AmeriScan: June 3, 2002

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Leased Supercomputer Will Improve Forecasting

GAITHERSBURG, Maryland, June 3, 2002 (ENS) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will spend $224.4 million over nine years to lease an IBM supercomputer.

The supercomputer's increased processing capabilities are expected to allow the agency to improve weather, flood, ocean and climate forecasts across the nation.

The nine year contract is contingent on the availability of funding. The contract includes a three year base period and two three year options, plus options for a backup system.

The new high performance computing system uses a highly parallel computer architecture with 2,752 processors. This improved performance will allow NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, Maryland, to operate more sophisticated models of the atmosphere and oceans to improve forecasts.

Over the first three years of the contract, the new IBM supercomputer will, on average, provide 4.9 times the computational power of the current system. It will undergo incremental upgrades reaching 48 times the computational power of the current computer by October 2009.

"Accurate weather forecasting is important for the protection of our citizens and the economic well being of our nation," said NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. "We have done much to improve forecast accuracy in recent years, and know that with increased computational power and scientific advances, we can and will do even better in the future."

The installation of the new supercomputer, which will be housed at IBM's Gaithersburg facility, will be completed by September 30, and will be integrated into routine operations beginning in the spring of 2003. The transition of operations to the new system will be completed by the end of July 2003.

"The accuracy of environmental forecast models today is approaching levels undreamed of 10 years ago," said Lautenbacher. "As a result of this new supercomputer, NOAA's National Weather Service can run more powerful models with improved physics to produce forecasts with better resolution, accuracy and lead times than ever before."

These powerful computers incorporate vast amounts of data to generate guidance for weather forecasters. New capabilities and speed in supercomputing will allow the National Weather Service to anticipate weather conditions five to seven days, or in some cases, 10 to 14 days in advance.

The new supercomputer will also provide the computational resources needed for more reliable seasonal climate forecasts.

"Science is the key to better forecasting, but computational power is the engine that propels us forward," said Jack Kelly, director of NOAA's National Weather Service. "Advances in supercomputing technology have made it possible for us to obtain additional processing power to make more reliable weather and climate forecasts."

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Colorado Roadless Area Logging Challenged

DENVER, Colorado, June 3, 2002 (ENS) - Conservation groups and local citizens are challenging U.S. Forest Service (USFS) approval of commercial logging in two roadless areas of Routt National Forest in Colorado.

The USFS decisions - involving the logging of almost two square miles of roadless lands - is the first time since the Clinton era Roadless Area Conservation Rule was issued that the Forest Service has approved commercial logging in roadless areas anywhere in the nation.

The decisions are part of the Routt National Forest's "Bark Beetle" project, which proposes to use commercial logging, pesticide spraying and other means to limit an outbreak of spruce bark beetles that followed a large blowdown of trees in the area, as well as to address an increase in mountain pine beetles.

But the USFS has admitted that such logging will have little impact on beetles, which are native to the area. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its comments on the proposal last year, recommended against using commercial logging to attempt to control beetles, concluding that there is little or no scientific evidence to show that such efforts would be successful in containing the beetles' impacts.

Conservationists are opposing the proposed logging within roadless areas, but not the use of spraying or the treatment of individual trees within certain areas including campgrounds, the Steamboat Ski Area, scenic corridors and forest edges near urban areas.

"We don't oppose the spraying of trees or 'sanitation' thinning in campgrounds and the Steamboat Ski Area in order to try to contain the esthetic impacts of the beetle outbreak," said Steamboat Springs citizen John Randolph. "But there is no justification to do huge commercial timber sales in the backcountry where it will destroy our wild landscape and probably do nothing to stop the spread of beetles."

One decision being appealed would log a total of 1,167 acres - almost two square miles - within the Nipple Peak South and Dome Peak Roadless Areas 20 miles northwest of Steamboat Springs. No roads would be built in the areas, but the critics are that commercial helicopter logging would degrade the natural values that the Roadless Rule was enacted to protect.

