Friday news roundup: wildfires and water depletion


If only Billie Holiday were here to sing that solemn “Summertime” song. The living is easy compared to winter, but the environment for this week’s Roundup is harsh. Wildfire broke out across the West, especially in New Mexico, where the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire has burned 190,262 acres, and as of yesterday at 4:30 p.m., firefighters have it only five percent contained. Last year’s Los Conchas fire was a previous state record for New Mexico when it burned 156, 593 acres. The trend of larger, more frequent wildfires seems to be holding true for 2012.

Fire progression map, courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

More dramatic news appeared from senior research scientist Bridget Scanlon, at the University of Texas. She and her team say that ground water depletion threatens the country’s food security. Scanlon found that over three years of drought from 2006 to 2009, California farmers in the Central Valley, the nation’s fruit and vegetable basket, used the equivalent of Lake Mead reservoir for irrigating crops. Scanlon believes replacing flood irrigation with spray or drip could sustain the farmers’ usage, but she says farmers from northern Texas to South Dakota will be forced to switch to non-irrigated crops in the future because groundwater depletion will make crops like corn an unsustainable enterprise.

Biologists studying colony collapse disorder in honey bee colonies, a mysterious problem that wipes out a third of bee keepers’ colony populations each year, found that an ingredient in a commonly used pesticide may hold some answers. When given a comparable dose of the ingredient in lab tests, bees fed more exclusively on sweet nectars and shunned nectars of lower sweetness, which would typically provide vital sustenance for the rest of the colony. Biologists also discovered the bees reduced their waggle dances, which they use to communicate food sources to others, four to tenfold.

If that didn't depress you enough, here's another go: wildlife protection, especially as it pertains to endangered species, may be facing some dire choices, says Terry Root, a biologist from Stanford University. She believes today’s biologists may need to accept a system of triage that World War I doctors faced when they were forced to selectively allow more critically injured soldiers to die in order to save a greater number of the lesser wounded. She has an interesting interview with Grist that you can read and listen to for more ideas on the subject.

In energy news, figureheads in Wyoming are leaving for China this week to discuss coal. Governor Matt Mead as well as staff and students from the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources will meet at the 2012 International Advanced Coal Technologies Conference. Previous conferences were held in Queensland, Australia and Laramie, Wyo., two of the most strategic regions for coal extraction for the global market. But the supply chain from Western states to Asian markets faced a bit of opposition this week as the Seattle City Council passed a resolution against infrastructure development along Washington’s Pacific ports. Six coal-export terminals are proposed between Washington and Oregon to meet the Asian demand of Wyoming and Montana coal while domestic demand is on the slide. The council is concerned with increased train traffic as well as health and environmental impacts. Ports are notoriously toxic atmospheres, and increased coal traffic could exacerbate those conditions.

Let’s not end with a down note on this first day in June. Did you get to see that adorable wolf pup that wandered onto a road near Ketchum, Idaho and was picked up by tourists, mistaking him for a dog, who brought him to a local veterinarian? Wildlife officials are trying to track down his pack. Hopefully, he doesn’t end up in a zoo, although his story could make a dramatic children’s book. And high school students in Pocatello, Idaho saw Bigfoot walking into the trees, a place the oily beast always seems to be marauding toward. The students took photos of his footprint in the snow. Uncommon Westerner John Mionczynski, is probably gassing up his motorcycle now.

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