Fukushima Radioactive Seawater Passes Halfway Point To US West Coast (update: March 2012)

Radioactive Seawater Impact Map (update: March 2012)

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We use a Lagrangian particles dispersal method to track where free floating material (fish larvae, algae, phytoplankton, zooplankton…) present in the sea water near the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station plant could have gone since the earthquake on March 11th. THIS IS NOT A REPRESENTATION OF THE RADIOACTIVE PLUME CONCENTRATION. Since we do not know exactly how much contaminated water and at what concentration was released into the ocean, it is impossible to estimate the extent and dilution of the plume. However, field monitoring by TEPCOshowed concentration of radioactive Iodine and Cesium higher than the legal limit during the next two months following the event (with a peak at more than 100 Bq/cm3 early April 2011 for I-131 as shown by the following picture).Source: TEPCO

Assuming that a part of the passive biomass could have been contaminated in the area, we are trying to track where the radionuclides are spreading as it will eventually climb up the food chain. The computer simulation presented here is obtained by continuously releasing particles at the site during the 2 months folllowing the earthquake and then by tracing the path of these particles. The dispersal model is ASR’s Pol3DD. The model is forced by hydrodynamic data from theHYCOM/NCODA system which provides on a weekly basis, daily oceanic current in the world ocean. The resolution in this part of the Pacific Ocean is around 8km x 8km cells. We are treating only the sea surface currents. The dispersal model keeps a trace of their visits in the model cells. The results here are expressed in number of visit per surface area of material which has been in contact at least once with the highly concentrated radioactive water.

Court rejects plea to make public SIT report on Gujarat riots

[SEE:  31 Convicted In Gujarat Riots Case for Burning 33 Muslims Alive ; Gujarat riots: Indian SC orders inquiry against Modi]

Court rejects plea to make public SIT report on Gujarat riots

PTI

Zakia Jafri, wife of 2002 post-Godhra riots victim Ehsaan Jafri during her visit to her old house at Gulbarg Society, on the tenth anniversary of the carnage in Ahmedabad.

PTIZakia Jafri, wife of 2002 post-Godhra riots victim Ehsaan Jafri during her visit to her old house at Gulbarg Society, on the tenth anniversary of the carnage in Ahmedabad.

A local court on Saturday rejected a plea by the widow of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots, for making public the SIT report on the riots.

Metropolitan magistrate M.M. Bhatt, while rejecting the plea, said the Special Investigation Team (SIT) is yet to submit material related to the report.

As per the Supreme Court order after SIT submits its full report on the complaint of Zakia Jafri, conclusion was to be drawn by the metropolitan court.

Now that the investigation team has not yet submitted the full report, no conclusion can be drawn at this stage. Hence no action is required on the report now, the court said.

The court had earlier directed the SIT to submit its full report by March 15.

The court, in a September 2011 order, had directed the SIT to file its final report before the magistrate court and had said that if the magistrate decides to close the case he has to provide the full SIT report to the complainant and hear her, before closing it.

Last month, the SIT had submitted its final report in a sealed cover on a complaint by Ms. Jafri demanding that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and other top politicians, police officers and bureaucrats should be made accused for the 2002 riots cases.

Earlier, SIT consul R.S. Jamaur had opposed Ms. Jafri’s plea saying that they have not submitted a complete report in the court yet.

He had argued that the court would first go through the report and decide as to what to do with it.

However, during arguments in previous hearing of the case on February 29, Ms. JAfri’s lawyers had argued that the SIT has no locus standi to oppose the opening of the report in the court.

They had contended that the report once submitted in the court becomes a public document and anybody can access it.

Hence, they being a complainant cannot be denied access to it.

Her lawyers had also stated in the last hearing that since this is a final report submitted by the SIT after completing the investigations, it is only the court which can decide on the issues related to the report.

Returning From Iraq, Soldiers Find Themselves On Turnaround To Afghanistan

[As so many of us have been predicting, soldiers withdrawn from Iraq will be recycled into Afghanistan, to replace those allegedly being “withdrawn” there, or sent-on to the next war in Asia or Africa.  About now, American GIs are realizing what assholes they have been in signing away their lives, by volunteering to serving in the never-ending wars.  Remember, whatever you have to go through, you volunteered for it.]

Soldiers just back from Iraq get new orders: Afghanistan

By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN

Atlanta (CNN) — Soldiers who just returned from Iraq are among several thousand being ordered to Afghanistan in six months as part of a mission designed to beef up Afghan forces ahead of a planned 2014 U.S. military withdrawal, officials said.

News of the pending Afghanistan deployments came as families at bases across the country were celebrating the return in recent days of troops who turned off the lights at a number of U.S. bases ahead of an end-of-the-year deadline to leave Iraq.