A second decision would allow additional logging of stands of large trees infested by beetles - up to three trees per acre every year for three years in a quarter million acre area - using heavy equipment within one third of all of the roadless areas across the Routt National Forest.

"This proposed logging - using chainsaws, bulldozers, and huge trucks - will do more to damage the wild character and wildlife habitat of the Routt National Forest's wild places than any beetle epidemic," said Jacob Smith of the Center for Native Ecosystems. "While humans may not like how dead trees look, this is a natural phenomenon that actually benefits many wildlife species - such as birds that eat insects and animals that depend on standing dead trees for their homes."

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EPA, Chemical Industry Study Environmental Effects

WASHINGTON, DC, June 3, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will collaborate with the American Chemical Council (ACC) on research into the effects of chemicals humans and the environment.

The EPA and ACC will coordinate on two multi-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) to better understand the potential effects of chemicals on fetal and childhood immune system development, and the potential impacts of endocrine mimicking chemicals on wildlife populations.

The collaboration will first focus on the manner in which certain chemicals act on the developing immune system of laboratory animals, in order to develop better test methods. To date, no specific testing approach has been established to assess the potential impact of environmental contaminants to children's developing immune system.

The results from this research will provide scientific information that can be applied to the assessment of risks for children.

The second project applies a new and expanding approach to investigations on the molecular level, called "gene array technology." This technology will allow scientists to evaluate the ecological effects of endocrine mimicking chemicals in amphibians and fish.

The involvement of the ACC and the chemical industry in these two research projects is supported through their "Long Range Research Initiative," which since 1999 has committed $25 million a year to increase knowledge about the potential impact that chemicals may have on human and wildlife populations and the environment.

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Study Targets Vanishing Lake Michigan Sturgeon

DETROIT, Michigan, June 3, 2002 (ENS) - Researchers from four universities and four governmental resources agencies have begun a study of the few remaining lake sturgeon in Lake Michigan.

The large scale study began this spring with a team of 10 researchers working to determine the status and size of lake sturgeon populations in the lake, while also gathering other data to be used in future management and restoration efforts.

"This will be the first comprehensive study of lake sturgeon throughout Lake Michigan," said Rob Elliott, fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (UFSWS) and project coordinator for this basinwide study.

The study is being funded through grants from the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust and the Giovanni Auletta Armenise Harvard Foundation for Advanced Scientific Study.

The project partners include 10 researchers from Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Purdue University, the University of Georgia, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the USFWS Green Bay Fishery Resources Office.

Contemporaries of dinosaurs, lake sturgeon have been around for millions of years. They once numbered in the millions in Lake Michigan but habitat destruction, water pollution, the building of dams, and heavy commercial fishing almost wiped them out.

By 1900, the number of these giant fish left in Lake Michigan was less than one percent of what had been present just 50 years before. Today, an optimistic guess places the total number of mature adult sturgeon in Lake Michigan between 1,000-3,000 fish, and they are considered either endangered, threatened or of special concern by the states and agencies around Lake Michigan.

Elliott is hopeful that the few sturgeon that remain in Lake Michigan are able to stage a slow comeback.

"In the meantime, we need to do our best to protect those that are left and to improve the habitat in which they live" Elliott said. "This requires learning a good bit more about how well they are doing and finding ways to minimize the most severe impediments to their recovery."

The project is expected to cost more than $800,000, and will be funded by the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, the Giovanni Auletta Armenise Harvard Foundation for Advanced Scientific Studies and contributions from each of the agencies and institutions involved in the study.

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Petroleum Industry Causes Houston Smog

HOUSTON, Texas, June 3, 2002 (ENS) - Scientists have identified specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the petroleum industry as key sources of smog in industrial areas of Houston, Texas.

Using data from one of the most comprehensive U.S. air pollution studies ever conducted, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory have found that the VOCs responsible for much of Houston's smog come from the region's oil and gas industry - not considered a traditional source of urban smog.

Specific efforts to control these industrial emissions of VOCs might be necessary to control Houston's ozone problem, say the authors, whose findings appear in the May 28 issue of the journal "Geophysical Research Letters."

