Friday, May 25, 2012

MASS FISH DIE-OFF: Astounding Tenfold Increase of Death Toll at the Chesapeake Bay - From 60,000 to 100,000 Fish Mysteriously Found Dead?!

Something's rotten on the Baltimore area waterfront. Fish are washing ashore by the thousands in a mass die-off that officials say appears to be caused by a weather-driven worsening of the pollution that chronically plagues the Chesapeake Bay.  State investigators expanded their probe Wednesday into what they believe are algae-related fish kills in Marley, Furnace and Curtis creeks in Glen Burnie, raising the estimated death toll there tenfold, while finding a new batch of finny carcasses in a Dundalk creek. 

The state Department of Environment investigated a fish kill by the boat ramp in Merritt Point Park.
Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the agency's fish-kill investigators estimated anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 fish of several species dead in the three creeks in northern Anne Arundel County. Only a day before, Apperson had said investigators figured there were about 6,000 dead.  "You could smell it through the neighborhood," said Rob Rogers, 45, who took a break from work at the Point Pleasant Beach Tavern to describe what he called "unbelievable" conditions on the creeks. Rogers said boaters reported dead fish floating in the water so thick they couldn't avoid hitting them.  The state investigators also found about 300 dead fish in Bullneck Creek in eastern Baltimore County, Apperson said, where residents on Tuesday had reported seeing fish and crabs thrashing on the water's surface in apparent distress. The investigators measured little oxygen in the creek's deepest water for fish to breathe.  The die-offs are a drastic byproduct of algae blooms that have discolored water in much of the upper bay for over a month now, officials said.  "We've been having lots of algae blooms in Middle River, in Baltimore harbor, even down on the Severn River," said Thomas Parham, tidewater ecosystem assessment chief for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "This is earlier than normal," he added, and while algae blooms are a common phenomenon on the bay in spring and summer, they normally are "not at this level."  The algae turning area waters reddish brown, in what's often called a "mahogany tide," is known as prorocentrum minimum, a type that has been known to produce a toxin that can kill shellfish, Parham said. While that that toxic trait has not been seen in the bay, the algae do kill fish indirectly, by consuming the life-sustaining oxygen in the water when the tiny aquatic plants die and begin to decay.  Algae feed on nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, and the bay is a super-rich soup of those plant nutrients - from sewage discharges and leaks, from fertilizer washing off farm fields and lawns and from air pollution that trickles down out of the sky.  Scientists suspect this year's algae blooms came earlier and grew thicker because of the extra dose of nutrients and sediment that flooded into the bay last summer from Tropical Storm Lee, turning the water the color of malted milk for weeks afterward.  The situation may have been aggravated more recently by a sewer line break in Baltimore County, which spilled an estimated 50 million gallons of untreated sewage into the lower Patapsco River. Though the spill was halted promptly, it took until this week for bacteria levels to decline enough for health officials to say it was OK to touch the water downriver. 

"Whether it's the impacts of last year's storm, it's hard to say," Parham said of the algae blooms. "There's lots of nutrients around. The sewage spill added to that."  Whatever the source of the nutrients feeding the algae, the DNR official said the warm snap in March helped trigger the blooms earlier than normal.  "When you have a condition where it's nice and toasty and warm," Parham said, "it's a perfect recipe for those algal blooms."  And in warm, relatively wind-less weather, oxygen levels can drop precipitously when algae blooms take over small tidal creeks and coves and then begin to die back after consuming all the nutrients in the water. That's the phenomenon officials and scientists believe caused these and most previous fish kills.  Oxygen levels in the bay's deeper waters and in some shallow enclosed areas also have dropped below what's considered normal this time of year. Some volunteers raising oysters in creeks along the bay's western shore have reported finding the shellfish they planted in previous years have died.  Michael Naylor, the DNR's head of shellfish programs, said many of those oysters were placed in places where water quality was marginal to begin with, so some die-offs are not unexpected. Overall, he said, the bay's oyster populations have fared surprisingly well.  Temperatures in the bay are getting closer to normal, Parham said, but the weather usually gets warmer in late spring and early summer, which is when algae blooms normally thrive in the bay  "A lot depends on the weather now," said Naylor.  While state officials portrayed the fish kills as normal, if somewhat earlier and more intense than usual, Rob Rogers said it was the worst he'd ever seen in a lifetime of living along Marley Creek.  "We had that red tide about 10 years ago," he said. "That was nothing compared to this. ...The crabs were crawling out of the water to get air. When you're watching fish try to gulp air out of the water, something's wrong there." - The Baltimore Sun.

THE HAPPENING: Mass Dolphin Deaths in Peru - The Mystery Deepens as Government Declares Human Activity Was Not to Blame?!

The mystery surrounding the deaths of at least 877 dolphins in Peru deepened on Wednesday as the government said human activity was not to blame but failed to pinpoint a natural cause for the massive die-off.  A final report from the Peruvian government's Ocean Institute, which manages one of the world's richest marine ecosystems, said the dolphins did not die from a lack of food, hunting by fishermen, poison from pesticides, heavy metal contamination, an infection or a virus.

Two men measure the carcass of a dead dolphin on a beach near Chiclayo, Peru.
It also said there was no conclusive evidence that linked seismic offshore exploration by oil companies to the deaths of the long-beaked common dolphins along the Andean country's northern coast.  But it did leave open the possibility that abnormally warm surface water temperatures and high levels of algae may have played a role, saying further analysis would be needed to determine if any red and brown plankton species in the sea were toxic.  "The dolphins were killed by natural causes and not due to any human activity - that is what you might say is the major conclusion," said Minister of Production Gladys Triveno, who oversees the government's Ocean Institute.  However, ORCA, a local NGO, says the deaths occurred after seismic events - which locals attribute to exploration by oil companies - damaged the ears of the sound-sensitive mammals and caused them to surface too rapidly.  "We found cells that had injuries due to bubbles that are associated with decompression sickness," said Carlos Yaipén-Llanos, director of ORCA.  The government and many independent scientists say it is impossible to prove the bubbles were caused by decompression sickness, known by divers as the bends.  Houston-based BPZ Resources Inc has said it conducted seismic surveys starting on February 8 in part of the area but that it adheres to strict environmental standards and that the first deaths happened before it began exploration work. 

