Reid Forgrave: Mining vs. Wilderness

New York Times:

Today Ely is home to a few thousand people, a place of long, hard winters that is, in the words of one resident, “not on the road to anywhere — we’re literally the end of the road.” People do not end up here by accident. For most of the town’s history, the main reason they came was to make a living off the rocks. The ore supported abundant mining jobs for generations.

For almost as long, however, people have been coming to this area for another reason, too: to visit America’s most popular national wilderness area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which encompasses roughly a million protected acres and thousands of lakes and welcomes 150,000 visitors annually. The “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is actually a land of 11,842 lakes, and that figure counts only those bigger than 10 acres. They are a legacy of the glaciers that retreated from the region about 10,000 years ago. As a result, the state has a significant fraction of the world’s supply of surface-available fresh water; 6 percent of Minnesota’s surface area is water, more than any other state.

Geological coincidence makes Ely — one three-square-mile town in the northernmost reaches of the continental United States — a focus of a national debate about the proper use of public lands. The place also distills the political fault lines in today’s America, pitting an angry working class against progressive activists. Just southeast of Ely, an international mining conglomerate has invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the past decade toward potential copper-nickel mines a few miles outside the Boundary Waters. The company — Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta — has drilled 1.6 million feet of core samples out of 496 holes to explore the deposit from which it soon hopes to process 20,000 tons of mineralized ore a day. The company believes the area’s valuable metals — copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and silver — can be extracted in an environmentally responsible way and can provide hundreds of jobs to the job-starved economy of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region, along the northwestern coast of Lake Superior.

Is it a question of what is more important? Is the answer to this question dependent on the time horizon? Where are the best places to get our metals that each of us use? These types of questions we wrestle with as a community, and of course there are no easy answers. For us that value wilderness and lakes, we want to protect the quality of these valuable places and the risks associated with the mining are not worth it. For miners and would-be-miners, they wish to provide a means to support their family and enjoy the woods and lakes for recreation. They too do not do not want to destroy the quality of the lakes and wilderness. For the company, they wish to produce profits for the benefit of the CEO, other corporate cadgers, and shareholders. They don't wish to jeopardize those profits; however, the quality of the lakes and wilderness that remains after the extraction of precious metals is not important. 

BBC: Painted Lady Swarm


Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady Butterfly

Scientists at the National Weather Service (NWS) first mistook the orange radar blob for birds and had asked the public to help identifying the species.
They later established that the 70-mile wide (110km) mass was a kaleidoscope of Painted Lady butterflies.

Forecasters say it is uncommon for flying insects to be detected by radar. “We hadn’t seen a signature like that in a while,” said NWS meteorologist Paul Schlatter, who first spotted the radar blip.

Painted Lady Butterflies were very abundant this summer in Minnesota.

Dan Gunderson: In the Lake We Find What We Dump


A new study offers an explanation to the mystery of why pharmaceuticals and other chemicals are found in remote Minnesota lakes, far from developed land that would create contaminated runoff.

”These chemicals such as antibiotics, and anti-corrosives and endocrine active chemicals were being found in lakes where we might not expect them because there was no surrounding development,” said Mark Ferrey, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency scientist who, in search of an answer, collected snow, rain and air samples at three locations in the Twin Cities and had them tested for 126 chemicals.

Ferrey found 17, including DEET, cocaine, antibiotics, an anti-corrosion chemical, an x-ray contrast chemical and the pain reliever naproxen.

David Peterson: Lake Water Level Appeal

Star Tribune:

The state of Minnesota will appeal a landmark ruling on the excessive pumping of groundwater around White Bear Lake, saying it is “not supported by scientific evidence” and would “immediately halt important development” within five miles of the lake.

In a written statement Tuesday underlining the ruling’s potential to reach all across Minnesota, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said: “The DNR is strongly committed to protecting Minnesota’s many precious water resources, including White Bear Lake and its surrounding aquifers. We take that responsibility very seriously. But responsible, effective water management must be supported by sound science.”

Katie Crosby Lehmann, lead attorney in a team of lawyers that worked the case over several years’ time, said in a statement late Tuesday: “We stand by the detailed scientific evidence from the monthlong trial. As demonstrated by the [judge’s 140-page] opinion, the DNR has known of the problems caused by its permitting actions since issuing its own 1998 study and has concluded that the water use in the north and east metro area is not sustainable.”

Sarah Laskow: The Hidden Memories of Plants

Atlas Obscura:

In the study of the plant kingdom, a slow revolution is underway. Scientists are beginning to understand that plants have abilities, previously unnoticed and unimagined, that we’ve only ever associated with animals. In their own ways, plants can see, smell, feel, hear, and know where they are in the world. One recent study found that clusters of cells in plant embryos act a lot like brain cells and help the embryo to decide when to start growing.

