AmeriScan: May 18, 2007

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Southwest Drought Forecast to Worsen This Summer

WASHINGTON, DC, May 18, 2007 (ENS) - Government meteorologists are predicting that major drought in some sections of the U.S. will fuel an already busy wildfire season.

In updates of the U.S. Drought Monitor and the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook on Thursday, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, are indicating extreme drought will plague areas from Southern California into western Arizona as summer approaches.

Meanwhile, drought conditions in the Southeast are expected to show some improvement in the coming weeks and months.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows severe to extreme drought in many sections across southern Georgia, Florida, eastern Mississippi into Alabama and southern Tennessee.

In the Southwest, severe to extreme drought covers Southern California and much of Arizona, with the worst conditions extending from Southern California into western Arizona. Severe drought has expanded northward from the Nevada-California border into southern Oregon and Idaho.

Across central and southern Florida, the onset of the traditional thunderstorm season during the last half of May could lead to at least spotty drought improvements. Yet, NOAA cautions that thunderstorms come with a price; accompanying lightning could trigger more wildfires.

For other parts of the Southeast, improvement is less certain, especially with no significant relief showing up on medium-range weather forecasts.

Although tropical weather systems can lead to fast recovery from drought, NOAA scientists said they cannot speculate as to where any systems will strike in coming months, so location and timing of drought relief is uncertain.

Little drought relief is expected from California into the Great Basin.

"Since the long dry season is only just beginning for California, prospects for relief are distant and may have to wait for late autumn," said Douglas LeComte, NOAA Climate Prediction Center drought specialist. But, Arizona could experience some relief during the monsoon season, which begins in July," he said.

Farther north, drought conditions are expected to persist in Montana, Wyoming, the western Dakotas and western Nebraska but are likely to improve in the Upper Midwest.

Although drought is not predicted in Alaska, large areas have been unseasonably dry and any future warm, dry weather could lead to a serious wildfire season over the interior. Also, dryness may transition to drought in Hawaii, mainly in the leeward areas.

The drought in the Southeast dates back to July 2006. "Although the lack of hurricanes in 2006 was welcomed, the missing storms contributed to the rainfall deficits persisting to this day," said LeComte.

By contrast, in the Southwest, near record low winter precipitation has left behind dangerously low soil moisture and a high fire danger.

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Conservationists Challenge Sierra National Forest Logging

SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 18, 2007 (ENS) - Conservation groups have submitted a challenge to the United States Forest Service's approval of the Kings River Project, a logging experiment in the Sierra National Forest.

The Bush administration approved the logging project despite opposition from scientists and wildlife biologists concerned about the experiment's adverse impacts on forest health and wildlife.

Conservation groups and scientists say that the goals of reducing forest fuels and increasing fire resilience can be achieved through prescribed burning with limited thinning, without the aggressive logging proposed in the Kings River Project.

"We think there is a better way to manage Sierra forests, while working with timber interests to find long-term sustainable solutions," said Earthjustice attorney George Torgun. "It is unfortunate that the Bush administration has proposed yet another massive logging project that fails to comply with current scientific thinking and environmental law."

The complaint charges that in approving the project, the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.

Conservation groups on the complaint include Sierra Forest Legacy, Sierra Club, Earth Island Institute, and the California Native Plant Society.

"This aggressive logging experiment ignores new scientific information, and fails to achieve the project's stated goal of restoring a healthy forest and conducting meaningful research," said Craig Thomas, executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy.

The Kings River Project proposes to conduct logging operations and herbicide treatments on 131,500 acres in the Sierra National Forest over the next 25 years.

Phase I of the Project, which is the initial portion approved by the Forest Service, authorizes the treatment of 13,847 acres, which includes the logging of large trees.

Experts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the University of California have expressed concern that the Kings River logging would devastate the dwindling Pacific fisher population, which is dependent on old-growth forests.

The Bush administration has commissioned a study on impacts of logging to the Pacific fisher in the Southern Sierra, to be released this summer. Critics of the Kings River logging say that the study should be referenced to inform and guide the restoration and conservation strategy for the area.

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Deadly Fish Virus Spreads to More Species

ITHACA, New York, May 18, 2007 (ENS) - A lethal fish virus in the Great Lakes and neighboring waterways is approaching epidemic proportions, says Paul Bowser, Cornell professor of aquatic animal medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

The viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus, VHSV, which causes anemia and hemorrhaging in fish, has now been identified in 19 species and poses a potential threat to New York's $1.2 billion sport-fishing industry.

