Author Archives: James Gerken

 

This Is What It Looks Like When An Enormous Boulder Nearly Crashes Through Your House (PHOTOS)

Several giant boulders broke off a cliff above a village in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol last week, flattening vineyards and a building and nearly destroying a house.

The first boulder crashed through a 300-year-old barn, while another came to rest just outside the home next to it. About 4,000 cubic meters of rock fell on the evening of Jan. 21, reported the South Tyrol News.

No one was injured in the rockslide, but the manager of the property said the damage may cost millions of Euros to repair. Known as the Freisingerhof, the property is owned by the Catholic Servite Order.

A Facebook page has been set up to help the tenants, the Trebo family, who were displaced by the incident. Some photos from the Facebook page are below:

(H/t Sploid)

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Root Rot In Christmas Fir Trees Threatens Local Industries

BAKERSVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Jeff Pollard trudged up the steep slope and stopped at a desiccated, rust-brown tree. Two months earlier, workers had tagged this Fraser fir as ready for market.

It was going to be someone’s Christmas tree. And now it was dead. “Never get paid back for this tree,” he said with a shrug. “Eleven years of work — gone.”

The culprit: Phytophthora root rot, a water mold that, once in the soil, makes it unfit for production.

Pollard has been growing Fraser fir in these western North Carolina mountains for nearly 40 years. To him, it’s “the ultimate tree.”

But this persistent problem has him looking to a species from the birthplace of old Saint Nicholas himself for a possible alternative. And he’s not alone.

Growers in Oregon, the nation’s No. 1 Christmas tree producer, have been experimenting with the Turkish fir for more than 30 years. That species and the Nordmann fir, also native to Eurasia, have shown promising resistance to root rot.

“Phytophthora is a problem in most areas where true firs … are grown,” said Gary A. Chastagner, a plant pathologist and extension specialist at Washington State University. “It’s a national problem.”

Oregon leads the nation in Christmas tree production, with nearly 7 million harvested in 2007, the latest figures available from the National Christmas Tree Association. North Carolina was a distant second, with around 3.1 million trees cut.

One study estimated the potential losses to Oregon’s nursery and Christmas tree industries of up to $304 million a year if Phytophthora is not properly contained. Douglas and Noble fir are the dominant holiday tree species in the Pacific Northwest.

In North Carolina, the No. 2 producer, it costs farmers up to $6 million a year, said John Frampton, a Christmas tree geneticist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

To date, no fungicide has proven effective to control Phytophthora on Christmas tree plantations. So once it’s in the soil, that’s it.

Pollard, who grows about 130,000 trees on several western North Carolina farms, said Phytophthora set in after Hurricane Fran in 1996 and got worse following 2004′s Hurricane Ivan. He’s lost about a quarter of his trees over the past six seasons, and the state rated the mortality on some of his stands at up to 80 percent.

“They’ll be good for growing grass,” he said as he stood overlooking several barren hilltop fields recently.

Researchers at Washington State and several other universities are hoping to unlock the secrets to some species’ rot resistance.

In a greenhouse on the campus of NC State, master’s student Will Kohlway looked over rows of fir seedlings that had been inoculated with Phytophthora. He’s looking for genes related to disease resistance in Turkish fir.

“And if we can identify the gene, maybe we can go out and … possibly we can speed up the hybridization and get something to the growers faster,” he said.

But what works in North Carolina might not necessarily help in the Northwest, where other species of Phytophthora are more common, said Chastagner.

Katie McKeever, a Ph.D. candidate in Chastagner’s lab, is working under a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to create a nationwide collection of Phytophthoras from Christmas trees to understand regional variation in pathogen populations. The goal is to challenge various firs with different Phytophthoras to determine mechanisms of resistance and ultimately develop genetic markers that can be used to identify trees that are resistant to the disease, Chastagner said.

But until native trees can be modified to have greater resistance, Pollard and others are looking toward these other species.

Since 2004, Oregon growers have planted an average of 500,000 Nordmann and Turkish firs per year, with similar activity in western Washington and the Inland Empire, said Chastagner. A three-year project by WSU Puyallup to identify superior sources of Nordmann and Turkish fir has resulted in the development of seed orchards for those species.

Pollard planted his first seedlings about six years ago and sold his first trees last year. He said his customers were “tickled to death.”

“We followed them all the way through, from when they put them up to when they took them down,” said Pollard. “And they were happy and so now we’re sure of the tree.”

Of course, the Turkish fir is far from bulletproof.

It tends to bud out earlier than Fraser fir, making it vulnerable to late-season frosts. And deer find it irresistible.

“They’ll walk by Fraser fir to snack on the Turkish fir,” Frampton said with a chuckle.

After the success of his first sales, Pollard ordered enough Turkish fir seedlings from Oregon for a full rotation. He expects to plant them this spring.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Pollard stood on a hillside as seasonal workers cut, baled and stacked trees — some of which he’s waited 17 years to harvest. Looking down, his hands were stained with fragrant sap.

“That sap, it kind of runs in your blood,” he said. “These Fraser fir are to the mountain people what the buffalo was to the Plains Indian. … These Christmas trees have kept family farms in families. And we’re very thankful for them.”

Pollard’s two sons, David and Jeff, have joined him in the business. At 61, he knows he has to prepare for the future.

“When we plant something, we’re not thinking about one president away or two presidents. Sometimes it’s three and four presidents down the road,” he said. “I’m banking on this tree to keep me in the Christmas tree farming business.”

___

Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed .

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Deadly Winter Storm System Moves East After Striking Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Snow and ice are forecast for the northeast of the country as a deadly storm that started on the West Coast last week gathers steam Tuesday and powers toward the East in time for Thanksgiving.

The National Weather Service warned that the storm would almost certainly upset holiday travel plans for those hoping to visit loved ones in the mid-Atlantic and northeast. “The timing of the storm couldn’t be worse,” said Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the weather service headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. “We are seeing numerous threats as the storm is beginning to develop and intensify.”

Vaccaro said heavy rain and high winds would impact travel by air and road in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, and that the weather in that part of the country could have a ripple effect on airports with departing and originating flights elsewhere.

On Tuesday and Wednesday morning, heavy rain and breezy conditions will strike the East Coast from the Carolinas to the northeast, with ice and snow a possibility in the Appalachians, western Pennsylvania and western New York.

The storm system, already blamed for at least 11 deaths, could also spawn an isolated tornado in the Florida Panhandle.

The Southeast, meanwhile, is set to suffer soaking rain in the coming days, primarily in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The large system has already struck parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, but with temperatures creeping above freezing the outcome was less dramatic there than forecasters had feared.

The storm sprung out of the West and has been blamed for at least 11 deaths, half of them in Texas. It limped across Arkansas with a smattering of snow, sleet and freezing rain that didn’t meet expectations.

“It’s just really cold. We had drizzle but no snow,” said Courtney O’Neal-Walden, an owner of the Dairyette diner on U.S. 270 in Mount Ida, Ark. “You can see (ice) on the power lines but the roads are fine.”

She said ominous warnings of a wintery storm kept most people inside — although schools remained open — and few stopped by the diner for Monday’s $5.99 special of popcorn shrimp, fries and a medium drink.

But the system packed plenty of punch as it moved eastward.

John Robinson, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, said winter storm warnings were issued for parts of the eastern half of the United States through Wednesday afternoon.

Some of the country’s busiest airports — New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and Charlotte, N.C. — could see big delays at one of the peak travel times of the year.

This holiday will likely see the most air travelers since 2007, according to Airlines for America, the industry’s trade and lobbying group, with the busiest day being Sunday, an estimated 2.56 million passengers. Wednesday is expected to be the second-busiest with 2.42 million passengers.

Ninety percent of travelers this week will drive, according to AAA, and an estimated 38.9 million people — 1.6 percent fewer than last year — are expected to drive 50 miles or more from their home.

In New Jersey, officials advised travelers to check with their airlines and reduce speed on highways as a winter weather advisory was set to take effect shortly before midday across the state’s northwest areas.

Meanwhile, forecasters were predicting 5 to 8 inches of snow in Buffalo, more in the northern Adirondacks, and a winter storm watch was posted for central New York state with heavy rain expected in parts of the Hudson Valley.

In the nation’s capital, federal agencies opened Tuesday though the National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory for the northern and western suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, amid forecasts of a light mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain that could be topped off by heavy rain.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which sets leave policies for 300,000 federal workers in Washington, said that while government was open Tuesday, employees could take unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework.

Jeff Smidt hopes to travel from his home in Toronto on Wednesday to visit his family near Boston. He plans to drive if he cannot fly.

“My understanding is that I’m traveling at like the worst time ever,” Smidt said. He tried to change his JetBlue reservation to get on an earlier flight but was told the airline wasn’t waiving any change fees yet.

“Worst comes to worst, it will be an eight-hour trek down Interstate 90,” he said.

___

Associated Press writers Scott Mayerowitz in New York City; John Raby in Charleston, W.Va.; Jill Bleed in Little Rock; and Diana Heidgerd and David Warren in Dallas contributed to this report.

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Cavemen Recycled? Evidence Suggests Prehistoric Ancestors Repurposed Everyday Objects

TEL AVIV, Israel — TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — If you thought recycling was just a modern phenomenon championed by environmentalists and concerned urbanites — think again.

