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After a Eubalaena glacialis whale dies, it floats. Moby-Dick-era whalers knew this and gave the species—treasured for its high blubber content—its common name: They’re the “right whale” to hunt. Now, with only around 500 of them left in the wild, North Atlantic right whales are the most endangered whale species in the world.
Harpoons are no longer their enemy. Eight out of 10 right whales bear the scars left behind by accidental encounters with fishing rope, one Georgia wildlife official told Newsweek. These thick lines can wrap so tightly around the whales that they die from lacerations.
Right whales are also uniquely disposed to collisions with ships. By nature, they swim toward boat noises, which often leads to gruesome accidents. Worse yet, as the oil and gas industry lobbies for permission to drill offshore, scientists say the deafening noise from seismic oil exploration could spawn devastating consequences.
Extreme noise pollution has been known to kill hundreds of whales and dolphins at a time. In the worst case, they say it could someday lead to an extinction right before our eyes.
"We’re filling their ocean with noise," says Christopher W. Clark, a senior scientist at Cornell University. He tells Newsweek that, "their whole social network is dependent on calling back and forth."
It’s how they find food and stick together. He believes the constant groan of ship engines has already contributed to slow reproduction of the large, aquatic mammals.
For today’s Newsweek Rewind, we feature the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred twenty-five years ago, on March 24, 1989. One of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, Exxon Valdez released over 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, contaminating 1,300 miles of the coastline and killing thousands of birds, eagles, otters, and other native animals. Despite over a billion dollars being spent on cleanup, the region still hasn’t fully recovered, even a quarter of a century later.
The spill was covered extensively in Newsweek’s September 18, 1989 issue, with reporting by Harry Hurt III, Lynda Wright, Pamela Abramson in articles by Jerry Adler and Sharon Begley. The feature What Exxon Leaves Behind paints a grim picture. “Nearly six months after one of its giant tankers spilled millions of gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, Exxon is preparing to end its cleanup operation. It has been a colossal and humbling effort: Exxon has found that what man has defaced not even the world’s largest oil company can repair.”
Scientists expected 70-90% loss of dead plant matter over the course of a year because of local microbes; in Chernobyl’s forested region, sampled vegetation has lost less than 40% over the same time frame.
tl;dr? Radioactive forest fires could be ahead for the region.
A train that derailed and exploded in rural Alabama was hauling 2.7 million gallons of crude oil, according to officials.
The 90-car train was crossing a timber trestle above a wetland near Aliceville late Thursday night when approximately 25 rail cars and two locomotives derailed, spilling crude oil into the surrounding wetlands and igniting a fire that was still burning Saturday.
Each of the 90 cars was carrying 30,000 gallons of oil, said Bill Jasper, president of the rail company Genesee & Wyoming at a press briefing Friday night. It’s unclear, though, how much oil was spilled because some of the cars have yet to be removed from the marsh.
As much of the country endures from the heavy snowfall and bitter cold that has marked the start of 2014, municipalities in 26 states will rely on a crucial tool in clearing their roads: salt. Because the freezing point of salty water is a lower temperature than pure water, scattering some salt atop ice or snow can help accelerate the melting process, opening up the roads to traffic that much sooner.
It’s estimated that more than 22 million tons of salt are scattered on the roads of the U.S. annually—about 137 pounds of salt for every American. But all that salt has to go somewhere. After it dissolves—and is split into sodium and chloride ions—it gets carried away via runoff and deposited into both surface water (streams, lakes and rivers) and the groundwater under our feet. Consider how easily salt can corrode your car.
Unsurprisingly, it’s also a problem for the surrounding environment—so much that in 2004, Canada categorized road salt as a toxin and placed new guidelines on its use. And as more and more of the U.S. becomes urbanized and suburbanized, and as a greater number of roads criss-cross the landscape, the mounting piles of salt we dump on them may be getting to be a bigger problem than ever. Data from long-term studies of watersheds bear this out.
A group of scientists that tracked salt levels from 1952 to 1998 in the Mohawk River in Upstate New York, for instance, found that concentrations of sodium and chloride increased by 130 and 243 percent, respectively, with road salting the primary reason as the surround area became more developed.
More recently, a study of a stream in southeastern New York State that was monitored from 1986 to 2005 found a similar pattern, with significant annual increases and road salting to blame for an estimated 91 percent of sodium chloride in the watershed.
A New Orleans real-estate appraiser, on a federal program that was supposed to help rebuild local businesses after Hurricane Katrina. Five years later, more of the tax-free benefits have gone to the state’s powerful oil industry than to development.
Today in scary reality:
Deadly mudslides in China, devastating floods in Pakistan, record-breaking heat and raging wildfires in Russia: it all adds up to a season of extremes. With global temperatures rising, is the worst yet to come?