This month the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources made a presumptive identification of the virus for the first time in the Lake Winnebago chain of inland lakes about 25 miles south of Green Bay on Lake Michigan - confirmation is pending.

"It's pretty obvious this is an epidemic even if it isn't official," said Bowser. "There are just so many species affected and so many mortalities."

Three new fish kills have occurred in 2007 in New York waters since the virus was identified in the Great Lakes Basin in 2005.

In the St. Lawrence River, hundreds of thousands of round gobies have succumbed to the disease; gizzard shad die-offs from VHSV in Lake Ontario west of Rochester and in Dunkirk Harbor on Lake Erie have been reported.

And millions of dead freshwater drum formed rows of carcasses along the beaches of Lake Erie in 2006, all victims of VHSV.

Other species from the Great Lakes Basin area that have tested positive by Cornell include bluegill, rock bass, black crappie, pumpkinseed, smallmouth and largemouth bass, muskellunge, northern pike, walleye, yellow perch, channel catfish, brown bullhead, white perch, white bass, emerald shiner, bluntnose minnow, freshwater drum, round goby, gizzard shad and burbot.

Bowser suspects the virus may have originated from an infected marine fish off the Atlantic Coast. Other possible sources include the movement of infected fish by airborne or terrestrial predators, anglers using infected bait minnows, contaminated fishing equipment or live water wells in boats, boating activities and ballast water.

"Basically, we don't know how it got here, but it is here and it's spreading," said Bowser. "It would be wonderful if we did know. However, I don't think we ever will."

The Great Lakes VHSV is not related to the European or Japanese genotypes and poses no health threat to humans, said Bowser. Still, as a general rule, people should avoid eating any fish or game that appears abnormal or behaves abnormally.

Containing the virus will require restrictions on the movement of live fish, testing fish and surveillance. In Wisconsin, new emergency rules prohibit anglers and boaters from moving live fish and require them to drain their boats and live wells before leaving Wisconsin's Great Lakes waters and the Mississippi River.

The spread of the virus could have a devastating impact on aquaculture and particularly the channel catfish trade, which constitutes about 80 percent of aquaculture business in the United States, said Bowser.

Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine has received a two-year, $181,000 grant from the New York Sea Grant Program to advance a rapid technique for detecting the virus. Current tests take a month, while the Cornell test yields results within 24 hours. Researchers hope to have the new technique validated by the end of 2007 and all fieldwork completed by the end of 2008.

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University of Georgia Creates New Biofuel from Trees

ATHENS, Georgia, May 18, 2007 (ENS) A team of University of Georgia researchers has developed a new biofuel derived from wood chips.

Unlike previous fuels derived from wood, the new and still unnamed fuel can be blended with biodiesel and petroleum diesel to power conventional engines.

"The exciting thing about our method is that it is very easy to do," said Tom Adams, director of the UGA Faculty of Engineering outreach service. "We expect to reduce the price of producing fuels from biomass dramatically with this technique."

Adams, whose findings are detailed in the early online edition of the American Chemical Society journal "Energy and Fuels," explained that scientists have long been able to derive oils from wood, but they have been unable to process it effectively or inexpensively so that it can be used in conventional engines.

The University of Georgia researchers have developed a new chemical process that inexpensively treats the oil so that it can be used in unmodified diesel engines or blended with biodiesel and petroleum diesel.

Here's how the process works: Wood chips and pellets are heated in the absence of oxygen at a high temperature, a process known as pyrolysis. Up to a third of the dry weight of the wood becomes charcoal, while the rest becomes a gas.

Most of this gas is condensed into a liquid bio-oil and chemically treated. When the process is complete, about 34 percent of the bio-oil, 15 to 17 percent of the dry weight of the wood, can be used to power engines.

"Georgia has 24 million acres of forested land, and we could see increased employment and tax revenues based on this research," said Adams.

The new fuel could reduce the amount of fuel Georgia imports from other states and from other countries.

The fuel is nearly carbon neutral, meaning that it does not significantly increase heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as long as new trees are planted to replace the ones used to create the fuel.

