Mass Die-Off of Whales in Atlantic Is Being Investigated

An unusual mortality event is a specific designation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and is defined as “a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response.”

Whale or other marine mammal die-offs are often poorly understood by scientists, and this case is no exception. Officials from NOAA Fisheries could not explain why the animals were coming into greater contact with vessels, or if there were any human-caused or climate-related disturbances that had changed their behavior.

Gregory Silber, marine resources manager in the agency’s Office of Protected Resources, said that there had not been any increase in ship traffic in the region, and that the whales might be following their prey — they mostly eat krill and small fish — to areas where there could be more shipping.

Ten whales other than those killed by ships have been examined, but officials have not yet determined the cause of death. There is no indication that they were killed by disease.

Humpback whales — which can be as long as 60 feet, weigh as much as 40 tons and can live for 50 years — are found in all of the world’s oceans. There are 14 distinct population segments — groups that follow certain migration and breeding patterns — of humpback whales, some of which are classified as endangered or threatened. The population along the Atlantic coast, which winters in the Caribbean and summers in the North Atlantic or Arctic regions, is not now considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Around the world, there are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 humpback whales, about a third of its original population. The Atlantic population is around 10,000.

Scientists have suggested that some whale deaths could be a result of marine noise, often a result of military activity, offshore drilling or exploration, which can disorient the animals and send them in the wrong direction, possibly toward beaches where they get stuck instead of into the deeper ocean. Mr. Silber, the NOAA manager, said he was not aware of a connection between ocean noise and these strandings.

A recent study has shown that dolphins, when escaping predators or the source of marine noise, might shoot up from a dive more quickly than they otherwise would, switching from slow, deliberate strokes to faster, longer ones, which can cause them to use double the energy they normally do, and exhaust them.

The last major mass casualty event for marine mammals in this part of the world took place from 2013 to 2015, when a resurgence of the morbillivirus killed thousands of bottlenose dolphins on the Eastern Seaboard.

Among humpback whales, there was an unusual mortality event in 2006, following others in 2005, which involved other large whales, and 2003, which was primarily humpback whales. In each investigation, the cause was undetermined, officials said.

NOAA officials said members of the public looking to help could report stranded or dead floating whales to numbers listed on their website.

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No Longer a Dream: Silicon Valley Takes On the Flying Car

There are challenges, no doubt, with both the technology and government regulations. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be convincing the public that the whole idea isn’t crazy.

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A Flying Car Prototype From Silicon Valley

Kitty Hawk, a Silicon Valley company backed by Larry Page, a Google founder, began testing a prototype over a lake in Northern California.

By KITTY HAWK on Publish Date April 24, 2017. . Watch in Times Video »

“I love the idea of being able to go out into my backyard and hop into my flying car,” said Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has served as a consultant on Google’s self-driving project. “I hate the idea of my next-door neighbor having one.”

Kitty Hawk, the company backed by Mr. Page, is trying to be one of the first out of the gate and plans to start selling its vehicle by the end of the year.

The company has attracted intense interest because of Mr. Page and its chief executive, Sebastian Thrun, an influential technologist and self-driving car pioneer who is the founding director of Google’s X lab.

In 2013, Zee Aero, a Kitty Hawk division, became the object of Silicon Valley rumors when reports of a small air taxilike vehicle first surfaced.

Mr. Page declined a request for an interview but said in a statement: “We’ve all had dreams of flying effortlessly. I’m excited that one day very soon I’ll be able to climb onto my Kitty Hawk Flyer for a quick and easy personal flight.”

During his recent test flight, Cameron Robertson, the aerospace engineer, used two joysticklike controls to swing the vehicle back and forth above Clear Lake, sliding on the air as a Formula One car might shimmy through a racecourse. The flight, just 15 feet above the water, circled over the lake about 20 or 30 yards from shore, and after about five minutes Mr. Robertson steered back to a floating landing pad at the end of a dock.

The Kitty Hawk Flyer is one of several prototypes the start-up, based in Mountain View, Calif., is designing. The company hopes to create an audience of enthusiasts and hobbyists, who can pay $100 to sign up for a $2,000 discount on the retail price of a Flyer to “gain exclusive access to Kitty Hawk experiences and demonstrations where a select few will get the chance to ride the Flyer.”

Flying Carmakers

More than a dozen companies — from large to small — are now in various stages of creating flying vehicles.

It is an unusual offer, since the company has yet to set a price for the vehicle, and Mr. Thrun’s and Mr. Page’s involvement can be taken as evidence that the company is aiming beyond hobbyists. Still, Kitty Hawk is clearly targeting a new kind of transportation — air flight that can be performed safely by most people and hopefully with government approval.

