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October 15, 2018

Wildlife groups seek help for California owl

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Loggers cutting down forests burned in wildfires could bring about the extinction of California spotted owls, wildlife advocates said Tuesday as they sought protection for the birds under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The petition says emerging science has shown that the owls thrive in old growth forests that are still living as well as those that have been burned and turned black by high-intensity forest fires.

That finding contradicts current common practice of the U.S. Forest Service, which opens up some burned forests to loggers, the petition states.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Heil said officials don’t believe the California spotted owl is in danger of extinction. The agency maintains that massive wildfires are the greatest threat to the owls and works to ensure the owl’s habitat is maintained or improved, he said.

Spotted owls have declined throughout California by about 40 percent in the past three decades, said Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist at the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute and one of the petitioners.

There are an estimated 1,200 pairs nesting in the state stretching from Lassen National Forest in the north to San Bernardino National Forest in the south, he said.

Without federal protection, Hanson said the owls could be gone after another three decades of logging.

“You don’t call that a decline,” he said. “Science is telling us loudly that this species is at serious risk of extinction.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which denied protection to the spotted owl in 2006 under a similar request, has three months to decide if there is evidence to support the request and open a deeper discussion. Officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment, saying they had not yet seen the 130-page petition.

Rangers monitor California spotted owls and are currently updating a 1992 study to determine what help is needed. That study should be ready early next year with a conservation strategy complete by 2016, Heil said.

Mike Albrecht, a logger and owner of Sierra Resources Management, said removing burned trees creates healthier forests, which benefits spotted owls and people. Loggers have left large swaths of forests in California untouched, which are open to wildlife, he said.

“It’s a little misleading to blame logging or massive fires or any one thing on the demise of the spotted owl,” he said. “We’re all working hard to preserve it.”

Monica Bond, a biologist with the Wild Nature Institute and one of the petitioners, said a 400-square-mile area burned in the 2013 Rim Fire is a prime example of the logic in the petition.

Spotted owls have flourished a year after the Sierra Nevada’s largest fire in recorded history raced through Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, she said. Hanson and Bond have taken part in a lawsuit attempting to stop logging in the Rim Fire area.

“The fact is that logging is going to hurt owls,” she said. “It’s time to give this owl some help.”

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Wildlife groups seek help for California owl

Asteroid Science: How 'Armageddon' Got It Wrong

WAIMEA, Hawaii — In the 1998 movie “Armageddon,” an asteroid the size of Texas threatens to collide with Earth in 18 days. To save the planet from destruction, a ragtag team of deep-sea oil drillers volunteers to divert the massive space rock by burying a nuclear bomb beneath its surface and blasting it into two pieces that will fly past Earth.

But despite its entertainment value, the film is fantastically inaccurate, said astronomer Phil Plait, who writes the “Bad Astronomy” blog on Slate.com.

“Don’t go to Hollywood for advice on how to deal with an asteroid,” Plait told a small but packed audience here Saturday (Sept. 13) at HawaiiCon, a science, sci-fi and fantasy convention on the Island of Hawaii. The three-day convention featured talks and events with celebrities from popular sci-fi TV series, as well as experts on space and astronomy. [Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth]

During his talk, Plait showed a clip from “Armageddon” in which Bruce Willis’ character struggles to detonate the bomb, by hand, before the asteroid smacks into Earth and destroys all life.

“There are more mistakes in that clip than video frames,” Plait said. In order to blow up an asteroid the size of the one in the film, the bomb would have to explode with the same amount of energy as that produced by the sun, he said.

Even if you could make such a weapon, “it would be way more dangerous than the asteroid itself.” What’s more, now you don’t just have an asteroid — you have a radioactive asteroid, he said.

But while real-life science in “Armageddon” fails miserably, you can find much more accurate science in the similarly plotted film “Deep Impact,” also released in 1998, Plait said. In that movie, a teenage amateur astronomer discovers a 7-mile-wide (11 kilometers) comet on a path that will smash into Earth in two years.

As in “Armageddon,” humanity sends a team of people to the space rock to destroy it with a nuclear weapon, but this time, the blast needed is much smaller, and the fragments produced by the explosion still end up heading for Earth. One of the pieces plunges into the Atlantic Ocean, generating a mega tsunami that floods Manhattan and many major coastlines, a scenario that is actually pretty accurate, Plait said.

But even “Deep Impact” gets some things wrong. The asteroid mission sends a spaceship to blow up the other comet chunk, producing fragments that burn up harmlessly in Earth’s atmosphere instead of causing deadly impacts — not a very likely scenario, Plait said.

In real life, asteroids and comets that could hit Earth — so-called “near-Earth objects” — do pose a threat to life on the planet.

Fortunately, NASA and other organizations, such as the B612 Foundation based in Menlo Park, California, monitor the skies for these threats. Unfortunately, not all of the dangers are detectable. In fact, scientists sometimes only discover some of these nearby space rocks after the objects have already swung by and missed the planet.