Another company, Savia Peru, has said it was not working on its concessions in the area at the time of the deaths.  Both companies have said seismic exploration technology is used widely around the world and has never been linked to massive die-offs.  Large-scale dolphin deaths are relatively common globally and often go unexplained, though algae has at times been cited as a cause.  Between 1987 and 1988 as many as a thousand bottlenose dolphins died off the East Coast of the United States. Experts said the deaths occurred after the dolphins ate fish that had been contaminated by an algae rarely found in those waters.  Dolphins were not the only animal to have died in Peru's rich coastal waters in recent weeks. This month, warmer surface waters sent anchovies lower down into cooler waters where pelicans could not dive deep enough to reach them. Some 5,000 birds starved to death as a result.  The government says there is no link between the pelican and dolphin deaths.  Peru's northern coast is often hit by temperature oscillations between warm equatorial waters and the frigid Humboldt current the runs north from Chile. The Humboldt current is considered one of the world's most productive fisheries.  The region is in a transition phase from the La Nina to El Nino weather phenomenon that occur in the southeastern Pacific, said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California.  He said the warmer temperatures do not yet signal the arrival of El Nino, which has been linked to extreme weather globally.  But he did say that warm surface waters often bring foreign plankton to coastal areas.  "When you see a massive die-off of bird species and marine mammals, often it's some kind of weird toxic bloom," said Patzert. - Scientific American.

GLOBAL VOLCANISM: Residents Evacuated Near Costa Rica's Turrialba Volcano - Signs of Potentially Imminent Eruption, After Gas and Ash Emissions!

Emergency officials in Costa Rica say they have moved some residents away from a volcano outside the capital after it spewed toxic gas and ash, signs of a potentially imminent eruption.

The Turrialba volcano located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) outside San Jose began a series of eruptions in 2007. Several nearby villages were evacuated and a surrounding national park closed in 2010.  Costa Rica's National Emergency Commission said its volcano warning level was at green on Wednesday, the lowest of three warning levels, but that it had alerted residents about the possibility of an evacuation and already moved some villagers away from the populated areas closest to the volcano so they would not be harmed by erupting gases. - The Hindu.

Turrialba is the eastern-most of Costa Rica’s active volcanoes. A series of small explosive eruptions began there in January 2010, the first substantial activity at Turrialba since the 1860s. The 2010 explosions were presaged by the opening of small gas vents (fumaroles) beginning in 2006. A new vent, located on the southeastern flank of the volcano’s West Crater, opened on January 12, 2012.

According to the Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica, the new vent exhibited “a vigorous output of bluish gas at high temperature (T > 592°C) that generated a jet-like sound audible from the visitor lookout.” Activity since 2010 had been confined to a larger vent on the southwest flank of the West Crater, which continues to be the major source of emissions. The image above, was acquired on January 21, 2012, by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Reflection and Emission Radiometer (ASTER) aboard NASA’s Terra satellite. The false-color image is a combination of near infrared, red, and green light. Healthy vegetation is bright red, while vegetation damaged by years of acidic gas emissions is brown. Bare ground in the summit craters is brown or gray. The rock is very weak at the summit of Turrialba due to the intense rains of the region and the persistent hydrothermal activity at the summit. This means that new vents can open at the summit when pressure in the conduit is high enough to make its way through the weakened rock. The activity of January 12 was a pressure release at the summit through the hydrothermally-altered “rotten rock,” not a magmatic or phreatic (steam-driven) eruption. - Earth Observatory.
WATCH: Turrialba volcano threatens to blow.

WORLD WAR III: The Countdown to Armageddon - IAEA Finds Higher Enrichment at Underground Site; Iran is Now Closer to Reaching Uranium Threshold Needed to Arm Nuclear Missiles!

Inspectors have located radioactive traces at an Iranian underground bunker, the U.N. atomic agency said Friday in a finding that could mean Iran has moved closer to reaching the uranium threshold needed to arm nuclear missiles.

In this 2007 file photo, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony
in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz.
In a report obtained by the Associated Press, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it was asking Tehran for a full explanation. But the report was careful to avoid any suggestion that Iran was intentionally increasing the level of its uranium enrichment, noting that Tehran said a technical glitch was responsible.  Analysts as well as diplomats who had told the AP of the existence of the traces before publication of the confidential report also said the higher-enriched material could have been a mishap involving centrifuges over-performing as technicians adjusted their output rather than a dangerous step toward building a bomb.  Still, the finding was bound to resonate among the 35 IAEA board members for which the report was prepared, among them the six world powers that had just concluded talks with Iran on its enrichment activities.  The talks left the two sides still far apart over how to oversee Tehran's atomic program but resolved to keep dialogue going as an alternative to possible military action.  The six nations — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — are already concerned that Iran is enriching to 20% because material at that level can be turned into weapons-grade uranium much more quickly than its main, low-enriched stockpile suitable for nuclear fuel. The higher the enrichment, the easier it becomes to re-enrich uranium to warhead quality at 90%. As a result, any finding of traces at 27% was likely to spark international interest.

