USGS news: August science picks

August 18, 2008

In this edition of Science Picks, discover new information on the Arctic's oil and gas resources, learn about a magnitude-5.4 earthquake that rattled Los Angeles, and find out about recent explosive eruptions of volcanoes in Alaska. Learn about carbon farming, a plague vaccine for endangered ferrets, and how lead shot and sinkers are impacting nearby fish and wildlife. The 2008 Olympics games are underway; do you know how the Chinese culture is being incorporated into the medals? Learn about these science facts and much more! If you would like to receive Science Picks via e-mail, would like to change the recipient, or no longer want to receive it, please e-mail

August Highlights:

LEADS: (top news, updates and happenings in natural science)

90 Billion Barrels of Oil and 1,670 Trillion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas Assessed in the Arctic

The area north of the Arctic Circle has an estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of technically recoverable natural gas liquids in 25 geologically defined areas thought to have potential for petroleum. The USGS assessment is the first publicly available petroleum resource estimate of the entire area north of the Arctic Circle. These resources account for about 22 percent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources in the world. The Arctic accounts for about 13 percent of the undiscovered oil, 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20 percent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids in the world. About 84 percent of the estimated resources are expected to occur offshore. To learn more about the USGS Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal and to see results of the assessment, please visit For a podcast interview about the appraisal, listen to episode 55 of CoreCast at For more information, contact Jessica Robertson at 703-648-6624 or

Magnitude-5.4 Earthquake Rattles Los Angeles Area

A magnitude-5.4 earthquake rattled Los Angeles on July 29, causing strong shaking and minor damage. The earthquake was felt from Arizona to Nevada. Nearly 50 aftershocks have been recorded so far: most of them small, many of them felt, and the largest being a magnitude-3.8. The last notable earthquakes causing significant damage in the area were the January 17, 1994, magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake and the October 1, 1987, magnitude-5.9 Whittier Narrows earthquake. In 1999, the magnitude-7.1 Hector Mine earthquake in a remote part of the Mojave Desert was widely felt through the greater Los Angeles region, but caused no damage. To listen to a podcast interview about the July 29, 2008, Los Angeles earthquake, visit Earthquakes cannot be predicted, but earthquake-prone areas such as Los Angeles can be prepared for earthquakes. The Great Southern California ShakeOut, a weeklong series of special events featuring a massive earthquake drill on November 13, 2008, in Los Angeles, is one way for the public to prepare for the next big earthquake. To learn more about the ShakeOut, visit For more information, contact Clarice Nassif Ransom at 703-648-4299 or

Explosive Eruption of Kasatochi, Cleveland, and Okmok Volcanoes in Alaska

Kasatochi Volcano in Alaska's Aleutian Islands erupted explosively August 7, sending an ash plume more than 35,000 feet into the air. Kasatochi is the third volcano to erupt in the Aleutian Islands over the last month. Okmok Volcano erupted unexpectedly and explosively on July 12, followed by Cleveland Volcano, 100 miles away, on July 21. These volcanic eruptions may pose hazards to air travel in the area. Scientists are using a combination of seismic and GPS instruments on the ground and weather and radar satellites in space to track the progress of the eruption. The Alaska Volcano Observatory is responsible for issuing timely warnings of potential volcanic disasters to affected communities and civil authorities. It is also a joint program of the USGS, the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the State of Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. Information about the current eruption of these volcanoes, including activity statements, images, background materials, and related hazards can be found on the Alaska Volcano Observatory's homepage at To listen to a podcast interview about the Kasatochi Volcano, visit For more information, contact Jennifer Adleman at 907-786-7497 or

