Blue Marble - August 2011

Hurricane Irene Gets Going

| Wed Aug. 24, 2011 2:40 AM EDT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

NASA's Earth Observatory posted these gorgeous views of Hurricane Irene today. Both were captured by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, which passed directly over the storm at 15:57 UTC on 22 August 2011. At the time, Irene was a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 70 knots/130 kilometers/80 miles per hour.

From the Earth Observatory caption:

The top image shows a top-down view of the rain intensity within the storm. TRMM reveals that although a hurricane, Irene has not yet developed an eye and is not yet fully organized... Rainbands, containing light to moderate rain (shown in blue and green, respectively) curve around the storm mainly to the north and east of the center, revealing the presence of the storm’s low pressure circulation, but one that is not yet intense. The lower image, taken at the same time, provides a three dimensional perspective of the storm. It reveals an area of deep convection (shown in red) near the storm’s center where precipitation-sized particles are being carried aloft. These tall towers are associated with strong thunderstorms responsible for the area of intense rain near the center of Irene seen in the previous image. They can be a precursor to strengthening as they indicate areas within a storm where vast amounts of heat are being released. This heating, known as latent heating, is what is drives a storm’s circulation and intensification.

Hurricane Irene, lower right, at 2332 UTC 23 Aug 2011. Credit: GOES Project Science.

Irene originated from a tropical wave that propagated off the west coast of Africa to become the 8th named storm of the season. Her formation date of August 20 ties this year with 1936 as the second earliest date for formation of the season's 9th storm. Furthermore, as Jeff Masters writes at his Wunderblog:

Hurricane season is only one-third over, and we've already had almost a full years' activity already. Tropical Storm Irene is the 9th named storm this year, and an average season has just 10-11 named storms... Only 2005 was more active this early. However, the first eight storms of the year have done far less damage than is typical. All eight storms stayed below hurricane strength, making 2011 the first hurricane season since record keeping began in 1851 to have more than six consecutive tropical storms that did not reach hurricane strength. As I discussed in Friday's post, a major reason for this is the lack of vertical instability over the tropical Atlantic so far this year. We've had a large amount of dry, sinking air over the tropical Atlantic, and the usual amount of dry, dusty air from the Sahara, both helping to keep the atmosphere stable and stop this year's storms from intensifying into hurricanes.

Irene however is growing fast and big—you can see her enormous diameter in the image above—and is threatening to become this year's 10th billion-dollar disaster.

Sea surface temperatures as of 24 Aug 2011 along Hurricane Irene's projected path. Credit: NOAA/Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observation Lab.



  
In the image above you can see some of what is likely to fuel Irene on her northward path in the next few days—extremely warm waters, up to or above 30°C/86°F, through the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas, all the way up the Gulf Stream to Cape Hatteras.

Top two NASA images produced by Hal Pierce.

Cross-posted from Deep Blue Home.

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The Great East Coast Earthquake of 2011 Explained

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 9:31 PM EDT
FYI: This is not Washington, DC, circa 2011.

The East Coast got a little taste of West Coast-style geology on Tuesday afternoon with a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook buildings—or at least rattled nerves—from North Carolina to Canada. The quake's epicenter was about 3.5 miles beneath tiny Mineral, Virginia, about 40 miles northwest of Richmond. While the quake certainly created some anxious moments, it was still about a thousand times less powerful than the Fukushima quake in March. So what happened, exactly, and what does it all mean?

What was the damage? Structural damage from the quake appears to have been limited, but cell phone service was disrupted up and down the seaboard. Yep, cell phone disruption…and that's about it. The absence of mass destruction prompted some Twitter users to make funny jokes about the quake. But then we found out that the National Cathedral and possibly the Washington Monument were both damaged, which isn't funny.

Okay, so why should we even care? One reason is that nearby nuclear power plants are only designed to withstand a magnitude 5.9-to-6.1 quake, leading the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut down at least two Virginia plants even though an NRC spokesman said that "as far as we know, everything is safe." One plant lost power just after the quake and turned to diesel generators for backup. Still, the event raises questions about the safety of nuclear power plants and what the impact of a really big quake could be.

