USGS February science picks


Leads, feeds, story seeds

February may be the shortest month, but we're packed with story ideas in this month's Science Picks. This monthly collection can help you cover ongoing earth and natural science research and investigations at USGS--photos and web links are provided to enhance your story. If you are not receiving this and would like to, would like to change the recipient, or no longer want to receive it, please email [email protected].

Included this month:

  • Polar Bears Fight For Survival
  • USGS Geologists Help in Understanding Mars
  • Chesapeake Bay Recovery Process Slowed
  • Getting to the Heart of Geography


    Polar Bears Fight For Survival in a Vanishing Sea Ice Environment The wooly white polar bear, the highest on the food chain in the Arctic marine ecosystem, is, in most minds, one of the universal symbols of the Arctic. But they may be disappearing. Throughout their range, they are dependent on sea ice for nearly all aspects of their life history. Evidence indicates that global climate patterns are changing, that these changes are exacerbated in Arctic regions, and that one of the most prominent affects of these changes is an altered sea ice environment. Hence, polar bears, which may be the first large mammal to show obvious effects of climate change, are an ideal "indicator" of the status of the Arctic system. Additionally, polar bears provide an important source of food and fiber to aboriginal Arctic peoples. In recent years, the relatively shallow waters over the Alaskan continental shelf, which are important foraging habitat for polar bears, have become unavailable during the late summer and early autumn because the summer melt has reduced the availability of sea ice in these regions. Polar bears have been forced into areas, either on shore or beyond the continental shelf, where they cannot hunt for their preferred prey. Where's there's no ice, there's no polar bear food and bears enter the winter season in poor body condition. Scientists at the USGS Alaska Science Center are examining how sea ice quality and condition have changed and will change for the period 1985-2008. Using remote sensing and polar bear movement data, the team will establish how polar bears adapt to those changes spatially, and will test whether there is evidence that changes in sea ice habitat resulting from climate change may alter polar bear condition, productivity and survival of young.

    To learn more, visit:

    For more information, call Geoff York at 907-786-3928 or email at: [email protected].

    USGS Geologists Lend a Hand in Understanding the Red Planet Though they all need a few good night's sleep, the spirits of the USGS Astrogeology Team couldn't be soaring higher as they excitedly view the stunning pictures being transmitted from recently landed Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Equipped with imaging and sensor instruments, the twin rovers are robotic field geologists, spending the first 5 months of 2004 exploring Mars' climate history and searching for evidence of ancient, water-rich environments that could have supported Martian life. Several scientists in the USGS Astrogeology Program are stationed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and are part of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Mission. Others are stationed in Flagstaff at the Astrogeology Program's headquarters. Instruments aboard the rovers, include a multispectral panoramic camera, a broad-band microscopic imager, a thermal emission spectrometer, a rock scraper, and two instruments designed to measure the composition of rocks and soils. Scientists Ken Herkenhoff and Larry Soderblom are assisting with calibration of all of the MER cameras and providing software tools for analyzing the returned images and data.

    To see a "Sol by Sol" (Martian for "Day by Day") journal from USGS astrogeologists, go to

    For more information, call Deborah Soltesz at 928-556-7088 or email at [email protected].

    Where Have All the Vultures Gone? Catastrophic declines of white-backed vultures in Pakistan began in the 1990s. Their population has declined 95 percent in the last 5 years, and the species is teetering on extinction. USGS wildlife pathologist Carol Meteyer and colleagues discovered that the anti-inflammatory livestock drug diclofenac was poisoning these raptors as they scavenged livestock carcasses recently treated with this drug while alive. Studies showed diclofenac caused acute kidney failure in vultures when they ate the carcasses of animals that had recently been treated with it. USGS collaborated with researchers at Washington State University, The Peregrine Fund, and the San Diego Zoo in uncovering the cause of kidney failure in these highly revered birds. The British journal "Nature" recently published results of this research. More information can be found.

    For additional information, visit or call Carol Meteyer at 608-270-2462.

    More Birds At Risk This Time in Hawaii: Recent environmental monitoring by USGS scientists has revealed that feral cats and other non-native predators are threatening the palila, an endangered Hawaiian forest bird. The palila is a Hawaiian honeycreeper with a gray back, yellow breast, yellow head and finch-like beak. Fewer than 5,000 of these birds exist today. The scientists discovered that feral cats kill chicks in about 10 percent of palila nests found on Mauna Kea Volcano each year. Surveillance video and other techniques have shown feral cats to be the most damaging bird predator on Mauna Kea, but non-native rats and mongooses also prey on palila and their eggs. These predation pressures slow recovery of the endangered palila and other native Hawaiian birds. USGS scientists are developing techniques to help managers reduce threats from these invaders.