“We are glad that we have brought all soldiers back home in time for Christmas to spend with loved ones. We do have to put information out about an upcoming mission, though,” the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, said Tuesday on its Facebook Page.

In the posting, the brigade said it was one of four selected to “support a Security Force Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in early summer.”

“We just received initial planning orders so lots of details are unknown,” it said. “…The mission is part of the transition from combat operations to advisory mission as we did in Iraq and is a sign of progress.”

Maj. Carla Thomas, a brigade spokeswoman, confirmed the validity of the Facebook announcement.

The new mission is part of an overall U.S. military exit strategy from Afghanistan that moves troops from a combat role to advise-and-assist positions that commanders and analysts say will significantly scale back operations ahead of President Barack Obama’s self-imposed deadline to leave the country.

Earlier this year, the United States outlined its plan to withdraw its troops, beginning by pulling 33,000 “surge” troops deployed to help quell the violence by the end of 2012. The remaining 68,000 troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014.

News of the deployments comes as the Obama administration pushes to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a plan that many military commanders have said is unreasonable in a country still trying to gain its security footing.

“I don’t think we are going to turn around guys who spent time in Iraq and put them on planes to Afghanistan … without there being a clear indication that the Obama administration wants to continue the acceleration of the withdrawal,” said Bill Roggio, Editor of The Long War Journal & Senior Fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“U.S. commanders want to stop with the withdrawal of the 33,000 (surge troops.) They want to halt it.”

Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, has said he would like to keep a U.S. “military presence” in Afghanistan beyond 2014 when NATO is scheduled to withdraw its forces. Allen suggested the presence could last as long as 2016 when the Afghan Air Force is completed.

Allen told reporters last week there is “no daylight” between him and the White House on this idea. Allen said he wants to shift the U.S. presence to an advisory capacity in the coming months and then continue to do that mission after 2014.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has asked Allen to review the counterinsurgency strategy and determine what changes are needed. Allen said he has to complete the review before he can decide on the rate of drawdown of current U.S. force levels.

The new mission in Afghanistan somewhat mirrors the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq, which used advise and assist teams to improve counterterrorism operations and train security forces.

Just like in Iraq, small teams of American troops will work and live among security forces, and will help coordinate military operations, according to comments Allen made to reporters last week.

In its Facebook posting, the 4th Brigade Combat Team said those who would be deployed in advise-and-assist roles would be senior enlisted personnel, ranging from master sergeants to colonels.

The deployment was expected to last nine months, though it was unclear how many members of the brigade will deploy.

Also being deployed are troops from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Georgia; the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division from Fort Carson, Colorado; and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

The brigade deployments were first reported this week by Stars and Stripes, a newspaper that caters to military personnel.

Under an Army policy, troops are given one month of dwell time for every month they are deployed. In the case of 1st Armored Division’s brigade, which returned in December after less than six months in Iraq, its soldiers could be sent to Afghanistan as early as May.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment. Messages left early Wednesday by CNN at public affairs offices at the 3rd Infantry Division, the 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division were not immediately returned.

Reactions at Fort Bliss were mixed with some soldiers and families telling CNN by telephone that they were resigned to the specter of an Afghanistan deployment, while others said they were surprised elements of the brigade would be deployed so soon after returning from Iraq.

None of the soldiers or their family members were willing to be quoted, citing possible repercussions over speaking to the media without prior approval.

Responses to the brigade’s Facebook post, though, revealed the feelings of spouses and family members.

“All we can do is enjoy the time we have with them,” one person wrote.

Another wrote: “Not even home a week. How sad.”

Questions remain about the stability of Afghan forces, with some questioning whether an Iraq-style exit strategy can work in Afghanistan.

“Given that we are 10 years into this, my confidence level is pretty low that we can turn the Afghan forces around,” Roggio said.

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began October 7, 2001, with an air campaign that was followed within weeks by a ground invasion. President Barack Obama has called it “the longest-running war in the nation’s history”.

As the United States turned its attention toward Iraq, insurgent violence in Afghanistan flared against Afghan civilians and security forces as well as the U.S. and its coalition partners.

In 2009, President Obama authorized a surge of 33,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to combat the violence.

Earlier this year, the president announced a plan to withdraw its troops. The move was followed by withdrawal announcements by most of the NATO nations.

CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

Russian Drilling Platform Sinks While Being Towed Near Sakhalin Island

In the Okhotsk Sea drilling platform sank Four people were killed

Photo: Michael Pochuev / Kommersant
Drilling platform “Kola” capsized and sank 200 miles off the coast of Sakhalin. The accident killed four, rescued 14 people. Rescue operations are continuing. The dangers of ecological catastrophe not.
“Now it is difficult to say how many will last a life-saving work. Similarly, they will go before dark, and if necessary will continue tomorrow,” – said the head of the local central board MES of Russia Teimuraz Kasaev. The fate of several dozen people remains unknown. Managed to rescue 14 people, aware of four deaths, but data on the number of people were on the platform apart. According to different information, “Kola” was from 57 to 76 people.

