March 30, 2009

China, Lack of Oversight Blamed for Homeowner's Nightmare

George and Brenda Brincku spent their life savings to building their dream home in 2004. Very shortly thereafter, the house was uninhabitable. Anything copper corroded, electrical wires were eaten away, appliances broke down, and a noxious smell permeated nearly every room. "We were like, 'This is a brand new home. This should never be happening,'" Brenda told CBS News. "It's very difficult."

"Now a growing number of Americans are suffering the same fate - wondering why their new homes, built within the last five years, are rotting from the inside out. The primary problem appears to be defective wallboard, also known as drywall. An estimated 60,000 homes nationwide - primarily in southern states and California - could be affected," reports CBS Evening News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian.

As early as 2004 a housing boom led to a dramatic shortage of U.S. manufactured drywall. To keep up with demand, builders turned to manufacturers in China. A document obtained by CBS News shows that by 2006, 228 million kilograms - about 500 million pounds - was imported into the U.S. from 20 companies in China.

March 26, 2009

Saving Seahorses

The Secret Lives of Seahorses exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium includes West Australian and zebra-snout seahorses, ribboned pipehorses, bluestripe pipefish and yellow-banded pipefish. The fabulous new exhibit gives visitors a chance to come face to face with these fascinating little creatures, explore their mystifying behaviors and unusual adaptations, and learn about their fragile habitats.

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, located in Monterey, California, "Seahorses are some of the most enchanting and mysterious creatures in the ocean. They are also in trouble, struggling to survive in threatened habitats around the world—coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove forests. That’s why it’s so important that we tell their story—and make a difference for their survival."

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is open to the public seven days a week, but advance ticket purchases are highly recommended. There is plenty of ticket and travel information for visitors on the aquarium's website. I used to live in Monterey, and can assure you that the lines to get in are very long for visitors who don't buy tickets online before arriving. The aquarium engages in marine research as well as environmental policy and education programs.

Photos courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium

March 25, 2009

20 Years After the Exxon Valdez

Crude oil oozes into a 10-inch (25-centimeter) 
deep hole dug into a beach on Alaska's Eleanor 
Island in Prince William Sound on February 6, 2009. 
Photo courtesy of WWF
Two decades after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, huge quantities of oil still coat Alaska's shores with a toxic glaze, experts say.

The Exxon Valdez tanker ship spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, more than 21,000 gallons remain. It gathers in sludgy puddles on beaches, sits in secluded coves, and waits just beneath the sand and rocks.

"The damage that [the spill] created is something beyond anyone's imagination," said Michel Boufadel, Temple University's Civil and Environmental Engineering chair, who has just completed research on why the oil has persisted.

You may also enjoy reading Trees Packing Up, Moving North.

March 20, 2009

The Science of Spring

Happy First Day of Spring to everyone in the Northern Hemisphere!

Actual Spring-like weather notwithstanding, the first day of Spring arrives on slightly different dates (from March 19-21) each year for two reasons: First, our year is not exactly an even number of days; and second, the planet's elliptical orbit, plus the gravitational tug of the other planets, changes our planet's orientation to the sun a little each year. Additionally, according to a study released last month, Earth's seasons have shifted in the past 150 years. The hottest and coldest days of the years now are occurring almost two days earlier.

Earth's multiple motions (orbiting the sun in an elliptical pattern while spinning on a tilted axis) are behind everything from day and night to the changing seasons.

The first day of Spring is marked by the Vernal Equinox. At each equinox, the sun crosses the Earth's equator, so night and day are of approximately equal length on most of the planet at that time. At the equator, the sun is directly overhead at noon on either equinox. At the North Pole, the sun rises only once a year - at the start of spring. It gets higher in the sky each day until the summer solstice, then dips lower and lower in the sky but doesn't set until late September, at the Autumnal Equinox.

