AmeriScan: December 19, 2000


ASHEVILLE, North Carolina, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - Although freezing temperatures now grip much of the country, this year began with record winter warmth, and the U.S. national temperature was above average during 2000. Statistics calculated by scientists at the National Climatic Data Center, the world's largest statistical weather database, show that U.S. average temperatures are continuing to rise. Although the final temperature for the year will depend on conditions during the remaining two weeks of December, the average annual U.S. temperature in 2000 is projected to be between 54.1° and 54.2° Fahrenheit, the seventh to twelfth warmest year on record in 106 years. This is well above the long term (1895-1999) average of 52.8°F. U.S. temperatures have risen at a rate of 0.9°F per century over the past 100 years. Within the past 25 years, U.S. temperatures increased at a rate of 1.6°F each year.

Heat waves and drought plagued much of the southern and western U.S. in 2000, while the midwest and northeastern U.S. experienced cooler and wetter than normal conditions. Precipitation was above average in 15 states throughout the northeast and midwest during the summer months. In the south and west, months of below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures led to severe drought and widespread wildfires. States in the deep south endured a third straight summer of below normal precipitation. By August 2000, 36 percent of the nation was in severe to extreme drought. The widespread drought contributed to one of the worst U.S. wildfire seasons in 50 years. More than seven million acres of forests and grasslands were consumed by fire in 2000, with estimated losses nationwide of more than $1 billion. More climate data is available at:

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SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - Better management of agricultural lands in the U.S. could help reclaim the 100 to 300 million tons of carbon that escapes into the atmosphere each year, says a researcher at Ohio State University. Carbon is considered one of the key pollutants contributing to global warming. Agricultural lands, which include crop, pasture and grazing lands, comprise about 42 percent of the total landmass of the U.S. In the last 200 years, almost five billion metric tons of carbon has been released into the atmosphere because of land use changes, such as plowing, drainage and residue removal in the U.S., said Rattan Lal, a professor of natural resources at Ohio State. Each year, accelerated soil erosion releases about 15 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere in the U.S. alone.

"Soil can either be a source of, or a sink for carbon - it can either emit carbon or take it in," said Lal. "We need to start practicing ways to take it in. And we can do that by changing how we manage the land." Lal presented his findings with John Kimble and Ronald Follett, both with the Department of Agriculture, on Monday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. "Agricultural land has the potential to sequester carbon while improving the quality of soil and the environment," Lal said. His suggestions for improving carbon sequestration in agricultural lands include:

"Sequestering carbon in soil is only a short term solution," Lal warned. "Soil has a finite capacity to hold carbon. If these practices were adopted today, the 'sink' would be full in 25 to 50 years."

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FORT COLLINS, Colorado, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - One of the most contentious debates during recent international climate talks centered on the possible use of forests as credit towards reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Although it has long been assumed that these areas will act as sinks for excess carbon, the effects of species composition on the process of carbon sequestration is still unknown. A team of researchers working on eucalyptus plantations in Hawaii has discovered an important aspect of how carbon sequestration processes work in tropical tree plantations. The researchers, who have published their findings in the December edition of the journal "Ecology," discovered that carbon sequestration was boosted when the composition of tree stands included nitrogen fixing trees.

Jason Kaye and his colleagues from Colorado State University researched carbon storage on a former sugar cane farm which had been turned into a plantation for eucalyptus trees in Hawaii. The team discovered that acres which were also planted with albizia trees sequestered about twice as much carbon as areas where eucalyptus trees were planted alone. The researchers believe that this is due to the nitrogen fixing qualities of the albizia trees. Albizias, which are sometimes also referred to as mimosa trees, are not a cash crop like eucalyptus. Although many tree plantations employ monoculture planting schemes, planting one tree species over hundreds of acres, the albizia trees' effect on soil quality has prompted some farmers to test the potential benefits of interplanting the two species. "Carbon sequestration is the balance of inputs and outputs from a system," explained Kaye. "What we've shown here is that carbon outputs from soil are lower in stands that have more nitrogen fixing trees. If decomposition is inhibited because of nitrogen inputs, then increased biological nitrogen fixation, nitrogen fertilization and nitrogen deposition may promote carbon sequestration."

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GREENBELT, Maryland, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - New detailed satellite generated rain maps paint a more accurate picture of how much rain falls in the tropics. These new maps provide more accurate tropical rainfall measurements and may enable better management of water resources, may provide clues to developing El Niņos and La Niņas, and give scientists a better understanding of how latent heat generated from tropical rains influences weather around the world. Robert Adler of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center presented the new maps from data gathered by NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco on Monday. The TRMM rain maps incorporate both high resolution microwave and precipitation radar data, and depict monthly rainfall since 1998 over an area from 38 degrees north latitude to 38 degrees south.