    For more information, visit or or call Paul Banko at 808-967-7396


    How Much Water in an Inch of Snow? As winter storms continue to drop snow on various parts of the country and people contend with shoveling and scrapping away the products of those storms, think about this - if the snowfall amounts were translated into equivalent volumes of water - then how much water would that be? Using a rule of thumb that each 10 inches of snow, if melted, would produce one inch of water, then each inch of snow produces about 2,715 gallons of water per acre. Of course, the actual amount can vary considerably depending on whether the snow is heavy and wet or powdery and dry, so this is based on the "average" water content of snow. Heavy, wet snow has a very high water content and 4 or 5 inches of heavy, wet snow can contain about one inch of water, while it may take 20 inches of dry, powdery snow to equal one inch of water. The 10=1 equation also assumes a "perfect" snowmelt without evaporation or other losses. So how many gallons of water would that be for, say, Chicago? An inch of snow that falls evenly over the 1,358,599 acres of the "urbanized area" (acreage based on 2000 Census Bureau list of urbanized areas) of Chicago, Ill., is equivalent to about 2,955 million gallons of water (or 2.96 billion gallons).

    The snowpack that accumulates each year in the mountains across the country are a vital part of the hydrologic cycle, according to USGS hydrologists. The snows that melt off each spring provide essential runoff to streams and reservoirs and provide recharge to the nation's ground-water reservoirs as the ground thaws and the snows melt and filter downward into the aquifers (water-bearing rock formations).

    Want to keep an eye on what's happening with the nation's water resources on a daily basis? Go to:

    For more information, call Butch Kinerney at 703-648-4732 or email at [email protected].

    Slowed Progress in Chesapeake Bay Recovery: A new USGS report about ground water and the health of the Chesapeake Bay suggests that the Bay will take longer to recover than expected. The Bay ecosystem has too much nitrogen and other nutrients, which stimulates algal blooms that affect water quality and block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses. The water-quality criteria proposed by the Chesapeake Bay Program probably will not be met by the goal date of 2010 because of the lag time between implementing best management practices and the actual improvement in quality of the ground water entering the Bay. Ground water supplies about half of the water reaching the Bay; in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, half of the ground water is at least 10 years old to more than 50 years old.

    For more information, see or call Kathleen Gohn at 703-648-4242 or email at [email protected].

    Fly Me To The Moon and Let Me Play Among the Stars: For those of us who will probably never get to the moon ourselves, USGS has developed modern scanning technology and processing methods to make historic space images taken by NASA's Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s are now available in digital form on the internet. These important images can now be viewed by everyone at a NASA-funded web site established by the USGS Astrogeology Program in Flagstaff, Arizona where mapping of planets continues to be a primary function. A series of five NASA missions orbited the Moon in 1966 and 1967 to photograph the Moon and assist the Apollo Program in finding safe places for humans to land. As photographic prints, these images have long been available to lunar scientists and they were invaluable in planning and understanding the Apollo mission science data. Now these same photos are available to the general public via the web.

    To view the images, go to:

    For more information, call Catherine Puckett at 707-442-1329.


    Getting to the Heart of Geography With Valentines Day just around the corner, it's time to start wondering: How many places names have the word "Heart" in them? Turns out there are 316, ranging from Heart Mountain in Alaska to Heartstrong in Colorado to Hearts Content in Pennsylvania; there are 95 place names alone that have "Heart Lake" in them. As for "Valentine," it appears in 129 place names. Seem like a frivolous government function? The USGS Geographic Names Information System (, the searchable database from which such information can be derived (use the "Query GNIS" feature), is a very serious function that contains information about almost 2 million physical and cultural geographic features in the United States and its territories. The federally recognized name of each feature described in the database is identified, and references are made to a feature's location by state, county and geographic coordinates. The GNIS is our Nation's official repository of domestic geographic names information.

    Be sure to check out the FAQs on the GNIS web site and find out: "What is the most frequently occurring name?" and "What is the longest community name?" The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) is a Federal body created in 1890 and established in its present form by Public Law in 1947. The Board is authorized to establish and maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government (and the USGS serves in the role of Executive Secretary for the Board). Sharing its responsibilities with the Secretary of the Interior, the Board has developed principles and procedures governing the use of both domestic and foreign geographic names as well as underseas and Antarctic feature names.

    For more, call Karen Wood at 703-648-4447 or email [email protected].

    Website Shows What's in the Dirt Data from chemical analyses of more than 60,000 stream-sediment and soil samples from all 50 States are now available at These data will be used to determine naturally occurring levels of chemical elements in stream sediments, and to detect regional chemical anomalies that may affect human health. This is one phase of a larger project to collect geologic, geochemical, geophysical, and mineral locality information for the entire country. The National Geochemical Survey website includes analyses of samples archived from previous USGS studies, and of samples collected by USGS scientists in collaboration with State and other federal agencies, academia, and industry. All of the samples were analyzed using similar methods, assuring that the data are consistent for 42 elements, including potentially toxic elements such as mercury, arsenic, selenium, and lead.

    For more information, call Andrew Grosz at 703-648-6314 or Jeffrey Grossman at 703-648-6184.

    New Report Describes U.S. Minerals Trends: The USGS recently released Mineral Commodity Summaries 2004, the earliest detailed review of events, trends, and issues in the U.S. nonfuel minerals industry during 2003. The USGS report is the latest in a series that provides information on the domestic minerals industry, international trade, world production and resources, recycling, Government programs, tariffs, and 5-year statistics for about 90 individual minerals and materials.

    Chapters for each mineral commodity are available online at

    For more information, call Lucy McCartan at 703-648-6905.

    Source: Eurekalert & others

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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