July 31, 2014

If there's a lot of dead wood sitting around a sequoia grove, a fire would cause more damage. But even then it's not a death sentence for our ancient giants.     Photo: Bartfett/Thinkstock

Will Yosemite's Sequoias Burn?

Growing fire threatens well-known grove

Central California's El Portal fire has put about 50 homes at risk (one man even resorted to chopping up his deck to save his ranch). But there's another "structure" in danger: the Merced Grove of giant sequoias. This group of ancient trees sits in the western part of Yosemite, and as the fire grew during the day Wednesday, closing roads within the park, some were sweating the possibility of flames reaching the grove.

Luckily, more than 800 firefighters made good progress Wednesday night. The most recent reports say the fire is about 34 percent contained and no longer "an imminent threat" to the sequoias, according to park spokesperson Scott Gediman. Still, if the fire makes a significant surge, it could threaten the trees once again, he told the Associated Press. Efforts to further contain the flames continue as low humidity and thunderstorms will likely keep the fire going strong.

But don't panic. The idea of fire reaching these flammable natural wonders is scary, but the threat is not as bad as you might think. As ecologist Stephen C. Sillet told National Geographic during last year's wildfire season, it's not going to completely destroy the forest. Giant sequoias are quite flame resistant because their bark is so fibrous, and though they could be somewhat damaged in a fire, Sillett assured us that "the big trees are going to be fine."


Just another day at the mansion, and just another sick jump from Danny "Mad Skills" MacAskill.     Photo: Garth Milan/Red Bull Content Pool

Danny MacAskill Rides the Playboy Mansion

Bunny hop takes on a new meaning

Street-trials cyclist extraordinaire Danny MacAskill has skills that take him to places far away from his Scottish home. This time, they took him into the Playboy Mansion.

The result? A two-minute, Red Bull–sponsored video of MacAskill bunny hopping his bike about the grotto, tennis courts, and gardens.

MacAskill was stateside to promote his new video project, Epecuén, filmed in the abandoned Argentinian town of the same name and recently shown at Red Bull's North American headquarters. The media tour included a stop, naturally (or not so naturally), at the Playboy Mansion.

"Immediately I thought, 'I really hope there's good riding there,' because it's horrible when you go to a location to do something like that and you're not able to do anything legit," MacAskill told Red Bull. "It turned out there were some decent bits to ride, but it was quite hard with all those girls distracting you. … It was a surreal experience, definitely something I can look back on in 20 years' time and laugh about."

When you're the most famous 28-year-old stunt rider on the Internet, the job has its perks.


K2 is the second-tallest mountain in the world and perhaps the deadliest.     Photo: Grazyna Niedzieska/Thinkstock

First K2 Death This Year

Tragic news following a charmed summit day

After a flurry of summits on K2 over the weekend, the mountain claimed its first victim of the season.

Spanish climber Miguel Angel Perez Alvarez, 46, died in his tent after descending to Camp 4. Some reports indicate that he made the summit, although others say he abandoned his attempt 300 meters from the top. According to the blog of Tamara Lunger, an Italian climber who made the summit, Alvarez was slow on his descent and was forced to spend a night outside above 8,000 meters before making it back to camp.

No stranger to 8,000-meter peaks, Alvarez had climbed other notable mountains, from Everest to Nanga Parbat and Manaslu to Cho Oyu.

K2, referred to as the "Savage Mountain," is notoriously deadly. Climbers are at the mercy of harsh, unpredictable weather and route conditions. A favorable weather window began around July 22, though expedition members still had to navigate technical sections on a mountain known for its high fall potential, teetering seracs, and soft snow avalanches. 

Since 1954, only 337 summits of the world's second-tallest mountain have been recorded, and 84 people have died trying.

More Stories on the Dangers of K2


You could bury your dead cat in your yard, but that's so cliche.     Photo: John Taylor/Flickr

Ground Control to Major Fido

Space burial company to offer service for pets

A Houston-based aerospace company named Celestis Inc., an affiliate of Space Services Inc., has for years offered memorial space flights for the cremated remains of our dearly departed.

The cost of its services varies: Your run-of-the-mill "Earth Rise Service" brings the remains back to Earth for $995, while the "Voyager Service" starts at $12,500 and promises to launch your loved one's ashes into deep space. Also available: the "Luna Service," which sends the remains into lunar orbit.

If that sounds a little flamboyant for your taste, brace yourself. The company announced earlier this week that it will offer similar memorial services for pets. That's right. For less than a grand, you can give your deceased hamster the ride of its life—after that life has ended.

Celestis is obviously no stranger to bizarre practices. The company is credited with conducting the first and only "lunar burial" in 1999, when it deposited some of geologist Eugene Merle Shoemaker's ashes on the moon in a capsule bearing the following lines from Romeo and Juliet:

"And, when he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun."


It might not kill a lot of people, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't fear a flood.     Photo: welcomia/ThinkStock

Mother Nature's Most Fatal Weather

Death by flood less common than by lightning

Severe lightning storms, such as the one that killed one and injured at least seven on Venice Beach last Sunday, are incredibly rare events. Dying because of one? Even rarer. However, a report on extreme weather–related deaths released Wednesday found that death by flood is even more uncommon.

The data, collected by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers, showed that while lightning strikes killed 182 Americans between 2006 and 2010, flooding was directly responsible for 93 fatalities.

Despite record stateside flooding within the past year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported only 28 flood fatalies in 2013, most of which occured while victims were driving.

CDC researchers analyzed death tolls caused by five kinds of severe weather: heat, cold, storms, floods, and lightning. Overall, 10,649 people died as a result of extreme weather events over the five-year period. The CDC also provides data tables showing the likelihood of death based on gender and race. White males, it appears, are the most likely to die from severe weather across the board. 

Cold-related deaths were the most common. At least 6,660 people, or 63 percent, died as a result of either cold weather or hypothermia—when organ failure sets in as a result of core body temperature dropping below 95 degrees Fahreinheit.

Half as many people—3,340, or 31 percent—died as a result of hot weather or heatstroke, usually a result of both. As the Los Angeles Times notes, heatstroke occurs when you can't lower your body temperature by sweating.

The remaining 6 percent of deaths were traceable to lightning, floods, and catacylsmic storms such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards.

This data, compiled from death certificates, shows that the likelihood of all severe weather–related deaths increases by large factors with age.