"A clear understanding of the complex causes of ozone pollution will help to identify cost effective ways to control smog and protect public health," said atmospheric chemist Larry Kleinman, one of the lead Brookhaven researchers on the study.

Traditional efforts to control ozone have focused on limiting emissions of precursor chemicals such nitrogen oxides (NOx) and VOCs, which are emitted from automobiles, power plants and other industrial sources and form ozone when they react with sunlight in Earth's atmosphere. Despite improvements in air quality due to stricter emission standards, many areas still exceed ozone standards.

To get a better understanding of the ozone problem, the Brookhaven team participated in the Texas 2000 Air Quality Study, a collaborative air pollution study involving hundreds of researchers from more than 40 public, private, and academic institutions, which was led by Peter Daum, another atmospheric chemist at Brookhaven.

The scientists sampled the air over the Houston-Galveston area - which experiences the country's highest ozone levels - in a Department of Energy aircraft. On each flight, the scientists measured levels of ozone and ozone precursors.

The Houston samples were compared with data collected during previous studies over Nashville, Tennessee; New York, New York; Phoenix, Arizona; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

On 13 of the 92 air sampling flights, ozone concentration exceeded the 120 parts per billion (ppb) federal standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect human health. Nine of those flights were in Houston.

"We found that most of Houston resembles other urban areas in its concentration of ozone precursors and ozone production rates," said Daum. "The industrial Houston Ship Channel region, however, the location of one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world, has a distinctive chemistry."

In that region, high concentrations of VOCs not seen in the other cities, nor in the other parts of Houston - including ethene, propene and butenes - produce excess ozone.

"Calculations based on the aircraft measurements show that the ozone production rate in the Houston Ship Channel region can be as much as five times higher than occurs in the other four cities or in nonindustrial parts of Houston," said Kleinman. "This extra kick in the photochemistry is a direct result of the high concentrations of VOCs emitted by industrial facilities."

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Rainforest Clearings Damage Ecosystems

WASHINGTON, DC, June 3, 2002 (ENS) - The slightest clearing in the rainforests of the Amazon can wreak havoc with the inhabitants, shows a 22 year investigation.

Clearings hamper the movement of wildlife and disrupt their communities, show the results of the investigation published in the June issue of "Conservation Biology."

A team of researchers led by William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute reviewed more than 340 articles and papers generated by the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP), the world's largest and longest running study of habitat fragmentation, since its inception in 1979.

They found that the effect of habitat fragmentation on the structure, composition and function of rainforests is far reaching. It increases local extinction rates for many plant and animal species; alters species richness and abundance; disrupts ecological processes; creates opportunities for non-native species invasions; alters forest carbon storage; and increases vulnerability to fire.

"A surprising number of wildlife species are extremely sensitive to very small clearings," said Laurance. "Even a 30 meter wide road alters the community composition of understory birds and other wildlife, and creates a complete barrier to the movements of some species."

Laurance believes the results of the analysis indicate that Amazonian nature reserves will have to be very large in order to maintain their diversity and dynamics, and to withstand external threats from such human disturbances as burning, logging and hunting.

The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragment Project, a joint effort of the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Brazil and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, seeks to answer questions about plant and animal relations, the biology of extinction, the process of forest regeneration, and the effects of forest edge and fragmentation on the genetic structure of tropical species.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Republic of Panama, is one of the world's leading centers for research on the ecology, evolution and conservation of tropical organisms.

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Scientists Reject Plan to Remove Wolf Protections

WASHINGTON, DC, June 3, 2002 (ENS) - Forty-eight scientists have sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, urging her to abandon the Department's plans to downlist the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act.

Norton's proposal would begin a transfer of wolf management responsibility from the federal government to several state governments, including Idaho, where the legislature has voted for eradication of wolves from the state, and Minnesota, which has re-instituted a bounty on wolves.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) draft rule would also diminish prospects for the species to return to vast areas of the wolf's former range in the northeast, northwest, northern California and the southern Rockies, the scientists wrote.