Iran denies any plans to possess nuclear weapons but has for years declined offers of reactor fuel from abroad, including more recent inducements of 20% material if it stops producing at that level. The Islamic Republic says it wants to continue producing 20% uranium to fuel its research reactor and for medical purposes.  But its refusal to accept foreign offers have increased fears it may want to turn its enrichment activities toward producing such arms. The concerns have been fed by IAEA suspicions that Iran has experimented on components of an atomic arms program — suspicions Tehran also denies.  The report cited a May 9 letter from Iranian officials suggesting any enrichment at 27% at the Fordo enrichment plant in central Iran was inadvertent. The letter said the particles were produced "above the target value" and could have been for "technical reasons beyond the operator's control."  David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security looks for signs of proliferation, said a new configuration at Fordo means it tends to "overshoot 20 percent" at the start.  "Nonetheless, embarrassing for Iran," he wrote in an e-mail to the AP.  Others were more skeptical.  "It's not surprising because they have the technology. Iran doesn't intend to stop its nuclear weapon program, and the fact that they are at 27% shows the Iranian intentions," said a senior Israeli defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak with the media.  International concerns have increased since Iran started higher enrichment at Fordo, which is carved into a mountain to make it impervious to attack. Israel and the United States have not ruled out using force as a last option if diplomacy fails to curb the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.  Iran already has about 700 centrifuges churning out 20% enriched uranium at Fordo. The report noted that although Iran has set up about 350 more centrifuges since late last year at the site, these machines are not enriching.  While the reason for that could be purely technical, it could also be a signal from Tehran that it is waiting for progress in the negotiations. 

The IAEA report also detailed some progress in separate talks between the U.N. nuclear agency and Iran that the agency hopes will re-launch a long-stalled probe into the suspicions that Tehran has worked on nuclear-weapons related experiments.  The latest attempt to persuade Iran to compromise ended inconclusively Thursday at a meeting in Baghdad. At the talks, the six world powers failed to persuade Tehran to freeze its 20% enrichment. Envoys said the group will meet again next month in Moscow.  Iran went into the Baghdad talks urging the West to scale back on recently toughened sanctions, which have targeted Iran's critical oil exports and have effectively blackballed the country from international banking networks. The 27-nation European Union is set to ban all Iranian fuel imports on July 1, shutting the door on about 18% of Iran's market.  Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, offered a lukewarm assessment of the latest negotiations, in light of European and American refusal to lift tough sanctions against Iran as Tehran had hoped.  "The result of the talks was that we were able to get more familiar with the views of each other," Jalili told reporters.  European diplomats focused on the positives.  "It is clear that we both want to make progress and that there is some common ground," European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the Baghdad talks, told reporters. "However, significant differences remain. Nonetheless, we do agree on the need for further discussion to expand that common ground."  But in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said significant differences remain between the two sides and that it's now up to Iran "to close the gaps."  "Iran now has the choice to make: Will it meet its international obligations and give the world confidence about its intentions or not?" Clinton said. - USA Today.

PLANETARY TREMORS: Seismic Swarm in Bulgaria - 80 Aftershocks Following Magnitude 5.8 Quake; Worst in the Region Since 1917!

An earthquake of a magnitude of 5.7 to 5.9 struck the Bulgarian city of Pernik, 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) northwest of the capital Sofia

The quake, the worst in the Sofia area since 1917, shook the country at 2:58 a.m. local time, causing walls and roofs to collapse in Pernik and chimneys and plaster to fall in Sofia, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said on the ministry's website today. There were no casualties, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov said in an interview with Nova Television station.  The capital city's airport, railways and subway are working and no damage to infrastructure in the country has been reported, Construction Minister Liliana Pavlova told reporters in Sofia. In Pernik, which was worst affected by the quake, the heating utility was shut down and schools were closed for today and tomorrow.  "I am grateful there are no serious damages and the country's infrastructure withstood an earthquake of such a magnitude," Borissov said in the television interview in Sofia. 

The quake was registered throughout the Balkan nation of 7.5 million and in neighboring Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Greece and Romania. Many people in Sofia, Pernik and other cities left their houses and spent the rest of the night on the streets, in parks and other open areas, fearing stronger aftershocks.  "The high number of aftershocks with subsiding magnitude indicate a gradual release of terrestrial tension and hopefully there won't be another strong earthquake soon," Nikolai Miloshev, director of the National Geophysics Institute, told reporters in Sofia. The quake was followed by about 80 aftershocks in the next six hours, he said.  The power grid in the Pernik area was damaged, cutting off electricity for about 2,700 households, the Bulgarian unit of CEZ AS (CEZ), which is the power distributor in western Bulgaria, said in an e-mail. Emergency units are working to restore supplies, according to the statement. - Business Week.

SPACE: The Final Frontier - SpaceX Makes Historic Breakthrough For Commercial Space Travel; The Dragon Capsule Successfully Attached to the International Space Station!

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. docked a supply ship at the International Space Station in a breakthrough for commercial space travel.  Closely held SpaceX, controlled by billionaire Elon Musk, connected its unmanned Dragon capsule to the station at 12:02 p.m. New York time, according to Kyle Herring, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is the first company to accomplish the feat.

A robotic arm on the International Space Station grabbed onto a cargo capsule from the SpaceX spacecraft.
“This is truly a momentous accomplishment for SpaceX and for the industry,” Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Washington-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a statement. The country is on its way to having a cost-effective space transportation system, he said, and SpaceX should be thanked for “restoring U.S. access to the space station.”  NASA retired its shuttle fleet last year and wants the private sector to take over the job of carrying supplies and eventually astronauts to the station. The U.S. currently relies on the governments of Europe, Japan and Russia for that work.  After almost three years of delays in the mission, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Dragon ship, on May 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A previously scheduled attempt on May 19 was called off with a half-second left in the countdown because of a faulty engine valve.

Herring called it a “historic day,” and said a press conference was scheduled for 1 p.m.  Astronaut Don Pettit, with help from colleague Andrew Kuipers, grabbed the craft with the 60-foot-long robotic arm at 9:56 a.m. New York time. Actual docking, or berthing, was completed at 12:02 p.m.  The Obama administration in 2010 canceled a program to develop a shuttle successor, betting the private sector would offer lower costs.  SpaceX is among several companies that have won a total of more than $1 billion in NASA contracts to develop the technology to transport cargo and crew into space.  The group includes Orbital Sciences Corp., based in Dulles, Virginia; Blue Origin LLC, based in Kent, Washington; Boeing Co., based in Chicago; and Paragon Space Development Corp., based in Tucson, Arizona.  The others are Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nevada; and United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Maryland.  Alliant Techsystems Inc., based in Arlington, Virginia, has teamed up with Lockheed and Astrium, part of Leiden, Netherlands-based European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., in offering the Liberty rocket to compete for NASA business. - Washington Post.
WATCH: SpaceX's Dragon Capsule captured by Space Station's Robotic arm.