The rescue operation is carried out in a heavy storm. It involves naval forces: on-site works icebreaker “Magadan”, is expected to approach the ship, “SMITH, Sakhalin,” and courts “Atlas” and “Yuri Tarakurov.” Aircraft left the place of disaster due to the onset of darkness.

Platform “Kola” owned “Arcticmorneftegasrazvedka” and assigned to the port of Murmansk. The platform was built in 1985 in Finland. The total length of Setup 69.2 m, width – 80 m. Since early September, “Kola” conducted exploratory drilling on the continental shelf of western Kamchatka for “Gazflot”.Upon completion, was to go to Vietnam, stopping along the eastern coast of Sakhalin Island in the Bay Zyriansky, informs ITAR-TASS .
The distress signal was received from the platform on Sunday at 2.24 Moscow time, about 6 o’clock in the morning it sank. The main cause of the accident investigation considers towing without the stormy weather. In fact the incident a criminal case under Part 3. 263 of the Criminal Code (violation of safety rules and operation of maritime transport, resulting in the death of two or more persons). Also check the technical condition of the rig and ship captains.

Threat of environmental catastrophe in the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, no, as supplies of fuel to the “Kola” were small and were in sealed containers.

Natalia Romashkova

Census shows 1 in 2 people are poor or low-income

[Half of the American population lives in poverty and our government spends nearly  two-thirds of a trillion dollars to expand our wars.]

Census shows 1 in 2 people are poor or low-income

WASHINGTON (AP) – Squeezed by rising living costs, a record number of Americans, almost 1 in 2, have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.

The latest census data depict a middle class that is shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government’s safety net frays. The new numbers follow years of stagnating wages for the middle class that have hurt millions of workers and families.

“Safety net programs such as food stamps and tax credits kept poverty from rising even higher in 2010, but for many low-income families with work-related and medical expenses, they are considered too ‘rich’ to qualify,” said Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michiganpublic policy professor who specializes in poverty.

“The reality is that prospects for the poor and the near poor are dismal,” he said. “If Congress and the states make further cuts, we can expect the number of poor and low-income families to rise for the next several years.”

Congressional Republicans and Democrats are sparring over legislation that would renew a Social Security payroll tax cut, part of a year-end political showdown over economic priorities that also could trim unemployment benefits, freeze federal pay and reduce entitlement spending. That is money set aside for payment to individual Americans under such programs as the Social Security retirement scheme or the Medicare health plan.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned whether some people classified as poor or low-income actually suffer material hardship. He said that while safety-net programs have helped many Americans, they have gone too far, citing poor people who live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.

“There’s no doubt the recession has thrown a lot of people out of work and incomes have fallen,” Rector said. “As we come out of recession, it will be important that these programs promote self-sufficiency rather than dependence and encourage people to look for work.”

Mayors in 29 cities say more than 1 in 4 people needing emergency food assistance did not receive it. Many middle-class Americans are dropping below the low-income threshold — roughly $45,000 a year for a family of four — because of pay cuts, a forced reduction of work hours or a spouse losing a job. Housing and child-care costs are consuming up to half a family’s income.

States in the South and West had the highest shares of low-income families, including Arizona, New Mexico and South Carolina, which have scaled back or eliminated aid programs for the needy. By raw numbers, such families were most numerous in California and Texas, each with more than 1 million.

The struggling Americans include Zenobia Bechtol, 18, in Austin, Texas, who earns minimum wage as a part-time pizza delivery driver. Bechtol and her 7-month-old baby were recently evicted from their bedbug-infested apartment after her boyfriend, an electrician, lost his job in the sluggish economy.

After an 18-month job search, Bechtol’s boyfriend now works as a waiter and the family of three is temporarily living with her mother.

“We’re paying my mom $200 a month for rent, and after diapers and formula and gas for work, we barely have enough money to spend,” said Bechtol, a high school graduate who wants to go to college. “If it weren’t for food stamps and other government money for families who need help, we wouldn’t have been able to survive.”

About 97.3 million Americans fall into a low-income category, commonly defined as those earning between 100 and 199 percent of the poverty level, based on a new supplemental measure by the Census Bureau that is designed to provide a fuller picture of poverty. Together with the 49.1 million who fall below the poverty line and are counted as poor, they number 146.4 million, or 48 percent of the U.S. population. That is up by 4 million from 2009, the earliest numbers for the newly developed poverty measure.

The new measure of poverty takes into account medical, commuting and other living costs. Doing that helped push the number of people below 200 percent of the poverty level up from 104 million, or 1 in 3 Americans, that was officially reported in September.

