USGS Science Picks

December 12, 2008

You are invited to join our scientists and learn more about climate change, floods, volcanoes, ground water and more at the American Geophysical Conference in California! The holiday season is just around the corner -- how many of you know why mistletoe is not just for kissing or what minerals make up your holiday lights? In this edition of Science Picks, you can learn how a prehistoric climate period is providing clues about future changes and about recent estimates of large deposits of gas hydrates on Alaska's North Slope. Discover the new USGS photo and video galleries and find the imagery you crave. Check out stunning earth imagery, footage of a surging glacier, hurricanes, bears and 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

December and November Highlights:

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

American Geophysical Union Conference: Climate Change, Floods, Volcanoes, Ground Water and More!
USGS scientists will discuss climate change, floods, northern forests, soils, coral reefs, earthquakes, volcanoes, methylmercury, ground water, and more at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, Calif., from December 15��. Press conferences scheduled at the conference include USGS science for the revitalization of Afghanistan and the release of a new U.S. Climate Change Science Program report on Abrupt Climate Change. USGS scientists are also leading a day-long field trip for journalists and reporters around the San Francisco Bay area to investigate the varied instrumentation used to measure movement of the Earth's crust. For more information on USGS presentations at the conference, you can view our tip sheet at or contact Leslie Gordon at 650-329-4006 or For meeting information, visit

A Kiss is Just a Kiss -- Mistletoe is So Much More
This Christmas when you pucker up under the mistletoe, consider this: while festive and fun, mistletoe also provides essential food, cover and nesting sites for an amazing number of birds, butterflies and mammals in the United States. There are more than 1300 types of mistletoe around the world, and more than 20 of them are endangered. But don't be fooled; mistletoe can be downright deceiving, as one USGS scientist learned on a recent collaborative expedition to quantify perennial plant diversity in Baja Norte and Baja Sur, Mexico, where he first encountered a "tree with two kinds of flowers." To find out more, check out "Not Just for Kissing: Mistletoe and Birds, Bees, and Other Beasts" at or contact Todd Esque at (702) 564-4506 or

Deck the Halls with Boughs of ... Minerals?
Is your home all decked out for the holidays? As you gaze at your glowing trimmings, you might pause to wonder what gives your delightful décor some of its traditional seasonal color: cobalt oxide, cadmium sulfide and sulfur. According to USGS scientists who collect worldwide data on almost all mineral resources, holiday lights are made with these and other minerals from around the world. The world's supply of minerals -- such as salt, manganese and lime -- lights up the holiday season, helping many nations and cultures to celebrate their long-time traditions. In 2007, the mineral materials processed domestically accounted for more than $575 billion in the U.S. economy. To learn more about how minerals make the holidays bright and the economy roll, visit For more information about other mineral related topics, visit the USGS Mineral Resources Program Web site at or contact Dennis Kostick at (703) 648-7715 or

Prehistoric Climate Provides Clues to Future Changes
The USGS led research has resulted in the first comprehensive reconstruction of an extreme warm period. This reconstruction shows the sensitivity of the climate system to changes in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. It also shows the strong influence that ocean temperatures, heat transport from equatorial regions, and greenhouse gases have on Earth's temperature. Past warm periods provide real data on climate change and are natural laboratories for understanding the global climate system. New data allow scientists to better understand today's warming and to more accurately predict future climate conditions. For this study, scientists examined fossils from 3.3 to 3.0 million years ago, known as the mid-Pliocene warm period. Research was conducted by the Pliocene Research, Interpretation and Synoptic Mapping group, led by the USGS. For a podcast interview about this research, listen to Episode 77 of USGS CoreCast at For more information and to view the compiled data, visit You can also contact Jessica Robertson at 703-648-6624 or