The researchers have also set up test plots in Tifton, Georgia, to explore whether the charcoal that is produced when the fuel is made can be used as a fertilizer. Adams said that if the economics work for the charcoal fertilizer, the biofuel would be carbon negative.

Although the new biofuel has performed well, Adams said further tests are needed to assess its long-term impact on engines, its emissions characteristics and the best way to transport and store it.

"It's going to take a while before this fuel is widely available," Adams said. "We've just started on developing a new technology that has a lot of promise."

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Georgia Traditional Industries Pulp and Paper Research Program and the State of Georgia upon the recommendation of the Governor's Agriculture Advisory Committee.

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Authoritative Book on Global Warming and U.S. Law Published

CHICAGO, Illinois, May 18, 2007 (ENS) - The American Bar Association has just published a new book that presents comprehensive coverage of U.S. law as it relates to global climate change.

"Global Climate Change and U.S. Law," is edited by Michael Gerrard, a partner in the New York office of Arnold & Porter, where he heads the environmental practice group.

After a summary of the factual and scientific background, Part I outlines the international and national legal framework of climate change regulation and associated litigation.

Part II describes emerging regional, state and local actions, and includes a 50-state survey.

Part III covers issues of concern to corporations, including disclosure, fiduciary duties, insurance, and subsidies.

Part IV examines the legal aspects of efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, such as voluntary efforts, emissions trading, and carbon sequestration.

Chapters detail current climate change litigation, the most aggressive local policies to counter climate change, the impact of the un-ratified Kyoto protocol on U.S. businesses, and how climate change plays out in corporate decisions on disclosure, and fiduciary duties.

The book already has an update on the American Bar Association's website on the U.S. Supreme Court's April decision in Mass v. EPA, the first time that the Supreme Court has looked at the issue of global climate change.

The high court ruled that the EPA can and must take action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The Executive Order signed by President George W. Bush earlier this week to explore the nation's first greenhouse gas emissions regulations, rely on this Supreme Court decision.

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Injured Humpbacks Ignore Songs Played to Lure Them Seaward

SACRAMENTO, California, May 18, 2007 (ENS) - A team of marine rescuers played recorded humpback songs, today and Thursday hoping to lure an injured female whale and her wounded calf from California's Port of Sacramento back toward the Pacific Ocean.

Marine biologists said both animals had suffered what appear to be cuts from boat propellers, lending urgency to a rescue effort, but neither animal is entangled in nets or fishing lines.

The animals showed no reaction to the recorded songs. On Thursday night, a conference call was held with all of the on-water participants and other marine mammal experts from around the United States to discuss the results and future plans.

Today, the teams tried again to lure the animals back towards the ocean using acoustic calls of feeding humpbacks. After the conference call last night, some changes in frequency, volume, and type of call were made in an attempt to provoke a response from the whales, but no response was seen.

Humpback whales are listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act and as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act throughout their range.

On Wednesday, May 9, the two whales were first seen, swimming off Benicia in the San Francisco Bay area.

The humpbacks were first spotted in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Sunday and have since moved almost 145 kilometers upriver from the Pacific Ocean.

On Monday, NOAA Fisheries began to manage the rescue effort, coordinating with the Marine Mammal Center stranding network and a whale biologist.

Dr. Frances Gulland of The Center, with trained staff and volunteers, did a preliminary health evaluation by boat, which revealed gashes on the bodies of both animals.

The U.S. Coast Guard issued a warning for vessels to maintain at least a 100 yard perimeter around the whales, and for aircraft to maintain a minimum of 1,000 foot elevation, the federal guidelines for responsible large whale viewing practices.

On Tuesday, the whales were sighted in the Sacramento River swimming north, and by Wednesday they were seen south of the turning basin in Sacramento.

On Thursday, rescuers began to play whale sounds amplified by underwater audio devices to coax the two whales seaward.

"Several segments of sound have been introduced," said Bernie Krauze, a researcher who spoke by cellphone from the Coast Guard cutter Pike, a vessel involved in the rescue.

"We call ourselves the whale whisperers," said Krauze, "But we are not whispering loud enough. These guys are not responding."

The U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, NOAA Fisheries, the West Sacramento Police Department, and Yolo County Sheriff's department are among federal and local agencies involved with the rescue effort.

A spokesman for the NOAA Fisheries said that if the recordings fail to work, researchers could try a herding technique, using boats to corral the humpbacks toward the ocean.