GLOBAL ECONOMIC CONTAGION: The Euro Zone Crisis - Greece Suicides; Spain Mulls Superbank; Global Financial Markets Collapse as Europe Dent Sentiments!

Spain mulled creating a state-owned superbank to absorb failing banks, while in Greece a financially ruined man and his 90-year-old mother committed suicide. 

Luis de Guindos, Spain's minister of the economy and competitiveness, told reporters the possible superbank would absorb Spain's now-nationalized No. 4 bank, Bankia SA conglomerate -- formed from seven struggling regional savings banks in December 2010 -- and other troubled banks.  Three banks being considered -- banks whose near-insolvency is largely due to unsound real estate lending -- include No. 4 savings bank, CatalunyaCaixa, year-old Novagalicia Banco and No. 6 commercial lender, Bank of Valencia, the Spanish daily El Pais reported.  Madrid had planned to put at least CatalunyaCaixa and Novagalicia up for auction but is leaning against doing so because it believes it won't get enough money for them, the newspaper said.  "In the end run, the objective is to clean up the Spanish financial system," de Guindos said. "The government is taking stock. All options are open."  Spaniards, like Greeks, are pulling money out of Spanish banks and transferring it to banks in other countries -- with some people converting their money into non-euro currencies -- amid growing fears Madrid will not be able to support Spain's struggling banking sector, The New York Times reported.  Some worry Spain will be forced to leave the eurozone -- as many fear Greece will do -- and re-adopt its old currency, the peseta, the newspaper said.  In Spain about 4.3 percent of bank deposits, or about $51 billion, has left the country in the past year. In Greece, nearly one-third of the country's bank deposits have left the country in the past two years.  Spain's national deposit insurance fund is virtually bankrupt, the Times said.  In central Athens, a 60-year-old unemployed musician and his 90-year-old mother leaped to their deaths from their apartment building's fifth-floor roof Thursday, witnesses said.  Witnesses told Athens News the pair held hands while jumping, while others, quoted by Greece's NewsIt Web site, said Antonis Perris pushed his Alzheimer's-plagued mother from the roof first, and then jumped.  Perris wrote on the blog stoixoi.info Wednesday night his mother, whom he had taken care of for 20 years, began having schizophrenic fits recently and no nursing home would accept her.  The two lived together on the mother's $426 pension, NewsIt said. - UPI.
U.S. stocks and the euro eased slightly on Friday as Spain's deteriorating finances and a possible Greek exit from the euro weighed on investor sentiment more than an upbeat report on U.S. consumer confidence.  Oil prices and European stocks rebounded after recent declines, but shares in Europe were lifted by defensive plays like utilities and drugmakers. 
Trading volume in Europe was lower than an already weak 90-day average, reflecting a downbeat mood that was heightened by concerns about Greece ahead of a three-day U.S. holiday weekend.  The euro plumbed a fresh 22-month low against the U.S. dollar after the president of Catalonia, Spain's wealthiest region, said it is running out of options for refinancing more than 13 billion euros in debt that comes due this year.  The euro briefly fell below $1.25 on trading platform EBS but pared some losses to trade down 0.1 percent at $1.2519.  A report that showed U.S. consumer sentiment rising to its highest level in more than four years in May helped buoy sentiment in some quarters, leading U.S. stocks to pare some losses. The broad S&P 500 traded near break-even, but the Dow was 0.15 percent lower.  The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's final reading on the overall index on consumer sentiment rose to 79.3 from 76.4 in April, topping forecasts for 77.8 and an initial May reading of the same.  "Unfortunately, consumer confidence is still extremely vulnerable to a reversal, as occurred in the past two years," survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.  The Dow Jones industrial average was down 43.06 points, or 0.34 percent, at 12,486.69. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down 0.23 points, or 0.02 percent, at 1,320.45. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 3.28 points, or 0.12 percent, at 2,842.66.  In Europe, the FTSEurofirst 300 index rebounded, rising 0.2 percent to close at 984.97.  MSCI's all-country world equity index erased nearly all losses to trade 0.1 percent lower at 300.59.  Catalonia's troubles came as Spain's Bankia SA is set to ask the state for a bailout valued at more than 15 billion euros ($19 billion), marking another rise in the cost of rescuing the country's fourth-biggest bank. - Reuters.

MONUMENTAL EARTH CHANGES: Japan's 6.4 Magnitude Quake Aftershock Tally Exceeds 5,000 - One of the Largest Recent Aftershocks!

An earthquake that ruptured this week off the coast of Japan was one of the largest recent aftershocks to affect an area that, more than a year after one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, is still experiencing a steady stream of seismic jolts. So far, 5,229 aftershocks have rattled the tectonic boundary that ruptured off the coast of Japan's Tohoku region in March 2011. The magnitude-9.0 earthquake was the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded.

A map of shaking intensity of the recent aftershock.
The Sunday (May 20) quake is listed as both magnitude 6.0 and 6.4. If it proves to be the latter, it would be the largest aftershock since March 14, when a magnitude-6.9 earthquake hit the region. Magnitude-6.0 quakes can cause serious damage if they hit near populated areas, yet the bulk of Japan's significant aftershocks have hit out at sea, many miles from land, and have caused relatively few problems. This recent quake caused only light shaking for residents of northern Japan, according to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data. It occurred beneath the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) east of Miyako, a coastal town devastated by the deadly tsunami that followed the March 2011 earthquake. "With an earthquake this big, you can have aftershocks for months and years," said Paul Earle, a seismologist with the USGS. You can't say when or where they'll happen, he told OurAmazingPlanet, but they tend to decrease in number exponentially.
However, he added, there's an equal chance of getting a big aftershock or a small one. There tend to be fewer powerful aftershocks the more time goes by, but that's only because there are fewer aftershocks in general. In total, 82 aftershocks of magnitude 6.0 or higher have hit since the Tohoku quake. The two largest, a 7.9 and a 7.7, hit on March 11, in the hours following the colossal main shock. "Aftershocks are just earthquakes — they look exactly the same," said Don Blakeman, a geophysicist with the USGS. "The only thing that defines an aftershock is it's in the same basic location and has the same type of mechanism as the main shock," he told OurAmazingPlanet. And aftershocks happen for the same reason a main shock happens, Earle said — when the stresses on either side of a fault exceed the friction that's holding it together. In the case of Japan's Tohoku earthquake, the stresses that had built up were enormous. The aftershocks that have continued in its wake are the result of changes in the way stress is distributed around the fault. "It's difficult to express how big this earthquake was compared to other earthquakes," Earle said. "When you have an earthquake this big, it totally reorients the stress that existed before it, and the Earth responds," he said. - Our Amazing Planet.