Broken down by age, children were most likely to be poor or low-income, about 57 percent, followed by older people, those over 65. By race and ethnicity, Hispanics topped the list at 73 percent, followed by blacks, Asians and non-Hispanic whites.

Even by traditional measures, many working families are hurting.

Following the recession that began in late 2007, the share of working families who are low income has risen for three consecutive years to 31.2 percent, or 10.2 million. That proportion is the highest in at least a decade, up from 27 percent in 2002, according to a new analysis by the Working Poor Families Project and the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group based in Washington.

Among low-income families, about one-third were considered poor while the remainder, 6.9 million, earned income just above the poverty line. Many states phase out eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid, tax credit and other government aid programs for low-income Americans as they approach 200 percent of the poverty level.

The majority of low-income families, 62 percent, spent more than one-third of their earnings on housing, surpassing a common guideline for what is considered affordable. By some census surveys, child-care costs consume close to another one-fifth.

Paychecks for low-income families are shrinking. The inflation-adjusted average earnings for the bottom 20 percent of families have fallen from $16,788 in 1979 to just under $15,000, and earnings for the next 20 percent have remained flat at $37,000. In contrast, higher-income brackets had significant wage growth since 1979, with earnings for the top 5 percent of families climbing 64 percent to more than $313,000.

A survey of 29 cities conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors being released Thursday points to a gloomy outlook for those on the lower end of the income scale.

Many mayors cited the challenges of meeting increased demands for food assistance, expressing particular concern about possible cuts to federal programs such as food stamps and WIC, which assists low-income pregnant women and mothers. Unemployment led the list of causes of hunger in cities, followed by poverty, low wages and high housing costs.

Across the 29 cities, about 27 percent of people needing emergency food aid did not receive it. Kansas City, Missouri, Nashville, Tennessee, Sacramento, California, and Trenton, New Jersey, were among the cities that pointed to increases in the cost of food and declining food donations, while Mayor Michael McGinn in Seattle, Washington, cited an unexpected spike in food requests from immigrants and refugees, particularly from Somalia, Myanmar and Bhutan.

Among those requesting emergency food assistance, 51 percent were in families, 26 percent were employed, 19 percent were elderly and 11 percent were homeless.

“People who never thought they would need food are in need of help,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who co-chairs a mayors’ task force on hunger and homelessness.

———

Online:

Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov

U.S. Conference of Mayors: http://www.usmayors.org/

Caspian Ecology Teeters On the Brink

CREDIT: NPA GROUP
Science 18 January 2002:
Vol. 295 no. 5554 pp. 430-433
DOI: 10.1126/science.295.5554.430

As nations around the world’s largest lake bicker over oil rights, the wildlife of the Caspian Sea is in a state of siege from which it may never recover

ASTRAKHAN, RUSSIA—Lev Khuraskin stepped gingerly across the shoal, avoiding the dead seagulls and cormorants rotting in the sand and their squawking, orphaned chicks. The rail-thin biologist, his face leathered from decades on the sun-drenched Caspian Sea, crept up to a seal lolling near the water and straddled it, pressing his hand against the back of its neck to subdue it as a colleague skittered over to draw blood. Fit seals don’t like being messed with, but this emaciated and listless male submitted calmly. “It’s very ill,” says the team’s leader, Vladimir Blinov of VECTOR, Russia’s State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology.

The seal that lay dying on Malyi Zhemchuzhnyi Island is one of the latest casualties in the Caspian Sea’s unfolding ecological drama. Sturgeon, prized for their caviar, are hovering near enough to oblivion that three of the five nations around the Caspian’s shores—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia—agreed last June to an unprecedented 6-month ban on fishing the species. Too little, too late, some fear. “The question is whether the species can be saved at all,” says Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit based in New York City.

Adding to the mounting horror of ecologists, Mnemiopsis leidyi, a comb jelly notorious for having devastated anchovy populations in the Black Sea, invaded the Caspian a few years ago. New findings suggest that this voracious free-floater has done a similar number on the Caspian’s kilka, or sprat, by “driving numerous species of zooplankton toward extinction,” says ecologist Henri Dumont of Ghent University in Belgium. Mnemiopsis is more bad news for the seals, which feed on kilka and are already reeling from epidemics of canine distemper virus in 1997 and 2000 that killed thousands.

If the Caspian’s wildlife only had natural invaders to deal with, that would be bad enough, but this lake—the largest in the world—is a pressure cooker of political and commercial forces. Ranged around its shores are the growing economy of Russia in the north and fundamentalist Iran in the south, with Muslim ex-Soviet republics in between. Both Russia and the United States are vying for influence in the region, a process accelerated by the war in nearby Afghanistan.