“We have been in contact with the F.A.A. and we see the regulators as friends,” Mr. Thrun said in an interview. He agreed that concerns about vehicles flying over our heads were legitimate. “I believe that all of us have to work together to understand how new technologies will shape the future of society, ” he said.

Two years ago, Mr. Thrun recruited two other pioneers, Mr. Robertson and Todd Reichert, aerospace engineers from AeroVelo, a University of Toronto spinoff company that won a coveted prize for a human-powered helicopter and set the land speed record for a bicycle last year.

They are flying under a special Federal Aviation Administration category for ultralight aircraft that does not require a pilot’s license and is intended for recreational flying in uncongested areas. To add an extra margin of safety, the Kitty Hawk engineers are sticking to flying over open water. The company said the final commercial product would look different and be far quieter than the test model.

“We hope that this is more of an exciting concept than what most people have had in their minds about flying cars,” Mr. Robertson said. “This is not yet that product in terms of what we will say and what it can do, but I think it demonstrates a vision of the future.”

Kitty Hawk could face stiff competition, not just from about a half dozen start-ups, but from the giant Airbus, headquartered in Blagnac, France. The aerospace firm has announced two different vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL, concepts and is reported to be planning an initial test flight before the end of the year.

At the Geneva International Motor Show last month, Airbus proposed an autonomous vehicle named Pop.Up that would operate on the ground and in the air. And this year, the government of Dubai, in partnership with a Chinese firm, EHang, said it planned to begin operating an autonomous flying taxi in July. Also, Uber is expected on Tuesday to detail its “vision for the future of Urban Air Mobility” at a conference in Dallas.

There is no shortage of skeptics happy to point out the roadblocks for these vehicles. There is already significant resistance to the idea of unmanned drones flying over urban areas, and flying cars could face substantial opposition, even if they can be quieted to automotive noise levels.

For these personal air vehicles to become a reality in the United States, the country would need a new air traffic control system.

Two years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began development of an air traffic control system meant for managing all sorts of flying vehicles, including drones. One NASA developer described it as an air traffic control system, “for a sky dark with drones.” Researchers hope testing can begin by 2019.

Batteries are also an issue. While electric propeller-driven motors seem promising, today’s battery technology cannot support flights of a reasonable distance, say a 30- or 50-mile commute.

“How is this going to work? I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but we can’t even take our cellphones on airplanes today because of fears about battery fires,” said Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, who is researching personal air transport for NASA.

And don’t forget that flying cars will not be able to pull to the side of the road in an emergency, said John Leonard, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

“Silicon Valley is full of very smart people, but they don’t always get the laws of physics,” he said. “Gravity is a formidable adversary.”

Correction: April 27, 2017

An article on Tuesday about efforts to build flying cars referred incorrectly to the timing of an offer in which consumers pay $100 to sign up for a $2,000 discount on the retail price of one such vehicle, a Kitty Hawk Flyer. They can do so now; they do not have to wait until later this year.

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Trillions of Plastic Bits, Swept Up by Current, Are Littering Arctic Waters

The scientists sampled floating plastic debris from 42 sites in the Arctic Ocean aboard Tara, a research vessel that completed a trip around the North Pole from June to October 2013, with data from two additional sites from a previous trip. They scooped up plastic debris and determined the concentration of particles by dividing the dry weight of the plastic collected, excluding microfibers, by the area surveyed.

Almost all of the plastic, measured by weight, was in fragments, mostly ranging from 0.5 millimeters to 12.6 millimeters. The rest of the plastic appeared in the form of fishing line, film or pellets. This mix of plastic types is roughly consistent with the kinds of plastic that collect in the subtropical gyres, though those parts of the ocean amasses a higher concentration of fishing line.

The researchers did not find many large pieces of plastic, nor did they find much plastic film, which breaks down quickly, suggesting that the plastic has already been in the ocean for a while by the time it gets to the Arctic.

If the plastics were coming directly from Arctic coastlines, it would mean that people in the sparsely populated Arctic were depositing many more times the plastic in the ocean than people in other parts of the world, which is unlikely. Shipping is also relatively infrequent there and, the authors write, there is no reason to think that flotsam or jetsam in the Arctic would be so much higher than in other parts of the world.

The lesson from the study, Dr. Cózar Cabañas said, is that the issue of plastic pollution “will require international agreements.”

“This plastic is coming from us in the North Atlantic,” he said. “And the more we know about what happens in the Arctic, the better chance we have” of solving the problem.