PLANETARY TREMORS: More Than 120 Aftershocks Rocks the Emilia-Romagna Region of Italy - 7 Dead; 6,000 Homeless; 250 Million Dollars in Damage!

Firefighters, surveyors, engineers and volunteers struggled through nearly continuous aftershocks Monday to catalog damage and deter looters one day after an earthquake killed seven people and left more than 6,000 homeless in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy

More than 120 aftershocks rocked the area in the hours following the magnitude-6.0 earthquake, which toppled factories, apartment buildings, and medieval and Renaissance-era monuments early Sunday. The epicenter was a small town between the art-rich cities of Modena and Ferrara. The area had not been considered at high risk for earthquakes, leading officials to call for revisions to the country’s risk map. The president of Emilia-Romagna, Vasco Errani, said in a television interview that it was too soon to determine the economic costs of the earthquake.  "They will be very significant, between our cultural heritage and businesses and housing, but we prefer to wait until we have more complete data," he said. 

An early estimate of $250 million worth of damage — made by Coldiretti, an agricultural trade association — included 400,000 wheels of Parmesan that were destroyed when the shelves on which they were aging collapsed. The cheese is a principal export of Emilia-Romagna.  Teams of experts coordinated by the Culture Ministry began to assess churches, towers and other historic buildings, including the Ducal Palace in Mantua, which suffered damage, although not to the famed frescoes by 15th-century painter Andrea Mantegna. Thousands of structures must be painstakingly examined to determine whether they might collapse.  Volunteers patrolled the streets in front of abandoned buildings to deter would-be looters.  "The immediate priority is to determine who can return to their homes," said Fabrizio Toselli, the mayor of Sant’Agostino, a town of 6,000.  A gaping hole in the front wall of its town hall has become a defining image of the earthquake’s devastation.  Toselli said that he spent the night with about 250 people in a makeshift dormitory in the civic sports center, and that many others slept in their cars. - Salt Lake Tribune.

STORM ALERT: Hurricane Bud Heading For Area Near Puerto Vallarta - Very Dangerous With 110mph Winds; Jalisco State Prepares Shelters!

Hurricane Bud lost some strength as it moved closer to Mexico's Pacific Coast and was forecast to hit land south of the popular tourist town of Puerto Vallarta Friday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.  Bud weakened overnight from a powerful Category 3 storm, but it's dangerous as a Category 2 with 110 mph winds.

And it's expected to dump heavy rains in several states in western Mexico, threatening floods and landslides.  The government of Jalisco state prepared hundreds of cots and dozens of heavy vehicles like bulldozers that could be needed to move debris. Officials in Puerto Vallarta said they were in close contact with managers of the hundreds of hotels in the city in case tourists needed to move to eight emergency shelters. It said the sea along the city's famous beachfront was calm, but swimming had been temporarily banned as a precaution.  At Mexico's largest Pacific port of Manzanillo, skies were overcast and rainy before the forecast landfall.  The hurricane is the Pacific's first of the 2012 season.  "Hurricane conditions are expected to reach the coast within the hurricane warning area this afternoon," the center said in an advisory.

Located about 105 miles southwest of Manzanillo, the hurricane was moving north-northeast at around 8 mph and Mexico's government issued a hurricane watch along the coast from Punta San Telmo to Cabo Corrientes.  Bud is expected to soak the states of Michoacan, Colima and Jalisco and southern Nayarit with around 6 to 8 inches of rain. Advertise | AdChoices  In some places, the storm could dump as much as 15 inches of rain.  "These rainfall amounts could produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," the center said. "Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion."  Most of Mexico's oil platforms and exporting ports are in the Gulf of Mexico and affected by storms in the Atlantic, where forecasters are expecting a "near normal" hurricane season this year with up to 15 tropical storms and four to eight hurricanes. - MSNBC.
WATCH: Projected path of Hurricane Bud.

PLANETARY TREMORS: 5.8 Magnitude Earthquake Which Jolted Bulgaria Was the Strongest Since 1858 - And the Aftershocks Still Continue!

The earthquake that the Bulgarian capital Sofia experienced at 3 am on Tuesday has been the strongest in its history since 1858, i.e. in 154 years, historical records indicate.

On Tuesday, Bulgaria's territory saw over 60 weak aftershocks after the 5.8-5.9-magnitude it experienced early Tuesday morning, according to the Geophysics Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.  All of the 60 aftershocks had magnitudes of over 1 on the Richter scale, and their epicenters were around the western Bulgarian city of Pernik, where the initial earthquake hit at about 2:58 am on Tuesday. Some of the major aftershocks had a magnitude of 4.2-4.7, and were felt in Pernik and Sofia.  On September 30, 1858, when the future Bulgarian capital was still only a provincial town in the Ottoman Empire, it suffered an earthquake that had an estimated magnitude of 6.6-7.0 on the Richter Scale, damaging some 80% of its buildings.  As a result of the earthquake, 19 out of the 24 then mosques in Sofia saw their minarets collapse, while only two out of the seven churches remained operational.

