USGS Science Picks

( United States Geological Survey ) In this edition of Science Picks, learn why it seems like the world is experiencing more earthquakes than normal. Also, see how easy it is to become a citizen scientist, and watch a new USGS movie to learn why the Mojave Desert tortoise is...

In this edition of Science Picks, learn why it seems like the world is experiencing more earthquakes than normal. Also, see how easy it is to become a citizen scientist, and watch a new USGS movie to learn why the Mojave Desert tortoise is endangered. You'll also find information about major flooding this spring, dust from Africa that is potentially harming coral in the Caribbean, how scientists are using satellite technology to track wildlife, and much more!

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  • More Earthquakes than Normal?
  • Citizen Science is In Full Bloom
  • The Heat is On: Desert Tortoises and Survival
  • Staying Afloat in Streams of Flood Information
  • African Dust, Coral Reefs and Human Health
  • Tracking Wandering Wildlife
  • Deadly Bat Disease Spreads to Canada and Maryland
  • Lead Exposure History Written in Endangered Condor Feathers
  • Where the Bison Roam: The Status of Bison in North America
  • Diving for Deep-Sea Coral Critters
  • Go Deeper into a Hawaiian Volcano
  • After the Shaking: A Look at the Landscape

More Earthquakes than Normal?

In 2010, major earthquakes have struck Haiti, Chile, California, and most recently, China. Is the world experiencing more earthquakes than usual? According to scientists from the USGS, the answer is no ( Since 1900, an average of 16 magnitude-7 or greater earthquakes have occurred worldwide each year. That translates to more than one major earthquake per month, and there is considerable variability from year to year. 1986 and 1989 had only six each, while 1943 had 32. Scientists cannot predict the timing of specific earthquakes. However, families and communities can prepare by making their homes, places of work, schools and businesses as earthquake-safe as possible ( For all earthquake-related information, visit the Earthquake Hazards Program website at, or visit the USGS National Earthquake Information Center website at or call at (303) 273-8500.

Citizen Science is in Full Bloom

The moment is ripe to join thousands of other citizen scientists this spring in observing when the leaves come out and flowers bloom, when insects emerge, and when birds start migrating. By observing and reporting these plant and animal life cycle events, you can help USGS scientists and others determine how they are influenced by long-term variations in climate. For example, through citizen scientist observations, researchers can see that tree swallows now nest on average 9 days earlier than they did in 1959. Frogs in New York are calling 10-13 days earlier than in the beginning of the 1900s. The USGS takes a leadership role in the implementation and maintenance of the USA National Phenology Network in collaboration with many other partners ( Nature observers of all kinds can learn more about how to get involved at For media ( or more information contact Jake Weltzin at or (520) 626-3821.

The Heat is On: Desert Tortoises and Survival

The desert tortoise will remain on the endangered species list until its population has seen an increasing trend for 25 years. A new documentary, The Heat is On: Desert Tortoises and Survival (, from the USGS details the habitat changes in the Mojave Desert and the reasons for the decline of the tortoise over the last four decades. Research on this decline (conducted by the USGS, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the California Department of Fish and Game) is important, because the tortoise's status on the endangered species list affects future development in the Mojave Desert. Watch The Heat is On or find details on this topic at For more information, contact Karen Phillips at or (916) 278-9491.

Staying Afloat in Streams of Flood

Flooding has been a major concern this spring. In Rhode Island ( 22 of the 27 long-term streamgages that measure the state's rivers and streams exceeded their previous period of record peaks. Parts of Connecticut ( saw their highest flow in more than 50 years, and Long Island, NY, ( experienced record high groundwater. In North Dakota, water levels for the Red River neared the record levels experienced in 2009. Thanks to a network of about 7,500 USGS streamgages (, you can view areas of high flow and flooding in real time ( Streamgages are used to monitor and measure flooding and provide critical real-time water data to emergency responders and to the National Weather Service, which issues flood warnings. For more information about recent flooding or the USGS Streamgage network, contact Diane Noserale at or (703) 648-4333.

African Dust, Coral Reefs and Human Health

Did you know that contaminant-ridden dust from Africa may be harming coral reefs in the Caribbean? Scientists at the USGS are examining the air in Africa and across the Atlantic in the Caribbean to determine what kinds of nutrients, microbes, and contaminants are traveling across the ocean. Although African dust has been carried out of the Sahara and into the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, in the last 40 years the dust has become more toxic, due to the increased combustion of biomass and fossil fuels, the burning of garbage and plastics, and the use of pesticides. These toxic contaminants may produce a variety of adverse effects on coral reefs and possibly on human health, as well. A USGS mini-documentary on African dust, coral reefs and human health is available in the USGS multimedia gallery at For more information, visit, or contact or (727) 803-8747.

