere to determine whether this process, as a driver of climate variation, happened simultaneously at other locations around the world. This work, he said, is just the beginning of better understanding of the role of methane in the carbon cycle and ultimately on climate on geologic time scales.

"We have a very poor understanding of the biogeochemical mechanisms that control production, destruction and accumulation of methane in sediments underlying the ocean," Hinrichs said. "We need to understand the big picture of what drives methane and the carbon cycle and the actual impact of methane emissions from hydrates on climate."

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California Passes Law to Save Coastal Commission

SACRAMENTO, California, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - California Governor Gray Davis has signed legislation aimed at restoring the legality - and permitting the existence - of the California Coastal Commission.

Last year, two courts found the California Coastal Commission to be unconstitutional. The court ruled that the agency, which wields executive powers, violates the state's separation of powers clause, because the majority of the commission's 12 members are appointed by state legislators, who can also remove these members at will.

The appeals court gave the state 30 days to correct the problem. In January, the district appeals court refused to reconsider its findings.

The legislation signed this week by Governor Davis sets the term of office for legislative appointees to the California Coastal Commission to four year terms, permitting the agency's continued existence.

"Since its creation, the Coastal Commission has been the guardian angel of this precious natural resource," Davis said. "Its commissioners have stood vigilant over 1,100 miles of shoreline, nine offshore islands, and 1.5 million acres of coastal land. They've preserved ocean views, protected public access, restored vital habitats and prevented oil spills."

Governor Davis called the legislature to a special session to develop legislative solutions to the separation of powers issues that the courts had with the commission.

"I'm proud to sign this bill," Governor Davis said. "It makes critical changes to the Coastal Commission by addressing the concerns of the Third District Court of Appeals, while at the same time it preserves the commission's vital mission for generations to come."

Davis hopes the new legislation will satisfy the appeals court. But attorneys for the entrepreneur who first challenged the commission's constitutionality say the state might have to give up its authority to name most, or any, members to the agency.

Rodolphe Streichenberger, a retired aquaculture entrepreneur, sued after the commission refused to allow him to build an artificial reef for marine species using used jugs, tires, pipe and rope.

Davis has made protection of the California coast a priority since he took office.

"Once again Governor Davis has demonstrated courage in his dedication to protecting California's coastal resources," said Christopher Evans, the Surfrider Foundation's executive director.

In his address to the media, Governor Davis thanked the Surfrider Foundation for its ongoing support and work to protect and preserve the nation's oceans, waves and beaches.

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Groundwater Pumping Makes Mojave Desert Slump

MOJAVE DESERT, California, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - Groundwater depletion has caused the earth to subside as much as four inches in parts of the Mojave Desert in southern California, according to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists.

Using the satellite mapping process known as interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR), scientists have detected large earth surface depressions near the agricultural areas of Lucerne Valley, El Mirage, Lockhart and Newberry Springs in the southwestern portion of the Mojave Desert.

The subsidence occurred between 1992 and 1999, and is linked to declining water levels.

"The magnitude of subsidence in some of the areas is significant," said Michelle Sneed, USGS scientist and lead author of the study. "The compaction of the aquifer systems in these areas may be permanent."

The USGS study, in cooperation with the Mojave Water Agency, found that land subsidence was linked to water level declines of more than 100 feet between the 1950s and the 1990s. Land subsidence can disrupt surface drainage; reduce aquifer storage; cause earth fissures; and damage wells, building, roads, and utility infrastructure.

"Earth fissures several feet wide and deep have been observed in Lucerne Valley," Sneed said.

The USGS reports that continued monitoring of some areas of the Mojave Desert is warranted because groundwater levels continue to decline, and pumping induced land subsidence, documented by this study, will likely increase.