Complicating the picture are the Caspian’s vast oil reserves. The Soviets largely ignored this resource, but the newly independent republics are keen to exploit it. Production in the Caspian is expected to ramp up fivefold to 5 million barrels a day by 2020. “For the time being, there’s no proof that oil exploration or extraction will pose a major hazard to the Caspian environment—if it’s done properly,” says Arkadiusz Labon, a Toronto-based fisheries consultant who coordinated a major fish stock survey in the Caspian last year. However, he and others note, a major spill—always a possibility in this geologically unstable region (see sidebar)—could spell disaster.

Oil in troubled waters

Two millennia ago the Caspian was a sacred place for Zoroastrians, who would meditate at temples near jets of flaming gases that vented from the naphtha-rich sands of the Apsheron Peninsula, a nub of land jutting into the Caspian in present-day Azerbaijan. Later generations of Persians, still awestruck by the pillars of fire, recognized a commodity and by the late 1500s were scooping petroleum from shallow wells.

True development of the oil fields began in 1875 when Ludvig and Robert Nobel, brothers of renowned Swedish industrialist Alfred, bought up land near Baku. Boring deeper wells, they and their crew learned how to work Apsheron’s fickle semifluid sands. Oil production increased by 50 times over the next decade, reaching 1 million tons a year. When after a brief independence Azerbaijan was absorbed into the Soviet Union, the Nobels were out and central planning was in.

Although the Soviets discovered three giant oil fields in the Caspian basin, they left them mostly untapped. They found it easier and less costly to extract oil from their vast petroleum reserves in western Siberia and even went as far as banning offshore drilling in the north Caspian to protect the sturgeon’s feeding grounds and spawning migration routes.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, oil investments from the West poured into the Caspian, turning the region into a “Wild East.” But although oil exploration has not yet had a major impact on local ecology, the same cannot be said for fishers out to make a fast buck by harvesting the Caspian’s other precious resource: caviar.

Of fish and jellyfish

With their long snouts and ridged, scaleless bodies, the young sturgeon swimming circles in a glass tank at the Caspian Fisheries Research Institute here in Astrakhan look more like baby dinosaurs than fish. But having long outlived the dinosaurs since debuting in the fossil record 200 million years ago, the venerable sturgeon is facing its toughest test yet. The Caspian is home to the world’s biggest population of sturgeon. The sea’s four major varieties—stellate sturgeon, or sevruga (Acipenser stellatus), Russian sturgeon (A. guldenstadti), Persian sturgeon (A. persicus), and beluga (Huso huso)—supply about 90% of the total caviar harvested worldwide. It’s a lucrative commodity: As Science went to press, one firm, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, was advertising sevruga caviar at $1448 per kilogram. Beluga roe, meanwhile, was fetching more than $2500 per kilogram. Russia alone says it hauled in $40 million last year from caviar exports, although some observers claim that the figure for legal exports was closer to $100 million.

The sturgeon’s enemies are legion, but poachers may be taking the heaviest toll. Last year they fueled a shadow caviar market estimated at $400 million, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry. Rampant poaching since the Soviet meltdown has sent sturgeon stocks crashing, with beluga numbers less than 10% of what they were 2 decades ago, the government estimates. Last year Russia began working with Interpol to try to crack down on smuggling, but most observers say it will take years, if not decades, to stamp it out. Other factors in the decline include dams on the Volga River that cut off access to spawning areas, and perhaps pollutants that accumulate in fat and may render eggs infertile. “The whole ecology of the rivers has changed,” says biologist Ellen Pikitch of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City.

Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) got three Caspian nations to agree to a 6-month moratorium on fishing sturgeon last June. Some experts contend that the ban, which ended on 1 January, did little good for the sturgeon, because it took hold after the main fishing season in the spring.

A recent census of Caspian fish corroborates that view. Last summer, the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP), a World Bank and European Union initiative, undertook a rare comprehensive survey of Caspian fish stocks. Over 6 weeks last August and September, the CEP team used sonar to chart and characterize fish populations everywhere but in the coastal waters of Turkmenistan, which did not allow access. Sonar is an imperfect technique, particularly for bottom-feeding fish like sturgeon, so the team captured and released fish as well.

Although the researchers are still analyzing their data, the emerging picture is dire indeed. “We found very few mature sturgeon,” says Labon. “That’s a sure sign of dramatic overfishing.” As expected, the team found ample young sturgeon, indicating that hatcheries in the Volga delta and Iran have averted total calamity. But the hulking fish are late breeders, taking years to reach sexual maturity. That means poachers and other fishers will be netting more and more juveniles in an increasingly frustrating search for caviar.

Figure
Soon a scene of the past?

Russians haul in sturgeon on the Volga delta near Astrakhan.

CREDIT: HANS-JURGEN BURKARD, COURTESY OF CAVIAR EMPTOR

Labon argues that a 10-year fishing ban—without loopholes such as a permissible “scientific” catch—is essential to rescue the sturgeon from extinction. However, a total moratorium could backfire by driving the entire caviar trade underground, argues NRDC’s Speer. Her organization, for one, is campaigning for a ban on trade of beluga only, the most endangered species. It will make that pitch when the CITES standing committee on sturgeon meets in March to review this year’s proposed catch quotas. NRDC will also lobby the next conference of CITES parties in November to elevate beluga to the most endangered Appendix One list, which would ban beluga export from any signatory nation.

The sturgeon is not the only Caspian fish under siege; some other species are facing a more insidious, if spineless, threat. First sighted off the Iranian coast in 1998, the comb jelly Mnemiopsis within months had managed to swarm across much of the rest of the Caspian. The delicate, luminescent creature, looking more like a miniature starship than an animal, appears to have stowed away in the ballast water of ships in the Black Sea, reaching the Caspian via the Volga-Don Canal.

Based on the jelly’s voracious habits in the Black Sea, researchers expected it to gulp its way through the bottom of the Caspian’s food chain, grazing on zooplankton that are the staple of kilka and many other fish. Over the past couple of years, says Labon, professional fishers along the Caspian have been asking, “Where have all the kilka gone?” In Iranian waters, Ghent’s Dumont adds, “they don’t catch anything but jellies now.” The CEP fish survey spotted this decline. According to Labon, the survey found that kilka and herring populations “are severely depressed” compared to 2 years ago. His team is still crunching numbers to determine precisely how much these fish have declined.

A kilka crash is bad news for the fishing industry in Iran, where there’s a big market for the sprats. But for the beleaguered seals that feed on kilka, it could be a crushing blow.

Hunting a killer

It has been a tough few years for the Caspian’s seals. Two years ago, a mystery epidemic killed several thousand of them, including many young ones. A CEP seal ecotoxicology team, led by Susan Wilson of the Tara Seal Research Centre in Northern Ireland, and the VECTOR group—working independently—unmasked canine distemper virus as the likely villain (Science, 22 September 2000, p. 2017). When seals began dying in droves again last spring, both teams headed out to different parts of the Caspian to find out why.

Their preliminary, unpublished findings suggest that canine distemper is not the seals’ only foe. After sampling dead or dying seals washed up on the Apsheron Peninsula, Wilson’s team found that—unlike what they had observed in 2000—the victims were mostly adults. Analyzing tissue back in the lab along with samples from Iran and Turkmenistan, Wilson and her team so far have found no sign of canine distemper or any other virus.

FigureFigure
Hard times.

The CEP ecotoxicology team’s Hormoz Asadi observes a seal on the Apsheron Peninsula. The comb jelly Mnemiopsis leidyi (top) may have abetted last year’s die-off.

CREDITS: (TOP TO BOTTOM) LAURENCE P. MADIN/WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION; S. WILSON

Wilson’s team believes that pollution may be a contributor to last year’s die-off. The researchers are now testing their samples for levels of the pesticide DDT and other long-lived pollutants. Such chemicals are also the prime suspect in the seals’ plummeting birthrate, says Wilson. But she and her colleagues are pursuing other lines of inquiry, including bacterial infections and poor nutrition.

The VECTOR team’s findings add more intrigue. Blinov’s group says it detected a flu strain last spring, similar to one that jumped from birds into people in Hong Kong in 1997, in some of the dead seals they had sampled in 2000, as well as a nearly identical strain in a single sick seal in Russia’s Lake Baikal. “If avian viruses could overcome host barriers and infect humans in Hong Kong and cause pandemic outbreaks in seals,” says Blinov, “we thought, ‘What might occur tomorrow?’” Tests for virus in seals sampled last year on Malyi Zhemchuzhnyi Island are still under way, but they have come up negative so far.

That jibes with the CEP ecotox findings, but it fails to penetrate the mystery of where canine distemper is lurking, or whether the avian influenza that VECTOR spotted was a red herring or a continuing threat to the seals. Wilson speculates that canine distemper, at least, could reemerge in a couple of years. She notes that the evidence is looking more solid that distemper was behind a mass die-off in 1997 and may periodically afflict Caspian seals.

If canine distemper does resurface next year, the seals could be in for a double whammy. Both the CEP and VECTOR teams have reported that many ill or dead seals were underweight and some were emaciated, which may point to a food shortage. Wilson carried out a limited survey of seal feces collected on Apsheron last year and found that kilka appeared to make up only a tiny proportion of their diet, suggesting that the seals had to make do with less-nutritious prey. “We need to extend these diet studies,” Wilson says. But it does seem to bear the tentacle-marks of Mnemiopsis.

