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Environment: EPA to take hard look at impacts of proposed open pit mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Agency likely to restrict mining activities based on concerns about impacts to salmon fishery, other resources

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Proposed Alaska mine gets careful EPA scrutiny.

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Staff Report

FRISCO — A proposed mine in coastal Alaskan waters would spread across an area larger than Manhattan and jeopardize the health and sustainability of one of the world’s great salmon fisheries, the EPA said this week, releasing a draft version of its plan for protecting aquatic resources in Bristol Bay from a vast open pit mine.

According to the EPA, the proposed mine in its present form would have unacceptable impacts on Bristol Bay natural resources. As a result, the agency’s draft lays out common sense rules and guidelines that would ensure the integrity of those resources by prohibiting the discharge of any mining materials into critically important waters of the U.S. Continue reading

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Wildlife: Denali wolf packs hammered by hunting

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Wolves draw tourists to Denali National Park.

Death of breeding wolves affects pack size and persistence

Staff Report

FRISCO — Following a steep drop in the Denali National Park wolf population, biologists have documented how the death of breeding wolves affects pack size and persistence. The number of wolves in the 6million acre park in Alaska dropped from 143 in the fall of 2007 to just 55 wolves in the spring of 2013, raising concerns about impacts to tourism.

Many visitors come to Denali with the expectation of seeing wolves, but a recent state decision to allow wolf hunting in area previously deemed a buffer zone has had a big impact on wolf numbers. According to the latest research, the death of a breeding wolf sometimes results in a wolfpack disbanding. Continue reading

Despite global warming, new permafrost forming

New permafrost is forming around Alaska's Twelvemile Lake.

A USGS study finds new permafrost forming near Alaska’s Twelvemile Lake.

Small local variations in temperatures eyed as factor

Staff Report

FRISCO — Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey say they’ve found new patches of permafrost forming in the margins a retreating lake in the interior of Alaska. The findings run counter the conventional wisdom that permafrost will shrink and disappear as the Earth’s climate warms — but don’t jump on the happy train just yet.

The new permafrost patches are small and suggest that the areas of frozen soil are sensitive to small temperature variations and other local factors, the USGS-led study suggests. Especially important is emerging vegetation around the edge of the lake. Thick willows shade the ground to the point that the soil can freeze, the scientists said. Continue reading

Global warming: More coastal habitat for geese in Alaska due to rising temperatures, melting sea ice

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A family of black brant geese in Alaska, Photo courtesy USGS.

Some species may benefit from climate change

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Dwindling sea ice spells trouble for polar bears and walrus colonies, but some other animals are benefiting from global warming — at least for now.

Warming temperatures have resulted in more high quality habitat for geese along the Arctic coast of Alaska, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study.

The research focused on  black brant geese that migrate by the thousands each summer to the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska to undergo their wing molt, during which time the birds are flightless for three weeks. This molting period requires high quality food to give the birds the energy necessary to replace worn feathers and also extensive open water areas where birds can escape from predators. Continue reading

Environment: Arctic scientist resigns after battling his own federal agency over transparency and scientific ethics

 

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Too much oil, not enough science ….

Harassment of prominent researcher likely aimed at stifling scientists

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — A scientist who was targeted by a politically driven investigation has retired from the federal agency that is supposed to regulate oil development in the Arctic after settling his whistleblower complaint against the U.S. Department of Interior.

Dr. Charles Monnett, a senior scientist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, was hectored for several years after publishing observations about drowning polar bears. The witch hunt ended in October with the Department of Interior withdrawing its letter of reprimand and paying Monnett $100,000.

“It’s a relief to be able to speak,” Monnett said, expressing his belief that the investigation was intended squelch scientific evidence that would make it more difficult to issue oil and gas drilling permits in the sensitive Arctic environment. Continue reading

Feds finalize recovery plan for Alaska sea otters

Predation by killer whales seen as main threat

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A dramatic decline in sea otter numbers in southwest Alaska has prompted an all-out recovery effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Nothern sea otter. Photo via USFWS.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Federal officials have finally completed a recovery plan for northern sea otters living along the coast of southwest Alaska, but fully recovering the species may prove to be a big challenge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says predation by killer whales may be the single biggest factor in significant population declines documented since the 1950s.