March 12, 2009

Dracula the Fish

Photos courtesy of Ralf Britz, Natural History Museum
This tiny fish has tiny fangs that have earned it the name Danionella dracula, and it has now been recognized as a newly-discovered species. Researchers at London's Natural History Museum found several specimens of the Dracula fish in a tank of other aquarium fish.

Initially museum staff had thought the 0.7-inch (1.7-centimeter) creatures, caught in Myanmar (Burma), were part of an already known, related species, but that was incorrect. The fish don't actually have true teeth, meaning that they don't have an enamel exterior and a pulpy center. Instead, these are bony extensions of the jaw. Scientists think that the fish use their fangs for fighting and looking mean, rather than for eating.

The findings are published this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

March 9, 2009

Beligerant Chimp Shows Animals Can Make Plans

Photo courtesy of Thomas Lersch
A chimpanzee at the Furuvik Zoo in Stockholm, Sweden has collected a stash of rocks and then hurled them all at zoo visitors, thus confirming that apes can plan ahead just like humans, a Swedish study said Monday.

The chimpanzee's aggressive behavior surprised both visitors and keepers at the Furuvik Zoo but fascinated researchers because it had been so carefully prepared. According to a report in the journal Current Biology, the 31-year-old alpha male chimp started building his weapons cache in the morning before the zoo opened. He collected rocks and knocked out chunks from concrete boulders inside his enclosure. He waited until midday before pelting zoo visitors with a barrage of rocks.

"These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way," said the author of the report, Lund University Ph.D. student Mathias Osvath. "It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events." It also implies that they can be nasty, just like some humans. The zoo reports that few visitors were hit by the rocks and none were seriously injured due to the chimp's bad aim. 

March 3, 2009

Tree Kangaroos Get a New Home

Photos of tree kangaroos at the Bronx Zoo
courtesy of Postdlf
Tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea now have a new home. The endangered Matshie's tree kangaroo's habitat in Papau New Guinea is part of the country's first nationally designated conservation area. Tree-kangaroos are macropods adapted for life in trees. They are found in the rainforests of New Guinea, far northeastern Queensland, and nearby islands.

If you are planning to spend some time in New York, tree kangaroos can be seen at the Bronx Zoo.

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March 2, 2009

Nancy-Ann DeParle Nominated to Direct White House Office for Health Reform

Obama nominated Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and health care expert Nancy-Ann DeParle as director of the new White House Office for Health Reform. These two highly-qualified women will be tasked with cutting costs, expanding access to medical clinics and other health care resources, and improving the quality of health care. With any luck, health care in the United States will become available to 46 million uninsured Americans while decreasing insurance costs to employers. President Obama has explained that the plan could be paid for with new taxes and by cutting the waste and inefficiency that now plagues the health care system.

"If we are going to help families, save businesses and improve the long-term economic health of our nation, we must realize that fixing what's wrong with our health care system is no longer just a moral imperative but a fiscal imperative. Health care reform that reduces costs while expanding coverage is no longer just a dream we hope to achieve — it's a necessity we have to achieve," said Obama. 

March 1, 2009

Little Octopus Floods Aquarium

California two spot octopus at the
Santa Monica Aquarium
This week at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in California a foot-long (0.3 meter) female California two-spotted octopus swam to the top of her tank, disassembled a valve, and released at least 200 gallons (757 liters) of seawater into nearby exhibits and offices. The octopus remained unharmed in her tank, but the aquarium's brand-new floors were less fortunate. For people familiar with octopus ingenuity, this will come as no surprise. "Octopuses have a wonderful combination of intelligence, tremendous manipulative ability, curiosity, and strength," said Jennifer Mather, a psychology professor at Canada's University of Lethbridge who studies cognition in octopuses. These amazing animals demonstrate behavior that suggests curiosity, consciousness, and even a sense of humor, said Eugene Linden, author of the 2002 book The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity. In one instance, an octopus given a slightly spoiled shrimp stuffed it down the drain while maintaining eye contact with its keeper, Linden said.