Of the possible plant talents that have gone under-recognized, memory is one of the most intriguing. Some plants live their whole lives in one season, while others grow for hundreds of years. Either way, it has not been obvious to us that any of them hold on to past events in ways that change how they react to new challenges. But biologists have shown that certain plants in certain situations can store information about their experiences and use that information to guide how they grow, develop, or behave. Functionally, at least, they appear to be creating memories. How, when, and why they form these memories might help scientists train plants to face the challenges—poor soil, drought, extreme heat—that are happening with increasing frequency and intensity. But first they have to understand: What does a plant remember? What is better to forget?

Lizzie Wade: Human-Driven Evolution


During World War II, Londoners often sought shelter from German bombs in the city’s subway tunnels. There, they encountered another type of enemy: hordes of voracious mosquitoes. These weren’t your typical above-ground mosquitoes. They were natives of the Underground, born in pools of standing water that pockmarked the underground passageways. And unlike their open-air cousins, London’s subterranean skeeters seemed to love biting humans.

Fifty years after the war ended, scientists at the University of London decided to investigate the subway population. They collected eggs and larvae from subway tunnels and garden ponds and reared both populations in the lab. The outdoor mosquitoes fed on birds, but the tunnel bugs preferred mammal blood. And when the scientists put males and females from the different populations into close quarters designed to encourage mating, not a single pairing produced offspring. That sealed the deal: the underground mosquitoes were a whole new species, adapted to life in the subway tunnels people had built.

It’s stories like this one that got Joseph Bull thinking. As a conservation scientist at the University of Copenhagen, he hears a lot about how humans are driving other species extinct. If the current rate stays steady, the planet is on its way to its sixth mass extinction, a severe event on par with the meteorite impact that killed the dinosaurs. But he wondered whether there might be a flip side. Certainly people’s planet-transforming activities had to be creating new species, too. But how, and how many? Bull decided to see whether he could count all the new species humans had created or were on their way to creating, in a sort of mirror-image of extinction rates and endangered species lists.

Samantha Oliver: Lake Trends Mostly Static

University of Wisconsin: Center for Limnology

Over the last few decades, change has defined our environment in the United States. Agriculture intensified. Urban areas sprawled. The climate warmed. Intense rainstorms became more common. But, says a new study, while those kinds of changes usually result in poor water quality, lakes have mostly stayed the same.

The authors of the article, published online today by the journal Global Change Biology, assessed changes in measures of water quality, including plant nutrients and algal growth in in 2,913 U.S. lakes from 1990 to about 2011. The researchers found that, “despite large environmental change and management efforts over recent decades, water quality of lakes in the Midwest and Northeast U.S. has not overwhelmingly degraded or improved.”

Fred Pearce: Solving the Ozone Problem


Did the Montreal Protocol fix the ozone hole? It seemed so. With chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-eating chemicals banned, many scientists said it was only a matter of time before the ozone layer recharged, and the annual hole over Antarctica healed for good.

But 30 years on, some atmospheric chemists are not so sure. The healing is proving painfully slow. And new discoveries about chemicals not covered by the protocol are raising fears that full recovery could be postponed into the 22nd century – or possibly even prevented altogether.

In mid-September, the United Nations is celebrating the protocol’s 30th anniversary. It will declare that “we are all ozone heroes.” But are we patting ourselves on the back a bit too soon?

The ozone layer is a long-standing natural feature of the stratosphere, the part of the atmosphere that begins about six miles above the earth. The ozone layer filters out dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can cause skin cancer and damage many life forms. It may have been essential for the development of life on Earth.

Emily Nonko: The Roots of NYC Subway System Woes

Curbed NY:

New Yorkers now use a transit system in a state of emergency. The past few months have laid bare the enormity of the problems currently facing the century-old subways, from aging infrastructure to a lack of federal dollars available to help make things better.

Much has also been said about how the world’s largest public transportation system has gotten so bad—the lack of funding, of course, but also Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s penchant for prioritizing flashy projects over system maintenance, along with years of mismanagement within the MTA, an agency that’s admitted to misspent funding that doesn’t go toward maintenance.

But start looking at the decline of, and disinvestment in, New York’s rail lines—from the subway to commuter rails like the Long Island Rail Road—and you’ll find that those problems go back much, much further. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they seem to lead to one man in particular: Robert Moses.

Kirsti Marohn: Surveying Fish in Streams for Water Health


Chad Anderson and John Sandberg slosh through a muddy stream in hip waders, pausing occasionally to duck under overgrown branches or swat a mosquito.

Sandberg carries a long pole with a metal ring on the end. He moves it through the water, sending out an electrical current that temporarily stuns the fish. Anderson comes behind him with a net, scooping them up. “We want to capture every single species, every fish,” Anderson said. “The little species are sometimes just as important as the big ones...”

