Seismic Activity Most Likely East of the Rockies in 2016: There are hopefully few Pacific Northwesterners who remain ignorant of the catastrophic implications of the Cascadian subduction zone, and its potential for a low-probability, high-consequence earthquake, recently brought to national attention in the New Yorker. You should by all means continue preparing for The Really Big One, which remains inevitable, and inevitably deadly.
But you might also take some consolation in the fact that Seattle doesn’t top the list of the United States Geologic Survey’s forecast of damaging seismic activity for 2016. Instead, Northern California and Oklahoma take the honors. Oklahoma in particular should make you pause, because as the state lies far from geologic hot spots along the Pacific Rim, its unexpected ranking entirely reflects an increased risk of induced (humanmade) earthquakes. In this case, earthquakes are induced by hydraulic fracking, the controversial practice of injecting wastewater deep underground to release natural gas and petroleum which is widespread in the Midwest.
You can consider what this all means while you view the full report, located here. While doing so, also consider that (1) Oklahoma is the third-largest natural gas producer and fifth-largest oil producer in the United States, (2) Oklahoma writ large is deep red, and has voted for a Republican president every election since 1968, (3) Oklahoma has the second-highest population of Native Americans of any state, who disproportionately vote Democratic and whose tribal lands hold significant oil and gas reserves, and (4) Oklahoma is the dead center of Tornado Alley.
A Few Words on the Death of North America’s Oldest Orangutan: Until last week, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo can claim to have had, for a time, North America’s oldest Orangutan, a 48 year-old male name Towan. He was popular and artistic, but suffered from recurrent respiratory issues, ultimately passing away during a routine veterinary examination on Thursday, March 24.
Towan’s death comes at a dark time for his genus as a whole, with both distinct species (Pongo abelli of Sumatra and Pongo pygmaeus of Borneo (Towan himself was a hybrid of the two) dropping precipitously under the inexorable pressures of humanity. There are myriad reasons for this sad march to extinction. Our global appetites for cheap paper products and palm oil figure heavily. More recently, the worst wildfires in 20 years have wracked Indonesia, with a full accounting of their devastation yet to be conducted.
A bright spot, amid the doom and gloom? In a recent study otherwise concerned with the urgent, compounding threats to our arboral orange relatives, field biologists report having previously underestimated populations of the Sumatran Orangutan.
UW Researchers Identify Regions of the Human Genome with Scandalous Origins:
In a shadowy time before memory, the ancestors of modern humans coexisted with multiple close relatives in the tribe Hominini (“tribe” here referring to a level of taxonomic classification broader than “genus” but narrower than “family”). Among currently described species of hominins, Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) and Denisovans (Homo sp. Altai) have received particular attention in the popular press — likely because sex sells, and there is ample evidence that our ancestors interbred with Neandertals and Denisovans on multiple occasions.
With the advent of increasingly sophisticated methods for genome-wide DNA sequencing, and for extracting DNA from marginally preserved fragments of tissue, assessing the how, where, and when of ancestral human/ancient homnin interbreeding has become an active area of research. The latest exposé in the field was published earlier this month in the journal Science, headed by a team of researchers at University of Washington’s Genome Sciences Department.
In the article, lead author Benjamin Vernot and colleagues describe research to identify the specific regions in the genomes of 1523 modern humans that could be traced to interbreeding with either Neandertals or Denisovans. They demonstrated that (1) Neandertals interbred with ancient humans on multiple occasions, (2) only Melanesians (inhabitants of islands in the Southwest Pacific) had regions of the genome that could be attributed to both Neandertal and Denisovan influence, and (3) there are significant regions of the human genome that either have more or less Neandertal / Denisovan influence than you’d expect, meaning they have been affected by natural selection.
All of which, we suppose, is another piece in the enduring puzzle of what makes a human being.
Puget Sound Orcas Given Personal Health Records: There are approximately 84 Orcas (Orcinus orca) in southern Puget Sound, composing what is arguably the best-studied marine mammal population in the world. Following a meeting in Seattle last week aimed at incorporating information from numerous research organizations into a common, easily-accessible health records database, these 84 whales will be subjected to significantly more scientific scrutiny. Unfortunately for the rest of us, more scientific scrutiny remains unlikely to translate to more Orca sightings from the Seattle/Bainbridge ferry.