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Dispatches : Science

Western Australia Approves Plan Allowing Killing of Great White Sharks

Shutterstock_89941513Great white shark. Photo: David Stephens/Shutterstock

On Thursday, the government of Western Australia released a plan that will allow the killing of great white sharks that venture too close to people in the water. The government said it approved the measure because great white sharks killed five people off the region's coast within the last year.

"We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark," Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett told reporters. "This is, after all, a fish—let's keep it in perspective."

The government set aside $2 million (Australian) for tracking and hunting measures out of a $6.85 million plan meant to reduce shark attacks. Previous government hunts of the protected fish occurred only after a shark attack.

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Seeing Forests for the (Burnt) Trees: Wildfire and Watersheds

Hayman_Restoration-6Vail volunteers work the soil with the National Forest Foundation. Photo: Peter M. Fredin

Quick, name the three national parks closest to your home. Not so hard, right? Now name the three closest national forests. I was only able to name a couple of the 15 in my home state of California before having to look at a map.

I’m not alone, says Bill Possiel, president of the National Forest Foundation. “We think of national parks as these iconic landscapes. You could do a survey and find that a majority of Americans know the National Park System and many have visited national parks, but that is not the case with the National Forest System. But we’re trying to change that.”

The National Forest Foundation is an independent, non-profit partner of the U.S. Forest Service and this summer it launched a public awareness campaign aimed at getting more outdoor enthusiasts involved in the care of national forests and grasslands near their homes. According to the group, two-thirds of Americans live within 100 miles of a national forest or grassland.

Top on the NFF’s list of projects aimed at improving forest health is watershed remediation within areas hit by severe wildfires.

So what do forest fires have to do with the nation’s headwaters?

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Reindeer Are Scared of Snowkiting Hordes—Skiers, Not So Much

Shutterstock_31436419A reindeer running in Norway. Photo: Shutterstock

Here's something that might not surprise: Scientists have used a model to predict that if a formation of 241 snowkiters were to fly across the Norwegian tundra at six miles per hour toward a herd of reindeer, the animals would be so stressed out that they would stop feeding entirely and try to escape.

Scientists modeled such a response after a series of observations. In the winter of 2006-07, they recorded the flight response times of reindeer in Norefjell-Reinsjøfjell, Norway, as the animals were approached directly by snowkiters and skiers. The reindeer ran further away when the intruder had a kite. The snowkiters could move over large areas. The skiers kept to trails. The scientists modeled the effect of the skiers on the herd and found them to be less disruptive than the snowkiters. A group of 105 skiers would reduce reindeer feeding time by up to 7.5 percent. Once the number of skiers increased beyond that, the scientists said the reindeer would just move away from the ski trails and return to normal feeding.

The scientists did not return emails for comment or a full text of their work, but a follow-up article on the study in the BBC said that the response was logical for a number of reasons: snowkiters cover more area than skiers, they move faster than skiers, and the athletes' kites are more visible for a greater distance.

Whether snowkiting ever reaches a level of popularity where 241 athletes would gather to fly at a herd of reindeer remains to be seen. But, apparently, in Norway, the sport has gained enough traction that scientists felt it was necessary to recommend more study and management of snowkiters in reindeer habitat.

—Joe Spring
@joespring
facebook.com/joespring.1

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Fire Devil Tears Up Australian Outback

Filmmaker Chris Tangey recorded the above video of a fire whirl whisking through the Australian Outback near Alice Springs on September 11. Since then, the clip has swerved from news sites to blogs to social media around the world. In its wake came this simple explanation from New York State climatologist Mark Wysocki on how a fire devil forms, via Life's Little Mysteries:

Like the dust devils that spring up on clear, sunny days in the deserts of the Southwest, a fire devil is birthed when a disproportionately hot patch of ground sends up a plume of heated air. But while dust devils find their heat source in the sun, fire devils arise from hot spots in preexisting wildfires.

"These plumes form in a very small region over the land," Wysocki explained. "They start to rise very rapidly, and as things start to rise, they suck the surrounding air in like a vacuum. Then you get this twisting that begins to resemble a vortex."

As the vortex rises and sucks the blaze up with it, its diameter begins to shrink and, like an ice skater pulling in her limbs to gather speed in a spin, its rotation accelerates.

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Arctic Sea Ice Sets a New Low

Screen Shot 2012-09-19 at 9.44.57 PMThe record low compared to the average minimum. Photo: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

The extreme melt of Arctic sea ice has stopped for the year, but only after setting a record low for area covered, scientists said. Arctic sea ice covered about 1.32 million square miles on September 16, when scientists said the extent was likely* at its lowest point for the year. That area is difficult to imagine. Picture this: In the lowest previous minimum year for ice extent, 2007, there was an area of ocean the size of Texas covered with additional hard white stuff. Now picture this: The state of Alaska times two. That's the area this year's minimum sea ice extent was smaller than the annual average since measurements were first taken in 1979.

"Climate models have predicted a retreat of the Arctic sea ice; but the actual retreat has proven to be much more rapid than the predictions," said Claire Parkinson, a climate scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "There continues to be considerable interannual variability in the sea ice cover, but the long-term retreat is quite apparent."

In other words, this record low happened sooner and faster than scientists thought it would, and it's definitely part of a trend.

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