Sustainably Caught? Chilean Sea Bass? Maybe Not.

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 7:24 PM EDT

Patagonian toothfish, aka Cliean sea bass. Credit: USFDA.Patagonian toothfish, aka Chilean sea bass. Credit: USFDA.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) just racked up another black eye from their sustainable seafood program. According to a new paper in Current Biology, nearly 1 of every 5 fillets of Chilean sea bass genetically sampled was either not Chilean sea bass or not from the only area deemed to have a sustainable fishery—the South Georgia Islands/Shag Rocks fishery.

I've written before—here at MoJo and at Deep Blue Home—about other problems emerging with the MSC, casting doubts on its stretchy definition of "sustainable."

Here's what the authors of the Current Biology paper have to say about the Chilean sea bass fishery:

The decline and collapse of many of the world's fisheries has led to the implementation of social marketing that promotes the consumption of sustainably harvested seafood. Because the success of this strategy depends on supply chain integrity, we investigated the accuracy of eco-labels for Patagonian toothfish, marketed as 'Chilean sea bass' (Dissostichus eleginoides), by genetically analyzing retail fish bearing certification labels from the Marine Stewardship Council.  

They found:

  • 8 percent (3 of 36) of the fish labeled as MSC-certified Chilean sea bass were actually other species.
  • 15 percent (5 of 33 samples) that were Chilean sea bass were unlikely to have come from the South George Islands/Shag Rocks fishery.

 

Chilean sea bass mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotype frequencies. Pie diagrams (sample sizes within) show the frequencies of mtDNA haplotypes from locations marked by yellow stars and for the retail MSC sample which was ostensibly harvested from the SouthChilean sea bass mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotype frequencies. Credit: P.B. Marko, et al, Current Biology DOI:10.1017/j.cub.2011.07.006. (Further explanation here.)

 

Chilean sea bass are big (≥200 kilograms/440 pounds and up to 2.3-meters/7.5-feet long) and long lived (50 years, with sexual maturity as late as 20 years)—two guarantors of vulnerability to overfishing. Nature News reports:

Catching them "is not like fishing for fish—it's almost like logging for trees", says Stephen Palumbi, a marine population biologist at Stanford University in California, who was not involved with the study. "It takes that long for these fish to grow up and be ready for market. That's why the fish got in trouble."

Meanwhile Science Now reported the views of Lars Gulbrandsen at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Lysaker, Norway, who studies ecocertification:

"The high rate of mislabeling revealed in this study could potentially undermine MSC's reputation as the gold standard for environmentally friendly fishing."

The study authors concluded:

Although social marketing has the potential to positively impact threatened species by guiding consumers towards sustainable fisheries, our study showed that retail labeling of MSC-certified Chilean sea bass was inaccurate and that country-of-origin labelling was highly misleading. With respect to certified sustainable fisheries, mislabeling ultimately results in misplaced consumer demand for uncertified fisheries, thereby undermining the most basic goal of this conservation strategy.

 

Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program (with cool app) lists Chilean sea bass as a fish to avoid due to high mercury and dodgy fishing methods:

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing has depleted some populations of Chilean seabass. In addition, some Chilean seabass is caught using unmodified bottom longlines, which hook and drown thousands of seabirds each year, most notably endangered albatross. A portion of the Chilean seabass fishery is certified as sustainable to the standard of the Marine Stewardship Council. These certified fisheries are not evaluated in the Seafood Watch report and are not covered under the general "Avoid" recommendation.

And now we know what to make of the "certified sustainable" fisheries.
 
The paper:

  • ♥ Peter B. Marko, Holly A. Nance, and Kimberly D. Guynn. Genetic detection of mislabeled fish from a certified sustainable fishery. Current Biology (2011). DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2011.07.006.

♥ Open-access papers.

 Cross-posted from Deep Blue Home.

Sewage Snow: Coming Soon to a Ski Slope Near You?

| Tue Aug. 23, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

If owners of a ski resort in Flagstaff, Arizona, get their way, skiiers will soon be gliding over artificial snow made from 180 million gallons of sewage effluent. Yes, you read that right: snow made from recycled poop water.

The Snowbowl Ski Resort sits atop the San Francisco Peaks, a range of inactive volcanoes that contain the only alpine tundra in Arizona, at heights of more than 12,000 feet. Resort owners first sought snowmaking permission on the Peaks in 1979 to compensate for the snowfall fluctuations inherent in operating a ski resort in the desert. Community uproar about the plan to pump in artificially generated snow squelched the proposal at the time, but in 2005, the Forest Service approved a request from Snowbowl to expand its operations and begin making fake snow, claiming it was necessary to ensure a "reliable and consistent operating season."

The city of Flagstaff agreed to sell reclaimed water from one of its wastewater treatment plants to the resort to produce the fake snow. The resort plans to build a new pipeline to pump the water 15 miles uphill to a reservoir, where it will remain until it is needed. When the resort needs to make snow, it will pump the effluent into large fans that will make a fine mist of water droplets that can freeze quickly and become "snow."

Bulldozing has already begun to make way for the Snowbowl expansion.: Photo by James Q. Martin.Bulldozing has already begun to make way for the Snowbowl expansion. Photo by James Q. Martin.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that reclaimed water is safe for humans—as long as it's properly treated. But since the Forest Service approved the project, environmentalists, community members and Native Americans in the region have mounted opposition to the project, citing environmental and health concerns. The US Geological Survey has found that even "clean" wastewater "can contain a wide range of organic chemicals, and studies conducted by Dr. Catherine Propper, a professor of biological sciences at Northern Arizona University, found that Flagstaff's treated sewage water contains pharmaceuticals, hormones, industrial pollutants, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. A 2007 study from the US Agricultural Research Service found that the environmental and public health impacts of using reclaimed sewage effluent for irrigation "are largely unknown"—not exactly a ringing endorsement for anyone who wants to go out and ski the slopes. 

Snowbowl would be the first resort in the world to use 100 percent wastewater to make its snow, and critics have raised concerns that it was unwise to approve the plan without fully understanding the long-term impacts. "When you put these substances into a delicate alpine environment like the Peaks, there are going to be big impacts to amphibians, other animals and the soil,” said Andy Bessler, an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club based in Flagstaff.

There are cultural issues with the project, as well. Thirteen different Native American tribes in the region consider the Peaks sacred ground; they worship, make offerings, conduct ceremonies and gather herbs throughout the range. Even as the Forest Service approved Snowbowl's plan, the agency's analysis acknowledged that this project will have adverse impacts to the cultural and biological integrity of the Peaks. "[T]he Forest Service acknowledges the tribal perspective of the effects of 'scarring' on the sacred landscape and that the associated spiritual and cultural impacts may in fact be considered irreversible in nature." (Emphasis theirs.) The analysis also acknowledged that the use of reclaimed water for snow "could negatively impact the spiritual and medicinal purity of resident flora on the Peaks."

Indeed, dumping sewage effluent on Peaks amounts to "cultural genocide," said 35-year-old Klee Benally, a Navajo who has spent half his life fighting for the Peaks. "Our identity is based on our relationship with these sacred places and this—having the source of our spiritual renewal become so contaminated and desecrated—is a direct threat to our survival."

Lawsuits have delayed development of the reclaimed water system since 2005, and yet another appeal is still pending. But this spring Snowbowl began construction anyway, said Howard Shanker, an attorney representing the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine other concerned citizens. "While the appeal is pending, the government and Snowbowl are cutting down trees and putting down pipe as fast as they can."

We Walk Our Pigs in Oakland

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 5:30 AM EDT
4-H member Kendall Post, 14, with her rooster.