The 1858 earthquake claimed 4 lives in Sofia, and created huge cracks in the ground outside of the town.  The May 22, 2012, earthquake in Sofia, Pernik, and other parts of Western and Southern Bulgaria luckily, also pales in comparison with the strongest earthquake in the country ever - the March 17, 1942, earthquake in the southeastern town of Chirpan  Another strong earthquake in Bulgaria was the 1977 quake with its epicenter in Vrancea, Romania, which killed between 100 and 250 people in the Bulgarian Danube town of Svishtov, according to various estimates.  The latest earthquake in Sofia is comparable to the December 7, 1986 earthquake in Northeastern Bulgaria, which killed two people, and destroyed 150 buildings in the town of Strazhitsa.  After 2000, Bulgaria has seen a total of seven earthquakes with a magnitude beyond 4 on the Richter scale. The strongest one was in 2009 in the Black Sea near the town of Shabla, with a magnitude of 4.8. - Novinite.

ICE AGE NOW: "Scientific Experts" Confounded by the Increasing Snow Cover on Mount Kilimanjaro!

Constituting the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro is slowly building up its snow cover, allaying the fears of prominent scientists who had predicted witnessing the eminence lose its famous white hat. The drifts are slowly thickening on the top point of this summit, giving new hopes to Mount Kilimanjaro environmental watchdogs and tourists that the peak may not lose its beautiful snowy cap, as scientific experts have long been warning. 

Covered in mist for most of the day, Mount Kilimanjaro is the most tourist-attractive site in Tanzania, pulling in tens of thousands of foreigners and locals each year. The snow, which once had disappeared on some parts of the mountain, is piling up again gradually, making a beautiful picture out of the Kibo peak.  Sources from Kilimanjaro environmental groups said this precipitation could rise to cover most areas of the mountain, but the effects of climate change and global warming could still affect the peak's snow layers, which have been becoming thinner and thinner.  Environmentalists had warned that this highest peak in Africa could lose its ice cover and glaciers between 2018 and 2020 unless global campaigns to save the mountain's ecology were taken and a stop put to rampant tree-felling and unchecked agricultural activity on its slopes.  The writer of this article observed during this week's flight closer to the mountain, recovering snow piled up, covering the whole mountain peak.  Despite several warnings by scientists over disappearing snow, new hopes are rising to see this highest peak in Africa regain its face through stringent environmental protection campaigns.  Kilimanjaro Area Governor Mr. Leonidas Gama said environmental degradation has to be checked by all possible means lest Kilimanjaro residents live to regret it, adding that after inspecting the natural plants and plantation forests on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro aboard a hired helicopter, he found people harvesting timber, and livestock grazing in different areas, with total impunity. 

"The situation has become alarming and has to be arrested now, to restore the former glories of the mountain, the highest peak in Africa, one of the World Heritage sites and an absolute destination choice of foreign visitors to our country," Gama said.  He said residents should be sensitized to the need to lend their hands to reforestation practices, so as to ensure that the region becomes once again a choice place to live in, with all its natural resources intact. He expressed the need to deploy security organizations to curb the ever-worsening scourge of timber-harvesting from natural and reserved forest areas.  This reporter observed with enthusiasm during the recent flight around the mountain's peak that there was a deepening of the snow, which had once practically disappeared.  Standing freely and majestically with its frozen cover gleaming in the sun, our beloved Kilimanjaro has been in great danger of losing its eye-catching glaciers. The mountain is located some 330 kilometers and 3 degrees south of the equator.  Mount Kilimanjaro is an awesome and magnificent peak, one of the prides of Africa, and one of the chief free-standing mountains in the world. It is composed of three independent peaks - Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira - covering a total area of 4,000 kilometers.  The snow-capped Kibo, with permanent glaciers covering its entire tip, is the highest at 5,895 meters altitude and is the most attractive sight, pulling in over 40,000 foreign and local tourists per year.  This peak is indeed considered one of the leading tourist attractions in Tanzania, due to its beautiful appearance and its strange geological characteristics.  Global warming effects are being felt in most parts of Africa with important impacts indeed on tourist sites, included in which are Tanzanian wildlife parks and Mount Kilimanjaro's unique ecosystem. - ETN.

PLANETARY TREMORS: 4.8 Magnitude Quake Shakes Nervous Christchurch - Sending Shoppers Fleeing Into the Streets!

Nervous shoppers fled into the streets when a 4.7-magnitude earthquake rattled the New Zealand city of Christchurch, halting rebuilding work following last year's tremor that killed 185.

These were no immediate reports of damage or injuries and police and ambulance services said they had received no calls for assistance.

The quake struck at 12.44pm (AEST) at a shallow depth of eight kilometres about 25 kilometres east of New Zealand's second largest city, the US Geological Survey said.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, which is overseeing reconstruction after the deadly 6.3 tremor in February last year, said it suspended demolition work in the city centre as a precaution.

Christchurch has experienced thousands of aftershocks in the past 18 months, delaying efforts to rebuild and further unsettling residents. - The Australian.

For the complete USGS earthquake data summary, click HERE

GLOBAL ECONOMIC CONTAGION: The Euro Zone Crisis - Standard & Poor's Downgrades Bankia and Four Other Spanish Banks; Bankia to Ask For $24 Billion State Aid Amid Suspension of Trading Friday!

The board of directors of Spain's troubled bank, Bankia, has asked the Spanish government for €19 billion ($23.8 billion) in financial support.  Jose Ignacio Goirigolzarri, the bank's president, said late Friday that the bailout would "reinforced the solvency, liquidity and solidity of the bank."  The request came on the same day as credit rating agency Standard & Poor's downgraded Bankia and four other Spanish banks to junk status because of uncertainty over restructuring and recapitalization plans. 