"Before TRMM, there was a great degree of variability in monthly rainfall estimates," said Marshall Shepherd, Goddard research meteorologist. The measurements from TRMM are helping to improve that situation, although it will take further analysis to utilize the data. TRMM monthly rainfall maps are produced by a team of Goddard scientists led by Adler, the TRMM Project Scientist, which merges the TRMM Microwave Imager (TMI), Precipitation Radar (PR), geosynchronous infrared data and rain gauge data. Rain maps produced in this manner are thought to provide more accurate rainfall totals by exploiting the strengths of multiple data sources. Because El Niņos and La Niņas have a major impact on flooding and drought distribution around the world, Adler's findings have implications for better water resource management in the future. The findings will also assist in planning disaster relief and preparations for disease outbreaks when flooding and extreme heat are predicted. More information is available at:

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STAFFORD, California, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - After the ancient redwood tree Luna was chainsawed by a saboteur, tree experts including world renowned arborists, canopy biologists foresters and engineers worked to devise lasting solutions to keep the symbolic tree living and standing tall. Canopy biologists attached a collar 100 feet high in the tree and shot cable to trees that have similar collars and will act as anchor points to stabilize the tree. The non-invasive cabling system attaches Luna's massive trunk to three other trees in the protected grove. The grove was protected a year ago and deeded to the land trust Sanctuary Forest under the Luna Preservation Agreement between Julia Butterfly Hill and Pacific Lumber. Luna became famous after environmental activist Hill made the tree her home for more than two years. Hill's feat helped draw attention to the plight of old growth treed threatened by logging.

Civil engineer Steve Salzman explained the structural integrity inherent in a redwood tree. "From a structural point of view the trunk of an old growth redwood tree is overdesigned," Salzman said. "That is why redwoods more often tip over than snap off. Cutting 60 percent of the trunk has greatly diminished its ability to withstand wind and seismic loading. We have reinforced the tree with cables and steel bracing to replace some of the strength that has been lost. We will never be able to fully replicate the original strength embodied in the dynamic living system of a redwood tree." But Hill said it will take more than a chainsaw to destroy Luna. "Although symbols can be attacked, what they stand for can never be destroyed," said Hill. "Whenever Luna falls into the forest floor, she will feed and grow new life and what she stands for will live on forever. It's going to take people with diverse backgrounds coming together in unity and love to heal the wound in the tree and our world."

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BRAINTREE, Massachusetts, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - Clean Harbors of Braintree has agreed to pay a $16,087 penalty to settle a complaint by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the company violated federal law regulating polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs), which are considered probable carcinogens. The EPA charged that Clean Harbors violated the law regulating PCBs on three occasions - twice by failing to identify PCBs in a shipment of waste and once by distributing the waste without a required exemption. The company notified EPA, as required by law, that 15 drums of regulated waste it had shipped had been rejected after the recipient, Stablex Canada, determined they contained PCBs at a concentration of more than 50 parts per million, the threshold amount triggering stricter EPA regulations.

Clean Harbors received and then shipped the waste without checking to see if it contained PCBs. The waste in the containers was described to Clean Harbors as "trench sludge containing several heavy metals." One of the shipments went to Canada and the other to Illinois. The shipment to Canada was returned and Clean Harbors submitted correct documentation as part of the settlement. The shipment to Illinois was disposed of before discovery of the PCBs. "Clean Harbors has acknowledged its error and agreed to be particularly cautious in the future when shipping waste that may contain PCBs," said Mindy Lubber, EPA New England regional administrator. "Laws regarding the shipment and disposal of PCBs are meant to protect the environment and the public's health." In 1998, Clean Harbors paid a $825 penalty for mis-marking a PCB container and PCB transformer. Also that year, Clean Harbors of Connecticut paid $27,000 for improper documentation and distribution of PCB waste.

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GAINESVILLE, Florida, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - In a rare piece of good news about mercury contamination in the Everglades, a University of Florida (UF) researcher has found that levels of the pollutant in wading birds have dropped since 1994. Scientists and state officials charged with reducing mercury pollution said the declines may reflect the removal of mercury from commercial products and industrial processes, a trend that began in the late 1980s. The declines also come at a time when efforts by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to limit mercury emissions from incinerators in Florida are just beginning to bear fruit.