"Because of these significant shortcomings with the draft rule we request that USFWS terminate the reclassification process," the scientists' letter reads. "We understand the significance of our request. However, in the draft the USFWS defines details concerning wolf recovery in the western U.S. that do not adhere to relevant biological or legal standards."

"Consequently, a final rule based on the draft will result in substantial litigation, diminish the significant progress with wolf recovery in the Great Lakes region and the northern Rockies, imply to many observers that the Rule is motivated by politics rather than science, and undermine the credibility of the Endangered Species Act and the Service's ability to implement the Act in an honest and objective manner," the letter concludes

Signers of the letter included many of the continent's most prominent wildlife biologists, ecologists, conservation biologists, population biologists, sociologists and environmental scientists.

"Secretary Norton wants to back away from the job of wolf recovery before the job's finished," said Dr. Mark Shaffer, senior vice president for programs at Defenders of Wildlife. "No one is more anxious to see successful wolf recovery than the signers of this letter and the conservation groups that have invested years in the project, but for USFWS to pull the plug prematurely will undo the progress we've made and delay true recovery, perhaps for decades."

A core concern of the scientists signing the letter is that the draft rule would eliminate prospects of wolf recovery in areas of prime habitat outside of the Great Lakes and northern Rockies. The proposed rule "overlooks or abrogates scientific and legal principles including the USFWS's affirmative responsibility to restore gray wolf populations to 'significant gaps' within the species' historic range that are currently unoccupied, but where restoration remains feasible," the scientists wrote.

"Scientists have concluded that top predators, notably the gray wolf, are absolutely essential for long-term maintenance of the balance of nature and therefore the long-term maintenance of biodiversity," noted Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund.

The USFWS proposal is coming under fire from all sides, including a letter from fish and wildlife agencies in five different states expressing serious concerns about the draft rule.

"Politics rather than science seems to be driving the department on this issue, but it seems to be driving them straight into a brick wall," said Jen Callahan, Rocky Mountain director of the Wildlands Project.

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Taxidermist Admits to Selling Tiger Meat

CHICAGO, Illinois, June 3, 2002 (ENS) - Kevin Ramsey, a former Illinois taxidermist, has pleaded guilty to illegally selling the meat of eight tigers.

Ramsey is one of seven Illinois men and a suburban Chicago meat market indicted earlier this month for their roles in the illegal trafficking of exotic tigers and leopards.

In a plea agreement filed last week, Ramsey, who now lives in Mason, Wisconsin, admitted that in March 1998, he participated in the killing and skinning of the eight tigers while the tigers were confined in a trailer at a family owned warehouse in Alsip, Illinois. The meat from the tigers was then sold to an exotic meat market in Lockport, Illinois.

Ramsey also admitted to assisting in the killing of four other tigers while they were confined in a trailer at an exotic animal farm in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and transporting them to Illinois.

The illegal sale of the tiger meat is a felony violation of the Lacey Act, a federal wildlife protection law. It carries a maximum penalty of five years confinement and up to $250,000 in fines. Ramsey is scheduled to be sentenced on September 13.

Ramsey is the second Illinois defendant to plead guilty to charges filed in connection with Operation Snow Plow, a lengthy undercover investigation of the illegal trade of protected tigers and leopards by agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Timothy Laurie of Elgin, Illinois pleaded guilty last month to concealing the hide of a protected leopard that had been illegally imported, also a felony violation of the Lacey Act. In his plea agreement, Laurie admitted that in January 1997, he took possession of a skull and hide of two endangered leopards from South Africa and bought false papers indicating the parts were from captive bred animals that died from natural causes.

Laurie also admitted that, in January 1997, he purchased a tiger that was killed and skinned on his property, and then mounted by a taxidermist for display at his residence. Laurie Bought falsified forms declaring that the tiger had been donated to him.

Tigers are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The law also protects leopards, which are classified as either endangered or threatened depending on the location of the wild population.