Carbon Farm: Capturing Atmospheric CO2

Imagine a new kind of farming in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta -- carbon-capture farming, which traps atmospheric carbon dioxide and rebuilds lost soils. The USGS is working in collaboration with the California Department of Water Resources and the University of California, Davis, to make it happen. Long-standing farming practices in the Delta expose fragile peat soils to wind, rain and cultivation; emit carbon dioxide; and cause land subsidence. To capture or contain the carbon, farmers would "grow" wetlands. In doing so, they would begin to rebuild the Delta's unique peat soils, take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, ease pressure on the Delta's aging levees and infuse the region with new economic potential. A video, maps, photos and a briefing paper on carbon-capture farming are available at the USGS California Water Science Center Web site at For more information, contact James Nickles at 916-278-3016 or

Ouch! Taking a Shot at Plague: Vaccine for Endangered Ferrets

Endangered black-footed ferrets, like children, aren't exactly lining up to be stuck with a vaccine, but in an effort to help control an extensive outbreak of plague in South Dakota, some of the ferrets are getting dosed with a vaccine given by biologists. This is the first time the vaccine has been used during a major plague epizootic (an animal version of a human epidemic). Sylvatic plague is an infectious bacterial disease usually transmitted from animal to animal by fleas. This exotic disease is usually deadly for both black-footed ferrets and their primary prey, prairie dogs. Black-footed ferrets are one of the rarest mammals in North America and black-tailed prairie dogs are being reconsidered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The plague vaccine was developed by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease for humans and is being tested for animals at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI. For more information, contact Catherine Puckett at 352-264-3532 or

Lead Shot and Sinkers: Weighty Implications for Fish and Wildlife Health

Millions of pounds of lead used in hunting, fishing and shooting sports wind up in the environment each year and can threaten or kill wildlife, according to a new scientific report. Lead is a metal with no known beneficial role in biological systems, and its use in gasoline, paint, pesticides and solder in food cans has nearly been eliminated. Although lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991, its use in ammunition for upland hunting, shooting sports, and in fishing tackle remains common. Numerous studies have documented adverse effects to wildlife, especially waterbirds and scavenging species, like hawks and eagles. Lead exposure from ingested lead shot, bullets and fishing sinkers has also been reported in reptiles, and studies near shooting ranges have shown evidence of lead poisoning in small mammals. To obtain a copy of the report, visit For more information, contact Catherine Puckett at 352-264-3532 or

FEEDS: (USGS tools and resources)

Olympic Medals: New Design Reflects Chinese Culture

Three thousand medals -- 1,000 each of the gold, silver and bronze -- will be awarded at the 2008 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games this month. For the first time in Olympic history, the metals will incorporate a distinctive band of jade, representing honor and virtue in traditional Chinese culture. Gold, silver and copper from Australia and Chile were donated by BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, to be combined with jade from the Qinghai Province of China to create medals for the winning athletes. For statistics and information on the worldwide supply of, demand for and flow of minerals and materials, including gold, silver, copper and jade, visit For more information, contact Jessica Robertson at 703-648-6624 or

Spring Nutrient Delivery to the Gulf Estimated Among Highest in Three Decades

Spring nutrient delivery from the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin to the northern Gulf of Mexico is estimated to be among the highest in the last three decades. Nutrient delivery, particularly during the months of April through June, has been identified as one of the primary factors controlling the size of the hypoxic zone that forms during the summer in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf hypoxic zone is an area where oxygen levels drop too low to support most life in bottom and near-bottom waters. The large nutrient contributions are primarily due to near record-breaking streamflows this spring from April through June in the Mississippi River Basin. Streamflows were about 50 percent higher this year compared to the long-term spring average flows since about 1980. Estimated nutrient contributions from October 2007 through June 2008 are available at For more information, contact Jennifer LaVista at 703-648-4432 or

Climate Impacts Mosquito Abundance in California

Seasonal climate conditions cause changes in spring and summer mosquito abundance in California, according to recent scientific research. This research will help public health systems at local and state levels to forecast the abundance of disease carriers and the risk of viruses associated with the presence of mosquitoes. Scientists have identified that both precipitation and temperature fluctuations, from as early as the previous fall through early summer, impact mosquito populations. The mosquito species examined Culex tarsalis, carry encephalitis and West Nile Virus. To conduct this research, the science team, which included two USGS researchers, analyzed more than 50 years of weekly mosquito abundance records from California's comprehensive mosquito surveillance program. To read the report published in the Journal of Vector Ecology, visit For more information, contact Dan Cayan at 858-534-4507 or