Peter Frederick, a UF associate professor in the department of wildlife ecology and conservation, was the lead investigator in the seven year study sponsored by the DEP. Frederick and several graduate students monitored mercury levels in great egret chicks in seven Everglades nesting sites. When birds ingest mercury, they release some of it in their growing feathers. Researchers plucked a few feathers from 20 chicks in each colony each year, then put the chicks back into their nests. The study found that between 1994 and this year, average mercury levels in the chicks' feathers dropped 73 percent. "The decline overall has been dramatic, and it's been occurring in the face of other environmental changes that are likely to push values up rather than down," Frederick said. Tom Atkeson, the DEP's mercury coordinator, said the declines may be a result of decreased mercury emissions, a trend that should increase as new mercury control technologies are installed at industrial facilities. "The data are only just now coming in, but the numbers show that we should see another big step down in incinerator mercury emissions as a result of the requirement of advanced pollution controls," Atkeson said.

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - A former apartment complex landlord in Colorado Springs has agreed to pay $18,975 to settle a federal lawsuit which claimed he failed to notify a tenant that her apartment might contain harmful lead based paint. The former tenant had four children under six years old during the time the family rented the apartment in 1997. She alerted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the alleged violations after her children displayed symptoms of lead poisoning. The agency's complaint against J.A.W. Properties owner Jack Wodjalya contended that his company did not disclose potential lead hazards to a tenant at the 149 unit Colorado Springs property. Wodjalya sold the property in April 2000. The settlement is the first of its kind in EPA's Region 8 under the lead disclosure law.

"EPA wants home buyers to know the history of lead based paint used in a home. If a property is rented, the people living in the home also must be aware of the potential presence of lead based paint," explained EPA enforcement director Carol Rushin. "This doesn't mean owners and landlords must remove the lead based paint or void contracts. Our intention is to make sure people know whether lead is present and understand the risks associated with it." Lead exposure affects almost every system of the body. It is harmful to all ages, but is particularly damaging to children, fetuses and women of child bearing age. Lead poisoning is the number one environmental health threat American children face. Health problems related to lead exposure range from learning disabilities, decreased growth, behavioral difficulties, permanent damage of the nervous system, impaired hearing and even brain damage.

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HONOLULU, Hawaii, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - Researchers have discovered a chemical in sea urchins that might be used to lure starfish away from coral reefs, an endangered ecosystem they are devouring at an alarming rate. The finding was presented Sunday during the 2000 International Chemical Congress of Pacific Basin Societies. The poisonous crown of thorns starfish, which feasts on coral and whose population is believed to be expanding, is a major source of destruction of valued habitats in the tropical zones of the Indian and Pacific oceans, including Hawaii. The problem is acute in Japan, where extensive, expensive efforts to control the creature have met with little success.

Researchers at Nagoya University in Nagoya, Japan, have discovered that sea urchins contain a chemical that appears to attract starfish. After laboratory analysis, they isolated the active chemicals from the urchin and found they are two unsaturated fatty acids: arachidonic acid and a-linolenic acid. While only a small number of starfish were captured during an initial trial of the attractant, the results are promising because they represent proof of principle, said Daisuke Uemura, Ph.D., the study's lead researcher and a chemistry professor at the university. "Although we can't save all of the coral reefs in the world from destruction, our research is useful for saving some of them," Uemura said. Starfish populations have boomed in recent years. Scientists suspect that nutrient runoff and removal of starfish predators have contributed to their growing populations. Most attempts to control the starfish have been unsuccessful, or dangerous to other sea creatures. Methods under consideration include the introduction of diseases and predators that are specific to the starfish.

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RESTON, Virginia, December 19, 2000 (ENS) - Originating along riverbanks in Brazil a plant called Christmasberry, or Brazilian peppertree, is used to deck halls and homes in this holiday time of year. Earlier this month, Christmasberry was even offered for sale at a "swap meet" in Kahului, Maui, Hawaii, where it was labeled "Maui mistletoe." But Christmasberry is also a dangerous invasive species. "Christmasberry is in the same plant family as poison ivy and poison oak," said Bill Gregg, invasive species coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey. "It produces chemicals in its leaves, flowers and fruit that irritate skin and respiratory passages of susceptible, often unsuspecting people." The often vine like tree is notorious for preying on native vegetation in Florida, Arizona, California and Hawaii. Forming dense thickets of tangled woody stems that displace native plants and animals, Christmasberry is particularly destructive in south Florida, where it has invaded about 700,000 acres of land.


Christmasberry can make attractive, but dangerous, holiday decorations (Photo courtesy USGS)

As substitutes, evergreens, magnolia and holly can be used as elegant and eye catching Christmas decorations, Gregg recommends. Christmasberry was brought to south Florida from Brazil more than a century ago, but was not observed to be an invasive weed until much later. A single tree was first observed in Everglades National Park in the late 1950s. By the 1980s, Christmasberry was recognized as the Everglade's most serious alien plant threat, invading 90,000 acres or 10 percent of the park, mostly in pinelands and mangrove swamps. More information on invasive plants is available at: