Blue Marble - May 2013

British Columbia Rejects West Coast Pipeline Plan

| Fri May. 31, 2013 12:49 PM PDT

Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, which was rejected on Friday.

While we've been having a big fight over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline down here in the US, Canada has also been debating a massive pipeline for exporting tar sands oil, the Northern Gateway. And on Friday, the government of British Columbia put the kibosh on that whole idea.

BC's environment minister said Friday that Enbridge, the company seeking to build the pipeline, had not adequately answered the government's questions about the project, and that there were still outstanding concerns about spill prevention and response. The CBC reports:

"British Columbia thoroughly reviewed all of the evidence and submissions made to the panel and asked substantive questions about the project, including its route, spill response capacity and financial structure to handle any incidents," said Environment Minister Terry Lake.
"Our questions were not satisfactorily answered during these hearings."

The Northern Gateway would run from the heart of the tar sands in Alberta, through British Columbia, and to an export terminal in Kitimat. Anti-pipeline activists in the US are cheering BC's Gateway decision as a win against tar sands development. 350.org founder Bill McKibben sent around a statement shortly after the announcement:

For years the tar sands promoters have said: ‘if we don't build Keystone XL the tar sands will get out some other way.' British Columbians just slammed the door on the most obvious other way, so now it's up to President Obama. If he approves Keystone XL he bails out the Koch Brothers and other tar sands investors; if he rejects the pipeline, then an awful lot of that crude is going to stay in the ground where it belongs.

The BC government was quick to say, however, that this "is not a rejection of heavy-oil projects" in general—keeping open the possibility for another proposed pipeline, Kinder Morgan (which we also talked about here). Nevertheless, it certainly makes plans to export tar sands oil more complicated.

CLARIFICATION: As the Globe and Mail explains, British Columbia does not have ultimate authority on the pipeline decision; the Canadian government does. But this is expected to influence its decision:

It does not have veto power over what would be a federally regulated project but its opinions carry much weight in the Joint Review Panel's deliberations, said Michal Moore, an economics professor at the University of Calgary and a former energy regulator.
"I would think that when they play a card like that, when they don't have direct control over the decision, that card is meant to be a place marker that says, ‘This issue is really important to us and we want to make sure that you take it very seriously,'" Mr. Moore said. “It’s the moral equivalent of throwing down a gauntlet, ‘that you better address our concerns in your decision, no matter what the decision is.'"

The headline on this story has been changed to reflect this clarification.

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Secret Sea Turtle Feeding Grounds Discovered in BP Oil Spill Waters

| Fri May. 31, 2013 3:05 AM PDT
A Kemp's ridley turtle prepped for release into the Gulf of Mexico, October 2012.

Thirteen years of satellite of tagging, plus new statistical techniques (switching state-space modeling, or SSM, for you geeks), reveal that the favored feeding grounds of highly endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles coincide with the Gulf of Mexico waters most hammered by oil spills, commercial fishing (and overfishing), and the hypoxic zombie waters known as the dead zone. 

These rarest and smallest of sea turtles live in nearshore waters of the Gulf and nest exclusively on a few sandy beaches in Mexico and Texas. Previous tracking studies showed they migrate from their north to Texas and Louisiana, with a few outliers getting as far as peninsular Florida. But before this latest research, no one knew if turtles were migrating or feeding at any given location. Now statistical modeling has pinpointed where these turtles are likely stopping to feed—which is key to identifying marine habitats critical for saving them.  

Kemp's ridley trutle hatchling, Padre Island National Seashore:
Kemp's ridley turtle hatchling, Padre Island National Seashore: qnr / Terry Ross at Flickr

The feeding habitat discovery came when scientists differentiated between time spent in feeding or breeding mode from time spent migrating. Once they figured out when and where the turtles were feeding, they were also able to roughly profile what type of habitat offered the best feeding grounds for Kemp’s ridleys.

"We have a lot more to learn about how and why Kemp's ridleys use their foraging sites,” says Kristen Hart, a research ecologist for the USGS Southeast Ecological Science Center and co-author of the paper in Ecology and Evolution. "We don't know enough about individual turtles yet to draw conclusions about their behavioral responses to conditions at foraging grounds, and we are just beginning to understand differences among different sea turtles species. For example, Kemp’s ridleys appear to migrate, then feed, and then migrate to a final feeding destination. Loggerheads, in contrast, seem to head straight for feeding hotpots.”

 

Foraging habitat by Kemp's ridley turtles in the Gulf of Mexico:
Foraging habitat by Kemp's ridley turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. (A) Foraging habitat and environmental characteristics of foraging sites selected for N = 31 female Kemp's ridley turtles from 1998 to 2011. The grid is divided into 25 × 25 km (15.5 mile) cells, with 100-m (328-ft) isobaths as a bounding layer. (B) Bathymetry coverage; (C) Sea surface temperature (SST) coverage; (D) Net primary productivity (NPP) coverage. Donna J. Shaver, et al, Foraging area fidelity for Kemp's ridleys in the Gulf of Mexico. Ecology and Evolution (2013). DOI: 10.1002/ece3.594

As you can see in the map above, Kemp's ridleys follow follow a foraging corridor to a few foraging hotspots, mostly off the Louisiana coast. Which just happens to be smack in the middle of oil fields, the BP spill site, and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

Not much can survive in the waters of the dead zone when it forms up most summers (more on that here). Jellyfish might do okay. But unfortunately for Kemp's ridleys, they're not jellyfish-eating turtles, but crab-eating turtles. And lots of crabs die in the dead zone.

And obviously, if you're a sea turtle, oil spills suck pretty bad too.

Oiled Kemp's ridley sea turtle rescued from BP oil spill waters:
Oiled Kemp's ridley sea turtle rescued from oil spill: Louisiana GOHSEP at Flickr

The good news (in a roundabout kind of way) is that a court settlement was filed yesterday requiring the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Coast Guard ensure that toxic oil-dispersing chemicals—like the Corexit that BP used in the Gulf—must not harm sea turtles, whales, and other endangered species or their habitats. This in federal waters off California. The suit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Surfrider Foundation, and Pacific Environment Conservation to force the government to determine the safety of chemical dispersants before they're use on endangered species. Not afterward, as happened during 2010’s Deepwater Horizon debacle.

"We shouldn't add insult to injury after an oil spill by using dispersants that put wildlife and people at risk," says Deirdre McDonnell of the Center for Biological Diversity. "During the BP oil spill no one knew what the long-term effects of chemical dispersants would be, and we're still learning about their harm to fish and corals. People can avoid the ocean after an oil spill, but marine animals can't. They're forced to eat, breathe, and swim in the chemicals we put in the water, whether it's oil or dispersants."

Studies have found that oil dispersed by Corexit 9527 squanders the insulating properties of seabird feathers more than untreated oil, making the birds more susceptible to hypothermia and death. Other studies found dispersed oil is toxic to fish eggs, fish larvae, and adult fish, as well as to corals, and that it harms the ability of sea turtles to breathe and digest food. Check out my other posts on these studies in the If you liked this, you might also like... section below.

Exploding Trains, Explained

| Thu May. 30, 2013 9:34 AM PDT
Fifteen train cars derailed in an industrial area in Rosedale, Maryland, causing an explosion and the collapse of several buildings.

A train and a garbage truck collided outside of Baltimore on Tuesday evening, resulting in a large explosion that released smoke that could be seen miles away. CSX, the train's operator, confirmed that the train was carrying hazardous chemicals that caused the explosion. The Washington Post reports:

CSX spokesman Gary Sease said the sodium chlorate in a derailed car near the front of the train exploded, igniting terephthalic acid in another derailed car. Sodium chlorate is used mainly as a bleaching agent in paper production. Oklahoma State University chemist Nick Materer said it could make for a potentially explosive mixture when combined with an incompatible substance such as spilled fuel.
Another chemist, Darlene Lyudmirskiy, of Spectrum Chemical Manufacturing Corp. in Gardena, Calif., said such a mixture would be unstable and wouldn’t need even a spark to cause a reaction.
"If it's not compatible, anything could set it off," she said.

The incident could have been much worse if other chemicals had been involved—chemicals like chlorine gas or anhydrous ammonia. When a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina, in 2005 and released chlorine, nine people died and 5,000 had to be evacuated. While not nearly that bad, the Baltimore explosion has brought renewed attention to the hazardous chemicals that are transported by rail in the United States.

Trains carry  64 percent of a class of chemicals known as "toxic inhalation hazards."

In 2012, trains carried 189 million tons of chemicals. That only represents about 20 percent of all the chemicals shipped in the US. But trains carry 64 percent of a class of chemicals known as "toxic inhalation hazards" or TIH, like chlorine, that can be deadly if inhaled. Rail is the safest, most efficient way to transport those chemicals—one rail tank can carry as much as four trucks, and trains moving along a dedicated shipping line rather than on the highways, meaning that collisions are less likely, as researchers at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government have pointed out.

Even if rail is safer than trucks, there are plenty of reasons to want to limit the amount of dangerous chemicals carried by rail. There's always a chance of an accident, as Tuesday's explosion demonstrated, and local governments and first responders don't even know what's traveling on those trains until an accident happens. Then there's also the threat of a deliberate attack on either the rails or the chemical facilities where the tankers eventually end up. The best solution, says Greenpeace legislative director Rick Hind, is getting companies to shift from a "catastrophic chemical to a noncatastrophic substance or process"—that is, using chemicals that won't explode or give off noxious fumes. These chemicals would be safer to transport, and safer to use when they reach their destinations.

Some companies and municipal water systems have already started phasing out the use of deadly chemicals like chlorine. But it would take a stronger regulatory push to make a larger switch happen. There was some effort to do so immediately after September 11, at the height of terrorism fears. But the Bush White House did not back it due to pressure from the chemical industry, recalls Bob Bostock, the homeland security adviser to the then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. "That effort died before it really got started," he says.

Now Bostock hopes that the EPA will use its regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act to "to require facilities to at least evaluate safer technologies." "It's very feasible to do so," he says. "A lot of facilities have done it. A lot have not."

Railroad operators aren't particularly jazzed about transporting hazardous chemicals, either. But because a few companies control the majority of major railroads, they are required under federal "common carrier" rules that say they can't refuse to carry TIH or other hazardous chemicals. The Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group, has asked Congress to allow them to "decide for themselves whether to accept, and at what price they are willing to accept, such materials for transportation." AAR has also called for safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals as a means of reducing their own risk as carriers.

Press Release of the Day: Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Patmore Visits Chinese Moon Bears

| Tue May. 28, 2013 1:40 PM PDT

And the winner for today's greatest press release:

English actress Lesley Nicol, star of international hit TV show Downton Abbey, has completed a visit to Animals Asia's China Bear Rescue Centre (CBRC) in Chengdu, China.

Nicol—who plays the "highly-strung and quick-tempered" cook Mrs. Patmore—has previously tweeted her love for the Chinese bears:

bears china downton abbey patmore

Animals Asia, headquartered in Hong Kong, is an organization dedicated to protecting "moon bears" in China; here's an example of moon-bear abuse.

Lesley Nicol isn't even the first actor in the acclaimed British period drama to go rescue tortured bears in China. That honor belongs to Peter Egan, who earlier this year traveled to Chengdu, a city in southwest China, to work with Animals Asia. Egan played the Duke of Argyll in a Downton Abbey Christmas special.

On a related note, there was that one episode of Downton Abbey in which under-butler Thomas Barrow teaches kitchen maid Daisy Mason an old dance move called "the Grizzly Bear"; Mrs. Patmore shows up in that scene near the end.

So now you know.

Farewell, Froggy: The Age of Ribbit Is Nearing an End

| Sat May. 25, 2013 3:05 AM PDT
Tree frog.

Amphibians are disappearing horrifyingly fast worldwide, with a third of species imperiled. But they're disappearing even faster than believed in the US—and probably worldwide (more on that below)—according to the first ever analysis of the rate of population losses among frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts. 

Eastern newt:

Even amphibians presumed to be relatively stable and widespread are declining. With species everywhere—from the swamps of Louisiana and Florida to the high mountains of the Sierras and Rockies—all disappearing with mind blowing speed. 

Toad mountain halrequin frog:
Toad mountain harlequin frog: Brian Gratwicke at Flickr

A team of researchers with the USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative analyzed the rate of change in the probability of 48 amphibian species occupying ponds and other moist habitats in 34 sites over a period of nine years (see map/figures below). 

Gray tree frog:
Gray tree frog: Robert A. Coggeshall at Wikimedia Commons

What they found: overall occupancy by amphibians declined 3.7 percent a year from 2002 to 2011. That seemingly small number adds up to particularly virulent form of extinction hunting down these species within two decades if the rate of decline remains unchanged. 

California newt:
California newt: jkirkhart35 at Wikimedia Commons

Much worse, species Red-listed as threatened or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declined on average 11.6 percent a year. 

Yosemite toad:
Yosemite toad: Natalie McNear via Flickr

Surprisingly, declines occurred even in protected lands, like national parks and national wildlife refuges. "The declines of amphibians in these protected areas are particularly worrisome because they suggest that some stressors—such as diseases, contaminants and drought—transcend landscapes," says lead author Michael Adams. 

American bullfrog:
American bullfrog: Dave Menke at Wikimedia Commons

Amphibians seem to be experiencing the worst declines documented among vertebrates, but all major groups of animals associated with freshwater are having major problems.

Characteristics of monitoring data:
From the PLOS ONE paper: (A) Location of monitoring areas. (B) Distribution of species among IUCN categories. (C) Number of years monitored in each time series. (D) Mean annual estimates of probability of site occupancy and number of occupancy estimates (N). Credit: Michael J. Adams, et al. PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064347.g001

While the PLOS ONE paper didn't address causes, another recent study found a multitude of natural and manmade stressors affecting amphibians, including human-induced habitat destruction, environmental contamination, invasive species, and climate change.

"An enormous rate of change has occurred in the last 100 years, and amphibians are not evolving fast enough to keep up with it," says Andrew Blaustein, author of the 2011 paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, and professor of zoology at Oregon State University. "With a permeable skin and exposure to both aquatic and terrestrial problems, amphibians face a double whammy. Because of this, mammals, fish and birds have not experienced population impacts as severely as amphibians—at least, not yet."​

Shenandoah salamander:
Shenandoah salamander: Brian Gratwicke at Wikimedia Commons

"Amphibians have been a constant presence in our planet's ponds, streams, lakes and rivers for 350 million years or so, surviving countless changes that caused many other groups of animals to go extinct," says USGS Director Suzette Kimball. "This is why the findings of this study are so noteworthy; they demonstrate that the pressures amphibians now face exceed the ability of many of these survivors to cope."

I've written more about climate-induced amphibian disappearances here, about problems with herbicides on farms here. And for a long read on the problems with the loss of biodiversity here

Progess on Chemical Regulation, At Last?

| Fri May. 24, 2013 8:23 AM PDT

A bit of positive news this week may have gotten lost in the shuffle. On Wednesday, two senators announced bipartisan legislation to fix our nation's outdated and ineffective chemical regulations. New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg and Louisiana Republican David Vitter announced an agreement to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a 37-year-old law governing the use of tens of thousands of hazardous chemicals. I've written before about how the law's failures have left dangerous chemicals largely unregulated.

That these two lawmakers agreed on the new legislation, dubbed the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013, is a big deal. Lautenberg has made strengthening TSCA one of his legacy issues in the Senate, from which he is retiring in 2015. Vitter is known as a industry booster how has blocked progress on chemicals in the past.

The bill would, for the first time, require the EPA review the safety of all chemicals used in products, whereas TSCA grandfathered in a lot of chemicals without testing their safety. It would also make it harder for companies to claim "confidential business information" as an excuse for not disclosing what's in their products. TSCA reform advocates will note that this latest bill is not as tough as the Safe Chemicals Act that Lautenberg had previously championed. The Environmental Working Group slammed the proposal as "unacceptably weak" and listed the areas where it falls short.

But others see the agreement as movement in the right direction. As Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Energy & Environment Daily:

"I've worked for a number of years trying to improve a statute and a program that is hamstrung at every turn by that statute," Denison said. "My reference point is whether this bill improves EPA's ability to work relative to current TSCA. And there's no question that it does.
"If one measures it against an ideal, the kind of bill I'd write if I were king, then this doesn't meet all the criteria," he added. "But this bill has a higher likelihood of passing."

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Grassroots Greens Challenge Environmental Defense Fund on Fracking

| Wed May. 22, 2013 1:49 PM PDT

A coalition of grassroots environmental groups—plus a few professors and celebrities—issued a public message to the Environmental Defense Fund on Wednesday: You don't speak for us on fracking.

The coalition of 67 groups released an open letter to EDF President Fred Krupp criticizing his organization for signing on as a "strategic partner" in the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that bills itself as an "unprecedented, collaborative effort of environmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, energy companies and other stakeholders committed to safe, environmentally responsible shale resource development." CSSD's partners include Chevron, CONSOL Energy, and Shell. The partners have been working together on voluntary industry standards for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial process used to extract natural gas from shale rock.

The groups that signed the letter included national organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, as well as regional environmental outfits such as the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Catskills Citizens for Clean Energy. Actors Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger also signed the document. They wrote:

The very use of the word sustainable in the name is misleading, because there is nothing sustainable about shale oil or shale gas. These are fossil fuels, and their extraction and consumption will inevitably degrade our environment and contribute to climate change. Hydraulic fracturing, the method used to extract them, will permanently remove huge quantities of water from the hydrological cycle, pollute the air, contaminate drinking water, and release high levels of methane into the atmosphere. It should be eminently clear to everyone that an economy based on fossil fuels is unsustainable.

Gail Pressberg, a senior program director with the Civil Society Institute, criticized EDF for a "willingness to be coopted" by industry in a call with reporters about the letter. "For too long, nationally-oriented groups have tried to call the shots on fracking," she said. "These local people can and should be allowed to speak for themselves."

EDF's Krupp responded with his own letter on Wednesday, defending the group's participation in CSSD and its record of "fighting for tough regulations and strong enforcement" on natural gas extraction:

Let’s be clear about where EDF stands. It’s not our job to support fracking or to be boosters for industry. That is not what we do. In fact, we regularly clash with industry lobbyists who seek to gut legislation protecting the public, and we have intervened in court on behalf of local communities and their right to exercise traditional zoning powers. We have made it clear that there are places where fracking should never be permitted. But if fracking is going to take place anywhere in the U.S.—and clearly it is—then we need to do everything in our power to protect the people living nearby. That includes improving industry performance in every way possible. In our view, CSSD, a coalition that includes environmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, energy companies and other stakeholders, is one way to do that.
Make no mistake: CSSD is not and never will be a substitute for effective regulation. Stronger state and federal rules, along with strong enforcement, are absolutely necessary. However, voluntary efforts can build momentum toward regulatory frameworks.

I've covered the sparring between EDF and grassroots groups over gas before. At the heart of it is that many of the grassroots groups want there to be no fracking, period. EDF's position is that fracking is "never going to be without impact, never going to be risk free," as EDF Vice President Eric Pooley described it to me, "but we're also mindful that it's happening all over the country." Voluntary standards, Pooley said, are not the ultimate goal—but they can help reduce impacts in communities that already have drilling, and lay the groundwork for actual regulations. "How could we not, in good consciousness, want to engage if we see an opportunity to reduce impacts in communities?" he said.

For what it's worth, both enviros and industry folks have berated CSSD for being too accommodating of the other side.

WATCH: What Does 400 ppm Mean? Talking with Climate Scientist Michael Mann

| Wed May. 22, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Last week in Washington, DC, leading climate scientist Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania sat down with Climate Desk Live to talk about the significance of an planetary milestone—we've reached 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As Mann explained, humans are altering the content of the atmosphere at an alarming rate—one perhaps never seen before in the history of Earth itself.

How Hitler's U-Boats Are Still Attacking Us

| Tue May. 21, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has some fresh news from World War II: 13 Merchant Marine ships sunk by the German navy in the Battle of the Atlantic threaten to release oil from their watery graves.

The finding comes in an assessment presented to the Coast Guard that analyzed 20,000 shipwrecks in US waters, and identified 36 as posing a significant threat of oil pollution. Seventeen of those are recommended for further assessment, which could lead to missions to remove their fuel oil and oil cargo. Besides the Merchant Marine vessels, the worrisome ships include a barge lost in bad weather in 1936, two ships sunk in separate collisions in 1947 and 1952, and a tanker that exploded in 1984.

The locations of the 17 wrecks NOAA is recommending be considered for in water assessment and pollution recovery if necessary.
The 17 wrecks NOAA recommends for further investigation. NOAA

"This report is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the potential oil pollution threats from shipwrecks in US waters," says Lisa Symons, resource protection coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "Now that we have analyzed this data, the Coast Guard will be able to evaluate NOAA's recommendations and determine the most appropriate response to potential threats."

An initial screening of the 20,000 shipwrecks found 573 that could pose substantial pollution risks based on the vessel's age, type, and size. Ships built of steel, made to be a tanker or to carry over 1,000 gross tons got on the list. Further investigation narrowed the number to 107 wrecks. Some were deemed navigational hazards and demolished, and others were salvaged. But most of the 107 have not yet been directly surveyed for pollution potential. In some cases little is known about their current condition.

Locations of some of the 20,000 shipwrecks in US waters.
Locations of some of the 20,000 shipwrecks. NOAA

The report is part of NOAA's Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project, which hunts down potential sources of oil pollution from sunken vessels. Knowing where these ships lie helps oil response planning efforts, and may assist in tracking down mystery spills—sightings of oil where a source is not immediately known or suspected. 

The tanker Gulfstate before it was torpedoed in 1943.
The Gulfstate before it was torpedoed in 1943. NOAA/SSHSA Collection, University of Baltimore Library

The vessel ranked worst on the NOAA's risk assessment scale is the WWII tanker the Gulfstate, torpedoed and sunk off the Florida Keys in 1943. Here's a casualty narrative for the ship, as excerpted by NOAA, that tells the terrifying tale of how the vessel went down after an attack by a Kriegsmarine U-Boat:

At 09.03 hours on 3 Apr, 1943, the unescorted Gulfstate (Master James Frank Harrell, lost) was hit by two torpedoes from U-155 about 50 miles southeast of Marathon Key, Florida while steaming a nonevasive course at 10.5 knots. The first torpedo struck on the port side directly under the bridge and ripped a large hole in the hull at the waterline, causing immediate flooding and setting the cargo on fire. The second torpedo struck at the engine room. The fire leapt 100 feet in the air and spread from the bridge to the after part of the vessel. The master ordered the engines secured and the ship abandoned, but the vessel sank bow first within four minutes. None of the lifeboats could be launched and all rafts were lost in the fire. Only a single doughnut raft managed to break free of the tanker. The eight officers, 34 crewmen and 19 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 5in, four .50cal and two .30cal guns) had to jump in the water and swim through 600 feet of burning oil surrounding the tanker. The survivors clung to floats and the single raft for seven hours before being discovered by a U.S. Navy blimp, which dropped two rubber life rafts. An U.S. Coast Guard seaplane picked up three of the most seriously wounded two hours later and took them to Miami. One hour later the remaining 15 survivors (five of them wounded) were picked up by the American patrol craft USS YP-351. Three of the wounded were later transferred to USS Noa (DD 343) for medical treatment. All survivors were landed at Key West. Eight officers, 26 crewmen and nine armed guards were lost.

Gulfstate ranks as the No. 1 priority for the Coast Guard to assess and potentially to attempt to salvage or remove its oil, according to the NOAA rating system. That's in part because it might still be holding almost 84,000 barrels (about 3.5 million gallons) of oil, and in part because of its location near Florida's coral reefs. Unfortunately no one knows exactly where the Gulfstate went down, though it's thought to lie in more than 2,800 feet of water. So NOAA is recommending steps to find the vessel, including asking Florida's commercial and recreational fishermen to report oil spottings that could lead back to the ship.

Many of the 20,000 wrecks in US waters date to before 1891, when US shipping began switching to fuel oil. Most of these earlier wrecks from the age of coal and sail pose little or no environmental threat. You can find the full list of potentially polluting wrecks here.

Croatians (and Americans) Training Honeybees to Sniff Out Landmines

| Mon May. 20, 2013 11:12 AM PDT

Bees are basically the most important insect ever. Honeybees make possible roughly a third of everything we eat, and the bugs pollinate about $14 billion worth of crops and seeds in the United States each year.

Here's yet another reason for mankind to feel forever indebted to the bees: They may one day be instrumental in detecting unexploded landmines. And Croatians are leading the charge in this field of research. Here's the rundown from Wired UK:

Nikola Kezic, a professor in the Department of Agriculture at Zagreb University, has been exploring using bees to find landmines since 2007. Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and other countries from former Yugoslavia still have around 250,000 buried mines which were left there during the wars of the early 90s. Since the end of the war more than 300 people have been killed in Croatia alone by the explosives, including 66 de-miners.

Tracking down the mines can be extremely costly and dangerous. However, by training bees — which are able to detect odours from 4.5 kilometres away — to associate the smell of TNT with sugar can create an affective way of identifying the locations of mines...The research is ongoing, but once the team is confident in the bees' landmine-seeking abilities, they will release the creatures in areas that have been de-mined to see whether the field has been successfully swept by humans. Kezic told AP "it has been scientifically proven that there are never zero mines on a de-mined field, and that's where bees could come in."

As wild as this idea sounds, it's hardly unprecedented. In fact, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have been working on this sort of research for years. The Defense Advanced Research Laboratory (DARPA) has been studying honeybees since 1999. Check out some of this Pentagon press material released in 2004:

bees landmines department of defense
honey bees land mines detection sniff out
Via the US Department of Defense

And here's a 2008 video from the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory on how American scientists train honeybees to detect other types of explosive devices: