BP Oil Spill, Himalayan Glacier, Monarch Butterflies and More

• Effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continue to impact the health of the gulf ecosystem. Dead sea life is still turning up in bottom sediments, an effect that may last for years. In January, researchers from the University of California reported in Environmental Science & Technology that chemical dispersant molecules continue to show up in oil plumes at depths of 1,000 meters or more. Apparently, the dispersant, which totaled 771,000 gallons, is resisting biodegradation.

• Now, some good news. A substantial portion of the Karakoram part of the Himalayan glacier complex is currently resisting melting due to an insulating layer of debris. In fact, it may even be growing. This contrasts with other studies indicating that 65 percent of the glaciers studied are shrinking. (Science News, February 26, 2011)

• Lots of birds decorate their nests to advertise for mates, but Spanish researchers have discovered that small birds of prey, called kites, decorate their nests with plastic. To other kites, this means stay away from this area or else. Kites with well-decorated nests claim the best territory and lay the most eggs. Weak or old birds, too lazy to decorate their nests, have their nest “homes” vigorously attacked by other kites. Researchers also discovered that white pieces of plastic were preferred by the birds and that when they sneaked up and added pieces of plastic to the nest, the resident bird threw the “foreign” pieces out. This is another way birds communicate information. (The Week, Feb. 11, 2011)

• Nora Volkow, M.D., led a team at the National Institutes of Health to determine whether cell phone radiation can affect brain function. The study was published in the prestigious The Journal of the American Medical Association. Using state-of-the-art brain scanning technology to assess brain activity, the research team found that using a cell phone for 50 minutes affects the brain in the region closest to the phone antenna. Volkow stated, “Even though the radiofrequencies that are emitted from current cell phone technologies are very weak, they are able to activate the human brain – they have an effect.” (Environment News Service, Feb., 2011)

• The usual practice of removing lymph nodes from breast cancer patients may be unnecessary according to an article in the February (2011) edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association. Traditionally, surgeons examined the lymph node closest to the tumor for cancer cells; this first node is referred to as the “sentinel node.” If cancer cells were found, in many cases all the lymph nodes in the armpit area were removed. Studies of women with early-stage breast cancer who had only the sentinel node removed were compared with those who had all nodes removed. In terms of survival, when the usual chemo- and/or radiotherapy were used, there was no difference between survival times between the two groups. Removing all armpit lymph nodes is a painful surgery, and swelling and infection are possible. Now physicians and patients may decide not to remove more than the sentinel lymph node. (Also reported in Science, Feb. 18, 2011)

• Soon Monarch butterflies will appear in Door County. Bear in mind that these monarchs are the progeny of two or three generations of its kin that made the 4,000-mile trip from Mexico. The first Monarch you see this summer probably traveled only about 1,300 miles, as it followed a milkweed trail northward using its microscopic GPS system. Impressed? You should be.