Trading in Bankia shares were suspended Friday while its board determined how much new aid was needed. The bank's shares have been whipped about violently in recent weeks on fears it would not be able to cover the massive losses it has built up in bad loans in the country's collapsed real estate sector. Concern about the health of Europe's banks is a key constituent of the region's financial crisis. Spanish banks are seen as particularly shaky because they were heavily exposed to the country's collapsed real estate bubble and now hold massive amounts of soured investments, such as defaulted mortgage loans or devalued property. Bankia has been the worst-hit and holds €32 billion ($40 billion) in such toxic assets.  Bankia S.A. was created from the merger of seven regional banks, or cajas, that were deemed too weak to stand alone. But financial concerns have continued to plague it — its shares have lost almost half their value since the lender went public last July. The government decided to intervene earlier this month, effectively nationalizing Bankia. Its shares closed at €1.6 ($2.01) on Thursday after shedding more than 7 percent.  The Spanish government is trying to shore up the banking sector to get credit flowing to the ailing economy. But the cost of rescuing banks could overwhelm government finances, which are strained by a recession and an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent.  The possibility that the Spanish government might eventually need an international rescue package — like the ones Greece, Ireland and Portugal sought — has kept investors on edge for months.  Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy met with Socialist opposition leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba late Friday to try to map out a strategy for the future.  The big fear is that if Greece eventually leaves the euro, confidence in other financially weak countries like Spain and Italy could fall, causing the value of their bonds to drop. Ultimately, the worry is that could undermine confidence in the system and create bank runs.  To avert such a disastrous scenario, financial experts are increasingly calling for a Europe-wide support system for the banks. 

"The euro area financial stability framework needs an urgent overhaul," said Peter Praet, one of the European Central Bank's six-member executive committee.  He said there should be a eurozone-wide banking regulator with the money and authority to restructure banks operating across borders as well as a deposit insurance program similar to the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Both measures would be funded by the private sector, not the government, to not expose taxpayers to more banking crises.  Asked whether Spain would seek outside help for its banks, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria at a weekly government press conference earlier Friday reiterated the government's position, saying firmly, "Not at all."  The flare-up in the debt crisis in recent months, with a Greek exit from the euro openly discussed, has sent Spain's borrowing costs soaring to levels that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the country could not put up with for very long.  The yield for key 10-year bonds on the secondary market — an indicator of investor wariness — edged up 0.02 percentage points to a perilously high 6.18 percent in early afternoon trading. A rate of 7 percent is considered unsustainable over the long term.  Foreign investors in particular appear to be dumping Spanish government debt. In the first four months of the year the amount they held fell 24 percent to €213 billion, according to the latest figures released Friday by the Economy Ministry. As of the end of 2011, foreign investors held just over 50 percent of Spain's debt but by the end of April that figure dropped to 37.3 percent.  Bankia also announced Friday that it had also shaken up its board of directors, reducing it from 18 to 10 members. - Chron.

EXTREME WEATHER: Strong Storms and a Tornado Lash Northern and Central Wisconsin - Downing Trees and Knocking Out Power!

The cleanup has already started in Wisconsin from storms that packed heavy rain, high wind and even a tornado.

Steve Henry removes debris from a 50-foot section of a large maple tree that fell Thursday on the play
area at Little Cottage Christian Child Care in Middleton. Toppled by high winds, the branches damaged
a building on the property, crushed several children's toys and destroyed part of a garden. All of the
children were inside at the time and no one was harmed.
The damaging storms moved through western, central and northern Wisconsin, uprooting huge trees and knocking down power lines. The National Weather Service says a tornado touched down about two miles south of Marathon City in Marathon County about 7 p.m. Thursday. A State Patrol trooper spotted the tornado, which was on the ground intermittently for about five minutes. There were no reports of injuries. Parents of children who attend a Middleton day care center are probably holding them a little closer Friday. Storms packing high winds moved through the area Thursday, toppling trees and power lines.

In Middleton, a 50-foot section from a maple tree came crashing down at a day care center, crushing toys and destroying the children's garden. The children were safe inside the Little Cottage Christian Child Care center, napping or listening to stories. Owners evacuated the center and closed it after parents picked up their children. Jeanne Meuer said the center could reopen Tuesday, pending approval from the state. One teacher told the Wisconsin State Journal the children's eyes were as big as light bulbs when they saw what had happened.
Wisconsin Emergency Management said some streets were closed in Eau Claire Thursday because of the downed power lines and trees. The strong winds toppled a radio station tower, knocking several stations off the air. Utility crews worked to restore power to thousands of customers who lost service in the storm. - JS Online.
WATCH: Sudden storm topples Wisconsin trees.

FUK-U-SHIMA: Pandora's Box at Japan's Nuclear Dead Zone - Original Radiation Released by Fukushima Was 2.5 Times Higher Than What TEPCO Told the Public!

The amount of radioactive materials released in the first days of the Fukushima nuclear disaster was almost two and a half times the initial estimate by Japanese safety regulators, the operator of the crippled plant said in a report released on Thursday. 

The operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, said the meltdowns it believes took place at three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant released about 900,000 terabecquerels of radioactive substances into the air during March 2011. The accident, which followed an earthquake and a tsunami, occurred on March 11.  The latest estimate was based on measurements suggesting the amount of iodine-131 released by the nuclear accident was much larger than previous estimates, the utility said in the report. Iodine-131 is a fast-decaying radioactive substance produced by fission that takes place inside a nuclear reactor. It has a half-life of eight days and can cause thyroid cancer.  It is difficult to judge the health effects of the larger-than-reported release, since even the latest number is an estimate, and it does not clarify how much exposure people received or continue to receive from contaminated soil and food.

Experts have been divided on the health impacts since the disaster because the studies of assessing radiation risks are based mainly on a different type of exposure - the large doses delivered quickly by the atomic bombs in Japan in 1945.  Although people who lived closest to the plant were evacuated, many people remain in areas with significantly higher radiation levels than normal.  Tokyo Electric said it had initially been unable to accurately judge the amount of radioactive materials released soon after the accident because radiation sensors closest to the plant were disabled in the disaster.  "If this information had been available at the time, we could have used it in planning evacuations," a spokesman for Tokyo Electric, Junichi Matsumoto, said at a news conference.  More than 99 percent of the radiation released by the accident came in the first three weeks, the utility company added.  The newly released information is likely to add to concerns among many Japanese that they were never told the extent of the accident or the risks it posed.  A terabecquerel is a trillion becquerels, a commonly used measure of the radiation emitted by a radioactive material. - The New York Times.