This slow and sometimes painstaking work is part of the MPCA’s effort to document and monitor all 80 of Minnesota’s major watersheds. The work has produced a wealth of data about the health of Minnesota’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Steven Verburg: Farm Pollution Exacerbated by Zebra Mussels

Wisconsin State Journal:

An explosion of the zebra mussel population in Lake Mendota this year could mean more foul-smelling shoreline slime and repeats of the major fish kill and vast bloom of toxic bacteria that hit Madison’s lakes already this summer, experts say.

Farm pollution is the main driver of this month’s surprisingly severe water quality woes, but the invasive mollusks now covering much of Lake Mendota’s bottom aren’t going to help matters.

“We’ve been shocked to see how many there are,” said Jake Vander Zanden, UW-Madison’s top expert on zebra mussels.

Zebra mussels change a lake by filtering food from water, which makes water clearer so that additional sunlight reaches the bottom. The sunlight, along with nutrients mussels excrete on the bottom, spur plant growth and the potential for more dead vegetation washing up and decomposing in smelly piles on shores, Vander Zanden said.

This year divers are finding a typical zebra mussel by-product — bottom-clinging mats of algae that look like green cotton candy — all over Lake Mendota, he said.

Kate Wagner: The Rise of the McModern


Rachel Sender

Rachel Sender

From busy rooflines to plastic shutters, mismatched windows to four-car garages, the McMansion has dominated the American suburban residential landscape for almost 40 years without a notable change in aesthetics. Many people know a McMansion when they see one. The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

How to identify a McModern, as per McMansion Hell:
-Single-family detached home
-Constructed from inexpensive materials, such as vinyl, stucco board, and veneers, rather than traditional materials such as stucco or reinforced concrete
-Contrasting exterior cladding materials and colors
-Attached garage and/or two-story foyer
-Sometimes features non-modern details like Tuscan columns or windows with stylized muntins
-Massing and rooflines may be over-elaborate, combining several roof forms, e.g. terrace, shed, “butterfly,” or “M-shaped”
-May include decorative forms like extruded walls or cantilevers clad in differing materials
-Windows are erratically sized and placed in “artistic” configurations without consideration for overall composition

See more from Kate Wagner at McMansion Hell

Carl Zimmer: A Plague Killing Deer and Elk

New York Times:

Dr. Zabel and his colleagues are developing plans to burn plots of National Park Service land in Arkansas and Colorado. If the experiments turn out as the researchers hope, they will spare some elk and deer a gruesome death.

Across a growing swath of North America, these animals are dying from a mysterious disorder called chronic wasting disease. It’s caused not by a virus or bacterium, but a deformed protein called a prion.

When ingested, prions force normal proteins in the animal’s body to become deformed as well. Over the course of months, prions can gradually wreck the animal’s nervous system, ultimately killing it.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of chronic wasting disease. In the September issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, Dr. Zabel, an immunologist at Colorado State University, and his former graduate student Aimee Ortega survey what scientists have learned about the slow-spreading plague.

It makes for ominous reading. “There’s a lot that we still don’t know and don’t understand about the disease,” Dr. Zabel said in an interview. Once chronic wasting disease gets a foothold, it can spread relentlessly. It’s now documented in 24 states, and continues to expand into new ranges. In some herds, as many as half of the animals carry prions.

Adam Rogers: Apple's New Headquarters is Old Culture


You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to 21st-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood.

Apple can't be good at everything. Steve Job grew up in a suburb and his formative experiences likely influenced his ideals of corporate headquarters.

Lucas Reilly: The Most Important Scientist You've Never Heard Of

Mental Floss:

For 60 years, American drivers unknowingly poisoned themselves by pumping leaded gasoline into their tanks. Here is the lifelong saga of Clair Patterson—a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb and discovered the true age of the Earth—and how he took on a billion-dollar industry to save humanity from itself...

on the prairies and farms of central Iowa, a 2-year-old boy named Clair Patterson played. His boyhood would go on to be like something out of Tom Sawyer. There were no cars in town. Only a hundred kids attended his school. A regular weekend entailed gallivanting into the woods with friends, with no adult supervision, to fish, hunt squirrels, and camp along the Skunk River. His adventures stoked a curiosity about the natural world, a curiosity his mother fed by one day buying him a chemistry set. Patterson began mixing chemicals in his basement. He started reading his uncle’s chemistry textbook. By eighth grade, he was schooling his science teachers.

During these years, Patterson nurtured a passion for science ... Luckily for the world, the child who’d freely roamed the Iowa woods remained equally content to blaze his own path as an adult. Patterson would save our oceans, our air, and our minds from the brink of what is arguably the largest mass poisoning in human history.