For the next few months, I'll be periodically hanging out with members of 4-H Club. One of the largest youth organizations in the world, 4-H counts agribusiness giants like Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill, John Deere, Philip Morris USA, and Kraft Foods among its partnering sponsors. That these companies would want to turn kids onto farming makes sense when you consider the fact that the average age of the American farmer is creeping up toward 60. But the values that the kids learn about livestock—ethical and humane treatment of animals, lots of personal interaction, and responding to each animals' individual needs—goes completely against the agribiz-as-usual model about which my colleague Tom Philpott has blogged extensively. My first post on 4-H, where I check out the animals at the Alameda County Fair, is here.

One sunny afternoon in July, I drove up a series of narrow, winding roads into the hills of Oakland, California, to meet two seasoned members of the Montclair 4-H Club: Kendall and Garrett Post. The Post kids live with their mom and dad in a cool old farm house, behind which are fire trails that snake up through the woods. The setting feels rural, but it's actually only a few minutes' drive from bustling downtown Oakland.

Garrett Post checks for eggs.Garrett Post checks for eggs in the chicken coop.

This spring, the Post kids raised two pigs for 4-H in their barn. Since their property isn't big enough to properly exercise the pigs, Kendall and Garrett walked them on the public fire trails behind their house, guiding them with short crops, since pigs don't do well with leashes. More than a few hikers, they told me, did double takes at the sight of a couple of kids prodding their pigs up the trail.

By the time I visited, the pigs had already been sold for meat at the Alameda County Fair. But the kids were nice enough to show me a few of their other animals and to chat with me about what it's like to raise livestock in Oakland.

Kendall Post, 14, holds one of her roosters.Kendall Post, 14, holds one of her roosters.

When I visited the Posts, 4-H activities had wound down for the summer. The only animals around were chickens, rabbits, and a few gawky teenage turkeys. But in the spring, during the weeks leading up to the county fair, Kendall explained, things can get a little crazy, since the kids have to make sure that their show animals are ready for prime time: healthy, well-groomed, and obedient. Kendall and Garrett walk their pigs as many as three times a day. The walk is partially for exercise, but it's also for fair practice: "You have to make sure you can control your animal in front of the judges," Kendall says.

At 14, Kendall has been a 4-Her for nine years, during which time she's raised rabbits, chickens, turkeys, goats, and pigs. She describes 4-H as "a giant time commitment." In addition to the one to two hours every day she spends with her animals, there's club meetings, project meetings, and officers' meetings; Kendall serves as club treasurer.

Over a lemonade in the backyard, Kendall and her little brother Garrett, 11, demonstrated how to show a pig, pantomiming how to direct the animal with a stick. "What if you have a pig with an attitude?" I asked. Kendall giggled. "Well then, you're kind of done."

The Posts' pig pens (for feeding time).The Posts' pig pens (for feeding time).Many 4-H kids raise their animals on other people's properties or on a 4-H farm, but Kendall and Garrett are lucky: They have a big yard and a dad who likes to build animal enclosures, so their chickens, goats, rabbits, and pigs live right on their family's property. In fact, a few other 4-H kids who don't have as much space raise their pigs at the Posts' place.

The Post kids admit that 4-H can be a lot of pressure, especially in the months leading up to the fair. Kendall and Garrett devote a lot of energy to making sure their pigs reach the required weight of 250 pounds, since underweight animals aren't allowed to be shown. They also do a lot of cramming to prepare for questions from tough judges: Kendall even participated in something called Rabbit Bowl, a quiz-show style contest where kids answer questions about rabbit health and handling. And competition is fierce. "When I tell people I got fourth place*, it doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but to me it is," she says. "We're up against kids from farms, and 4-H is their whole lives." Their hard work paid off: Kendall's pig sold for an impressive $1,700, and Garrett's sold for just over $1,000. 4-H kids typically use most of what they earn from a sale to pay back loans they've taken out to buy and feed the animals, but the net profit is usually still a few hundred dollars. 

Garrett says hello to a turkey poult.Garrett says hello to a turkey poult.Next year, Kendall will be a freshman at a Catholic high school in Oakland. I asked her what her friends at school think of her 4-H activities. She thought about it for a minute. "I think they're interested, but they can't see themselves doing it," she said. Kendall's not sure yet how she'll balance the demands of high school with her 4-H animal projects. She'd like to try out for school plays, and rehearsals could conflict with pig-exercising and sty-cleaning time.

So was it worth devoting all that time to an animal that you know is going to be sold for meat? I asked Garrett whether it was sad to say goodbye to his pig at the fair. "Last year I was really sad," he said. "This year I got a little misty-eyed on the way home from the fair, but I didn't break down."

Kendall explained it this way: "We know that our pigs have a way better life than the ones whose meat you get at the grocery store. We know exactly what they're fed. We walk them. We play tug-of-war with them. Of course it's sad to say goodbye to them, but I know that they're happy."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kendall's pig took fourth place. That was incorrect; both Kendall and Garrett took fourth place in showmanship. The sentence has been corrected.

Right Wing Freaks Out About Aliens

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 5:11 PM EDT

On Thursday, the Guardian reported on a paper looking at the possible outcomes of alien encounters, which they claimed (erroneously) was funded by NASA. The paper has since issued a correction; while one of the coauthors is doing his postdoc work at NASA headquarters, the paper on aliens wasn't funded or requested by the agency.

As Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman, the NASA postdoc in astrobiology, explained on his blog, he worked on the paper in his free time because he thought it was an interesting subject, though he believes the likelihood of any of the scenarios they included panning out is pretty low. Two colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania were the first and second authors on the paper, which was published earlier this year in the journal Acta Astronautica.

Nevertheless, right-wing media types proceeded to flip out at the idea that taxpayer dollars were subsidizing a paper about extraterrestrial life. In particular, they are incensed that the paper includes one scenario in which aliens notice that we've altered our planet by larding up the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions and come annihilate us. Media Matters has a great rundown of some of the headlines, like:

"NASA: Aliens May Attack Earth to Save Planet from Global Warming"
"NASA: Aliens Might Destroy Humanity to Protect Other Species:
"NASA Study: Global Warming May Prompt Alien Attack"

But all the silly outrage about the paper sort of misses the point that the paper in question is actually a really fascinating read. The authors go through three potential types of alien encounters—those that are beneficial, neutral, or harmful for humanity. So, maybe nice, friendly, ET-like aliens come visit us and help us solve all our earthly problems, and we have a nice chat about science and math. Or maybe we discover they're out there, but they're not really interested in talking to us (I wouldn't blame them). And finally, perhaps they eat us, enslave us, or obliterate us, either through warfare or by bringing new diseases.

Of course, this is a subject regularly explored in science fiction. But as the authors argue, it's probably worth exploring in science nonfiction, too, if only to "train our minds" to think about the possibilities should we ever actually encounter other life in the universe. They're not saying that any of these scenarios is likely to happen any time soon. Just that they're worth contemplating.

Which is why the part about climate change is actually compelling. As the writers note, the fact that our output of greenhouse gases is affecting our atmosphere may be what alerts other life forms to our existence, because the earth's spectral signature (or, our specific combination of reflected and absorbed electromagnetic radiation) has changed. Or maybe they have simply observed from afar that we often treat humans that don't look like us kind of shitty and have been driving other species to extinction, and decide that we can't be reformed. In either case, they "may seek to preemptively destroy our civilization in order to protect other civilizations from us."

Of course, as the authors note, there are plenty of better reasons than alien annihilation to shape up our act when it comes to climate change and other environmental ills. And I'm of the belief that if there are other intelligent life forms out there, they're probably more advanced than we are and would prefer to stay the hell away from our problems if they have a choice.

But anyway, back to my original point, which is that it wouldn't have bothered me if NASA actually was funding this paper. Because, well, someone better be thinking about what happens should we encounter our intergalactic brethren. Speaking of which, I'm going to see Attack the Block tonight, so I'll be curious to see how the Brits handle it in science fiction.

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Shell's North Sea Problem

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 2:29 PM EDT

Royal Dutch Shell announced on Friday morning that they had finally stopped the flow of oil from a pipeline in the North Sea. It took eight days to cut off the leak from a valve off the coast of Scotland, although the company says that it was a slow leak and that only 1,300 barrels were released.

It's good that things finally appear to be under control there, but this couldn't have come at a worse time for the Dutch oil giant. Earlier this month, the US Department of Interior approved the company's plan to begin drilling in the Arctic. The company still needs a few other permits from the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, but could begin drilling in the Beaufort Sea as early as next summer.

Environmental advocates say this most recent spill and the time it took to stop the leak is still more evidence that letting Shell drill in the Arctic is a bad idea. For the Obama administration to green light drilling there is inviting a "nightmare," wrote Natural Resources Defense Council head Frances Beinecke in an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week. A spill in the Arctic would be really, really difficult to deal with—much more so than the North Sea. The region would be dark and ice-covered most of the year, and it's remote location would make it hard to get response crews up there quickly.

Maybe Shell's latest problem will give the Obama administration pause in moving forward with the Arctic drilling. But then again, we've had plenty of significant oil spills in the past year that should have raised red flags.

Image-of-the-Week: Lynx

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 8:00 AM EDT

TK Caption: TK creditCanada lynx. Credit: kdee64 / Keith Williams via Wikimedia Commons.

The lynx (Lynx canadensis) of North America's boreal and upper montane forests preys almost exclusively—up to 97 percent of its diet—on snowshoe hares. With its high hind quarters and huge feet, this "snow cheetah" is built for speed. But even it may not be swift enough to keep up with the changes underway in its sub-Arctic and Arctic world—both disproportionately slammed by global warming. A paper in this week's Science reports the unexpected—and accelerating—speed of range shifts underway. Globally, species are now moving to higher ground at a median rate of 11.0 meters/36 feet per decade and to higher latitudes at a rate of 16.9 kilometers/10.5 miles per decade—faster than even a decade ago. For the northernmost lynx, the next stop is the Arctic Ocean.

This Heatwave Is No Accident

| Thu Aug. 18, 2011 5:17 PM EDT

I was out of the office last week and missed this, but it's still worth posting. Peter Sinclair over at Climate Denial Crock of the Week has an excellent video putting this summer's record heat and catastrophic weather events into context, while calling out the skeptics:

I happened to be home in New Jersey over the weekend for the crazy storms and flooding there. Parts of South Jersey got more than 10 inches of rain on Sunday; I thought I was going to need a pontoon to get home. The damage from the storm is expected to cost the county $20 million. It doesn't take a weatherman to know that things are wacky out there.

Even Tea Partiers Oppose Mountaintop Removal Mining

| Thu Aug. 18, 2011 5:12 PM EDT

Three quarters of likely 2012 voters who come from the "heart of Appalachia" support strengthening the Clean Water Act to protect waterways and lakes from the hazards of mountaintop removal mining, according to a new survey sponsored by a trio of environmental groups. And the supporters come from across the political spectrum—that number includes 71 percent of likely Republican voters and 67 percent of tea partiers, who aren't usually so fond of government regulation.

Mountaintop removal mining involves blasting mountain peaks to access coal seams for extraction, which destroys ecosystems and poisons drinking water. On top of that, a recent study showed evidence that the practice causes birth defects. In response, coal industry lawyers suggested this was a result of inbreeding, not mining. (The survey found that these sort of attacks have failed to catch on.)

Asked if they supported mountaintop removal mining independent of the Clean Water Act, 38 percent of respondents said they opposed it, compared to 24 percent who supported it. When they were told that the practice contaminated local water sources, opposition jumped to 57 percent, including 51 percent of Republicans. Tea partiers initially favored the practice but changed their minds in a follow-up question explaining that mining waste "is disposed in nearby valleys and streams" (PDF).

The survey of 1,315 likely voters in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia also found that the voters will be far less inclined to support politicians who continue to support mountaintop removal mining. If that's true, officials should take heed: Thanks to Big Coal, the practice still enjoys some strong support in Appalachia, despite its resource-intensive nature and relatively low employment rates. The Democratic governors of Kentucky and West Virginia have defended the industry against environmentalists, and in Tennessee and Virginia, recent bills to ban mountaintop removal mining died in Senate committees.