Gas Hydrates on Alaska's North Slope: Large Deposit of Natural Gas
The USGS estimates that there are 85.4 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable gas from natural gas hydrates on the Alaskan North Slope. The USGS assessment is the first-ever resource estimate of technically recoverable natural gas hydrates, which are a clean-burning resource and are naturally occurring, ice-like solids in which water molecules trap natural gas molecules in a cage-like structure known as a clathrate. "Technically recoverable" means the resource can be discovered, developed, and produced using current technology and industry practices. Further research is still needed to demonstrate gas hydrates as an economically producible resource, but this research shows the significant potential for natural gas hydrates to contribute to the U.S. and world energy mix. For more information about this assessment, visit or listen to a podcast interview with USGS scientists at You can also contact Jessica Robertson at 703-648-6624 or

Man-Made Chemicals Found in Drinking Water at Low Levels
Safe drinking water supplies are critical to maintaining and preserving public health, but how healthy is that resource? Low levels of certain man made chemicals remain in public water supplies after being treated in selected community water facilities. Water from nine selected rivers, used as a source for public water systems, was analyzed in a study by the USGS. Most of the man-made chemicals assessed in the study are unregulated in drinking water and not required to be monitored or removed. Scientists tested water samples for about 260 commonly used chemicals, including pesticides, solvents, gasoline hydrocarbons, personal care and household-use products, disinfection by-products, and manufacturing additives. For more information visit or contact Jennifer LaVista at 703-648-4432 or

Reversing Coral Reef Decline in Hawaii -- A New Look at a Critical Problem
New discoveries about how even small amounts of sediment can severely impact fragile ocean coral and suggestions about solutions are illustrated and described in a new book written by a team of USGS scientists and their colleagues. Coral reefs are in decline worldwide, and a leading cause is the runoff of sediment and pollutants from nearby land surfaces. Scientists conducted a multiyear study of the long fringing coral reef off south Molokai. In the new book, they explain the geologic evolution and natural processes that shape the reef, outline impacts to the reef that are a result of human activity on the land, and explore alternatives for the future. To view the publication, "The Coral Reef of South Moloka'i, Hawai'i -- Portrait of a Sediment-Threatened Fringing Reef," visit For more information about USGS coral reef studies, please visit Or you can contact Michael Field at 831-427-4737 or

FEEDS: (USGS tools and resources)

What and Where is Snæfellsjökull?
Now you can find out! You can also learn where Eyjafjallajökull, Breiðamerkurjökull, and Þórisjökull are and what they look like too. These are not typos; they are just four of the geographic names gleaned from literature dating back to 13th century Icelandic sagas, for Iceland's 269 modern named glaciers. The publication Geographic Names of Iceland's Glaciers: Historic and Modern includes descriptions, a striking array of aerial and ground photographs, satellite images, maps, geographic coordinates, and bibliographic citations for the use of all glacier place-names on published maps and in the literature to document each of the 269 modern-named glaciers of Iceland. For more information, visit or contact Richard S. Williams, Jr., at

Acidic Soils in Slovakia Tell Somber Tale
A new experiment conducted in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia examined what would happen when nitrogen levels in soils, typically from industry and agriculture, in any part of the world increase to certain levels. Findings show that high nitrogen levels could result in increased acidification of soils at levels only seen before from acid mine drainage areas. These levels result in reduced plant growth and increased pollution of surface water. Nitrogen levels in soils throughout Europe and North America have already left these countries susceptible to these impacts, and the levels tested in this study are similar to those projected to occur in parts of Europe by 2050, according to some global change models. This study was recently published in Nature Geoscience and was conducted by the USGS, University of Colorado, University of Montana, and Slovak Academy of Sciences. For more information, visit or contact Catherine Puckett at 352-264-3532 or

Pavement Sealcoat Linked to U.S. Lake Contamination
Dust collected from coal-tar seal coated parking lots in central and eastern U.S. cities contains concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are about 1,000 times greater than levels found in western cities, where coal-tar sealcoat is less commonly used, according to a USGS study recently published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. PAHs are an environmental concern because they are toxic to aquatic life and several are suspected carcinogens. The new study also shows that coal-tar sealcoat -- the shiny black material applied to many parking lots and driveways -- is contributing to PAH contamination in many of the nation's urban lakes. More information about PAHs, coal tar, and sealants is available at You can also contact Dave Ozman at 303-202-4744 or