The U.S. Geological Survey report, "Detection and Measurement of Land Subsidence Using Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar and Global Positioning System, San Bernardino County, Mojave Desert, California," is available online at: http://water.usgs.gov/pubs/wri/wri034015/

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$34.8 Million Granted for Landowner Incentives

WASHINGTON, DC, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - The Interior Department has announced $34.8 million in grants to states under a new partnership program to assist private landowners in conserving and restoring the habitat of endangered species and other at risk plants and animals.

The cost share grants, part of the administration's new Landowner Incentive Program (LIP), will support partnerships in 42 states. State fish and wildlife agencies, landowners or nonprofit groups must put up at least 25 percent of the cost of projects.

With these grants, states will be able to provide financial and technical assistance to interested landowners, said Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

"For wildlife conservation to be successful, it must be a partnership between the government and the people," Norton said. "This is especially true with threatened and endangered species, half of which depend on private lands for the majority of their habitat. These grants will enable states to work with landowners and to defray the costs of habitat improvements for imperiled species on their land."

The LIP grant program is two tiered. Grants awarded to states under Tier 1 focus on administrative program needs and may not exceed $180,000 in federal money. U.S. Territories and the District of Columbia may apply for Tier 1 grants of up to $75,000.

Tier 2 grants support project implementation. All grants require at least a 25 percent match from non-federal sources.

Many states already have a landowner incentive program. For states that do not have a landowner program, the grants will allow them to create one.

"We are providing seed money to many states to get their landowner programs off the ground," Norton said.

For example, the Colorado Division of Wildlife plans to use its LIP funds to focus on Front Range habitat for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, for rastern short-grass prairie habitat for the black-tailed prairie dog and several bird species, and on Gunnison Basin habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse. Colorado will establish management agreements and seek conservation easements with private landowners to protect and restore these habitats.

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources will fund a total of 15 landowner projects on 105,140 acres across five islands. More than 60 wildlife species and 248 plant species of concern will benefit from management actions including the creation of barrier fences, the removal of feral pigs and goats from critical habitat areas, the creation of onsite seed sources for endangered plant species, and the operation of a rotational grazing program to benefit the endangered Hawaiian goose or nene.

Tribes also are eligible for an additional $5 million in grants under the program. Further guidance specific to tribes is now available for public comment, and grants will be announced in the future.

"These grants are the catalysts to support efforts of local partners to come up with new and better ways to conserve at-risk fish and wildlife species," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams. "Through this program, the Service is pooling its resources with private landowners and state wildlife agencies to ensure these species have sufficient habitat."

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Satellites Help Monitor Warming Coral Reefs

SILVER SPRING, Maryland, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are using satellite data to monitor the long term effects of heat stresses on several coral reefs throughout the world.

While the scientists have been monitoring the stresses for some time, NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service is now providing an operational product called "Degree Heating Week".

A Degree Heating Week is designed to indicate the accumulated stress experienced by coral reefs. For example, if the current temperature of a reef site exceeds the maximum expected summertime temperature by one degree Celsius, then the site receives a rating of one DHW.

If the current temperature at the site is two degrees Celsius above the maximum expected summertime temperature or one degree above for a period of two weeks, the site would receive a rating of two DHWs, and so on.

"Degree Heating Weeks (DHW) have been available experimentally for some time," said Dr. Alan Strong, coordinator of Coral Reef Watch at NOAA Satellites and Information. "Turning operational means that coral reef managers and stake holders will now have up to date, accurate, and reliable information on the status of their reefs and may be able to take active measures to prevent further damage if their site has a high DHW rating."

Using satellite derived information, DHWs monitor the cumulative thermal stress of several coral reefs throughout the globe, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Galapagos, the Bahamas, and others. The extent and acuteness of thermal stress - key predictors of coral bleaching - contribute to coral reef degradation worldwide.

Coral reefs compose a large and integral part of the coastal ocean, supporting a variety of sea life and providing resources of significant economic importance. Coral bleaching, caused by high water temperatures, occurs as coral tissue expels zooxanthellae, a symbiotic algae essential to coral survival that lives within the structure of the coral.