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Climate Change Reroutes a Yukon River in a Geological Instant

The impacts of climate change, like sea level rise or the shrinkage of a major glacier, are generally measured over decades, not months as in this case. “It’s not something you could see if you were just standing on the beach for a couple of months,” Professor Shugar said.

The researchers concluded that the rerouted flow from the glacier shows that “radical reorganizations of drainage can occur in a geologic instant, although they may also be driven by longer-term climate change.” Or, as a writer for the CBC put it in a story about the phenomenon last year, “It’s a reminder that glacier-caused change is not always glacial-paced.”

The underlying message of the new research is clear, said Dr. Shugar in a telephone interview. “We may be surprised by what climate change has in store for us — and some of the effects might be much more rapid than we are expecting.”

The Nature Geoscience paper is accompanied by an essay from Rachel M. Headley, an assistant professor of geoscience and glacier expert at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

“That the authors were able to capture this type of event almost as it was happening is significant in and of itself,” she said in an interview via email. As for the deeper significance of the incident, she said, “While one remote glacial river changing its course in the Yukon might not seem like a particularly big deal, glacier melt is a source of water for many people, and the sediments and nutrients that glacier rivers carry can influence onshore and offshore ecological environments, as well as agriculture.”

Her article in Nature Geoscience concludes that this “unique impact of climate change” could have broad consequences. “As the world warms and more glaciers melt, populations dependent upon glacial meltwater should pay special attention to these processes.”

Another glacier expert not involved in the research, Brian Menounos of the University of Northern British Columbia, said that while glaciers have waxed and waned as a result of natural forces over the eons, the new paper and his own research underscore the fact that the recent large-scale retreat of glaciers shows humans and the greenhouse gases they produce are reshaping the planet. “Clearly, we’re implicated in many of those changes,” he said.

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Job Growth Loses Steam as U.S. Adds 98,000 in March

“We’ve given up on waiting for hard data to improve,” said Rob Martin, an economist at Barclays. “It’s been five months since confidence increased. If consumption were going to improve, it would have already.”

Industries that Mr. Trump emphasized in his campaign — particularly manufacturing — continued to add jobs last month, but at a slower pace. Payrolls in the retail sector, meanwhile, declined further, shedding tens of thousands of jobs.

The response from the White House, which crowed last month after more than 200,000 jobs were produced in Mr. Trump’s first full month in office, was muted Friday.

Gary D. Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive who is director of the White House’s National Economic Council, emphasized the decline in the unemployment rate. “When you look at the jobs report as a whole, I think there’s an awful lot of good news in here,” he told Fox Business Network. Congressional Democrats took a dimmer view.

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A worker stitching firefighter suits in July in Pittsfield, N.H. Manufacturing jobs are being closely watched as a barometer for overall economic growth. Credit Jim Cole/Associated Press

Also watching closely are the policy makers of the Federal Reserve, which has begun to reel in its post-recession stimulus. It raised interest rates last month and said it planned to do so twice more this year. But signs of a sluggish economy could affect how quickly the central bank moves.

“This raises the stakes for the April report,” said Joshua Shapiro, chief United States economist at MFR, a research firm. “You need to see things pick up in April, or else March won’t look like aberration.”

The market reaction, in any case, was sanguine, with stocks essentially flat for the day.

Barclays has said it expects the economy to actually slow in the first half of 2017, before rebounding modestly in the second half. “Given this data today, we see downside risk in our already soft expectations for the first half,” Mr. Martin said.

The consensus view on Wall Street is that the economy expanded at an annual rate of 1 percent last quarter, with the pace of growth in the current second quarter rising to 3.5 percent.

The March report represents a snapshot of the economy, not an oil painting. And snow and cold weather in many parts of the country clearly took a toll on the construction sector, which barely grew after gaining a total of more than 90,000 jobs in January and February.

“January and February were abnormally warm, so they were pumped up, and you had some payback in March exacerbated by the harsh weather,” Mr. Shapiro said.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans acknowledged a glass-half-full view of the report. “The economy clearly should be generating higher job growth,” said Representative Pat Tiberi, an Ohio Republican who is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “However, the unemployment rate fell to the lowest rate since before the recession.”

The top Democrat on the committee, Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, ignored the new jobless rate and focused instead on the disappointing payroll gain.

“Today’s jobs numbers show there are still challenges ahead that this administration must address,” Mr. Heinrich said. “President Trump promised that he would be ‘the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.’ Democrats on the Joint Economic Committee will hold him to this promise.”

Last month, when February’s payroll gain turned out to be much better than expected, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, claimed credit for Mr. Trump. Mr. Spicer called the job creation a result of “the surge in economic confidence and optimism that has been inspired since his election.”