Tracking Wandering Wildlife

USGS scientists around the world are using state-of-the-art satellite technology to track wildlife. An Arctic wolf named Brutus has been outfitted with a satellite collar, in order to see where his pack travels during the long, cold Arctic winter ( Other scientists are using satellite technology to track shorebirds as they make phenomenal nonstop migrations across oceans and continents( Scientists even tracked northern pintails during an outbreak of the H5N1 avian influenza virus in Asia this winter to understand the spread of the disease ( Others have fitted polar bears with satellite collars, in order to better understand how these arctic mammals use sea ice and the land ( Tracking these wildlife species is important so scientists can see if migration patterns are changing as a result of changing habitats. For more information on any of these or other wildlife tracking studies, contact Kara Capelli at or (703) 648-5086.

Deadly Bat Disease Spreads to Canada, Maryland and Tennessee

White-nose syndrome ( is a condition associated with the deaths of over one million hibernating bats in the northeastern United States. That number is expected to rise as the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome spreads into new territories. Just this winter, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center confirmed that the fungus was present in bats found in Ontario, Canada; Maryland; and Tennessee for the first time. Bats are a critical aspect of insect control, pollination and seed dissemination, making it essential that scientists understand how this devastating threat spreads. Details are available in a USGS Wildlife Health Bulletin ( at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center website ( For more information, contact David Blehert at or 608-270-2466.

Lead Exposure History Written in Endangered Condor Feathers

Lead poisoning is a major threat to the endangered California Condor. As scavengers, these birds often feed on carcasses that have been shot with lead ammunition. Scientists from the USGS and partner organizations have developed a technique using condor feathers to determine lead exposure. If the bird was exposed to lead multiple times, each exposure event will be shown at a distinct location along growing feathers. With this method, scientists can establish an entire lead-exposure history for individual birds. The recovery of the condor is dependent upon reducing their exposure to and risk from lead poisoning, and this method could increase the understanding of population-level effects of lead poisoning in condors and other bird species. The findings were published in Environmental Science Technology at For more information, contact Matthew Johnson at or (541) 758-7797.

Where the Bison Roam: The Status of Bison in North America

Bison today are restricted to less than one percent of their original range, according to a new report by the USGS, the Department of the Interior, and other private and governmental agencies. While there are 430,000 bison in North America, the vast majority is in private ownership and raised for meat production. Because the individual populations of bison are generally isolated, they are vulnerable to inbreeding, resulting in low reproductive success. Furthermore, many of the herds have experienced integration with cattle genes and have been infected with livestock diseases. Protecting bison is important because of their role in influencing the stability of plant and animal communities and for their symbolic nature. Listen to USGS Corecast episode 123 for details at For more information, contact Peter Gogan at or (406) 994-6989.

Diving for Deep-Sea Coral Critters

You may be familiar with the shallow, colorful coral reefs found in tropical ecosystems. Did you know that similar organisms, just as vibrant and diverse, are also found hundreds of feet below the sea surface? USGS scientists dive deep into the ocean in high-tech, futuristic-looking capsules to study these coral communities. Using these submersibles, as well as unmanned remotely operated vehicles that can reach the ocean floor, scientists can take photos, collect samples, and record data. These scientists are finding new species that have never been seen before, ranging from bacteria to invertebrates to fishes. These deep ocean missions are part of the USGS DISCOVRE program. This research is the first step in the process of protecting deep-coral ecosystems, which are threatened by exploration for oil and gas, trawling and climate change. For details, check out the DISCOVRE Website at, USGS Sound Waves at, or contact Gary Brewer at or (304) 724-4507.

Go Deeper into a Hawaiian Volcano

A new education website gives educators and students new ways to explore the active Pu'u 'Ō'ō vent on Kīlauea Volcano, Hawaii. This website, developed specifically for geoscience education by the USGS with support from NASA, allows users to interact with current and historic data in several different graphical forms. Educators and classrooms can pick and choose different types of time series and spatial data to plot side by side. For example, users can control the scale of the data or the time interval of data represented on a map to see how the volcano is behaving. The new website can be accessed only with permission; if you are an educator and interested in using this site in your classroom, contact Mike Poland at or (808) 967-8891.

After the Shaking: A Look at the Landscape

Photos of Chile after the magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck on Feb. 27, 2010, are now available in the USGS Multimedia Gallery at The photos were taken by Dr. Walter Mooney, a USGS geophysicist, who traveled to Chile after the earthquake to install seismographs. The pictures show examples of collapsed structures and damage from the tsunami that followed the earthquake. Also shown are examples of structures that were engineered to successfully withstand an earthquake of this magnitude and sustained virtually no damage. Mooney, as well as other USGS scientists, also traveled to Haiti after the devastating magnitude-7 earthquake in January to install seismographs and study coastal uplift. Their pictures of Haiti are also available in the USGS Multimedia Gallery. For more information about these photos or USGS work in Chile and Haiti following recent earthquakes, contact Walter Mooney at or (650) 329-4764.