SAS: Machine Learning: What it is and Why it Matters


Because of new computing technologies, machine learning today is not like machine learning of the past. It was born from pattern recognition and the theory that computers can learn without being programmed to perform specific tasks; researchers interested in artificial intelligence wanted to see if computers could learn from data. The iterative aspect of machine learning is important because as models are exposed to new data, they are able to independently adapt. They learn from previous computations to produce reliable, repeatable decisions and results. It’s a science that’s not new – but one that’s gaining fresh momentum.

While many machine learning algorithms have been around for a long time, the ability to automatically apply complex mathematical calculations to big data – over and over, faster and faster – is a recent development.

Ron Meador: Recreational Shooter Blood Pb Levels


Wherever you stand on the question of whether it’s guns that kill people or people who kill people, you might be impressed by new findings about shooting ranges as a source of serious lead poisoning among their enthusiasts.

In occupational health and workplace safety circles it has long been recognized that police officers, soldiers and others who train intensively with firearms are exposed to lots of lead dust and fumes as they make holes in targets. Same for their trainers. There are workplace rules intended to limit that exposure and to monitor blood-lead levels for dangerous conditions...

Half the studies found BLLs above 20µg, and 17 found them above 30 µg, at which point “prompt medical evaluation” is recommended. Fifteen found readings in excess of 40 µg.

The three dozen studies included both professional and recreational facilities worldwide and the new analysis did not attempt to distinguish them by BLL results. Rather, it makes the sensible and perhaps even obvious point that the health risks in both venues ought to be of equal concern and receive equal attention.

Erica Cirino: Our Medicated Surface Waters

Ars Technica:

The United States of America is a highly medicated country: almost seven in 10 Americans take prescription drugs. That translates to 4.4 billion prescriptions and nearly $310 billion spent on medication in 2015. Painkillers, cholesterol-lowering medications, and antidepressants top the list of drugs most commonly prescribed by doctors.

Americans aren’t just putting these drugs into their bodies; they’re also putting more drugs into the environment. A growing body of research suggests all types of drugs, from illegal drugs to antibiotics to hormones, enter the environment through sewage and cesspool systems across the country. And while pharmaceutical drugs—when used as prescribed—are capable of curing disease and alleviating symptoms in people, they can wreak havoc on nature.

There, they persist for long periods without breaking down. Hormones in medications like birth control cause changes such as intersex development in fish and amphibians. Antidepressants have been found in the brain tissue of fish downstream from wastewater treatment plants. Research on the presence of illegal drugs in water bodies has revealed some interesting trends: drug concentrations are highest on weekends and skyrocket after social events, such as music festivals, where large quantities of drugs are often consumed.

Diana Gitig: New Hypothesis about Declining Monarch Butterflies

Ars Technica

Anurag Agrawal ... has written a book about them called Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. Monarches and their sole food source, the toxic milkweed plant, provide a great example of coevolution. Monarch caterpillars are born on milkweed leaves, where their mothers deposited them as eggs. They grow fat eating the plant. They are not pollinators; the milkweed gets nothing out of the relationship. In fact, the plant goes to great lengths to fight the monarchs. Milkweeds exude latex (the “milk” responsible for the eponym), which contains a noxious chemical cocktail suspended in the sticky rubber. A newly hatched monarch caterpillar’s teeth and feet can, and often do, get easily mired. “More than 60 percent of monarchs died in the burst of latex that accompanied their first bites into the plant,” Agrawal tells us. “Less than 10 percent make it to full size.”

Because monarch butterflies are disappearing. They have experienced a 75-percent drop in their numbers over the past 25 years, and a number of reasons for this decline have been suggested. One is that their overwintering grounds, already quite small, are being threatened by logging, hunting, cattle grazing, and climate change.

But the prevailing idea is that monarchs are disappearing because milkweed is disappearing due to urbanization, the expansion of agriculture, and especially the indiscriminate overuse of herbicides enabled by the advent of herbicide-resistant crops. Monarch caterpillars have nothing to eat, this idea goes, and so they die.

Despite the popularity and the appeal of this hypothesis, Agrawal does not buy it.

Scott Johnson: Lakes Soaking up Road Salt

Ars Technica:

Road salt became common in the 1940s, and the amount used has increased over time. The US puts down around 18 million tons of salt each year. Roadsides along highways obviously get dosed with more than their fair share of salt, but salt also runs off (sometimes via storm drains) into streams and lakes where it can accumulate. That makes road salt a common target in local efforts to protect bodies of water. Although this has sometimes been studied on the local scale, there hasn’t been much big-picture analysis. A new study led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Hilary Dugan works to fill in that gap by estimating how widespread salt contamination is in North America.

The researchers used data from 371 lakes that covered at least four hectares and had chloride measurements going back at least 10 years. That’s not a purely random sampling, but it’s the best way to find trends. Most are in the US Midwest and Northeast, with a handful from southern Canada and some spread over the rest of the US. One-third of the 371 lakes showed a significant upward trend in salt concentration.