USGS science picks

December 28, 2009

December Highlights:

LEADS: (top news in natural science)

An Eruption of Volcano Monitoring Improvements

Volcanoes can be catastrophic. Lava flows and debris avalanches can choke major riverways, destroy bridges and devastate natural areas. Scientists from the USGS work with partners around the world to actively monitor the world's volcanoes. They use seismometers to detect and monitor very small earthquakes that indicate that magma is rising. They also use GPS to detect changes in the size of the volcano. The USGS has allocated over $7 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to 15 universities and state agencies nationwide to modernize the equipment in volcano monitoring networks and produce high-resolution maps of high-threat volcanoes. For more information on volcano monitoring, visit the USGS Volcano Hazards Program Web site at For more information on these recovery funds, visit the USGS Newsroom at For details on these improvements, contact John Eichelberger at or (703) 648-6711.

The King of the North Pole: Brutus the Wolf

Thanks to a GPS/satellite collar worn by a wolf named Brutus, scientists can finally find out what arctic wolves do during the winter. For a long time, scientists could only study these wolves during a few months out of the year, because the winter is too harsh for scientists to stay. There is 24 hours of darkness, and temperatures can fall to negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The GPS/satellite collar makes it possible for Brutus to email information about his pack right to the offices of USGS scientists. You can follow Brutus and his pack at Will the wolves travel all the way to the North Pole? What will they eat? How far will they have to travel to find food? To hear more about Brutus, check out USGS CoreCast Episode 111 at For more information visit the USGS Newsroom at, or contact David Mech at or (651) 649-5231.

Landslide in Colorado Feeling Pressure

When the pressure above you changes, you may notice that your ears pop. Mountains notice changes in pressure too. Recently, USGS scientists working on the Slumgullion Landslide in Colorado have found that periods of low atmospheric pressure can trigger landslides. Landslides happen when there isn't much friction on a mountainside. This condition is usually caused by rain or snow, which can make the mountain slippery. Scientists found that when there is low pressure, there is also less friction holding the rocks and sediment in place. This research suggests that rapid pressure variations associated with some fast-moving storm systems could trigger landslides. Landslides cause thousands of casualties and billions of dollars of damage annually, and this new research will help managers and scientists better plan for landslides. For details visit the USGS landslides Web site at or view the full report at For more information contact Bill Schulz at or (303) 273-8404.

FEEDS: (science updates and happenings)

The Oldest Business in North America:

The Miwok Tribe conducted perhaps the oldest business in North America. Long before textiles were produced en masse or Andrew Carnegie perfected steel manufacturing, this ancient group of Native Americans was manufacturing and trading salt. New research from the USGS reveals that hundreds of man-made basins three to four feet in diameter were carved into solid granite and cover an area the size of a football field in the Sierra Nevada. These basins were filled with water from a nearby salt spring. When the water evaporated in the hot summer months, a salt residue that could be harvested was left at the bottom. They could manufacture three tons of salt each season, giving them more than enough for use within their own community and a surplus for trade. For details go to the USGS Newsroom at or check out the full report at For more information contact Jim Moore at or (650) 329-5244.

Unmanned Aircraft Flying High

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) technology can go where no scientist has ever gone before. Using these remote controlled planes, USGS scientists will be able to research the most remote and dangerous areas, such as polar regions, volcanic islands and expansive deserts. Manned aircraft flights are rarely possible in these areas due to long flight times and hazardous weather conditions. The USGS has long been known as an authoritative source of aerial photography and satellite-based imagery. This technology, developed by the U.S. Army, will allow the USGS to understand landscape change and conduct wildlife inventories with a level of detail and precision never before attainable. Details can be found in the USGS Newsroom at For more information contact Heidi Koontz at or (303) 202-4763.