There is mounting evidence that hundreds of thousands of years ago, our prehistoric ancestors learned to recycle the objects they used in their daily lives, say researchers gathered at an international conference in Israel. “For the first time we are revealing the extent of this phenomenon, both in terms of the amount of recycling that went on and the different methods used,” said Ran Barkai, an archaeologist and one of the organizers of the four-day gathering at Tel Aviv University that ended Thursday.

Just as today we recycle materials such as paper and plastic to manufacture new items, early hominids would collect discarded or broken tools made of flint and bone to create new utensils, Barkai said.

The behavior “appeared at different times, in different places, with different methods according to the context and the availability of raw materials,” he told The Associated Press.

From caves in Spain and North Africa to sites in Italy and Israel, archaeologists have been finding such recycled tools in recent years. The conference, titled “The Origins of Recycling,” gathered nearly 50 scholars from about 10 countries to compare notes and figure out what the phenomenon meant for our ancestors.

Recycling was widespread not only among early humans but among our evolutionary predecessors such as Homo erectus, Neanderthals and other species of hominids that have not yet even been named, Barkai said.

Avi Gopher, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist, said the early appearance of recycling highlights its role as a basic survival strategy. While they may not have been driven by concerns over pollution and the environment, hominids shared some of our motivations, he said.

“Why do we recycle plastic? To conserve energy and raw materials,” Gopher said. “In the same way, if you recycled flint you didn’t have to go all the way to the quarry to get more, so you conserved your energy and saved on the material.”

Some cases may date as far back as 1.3 million years ago, according to finds in Fuente Nueva, on the shores of a prehistoric lake in southern Spain, said Deborah Barsky, an archaeologist with the University of Tarragona. Here there was only basic reworking of flint and it was hard to tell whether this was really recycling, she said.

“I think it was just something you picked up unconsciously and used to make something else,” Barsky said. “Only after years and years does this become systematic.”

That started happening about half a million years ago or later, scholars said.

For example, a dry pond in Castel di Guido, near Rome, has yielded bone tools used some 300,000 years ago by Neanderthals who hunted or scavenged elephant carcasses there, said Giovanni Boschian, a geologist from the University of Pisa.

“We find several levels of reuse and recycling,” he said. “The bones were shattered to extract the marrow, then the fragments were shaped into tools, abandoned, and finally reworked to be used again.”

At other sites, stone hand-axes and discarded flint flakes would often function as core material to create smaller tools like blades and scrapers. Sometimes hominids found a use even for the tiny flakes that flew off the stone during the knapping process.

At Qesem cave, a site near Tel Aviv dating back to between 200,000 and 420,000 years ago, Gopher and Barkai uncovered flint chips that had been reshaped into small blades to cut meat — a primitive form of cutlery.

Some 10 percent of the tools found at the site were recycled in some way, Gopher said. “It was not an occasional behavior; it was part of the way they did things, part of their way of life,” he said.

He said scientists have various ways to determine if a tool was recycled. They can find direct evidence of retouching and reuse, or they can look at the object’s patina — a progressive discoloration that occurs once stone is exposed to the elements. Differences in the patina indicate that a fresh layer of material was exposed hundreds or thousands of years after the tool’s first incarnation.

Some participants argued that scholars should be cautious to draw parallels between this ancient behavior and the current forms of systematic recycling, driven by mass production and environmental concerns.

“It is very useful to think about prehistoric recycling,” said Daniel Amick, a professor of anthropology at Chicago’s Loyola University. “But I think that when they recycled they did so on an ‘ad hoc’ basis, when the need arose.”

Participants in the conference plan to submit papers to be published next year in a special volume of Quaternary International, a peer-reviewed journal focusing on the study of the last 2.6 million years of Earth’s history.

Norm Catto, the journal’s editor in chief and a geography professor at Memorial University in St John’s, Canada, said that while prehistoric recycling had come up in past studies, this was the first time experts met to discuss the issue in such depth.

Catto, who was not at the conference, said in an email that studying prehistoric recycling could give clues on trading links and how much time people spent at one site.

Above all, he wrote, the phenomenon reflects how despite living millennia apart and in completely different environments, humans appear to display “similar responses to the challenges and opportunities presented by life over thousands of years.”

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DIY Menorah Guide For Hanukkah

From Networx: The Jewish festival of Chanuka will take place this year the evenings of December 20th through the afternoon of the 28th. It is…

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WATCH: Threatened Species Highlighted In Adorable Animal Videos

These animals might be pretty cute, but they also might not be around much longer. October 4 is World Animal Day. According to The Boston…

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