Bigger telescopes are needed to detect more of these unwelcome visitors, and the earlier they can be detected, the easier it will be to deflect them, Plait said.

Editor’s Note: This story was generated during a trip paid for by the Hawaii Tourism Bureau.

Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Asteroid Science: How 'Armageddon' Got It Wrong

How Google Street View is Tackling Methane Leaks

Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), contributed this article to Live Science’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Throughout history, maps have played a critical role in shaping decisions — helping people determine where they are going and how to get there. Now, maps are defining a way to address methane leaks, a potent contributor to climate change. Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach have just launched a series of maps that show methane leaks from natural gas pipelines under city streets in Boston, Indianapolis and Staten Island. The new tool has the power to greatly improve how cities and utilities can minimize methane emissions.

 

Why care about methane?

A recent tide of scientific studies, such as a recent study of emissions in Pennsylvania, have examined how methane — the primary component of natural gas — is escaping from the natural gas supply chain. Such research has made it clear how much that leakage is affecting global carbon dioxide levels.

One of natural gas’s potential benefits over other fossil fuels is that, when burned, it produces less carbon dioxide — half as much as coal — to yield the same amount of energy. If used wisely to rapidly displace dirty coal-power plants, for example, natural gas could help the country dramatically reduce overall greenhouse-gas emissions. 

Unburned, however, methane is 84 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide for the first 20 years after it is released. While methane doesn’t linger as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it is initially far more devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat. If too much methane escapes along the supply chain — anywhere between the well and the end user — it could postpone the climate benefits of fuel switching, a delay we can ill afford. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, roughly one-third of methane emissions in the United States come from the oil and gas industry, and one third of the warming we are currently experiencing comes from anthropogenically released methane in the atmosphere — addressing methane leakage in the natural gas supply chain is critical. 

With great data comes great responsibility

For our analysis of methane emissions from local distribution pipes, Google equipped three Street View cars with methane analyzers and drove through large portions of Boston, Staten Island and Indianapolis collecting methane concentration data, GPS data and wind speed and direction data every half second. Our science team, in partnership with Colorado State University (CSU) researchers, developed a first-of-its-kind algorithm to translate the patterns of concentration data collected by the Street View cars into methane-leak rates for individual leaks. These data and the accompanying maps are designed to help the public, utilities and regulators better understand the pattern and scale of urban methane leaks. 

For example, we observed one leak per mile of road driven in Boston and Staten Island, a borough of New York City. Depending on the size of those leaks, the climate impact over the next 20 years — for each leak — ranged from the equivalent of driving a car 100 miles every single day up to driving more than 9,000 miles every day. These data will allow utilities to better prioritize which leaks to repair or pipes to replace, enabling them to get rid of the larger leaks much faster than was possible before. 

Helping utilities help themselves 

The local utilities — like National Grid, the utility in both Boston and Staten Island, and Citizens in Indianapolis — helped validate the data and provided insight into where their repair efforts should be targeted. Leaks even larger than those we saw in our surveys are of the greatest public safety concern; but those leaks are usually identified and fixed quickly. Smaller leaks are monitored by the utilities, but can go unfixed for long periods of time, spewing significant amounts of climate pollutants into the atmosphere. The new methodologies developed to produce the maps hold the potential to benefit both public health (as leaks can sometimes trigger explosions) and the climate.  

In addition to providing a picture of leak rates across cities, these maps clearly show the value of investing in a modern natural-gas infrastructure. Older pipes made of cast iron and unprotected steel can corrode as they age, making them more vulnerable to leaks. Plastic pipes, which are used in newer systems, are more durable over time and leak much less. The 200-times-lower frequency of leaks in Indianapolis, versus Boston and Staten Island, clearly indicates the value of Indianapolis’s decision to upgrade to plastic pipes.  

Investing in newer infrastructure pays off three-fold: 

  • Minimize safety risks from explosions;
  • Climate benefits; 
  • Keeps marketable product out of the air and in the pipeline.

In the early 80s, the utility Citizens in Indianapolis made replacing the city’s aging pipelines a priority. Today, pipes vulnerable to corrosion make up only one percent of Indianapolis’s local distribution system, and leak rates there are congruently low. Our efforts found only five leaks in the pipelines examined — one leak for every 200 miles mapped. While Boston, where about half of the pipes are made of materials vulnerable to corrosion and have been in the ground for more than half a century, averaged roughly one leak per mile mapped.

EDF has focused on “finding the ways that work” for almost 50 years, and this collaborative mapping project is indicative of our commitment to tapping the power of science in pursuit of effective solutions. This project takes a major step toward providing local gas-distribution utilities and regulators the scientific tools to better understand methane leaks and should spur meaningful local efforts to reduce emissions of climate pollutants — with more opportunities for effective action. By continuing our collaborations with Google, CSU, local utilities and the public, we can broaden the scope of what we know, map more pollutants in more cities and spark changes to slow the planet’s warming. 

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google +. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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How Google Street View is Tackling Methane Leaks