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The Benefits of Noisy Neighborhoods

March 17, 2024

Two Men Will Go to Prison for Tampering with Rain Gauges

The federal government runs programs that pay farmers for crop losses from severe drought. Now, two men in Colorado are going to prison for tampering with gauges used to measure drought, in a fraudulent scheme to get crop insurance payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cornfields in Prowers County, Colorado  |  Credit: Billy Hathorn/Creative Commons

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, the farmers damaged rain gauges for about five years to make it appear that there was less precipitation than there actually was in their area of southeastern Colorado and western Kansas. The federal prosecutor said in a release that Patrick Esch and Ed Dean Jagers cut wires on the equipment, tipped over collecting buckets, covered gauges with pie pans and agricultural equipment, and used silicone to plug other gauges. Some of the damaged gauges were owned by NOAA and operated by the National Weather Service. Another was located at a local airport and owned by the FAA.

The two farmers have agreed to pay the government $6.5 million, and in addition, Jagers was sentenced to six months in prison and Esch was sentenced to two months.

The rain gauges are important for other reasons besides crop insurance, as 9News in Denver reported. The data are used by pilots and by the National Weather Service for public safety. Colorado State Climatologist Russ Schumacher told the television outlet that the case was not one that they had seen before and that intentional disruptions to the gauges are unusual.

The story gets weirder.

The two who were convicted may have had other conspirators in this scheme.  According to the Washington Post, two others helped with the plan, one of whom, Mark Fox, extorted Esch and stole an ATV from him. Fox was later indicted for crop insurance fraud, in addition to witness tampering and extortion. In July last year, Fox escaped with two others from the Bent County jail where he was being held by tunneling through the ceiling of his cell. About three weeks later he was found dead in an unoccupied farmhouse with no signs of foul play.

Drought Causes the Release of Greenhouse Gases

We’ve all seen those ubiquitous photos of cracked, dry lake beds in the West. A new study from Tufts University shows that those cracks can reduce the soil’s ability to store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Eighty percent of carbon on Earth is stored in soil. The researchers concluded that the process of drought—long periods of low moisture and high temperature—leads to cracking in fine-grained soils and can extend meters below the surface.

The cycle of drought, drying and cracking soil, and ground carbon release, creates an amplified feedback loop that has not been accounted for in most climate change models.  |  Credit: Farshid Vahedifard/Tufts University

The fissures expose older and protected carbon reserves and cause other greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide to be released. The cracks also allow more air exposure, which results in microbes breaking down organic matter that releases the greenhouse gases. In addition, the soil loses nutrients that support plant growth, which in turn reduces their ability to sequester CO2, a feedback loop that could accelerate climate change beyond current predictions.

The drying soil feedback loop could, the authors say, be more significant than the one caused by warming ocean surfaces as sea ice melts. The soil feedback loop could also have a greater effect than wildfires that release CO2, or the thawing of Arctic permafrost.

The study notes that earthworms and other small animals like millipedes, which recycle or turn over soil, are affected by reduced moisture and increased air exposure and become less active in maintaining dirt structure.

The lead author, Farshid Vahedifard, said that one solution is for governments to promote sustainable land use, including water conservation practices, drought tolerant crops, and the use of organic fertilizers and compost, which can improve the soils’ water-holding capacity.  However, he added, this can only help if there’s a comprehensive effort to reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

The study was published in Environmental Research Letters.

Making a Neighborhood Noisy Promotes Its Restoration

Given the choice, would you rather live in a quiet or noisy neighborhood? If you’re newly spawned coral looking for a place to settle down—sounds that to us might seem like sizzling bacon or the grunts of foraging pigs—are pitch perfect.

Acoustic enrichment can be a key intervention to support imperiled reefs. Using an underwater speaker system, researchers found that broadcasting the soundscape of a healthy reef at a degraded reef caused coral larvae to settle at significantly higher rates.  |  Credit: Dan Mele, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The croaks and purrs of fishes as well as the crackling of snapping shrimp are sounds of a healthy reef. According to new research from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the cacophony is an advertisement to drifting coral larvae that this is a spot where they should put down roots and thrive.

Adult corals are fixed in place, but their larvae drift in currents for days before attaching to the seabed. Just where to land can be influenced by chemicals in the water and light cues, but the scientists say the soundscape of an area matters too.

The team used recordings of healthy corals and played them from underwater speakers near a degraded reef in the U.S. Virgin Islands to see if they could entice the youngsters to move in. They found larvae were up to seven times more likely to settle in areas with “acoustic enrichment” than areas without the introduced sounds. Given that an estimated half of the world’s corals have been lost in the past 30 years, the authors say sound enhancement could be a valuable tool to restore these vital habitats.

The study was published on in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Snakes—the New High-Protein Superfood

The global population passed eight billion in January—that’s a lot of mouths to feed on a planet with finite resources and a changing climate. But according to new research from Australia, many people could get the protein they need by eating snakes, specifically pythons.

Workers at a python farm where snakes are raised for their meat, skins, fat, and bile. Snake farms are typically large barns surrounded by "sun traps" for basking, which escape most of the complex animal welfare issues surrounding caged mammals and birds. |  Credit: Dan Natusch/Macquarie University

Dr. Daniel Natusch of Macquarie University says farmed pythons, which are not venomous, can provide sustainable, high protein, low-saturated fat meals to increase food security. Farming pythons is less intensive than raising cattle, poultry, or pigs. They require minimal water and can even live off the dew that settles on their scales in the morning. They don’t need much food and create little waste as the skin can be used for leather and the snake oil and bile have medicinal applications.

Because they’re cold-blooded animals, they just need a spot in the sun to get warm, where they are way more efficient at turning their food—which can include agricultural waste and pests like rodents—into more flesh and body tissue than any warm-blooded creature could. Natusch says, pound for pound, reptiles produce far fewer greenhouse gases than mammals, and farming them can provide a resilient livelihood that can buffer against the extremes of climate change.

As the cliché goes, the meat reportedly tastes like chicken, but Natusch concedes that people outside of Asia where python farming is well established, are not quite ready to sit down to a snake kabob yet.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.