Cuckoos are Coo-Coo for Native Trees

When you hear "ka, ka, ka, ka, ka, kow, kow" you know there's a yellow-billed cuckoo in the area. Once a common call heard from Canada to Mexico and throughout the Western United States, the western yellow-billed cuckoo is now a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Research by USGS and Northern Arizona University scientists shows that cuckoos in Arizona prefer breeding habitat dominated by native trees, especially cottonwoods and willows and need large, continuous areas of habitat near rivers and streams. These findings will help resource managers conserve and manage riparian habitats needed to ensure the survival of the western yellow-billed cuckoo. Learn more about the cuckoo and research to conserve the species at For more information, contact Matthew Johnson at or (928) 523-7764.

Climate Change: Nitrogen Adds to the Equation

Nitrogen from human activities is a significant source of greenhouse gases. Eleven percent of human-caused greenhouse gases comes from nitrous oxide. It also has significant negative effects on ecosystems, particularly protected national parks and wilderness areas. Nitrogen impacts were discussed on the world stage at the UN Climate Change Convention in Copenhagen this month. USGS scientist Jill Baron moderated a side event panel on "Options for Including Nitrogen Management in Climate Policy Development." This U.S. State Department-sanctioned event highlighted nitrogen's role in climate processes and presented nitrogen management strategies to help mitigate climate change and minimize ecological impacts. The panel was sponsored by the UN Scientific Committee on Problems in the Environment, an arm of the UN Environment Programme. For more on nitrogen impacts, Jill Baron's work, or information about the side event, contact Jill Baron at or (970) 491-1968.

STORY SEEDS: (points to ponder or investigate)

Snowpack a Predictor of Lightning Ignitions and Flammability

Did you know that snow could be a predictor of forest fires? Scientists from the University of Washington and USGS found that a projected decrease in spring snowpack is correlated with an increase in number and size of fires that are started by lightning. Less snow also increases the severity of the burn. Depending on conditions, lightning strikes can cause fires that burn large areas. Many climate change scenarios predict decreases in the snowpack in areas like Yosemite, where this study was conducted, making conditions more suited for fires started by lightning. In a new report published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, these scientists project nearly 20 percent more lightning ignitions and more than 20 percent more area burned at high severity annually by mid-century. For more information, contact Jan van Wagtendonk at or (209) 379-1306.

Red Alert! Valuable Mineral found in Alaska

The chemical that produces red color in television monitors and LED used for energy-efficient light bulbs has been discovered in the Taylor Mountains quadrangle of Alaska. Europium has been found by USGS scientists in dark, pellet-like grains of the mineral monazite along with other metals of commercial interest such as gold, collected from Taylor Mountain area streams. Currently, the U.S. europium supply is scarce and limited to ore found in California and imported from China. A report of the findings is available in the December 2009 edition of Explore, the Association of Applied Geochemists newsletter. For more information or a copy of the report contact William Benzel at

A Wave of Tsunami Research

Just days after a tsunami struck American Samoa on September 29, USGS scientists rushed to the scene. This rapid-response tsunami research on water levels and sediment in American Samoa is essential to tsunami preparation and education. The research contributes to tsunami models, which are used in planning evacuation routes and construction. If the researchers had waited any longer, much of the data they were collecting would have disappeared with recovery activities and natural processes. Hear more about USGS tsunami research in USGS CoreCast Episode 110 at For more information, check out the USGS Newsroom at, or contact Bruce Jaffe at or (831) 427-4742.

Research Takes Flight on Seabirds

From the cold Arctic of Alaska to the tropical Pacific of Hawai`i, USGS scientists are actively studying a diverse array of seabird species. Seabirds, which are sensitive indicators of marine ecosystems, face a number of threats, such as oil spills, introduction of predators, and conflicts with fisheries, requiring increased levels of scientific information and management. On-going studies in Alaska involve the Kittlitz's Murrelet, a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act, and the Marbled Murrelet, presently listed as 'Threatened.' In the San Francisco Bay Estuary, scientists are investigating the effects of mercury contamination on terns and cormorants. Other studies involve the negative effects on Forster's Terns due to the conversion of several thousand acres of salt ponds into tidal marsh habitat under the costly South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. For more information about these studies and other seabird research see or contact Durelle Smith at or (907) 786-7104.
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