Dumont and other experts argue that steps must be taken quickly to rein in Mnemiopsis. After Mnemiopsislevels in the Caspian last fall exceeded those ever reached in the Black Sea, a scientific advisory committee called on littoral nations to approve plans to unleash a predator this spring to control the invader. Their choice was Beroe ovata, a heftier comb jelly that dines almost exclusively on MnemiopsisBeroe slipped into the Black Sea in 1997 and quickly brought the villain to heel. There, Mnemiopsis populations had plunged so low by last year that it was hard to find specimens for analysis. Beroe, says Dumont, “is almost too good to be true.”

Azerbaijan and Iran are pressing hard for Beroe to be introduced, but it’s unclear whether the other Caspian governments will climb aboard. Signs look unfavorable for agreement on something as contentious as biological pest control—no matter how benign Beroe would appear—when tensions are already running high over oil rights.

Political hardball

Like 49ers staking claims in California, the five littoral nations have asserted overlapping territorial claims in the Caspian itself. Last summer, Iranian gunships chased an Azeri research vessel out of waters claimed by both countries. A meeting planned for last October at which the countries had agreed to demarcate borders was abandoned after the 11 September terror attacks, although the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are scheduled to visit Moscow later this month in part to revive the negotiations.

FigureFigure
Eternal flames.

At the Surakhany Fire Temple, ancient Persians meditated on Baku’s perpetually burning hills, including the Kirmaky gas seep (top).

CREDIT: MIKE SIMMONS/CASP

The Caspian nations are playing hardball because their oil is considered a major prize by Western powers. The newly independent states could act as a counterweight to OPEC, because the Caspian oilfields would greatly augment the few reserves—including Siberia and the North Sea—not controlled by the Middle East-dominated cartel. Caspian oil “can offset [OPEC’s] efforts to keep prices high and their use of high prices for political dictates,” says Brenda Shaffer, research director of Harvard University’s Caspian Studies Program.

Apart from Russia, the three countries with the largest Caspian reserves—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—have welcomed alliances with the West, which they think will help them convert their black gold into cash and limit Russian influence in their affairs. Beyond oil and gas, the region is important to the United States, which “needs to develop friends like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in the Muslim world, due to their clear separation of religion and state,” says Shaffer. Russia, meanwhile, has bolstered its sphere of influence by strengthening ties with Iran and forming alliances with other ex-Soviet littoral states.

Sound like a powder keg waiting to be lit? Quite so, says Terry Adams, a senior associate at Cambridge Energy Research Associates and founding president of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company oil consortium: “The seeds of future Caspian conflict were planted early.” And with an international effort to safeguard the Caspian’s ecology nowhere in sight, the lake itself can only suffer in the process.

Science. ISSN 0036-8075 (print), 1095-9203 (online)

Fracking Has Formerly Stable Ohio City Aquiver Over Earthquakes

Fracking Has Formerly Stable Ohio City Aquiver Over Earthquakes

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By Mark Niquette

When Youngstown, Ohio, shook on Sept. 29, Karen Fox thought her daughter was crashing down the stairs.

“It rumbled enough where you could hear the windows shaking,” Fox said in a telephone interview. “I ran downstairs and said, ‘My God, are you OK?’ And she looked at me and she says, ‘I was running upstairs to see if you were OK.’”

Earthquakes weren’t recorded around Youngstown until D&L Energy Inc. began injecting wastewater from drilling into a 9,300-foot disposal well in December 2010. From March through Nov. 25, there were nine in an area of about 4.5 square miles west of the shaft, according to the state-coordinated Ohio Seismic Network.

As hydraulic fracturing produces natural gas by forcing chemically treated water and sand underground, groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council question whether the risks of the process are worth it. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report Dec. 8 linked so-called fracking in Wyoming to contaminated groundwater. Now, with temblors in states including Ohio, Arkansas and Texas that researchers say may have been caused by wastewater wells, residents also have to worry about their houses falling apart, said Fox.

“Back in March, when these first started, nobody was thinking anything of it — it’s just Mother Nature,” said Fox, a 46-year-old medical secretary and president of the city’s West Side Citizen’s Coalition. As earthquakes continue to hit, “more people are getting more concerned.”

Not Our Fault

Scientists such as Jeffrey Dick, chairman of Youngstown State University’s geology department, said that though the quakes’ timing and location suggest wells may be to blame, more data is needed. The National Academy of Sciences has said a committee will release a report on the issue next year.

Ben Lupo, president and chief executive of D&L Energy, said in a telephone interview that he doesn’t think his well is causing them and that “if these things weren’t safe, we would not put them in.” The well wasn’t operating during the Nov. 25 earthquake because it was the day after Thanksgiving, he said.