NOAA Satellites and Information will provide continuous technical support on a 24 hour, seven day basis, and will maintain a website which will be updated twice a week. The agency is the nation's primary source of space based meteorological and climate data.

NOAA Satellites and Information operates the nation's environmental satellites, which are used for weather and ocean observation and forecasting, climate monitoring and other environmental applications. Applications include monitoring sea surface temperature, fire detection, and measuring atmospheric ozone levels.

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Green Pricing Report Helps Electricity Shoppers

GOLDEN, Colorado, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - An annual report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) helps consumers to choose to buy electricity from renewable resources such as solar and wind.

Each year NREL, a program under the Department of Energy (DOE), ranks leading utility "green pricing" programs. Under green pricing, consumers can choose to help support additional electrical production from renewable sources. More than 300 utilities in 32 states now offer these programs.

Using information provided by utilities, NREL develops "Top 10" rankings of utility programs in the following categories: total sales of renewable energy to program participants, total number of customer participants, customer participation rate, and the lowest price premium charged for a green pricing service using new renewable resources.

Ranked by sales of green power, the green pricing program of Austin (Texas) Energy is first in the nation, followed by Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Xcel Energy in Colorado, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and Portland General Electric.

Ranked by customer participation rates, the top five are Moorhead (Minnesota) Public Service, Orcas Power and Light Cooperative in Washington, LADWP, Holy Cross Energy in Colorado, and Central Electric Cooperative in Oregon.

"The utilities represented on these lists provide leading examples of how renewable energy can be successfully marketed to electricity customers," said Lori Bird, senior energy analyst at NREL. "Whether large or small, all utilities have the potential to craft successful green pricing programs."

To date, more than 425 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy capacity has been installed or is planned as a result of green pricing programs. Utility green pricing programs are one segment of a larger green power marketing industry that serves more than 400,000 customers nationwide and has resulted in almost 1,500 MW of actual or planned renewable energy development.

"Utility green pricing programs are an important mechanism for creating greater consumer awareness of renewable energy options across the country," said Blair Swezey, NREL principal policy advisor. "Consumers want to support renewable energy and these programs offer a vehicle through which to do that."

NREL's Energy Analysis Office performs analyses of green power market trends and is funded by DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. NREL is a leading center for research into photovoltaics, wind energy, plant and waste derived fuels and chemicals, energy efficient buildings, advanced vehicle design, geothermal energy and hydrogen fuel cells.

For more information, visit: http://www.eere.energy.gov/greenpower/topten.shtml

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Clarity of Lake Tahoe Reaches 10 Year High

DAVIS, California, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - In 2002, Lake Tahoe was the clearest it had been in 10 years, say researchers from the University of California at Davis.

The UC Davis Tahoe Research Group, which has worked with Tahoe policy makers for more than 40 years, said the new finding could mean that science based recovery projects in the region are making a difference.

"These are encouraging results, and we hope they indicate the beginning of the lake's recovery," said Charles Goldman, director and founder of the Tahoe Research Group. "However, 10 years is a short time and it is too early to say if the recent improvements will continue. We must keep up our efforts to prevent water and air pollution, or we may still end up with a green lake."

UC Davis researchers measure the lake's clarity every seven to 10 days by lowering a white, dinner plate sized disk (called a Secchi disk) into the water at fixed locations, and noting the depth at which the disk disappears from sight.

The new data show that in 2002 Lake Tahoe clarity reached an annual average of 78 feet. It has not been that clear since 1992, when it reached 78.3 feet.

This still remains a far cry from 1968, when Secchi measurements began; at that time, the disk could be seen at an average depth of 102.4 feet.

Last year, lake advocates were heartened by the finding that clarity had reached a five year high; the disk could be seen to a depth of 73.6 feet.

The UC Davis Tahoe Research Group's data are used by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which leads the program to restore the health of the Tahoe Basin ecosystem. The cornerstone of the agency's restoration activities is its Environmental Improvement Program, a large group of projects designed to achieve and maintain healthy natural resources.