EXTREME WEATHER: Tornado Damages 15 Homes in North Port, Florida!

A possible tornado damaged 15 homes in North Port on Thursday evening, leaving one family homeless.

A large tree uprooted by a storm overnight at a home on Elmwood Road in North Port.
According to a news release from the City of North Port:  At about 6:30 pm Firefighters received a call of structural damage to a home from a tornado. When firefighters arrived on scene they discovered roof damage to a mobile home in the Holiday Park community. A flurry of calls came in from the Highland Ridge community nearby, and that is where several more homes received damage.  Three fire engines, three ambulances and three command cars responded to assess the damage to the neighborhood. While firefighters conducted a ground survey, the Sarasota Sheriff's helicopter surveyed from the air.  "The damage was relatively minor and there were no injuries to citizens or first responders," said Battalion Chief James Woods, "that's the outcome we want". 

Only one family was displaced for the night, with enough damage to the house that the power had to be disconnected.  James and Elsie Hudson's home at the corner of Talbrook and Gable lost its roof in the storm.  "I didn't know what it was," Elsie Hudson told SNN. "When I ran to the back to the lanai, everthing was gone."  The winds had taken off part of the home's roof, and rain water was flowing into the living room, she said. The power was disconnected and the couple decided to stay with relatives.  The Red Cross was on scene to help storm victims, SNN Local News 6 was reporting.  The storm struck suddenly, and although the National Weather Service had been monitoring throughout the evening, inclement weather was not evident on the radar. - Herald Tribune.

WEATHER ADVISORY: Memorial Day Weekend Alert - Late-Season Storm Could Bring Summer Snow to Sierra, California!

The advice this Memorial Day weekend, particularly for folks heading into the Sierra, is "Be prepared."  National Weather Service and state transportation officials say travelers can expect everything from snow showers and accumulations of up to 6 inches in the high country today and Saturday to temperatures in the 80s in the Sacramento Valley on Sunday and Monday. >

A skier walks toward the lift at Alpine Meadows where green grass contrasts with snow. While the valley bakes
under an unrelenting sun, some head up the hill for a ski weekend on the Fourth of July. Sunday, July 3, 2011.
"We have a cool-weather system dropping down from British Columbia and washing over Northern California," said Karl Swanberg, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.  A high of 69 degrees is forecast for the Sacramento area today, 15 degrees below the average high of 84 for this time of year. The drop in temperature will be accompanied by a 30 percent chance of rain and a slight chance of afternoon thunder-showers.  In the mountains, a winter weather advisory is in effect from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, and snow levels are expected to drop to about the 5,500-foot elevation, with some accumulation above 6,000 feet.  "The road surface is warm this time of year," Swanberg said, which should help keep snow from accumulating on the roadway. "But there could be enough to cause slippery conditions." 

California Department of Transportation officials say motorists should be prepared for winter driving conditions and warn that chain controls could be in effect at times today.  High temperatures today in the Sierra are expected to range from the mid-30s to about 50 degrees. Southwesterly winds of 15 to 30 mph also are forecast, with gusts to 45 mph.  Although storms this late in the spring are somewhat unusual, it's still May, the tail end of the potentially active period of the season, Swanberg said, and people should plan accordingly.  "Bring along the coat, the gloves and the long pants, and expect a brief period of winter driving conditions," he said.  Although snow showers will continue at higher elevations through much of Saturday, the Valley will begin to dry out. Highs in the Sacramento area are expected to be in the low to mid-70s Saturday and in the low 80s Sunday and Monday.  A high around 48 degrees is forecast for South Lake Tahoe on Saturday, but temperatures are expected to reach the low 60s on Sunday and Monday. - Sacramento Bee.

WHIRLWIND ROMANCE: Drama in Tornado Alley - Twister Steals Scene in Kansas Couple's Wedding Photos!

In the plains of central Kansas, tornadoes are so unremarkable that guests barely flinched as a barrel-racing bride wed her bull-riding groom with a twister dropping from the sky just miles away.
Caleb and Candra Pence pose for a wedding photo
as a tornado swirls in the background after they
were married in Harper County, Kan.
But for people living outside Tornado Alley, Caleb and Candra Pence's wedding last Saturday is generating the kind of buzz usually reserved for celebrity nuptials. The video of the service has gone viral, garnering more than 20,000 views on YouTube and a flurry of media coverage.  "It is amazing how fast it has taken off," said the groom's uncle, Lee Pence, who shot the video.  After Saturday's outdoor service on the groom's family farm near the small south-central Kansas town of Harper, the couple posed for photos with the twister visible behind them. The pictures capture them smiling serenely - the 21-year-old bride in a white gown and the 22-year-old groom in a cowboy hat and jeans.  About eight to 10 miles away, the twister was damaging a farm and wind turbines. The National Weather Service has classified it as an EF-3 storm, packing winds of 138 to 167 miles per hour. 

"I don't know how on earth I will ever top this," said wedding photographer Cate Eighmey, who said she posed the pair for dramatic shots of the newlyweds and the twister behind them. Eighmey's photo shows what appears to be a second funnel dropping down from the cloud.  The couple has spent their honeymoon in Wyoming fielding media calls. Reached on his cellphone by The Associated Press, Caleb Pence recalled seeing the wall cloud forming as the service was about to begin. But with tornadoes a routine occurrence, the storm was the least of his worries.  "I had my mind on marrying my now wife," said Caleb Pence.  His bride, a native of northeast Nebraska who had never seen a tornado before, was much less at ease. He said that when he told her what was happening, she responded, "I don't want to hear it right now."'  Some of the guests who filled the 250 folding chairs checked weather reports on their cellphones. But otherwise, the 20-minute service - complete with a solo singing performance - wasn't altered.  Afterward, the couple, who met at a rodeo, made a dramatic horseback ride to the metal farm building that had been transformed into the reception site. They scarcely got inside when the skies opened up and poured down rain. The party didn't end until after midnight.  "I don't know how we did it," Caleb Pence said. "It boggles my mind how perfect it worked." - Seattle Times.
WATCH: The Pence's tornado wedding.