Human Footprint in Western U.S.: Impact to Wildlife and Plants
Over the past 100 years, human actions have dramatically altered wildlands in the western United States. Human-induced changes to the landscape can result in unsuitable habitat conditions, thereby influencing the number and kinds of plants and wildlife that remain. USGS scientists developed a map of the human footprint for the western United States from an analysis of 14 features, including human habitation, roads, irrigation canals, power lines, campgrounds, landfills, oil and gas development, and human-induced fires. Scientists developed seven models that explored how humans influence wildlife populations via changes in habitat or predator abundance. Managers can use these models to help plan land-use actions, develop restoration scenarios and identify conservation areas. To view the map, visit For more information, contact Matthias Leu at 208-426-2598 or

How Many Grizzlies in Glacier National Park?
USGS scientists estimate that 241 grizzly bears live in and around Glacier National Park in Montana -- that's 30 grizzlies for every 386 square miles. This study presents the first rigorous estimate of grizzly bear population density and distribution for this area. The results of this study were published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management and can be found on the journal Web site at To find out more about the project, visit or contact Katherine Kendall at 406-888-7994 or

STORY SEEDS: (points to ponder or investigate)

Watch a Glacier Surge into a River in Near Real Time
Want to see what happens when a glacier meets a river? New cameras installed near the end of the surging Tweedsmuir Glacier in British Columbia, Canada, will give you play-by-play shots of the action -- as it happens. The near real-time cameras were installed to monitor the ongoing advance of the glacier and to support decisions to protect communities from potential floods. The surge began during the fall of 2007, and since then, the glacier has advanced more than 1.2 kilometers, entering the Alsek River. An additional advance of approximately 100 meters will completely block the river, creating a glacier-dammed lake. Failure of this dam feature would result in downriver flooding to the Gulf of Alaska, passing near or through the community of Dry Bay in the United States. Glacier surges tend to last 1�� years, and Tweedsmuir surges every couple of decades, but this surge is stronger than previous ones. This effort was done in cooperation between the USGS, the National Park Service, British Columbia Parks, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. To see the camera images, visit For more information, contact Shad O'Neel at 907-786-7088.

Free, Global Access to USGS Earth Imagery
Scientists and decision makers will soon have unrestricted global access at no charge to the USGS Landsat archive, the world's most extensive collection of continuously acquired land imagery. The full collection is expected to be available online, for the first time with no user fees, by the end of this year under a policy initiated by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne. The wider availability of images from Landsat and other Earth-observation satellites will assist both developing and developed countries as the world's increasing population deals with the effects of climate change and limitations of water, petroleum and other vital resources. This development was recently recognized and applauded by the international Group on Earth Observations at its annual plenary meeting in Romania. For more information, visit or You can also contact Jon Campbell at 703-648-4180 or

New USGS Video and Image Gallery
Earth science images and videos are available at your fingertips at the new USGS Video and Image Gallery. Arctic glaciers, hurricane flooding, and grizzly bears are just a few of the topics from around the globe captured in the gallery with high-quality, downloadable content. These free media can be reproduced in blogs, news stories, school projects and more -- just remember to give proper credit to the USGS, please! The gallery is a great way to keep up with what the USGS is doing in natural hazards, climate change projects, and natural resource research around the world. Visit the gallery at For more information, contact Scott Horvath at 703-648-4011 or

Understanding the Level of Protection for Alaskan Species
Scientists are studying species range and distribution in Alaska to help identify those that have a significant portion of their habitat outside the formal network of protection, such as National Parks or National Wildlife Refuges. The project will develop a comprehensive statewide species occurrence database of more than 400 species. By identifying their habitats, land managers and policy makers are better informed to make decisions when identifying priority areas for conservation. This project is a collaborative effort between the USGS, the University of Alaska and the Alaska Natural Heritage Program. You can learn more about this effort and the USGS GAP Analysis Program by visiting For more information, contact John Mosesso at or 703-648-4079.

US Geological Survey

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