Many of the TRPA's environmental improvement projects aim to improve lake clarity by reducing the runoff of fine sediment, which makes the water cloudy; the runoff of nutrients such as fertilizers that promote algae growth, which makes the water green; and the depositing of air pollution into the lake.

Goldman said those restoration activities as well as others may well have contributed to the improvement seen in 2002. He also noted that 2001 and 2002 were drier than average, which reduced runoff and could have helped clarity.

"Whether or not runoff was reduced by low precipitation or by improvement projects, or both, the lake may be showing that it can recover," Goldman said.

TRPA executive director Juan Palma added, "We were also pleased to see a significant decrease in algae growth last year. These positive numbers should motivate us to continue our strategy of investing in soil erosion control, storm-water treatment and transportation alternatives."

"While we can't explain with great certainty what the latest data are telling us right now, we are confident that important research currently under way at Lake Tahoe will help us answer these important questions," said Palma.

Current research projects that are relevant to water clarity include a stream loading study, a storm water runoff study, an analysis of atmospheric pollutants and a study of turbidity along the shoreline. The Tahoe Research Group projects are described at: http://trg.ucdavis.edu/

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Bird Poop Helps Damaged Seagrass Beds Recover

MARATHON, Florida, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - Bird droppings may help to restore damaged seagrass beds in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Damage Assessment Center plan to call on wild birds for help by installing a series of bird stakes - vertical PVC pipes topped by wooden blocks - over several seagrass beds injured by boat groundings in locations from Key West to Key Largo. Weather permitting, work will begin in the next few weeks at a site near Marathon where the Motor Vessel N'Control ran aground.

The use of bird stakes is one of several methods NOAA biologists are using to restore seagrass beds injured by vessel groundings. Biologists line injured areas with the stakes, which provide attractive roosting areas for cormorants and other seabirds. The bird droppings provide a jolt of fertilizer to the area below, helping to speed the growth of shoal grass.

Shoal grass is a first colonizer of barren areas, preparing the way for other species, such as turtle grass and manatee grass, to grow once again.

Sean Meehan and Kevin Kirsch are the lead NOAA biologists in this seagrass restoration project.

"We think it's fitting that the first in a series of seagrass restoration projects coincides with Seagrass Awareness Month in March," said Meehan. "While we prefer to prevent boat groundings in the first place, we are happy that recently developed seagrass restoration techniques give us an alternative to watching these sites undergo a painfully slow recovery, or worse, continue to degrade."

The N'Control, owned and operated by Marathon resident Nick Carter, ran aground on May 29, 2001 off Knight Key Channel near Marathon. The grounding and subsequent salvage of the 45 foot Sea Ray injured 3,762 square feet (349.49 square meters) of critical seagrass habitat, an area larger than a tennis court.

On July 18, 2002, NOAA settled the case for $30, 573. To restore the site, Meehan and Kirsch will install 97 stakes that will remain in place for about 18 months. In addition to the bird stakes, they will also use seagrass transplants to hasten the site's recovery.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 1990, protects 2,900 square nautical miles of coral reefs, seagrass meadows, hardbottom communities, mangrove shorelines and mud and sand habitat. The sanctuary averages more than 600 reported vessel groundings each year.

In 2002, 128 reports in the sanctuary resulted in warnings or citations for the vessel owner or operator. Of these, 122 involved injury to seagrass, while six occurred in coral.

Seagrass meadows provide both nursery and feeding grounds for fish and other marine life. Seagrass also filters and stabilizes sediments, helping to create the clear waters for which the Florida Keys are known.

Boaters should learn and use proper navigational skills to avoid running aground, NOAA said. If contact with the bottom does occur, the boater's course of action should be to stop the engines, trim them up and wait for high tide to drift free, or walk the boat to deeper water. Most injury to seagrass and coral occurs when boaters attempt to use their engines to break free of the bottom, or due to inappropriate salvage attempts.