“There may be few actions that can be taken to mitigate predation as a threat, but the sea otter recovery program should search for solutions and be open to novel ideas,” the scientists wrote in the recovery plan. Above all, more research is needed to pinpoint population trends and reasons for the decline, they wrote.

The 50 to 60 percent drop in otter numbers has had a dramatic effect on coastal ecosystems in the region. Otters are a keystone species in their ecosystem niche. They control sea urchin populations, which prevents over-grazing of underwater kelp forests, which are important habitat for a slew of other species. Read the recovery plan here. Continue reading

Global warming spurs changes in AK wildfire regime

More frequent and intense fires documented in Alaska’s interior region, where conifer forests are giving way to deciduous trees

The magenta-flowered fireweed, which springs up after a burn, dominates a landscape once covered in black spruce in Alaskas Yukon Flats. Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The magenta-flowered fireweed, which springs up after a burn, dominates a landscape once covered in black spruce in Alaskas Yukon Flats. Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Global warming is making some of Alaska’s interior forests more flammable, with wildfire activity higher than at any time in the past 10,0000 years, according to new research funded by the National Science Foundation.

The study documented a dramatic increase in both the frequency and severity of fires in recent decades in a 2,000-square-kilometer zone in the Yukon Flats of interior Alaska — already one of the most flammable high-latitude regions of the world.

The fires are converting the conifer-rich boreal forests of Alaska into deciduous woodlands, the study found. Whether the shift to deciduous forests — which traditionally have been thought to be more fire-resistant — will overcome the fire-inducing effects of a warming climate remains to be seen. Continue reading

Environment: U.S. Forest Service plans to transition away from old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest

Tongass National Forest map

After many years of conflict over logging plans, the Forest Service will transition away from harvesting old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest.

Agency hopes to complete the shift to sustainable second-growth timber harvests in 10 to 15 years

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The U.S. Forest Service says it will back away from logging old growth in the country’s biggest national forest — Alaska’s 17-million acre Tongass — but not until after completing the  already approved Big Thorne timber sale.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack the agency’s plan to to conserve the old-growth forests by speeding the transition to management of second-growth forests. Vilsack said the goal is to increase second-growth timbers until they make up the vast majority of logging projects withing 10 to 15 years. Read the full memorandum here.

The Tongass contains large stands of old-growth rainforest, and provides world-class recreation and fishing while supporting local communities through a variety of economic activities. Continue reading

Global warming: Study helps quantify how much Alaska’s melting glaciers contribute to sea level rise

Research aims to fine-tune sea-level rise projections

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The Columbia Glacier in Alaska is one of the most rapidly changing glaciers in the world. Visit this NASA Earth Observatory web page for more information.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — As part of a global study of melting glaciers and rising sea level, two University of Alaska Fairbanks geophysicists helped compile a global inventory of glaciers, with a focus on Alaska.

Before the study, only about 40 percent of Alaska’s glaciers were inventoried. The two researchers, Anthony Arendt and Regine Hock, concluded that Alaska remains one of the top contributors to global sea level. Continue reading

Global warming: New report eyes significant Arctic threats

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Coordinated planning needed to address major environmental and social challenges

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Increased coastal erosion, bigger and more destructive tundra fires and caribou starvation are just a few of the impacts anticipated in a  major new report on the Arctic.

The report, compiled by an interagency working group, calls for an integrated management strategy for the rapidly changing region, using a coordinated approach that uses the best available science to integrate cultural, environmental and economic factors in decision-making about development and conservation.

“This report chronicles how Arctic residents are dealing with rapid, climate change-induced impacts on their resources and traditional ways of life at the same time that new economic activity and opportunities are emerging — notably oil and gas, marine transportation, tourism and mining,” Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes. Continue reading

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