Blue Marble - November 2011

The Great South African Hyena Prison Break

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 1:39 PM PDT
Hyena philosophy on ballsy jailbreaks: "It ain't no thang."

Hyenas, being total badasses:

Two hyenas escaped from a South African wildlife park Wednesday by chewing through an electric fence during a power outage, but were recaptured within half an hour, the park said.

"The power went off... and the hyenas -- who will chew through wire and even iron bars -- managed to escape," said Earl Smith, general manager of the Lion Park, located just outside Johannesburg. "The hyenas always try to escape if there is a long power failure. The lions don't try to escape," he told the [South African Press Association].

He said park employees tracked the hyenas and recaptured them near one of the main roads leading into Johannesburg...[and described] the animals as "shy and timid" and said there was never any risk to the public...

Yup. That's right. The park's lions—the Cadillac of the animal kingdom that's renowned for owning things—wouldn't even try pulling off this kind of gutsy jailbreak. A hyena, however, will evidently chomp through electrified "wire and even iron bars" if it means tasting sweet, glorious freedom.

If you ever learned anything about hyenas, chances are you learned it from Disney's hysterically racist 1994 portrayal—amoral, wolfish, hate-filled. But despite their tarnished reputation, hyena attacks on people are extremely rare, even more so for fatal ones. And as the AFP article mentions, there was never a moment when the two escaped hyenas were a "risk to the public" (and this was when they were strutting straight into South Africa's most populous metropolitan area). This story is just another quick reminder of how basically everything movies have taught you about wild animals is dead wrong.

(It's also another reminder of how feckless electric fences can be, whether you're a park owner trying to keep some hyenas detained, or you're Herman Cain trying to stem an illegal immigrant invasion by constructing a deadly barbwired barrier along the US-Mexico border.)

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IPCC Forecasts More Wacky Weather

| Tue Nov. 1, 2011 4:41 PM PDT

In a forthcoming report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that extreme weather events—like the floods, droughts, and major storms so far in 2011—are increasingly linked to climate change. Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press got an early copy of the report's summary, and writes:

The final draft of the report from a panel of the world's top climate scientists paints a wild future for a world already weary of weather catastrophes costing billions of dollars. The report says costs will rise and perhaps some locations will become "increasingly marginal as places to live."
The report from the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be issued in a few weeks, after a meeting in Uganda. It says there is at least a 2-in-3 probability that climate extremes have already worsened because of man-made greenhouse gases.

Scientists, of course, are cautious about saying that any specific weather event happened because of climate change. But they generally acknowledge, as this report does, that these kinds of extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity, and will continue to do so in the future as the world warms. (The report notes that scientists are "virtually certain" that there will be more periods of extreme heat, for example.)

The US has already seen quite a few expensive weather disasters this year, as has the rest of the world. Guess it's time to batten down the hatches.

Coal Ash Spills in Lake Michigan

| Tue Nov. 1, 2011 10:09 AM PDT

Check out this photo that Mark Hoffman of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal snapped on Monday of a dam collapse at a coal ash pond:

Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal SentinalMark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinal

The Journal Sentinel reports that a large section of a bluff used to contain coal ash at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant broke on Monday, dumping ash and dirt into Lake Michigan. As you can see in the photo, a truck and some heavy machinery were also pushed into the lake. One of the first responders in the area noted that the debris "stretched 120 yards long and 50 to 80 yards wide at the bottom." A spokesman for the company told the paper that the dam probably did contain coal ash, but said that they'd stopped dumping it there "several decades ago."

The spill calls to mind the catastrophic dam break at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, back in December 2008. That spill dumped 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry, and prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider how coal waste is handled. Although the EPA was on course to reclassify coal leavings as "hazardous waste" that needed special handling, that rule has been stuck in bureaucratic wrangling for more than two years. So for now, it's still perfectly legal to store coal ash waste in retention ponds that are likely not lined or particularly well maintained.