About 7 million barrels of wastewater from drilling have been injected annually into Ohio wells since 1985 without incident because the practice is closely regulated by federal laws and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Thomas E. Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a trade association with more than 1,450 members.

Surrendering to Panic

“There’s people that are simply opposed to oil and gas development, and they’ll seize on any issue, no matter what the issue is, and no matter what the facts, and try to use that to create hysteria,” Stewart said in a telephone interview from Granville.

The earthquakes in Youngstown, which is roughly equidistant from Cleveland and Pittsburgh, ranged from 2.1 to 2.7 on the Richter scale, the Ohio Seismic Network said. Earthquakes with magnitude of about 2.0 or less on the Richter scale, which has no upper limit, are not commonly felt by people, according to the U. S. Geological Survey. The Aug. 23 earthquake that had an epicenter in Virginia and was felt across the East Coast had a 5.8 magnitude.

New YorkPennsylvaniaMarylandWest Virginia, Ohio and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee sit atop the Marcellus and Utica shale formations and the states have been wrestling with how to regulate drilling and fracking to tap natural gas as deep as 12,000 feet below the earth’s surface. Governor John Kasich has said the practice “could change Ohio,” and has even proposed having his state, IndianaMichigan and Pennsylvania run their vehicle fleets on compressed natural gas.

Following the Fluid

Still, as companies including Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) and Halliburton Co. (HAL) are benefiting from fracking — and more disposal wells are drilled — Dick urged caution.

“You certainly don’t want have an injection well that’s coincident with earthquakes, and then five months from now we get a 5.5 magnitude quake that knocks down a couple buildings,” Dick said in a telephone interview from Youngstown.

The state required D&L Energy to conduct a test using radioactive material to trace whether the fluid being injected in the well is going only to the areas allowed by its permit, said Tom Tomastik, deputy chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management.

Blanket Ban

D&L Energy, a 26-year-old closely held company based in Youngstown, has agreed to put a concrete plug at the bottom of the well if tests show that fluid is reaching bedrock levels, Lupo said. There has been no unusual seismic activity at the state’s other 190 permitted injection wells, Tomastik said.

“Just to blanket say that we’re going to put a moratorium on drilling or a moratorium on disposal when we don’t really know what is happening, that’s, I don’t think, the way to go,” Tomastik said.

The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission did stop well disposal in August after a swarm of earthquakes. There were about 1,250 quakes recorded through July after two injection wells started operating last year, said Scott Ausbrooks, geohazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey in Little Rock.

Ausbrooks did a study with the University of Memphis and concluded there was “a plausible relationship between the injection wells and the earthquakes” after a previously unknown fault system was discovered, he said.

The state Oil and Gas Commission ordered that one injection well be shut down and operators agreed to stop using three others, “erring on the side of caution and public protection,” Shane Khoury, the commission’s deputy director and general counsel, said in a telephone interview.

Rocking Texas

After the wells were shut down, there were only four earthquakes recorded in the area from July through October, down from an average of four a day, Ausbrooks said.

A 2010 study on a swarm of earthquakes in 2008 and 2009 near injection wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University concluded that the quakes “may be the result of fluid injection.”

A 1990 U.S. Geological Survey report found that “injection of fluid into deep wells has triggered documented earthquakes” in Colorado, Texas, New York, New Mexico, Nebraska and Ohio. It highlighted more than 70 quakes in July 1987 in Ashtabula, Ohio, about a kilometer from the bottom of a hazardous-waste disposal well in operation only a year. There had been no other known earthquakes within 30 kilometers since 1857, it said.

Quick Inundation

While well disposal requires sustained pressure as liquid is forced underground, fracking itself is a short, sharp shock as water breaks up rock and is withdrawn.

There have been fewer reports of earthquakes connected with fracking, though the Oklahoma Geological Survey concluded in an August report that it might have induced 43 temblors near Elmore City during 24 hours in January. Cuadrilla Resources Ltd., a U.K.-based explorer, also suspended fracking near Blackpool, England, in June based on a concern it may have triggered a quake.

The incidents raise questions about whether enough is known about the practice to ignore risks in the name of jobs and domestic energy, said Ohio state Representative Robert F. Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat. And the state may become a “dumping ground” for wastewater, he said in a telephone interview from Columbus.

During the first three quarters of 2011, nearly 53 percent of the 368.3 million gallons injected into Ohio’s wells came from out of state, according to data provided by the Natural Resources Department. The number of new permits for injection wells increased to 24 from 10 last year and five in 2009, records show.

“I’m paranoid about it,” Hagan said. “I would travel out to California thinking that anytime now, there could be an earthquake. Well, anytime now, there could be an earthquake in Youngstown.”

Lupo said he plans to have five more disposal wells operating near the city next year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus, Ohio, atmniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net