Prehistoric Packrats Piled Up Clues to Climate Change

Scientists studying climate change in the Southwestern United States are getting a helping hand -- or paw -- from ancient packrats. By hoarding parts of plants and animals, such as seeds, leaves and bones in garbage piles, or "middens," these bushy-tailed rodents preserved crucial environmental information from specific times and places in the past. From these middens, scientists are able to reconstruct plant communities and their environments from as long ago as 50,000 years. The contents of middens allow scientists to understand how ecosystems responded to past changes in climate, especially periods of rapidly increasing temperature. The insights gained from midden research could offer clues to future changes driven by rapid climate shifts. Studies are being conducted by scientists from the USGS and Northern Arizona University. To learn more about the use and value of packrat midden research, visit For more information, contact Kenneth Cole at 928-523-7767 or

STORY SEEDS: (points to ponder or investigate)

Parasites Weigh In: Small Size -- Big Impact

Impacts of parasites on their hosts and ecosystems are more profound than you might think. Parasites are generally perceived to be very small, but a new study in Nature shows that parasites contribute far more bulk than previously thought -- and suggests they are important players in ecosystems. USGS scientists and collaborators quantified the biomass of free-living organisms and their parasites in three estuaries on the Pacific coast of California and Baja California. Although the researchers found the total mass of parasites to be generally less than 2 percent that of their hosts, by their estimates, parasitic biomass in the estuaries was comparable to the biomass of several major groups of free-living animals and greater than that of birds, the principal top predators in the estuaries. To read the article, visit For more information, contact Kevin Lafferty at 805-893-8778 or

Unsure about Climate Change? Just ask your Local Fish and Big-Game Species

Glaciers are receding, the lengths of seasons are changing, and many areas in the western United States are undergoing drought. However, some people still aren't certain if climate change is a long-term event or temporary trend. So why not look at those that will be most affected by the impacts of climate change on our Rocky Mountain ecosystems: wildlife? That is what USGS scientists and collaborators are doing. Two studies are underway to examine how climate change may be impacting the habitats of native fish (cutthroat trout, grayling and bull trout) and big game (elk, moose, mule deer and pronghorn antelope). The goal of both projects is to provide tools that will help wildlife managers predict potential climate-change-induced impacts on wildlife throughout the Rocky Mountains and the interior western United States. For more information, visit or contact Jeff Kershner at 406-994-5304 or

The First Step Home? Salmon's Journey Back to Upper Klamath Lake

Young Chinook Salmon should be able to grow and develop in the waters of Upper Klamath Lake and the Williamson River, according to a new study. This could be their first step in a journey back to ancestral waters not accessible since 1918. Researchers found that water-quality conditions in those bodies of water appear adequate for the development and survival of the salmon. To determine how Chinook salmon would respond to being reintroduced to the Upper Klamath Basin, scientists examined the response of Iron Gate Hatchery fall-run Chinook salmon, which are a potential candidate for reintroduction. The study was conducted by the USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Oregon State University. To view the report, visit For more information, contact Alec Maule at 509-538-2299 or

Saltwater Contamination Monitored Daily in Brunswick, Ga.

High-tech equipment recently installed on wells now provides daily information to better protect Brunswick, Ga., against saltwater contamination. The freshwater supply in a two-square mile area near that city is contaminated from saltwater. The USGS designed and recently installed an innovative measurement system using satellite telemetry to enable daily monitoring of surrounding fresh ground-water resources for saltwater contamination. In the past, we could only monitor salinity levels on an annual basis. Now, this new equipment will help monitor potential movement of saltwater to any surrounding fresh ground-water resources on a daily basis. For more information, contact John Clarke at 770-903-9170 or

US Geological Survey

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