Part of the problem for the administration is that its legislative accomplishments in the first hundred days are falling far short of the expectations — notably, for tax cuts and infrastructure spending — since the election.

Whether or not they support Mr. Trump, mainstream economists say it will take many months for policy shifts in Washington to move a battleship-like economy with 153 million workers.

What is more, the tepid numbers for March mask pockets of strength. For example, a few white-collar sectors like professional and business services are holding up well, adding 56,000 jobs last month.

Hyland, a business software designer in Westlake, Ohio, plans to hire at least 300 people this year, Bill Priemer, its chief executive, said. That is a 15 percent increase in head count at the company, and it is a sign of just how quickly demand is growing for new technologies like content management, one of Hyland’s specialties.

“We are growing faster than the economy and the enterprise software sector overall,” Mr. Priemer said. “Digital transformation is a big buzzword, but it’s just fancy terminology to describe how business can use technology to streamline their operations.”

On the other hand, new technologies are upending venerable industries like retailing, as consumers shift to shopping online and department stores close. The retail sector lost almost 30,000 jobs last month, after a decline of about 31,000 in February.

The headline numbers for hiring and the unemployment rate are derived from separate surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of establishments, the other of households. Although the two tends to converge over time, they can vary widely from month to month, and March was one of those times.

So while businesses showed an anemic gain of 98,000 jobs in terms of payrolls, households reported a 472,000 increase in employment, without any fall in labor participation. That explains why the unemployment rate could fall by 0.2 of a percentage point, even as the number for job creation was far short of expectations.

“I think the headline number was clearly impacted by the weather,” said Michelle Meyer, head of United States economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. But at some point she said, rosy economic expectations are likely to catch up with a more sober reality.

“Sentiment surveys moved sharply higher after the election on expectations of pro-business policies and tax reform,” she added. “So far, that hasn’t happened, and the big question is whether confidence can remain as strong.”

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Matter: Antarctic Ice Reveals Earth’s Accelerating Plant Growth

The increase is because of the carbon dioxide that humans are putting into the atmosphere, which fertilizes the plants, Dr. Campbell said. The carbon in the extra plant growth amounts to a staggering 28 billion tons each year. For a sense of scale, that is three times the carbon stored in all the crops harvested across the planet every year.

“It’s tempting to think of photosynthesis at the scale of the entire planet as too large to be influenced by human actions,” said Christopher B. Field, the director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, who was not involved in the study. “But the story here is clear. This study is a real tour de force.”

Starting in the Industrial Revolution, humans began to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a prodigious rate. Since 1850, the concentration of the gas has increased over 40 percent.

More Reporting on Climate Change

Since plants depend on carbon dioxide to grow, scientists have long wondered if that extra gas might fertilize them. The question has been hard to answer with much certainty.

For one thing, a plant relies on more than just carbon dioxide. It also needs water, nitrogen and other compounds. Even with a perfect balance of nutrients, plants may grow at different rates depending on the temperature.

To get some real-world measurements of plant growth, some scientists have built enclosures so that they can determine the precise amounts of carbon dioxide as well as the growth of plants. They can even run experiments by flooding the enclosures with extra carbon dioxide.

Trees and other plants in these enclosures have indeed grown faster with more carbon dioxide. But it has been hard to extend these results to the planet as a whole. Scientists found that plants responded differently to carbon dioxide in different parts of the world. The logistical challenge of these experiments has mostly limited them to Europe and the United States, leaving huge swaths of forests in the tropics and the far north little studied.

More recently, scientists have turned to satellites to get clues to what plants have been doing. They have measured how green the land is, and from that data they have estimated the area covered by leaves.

But this method has its shortcomings, too. Satellites cannot see leaves hiding under clouds, for example. And the size of leaves serves as only a rough guide to a plant’s growth. If a plant builds bigger roots, that growth will be hidden underground.

In the mid-2000s, atmospheric scientists discovered a powerful new way to measure plant growth: by studying an unimaginably rare molecule called carbonyl sulfide.

Carbonyl sulfide — a molecule made of a carbon atom, a sulfur atom and an oxygen atom — is present only in a few hundred parts per trillion in the atmosphere. That is about a million times lower than the concentration of carbon dioxide. Decaying organic matter in the ocean produces carbonyl sulfide, a gas that then floats into the atmosphere.

Plants draw in carbonyl sulfide along with carbon dioxide. As soon as it enters their tissues, they destroy it. As a result, the level of carbonyl sulfide in the air drops as plants grow.

“You can see it in real time,” said Max Berkelhammer, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “In the morning when the sun rises, they start to pull it out.”

This discovery led scientists to go to Antarctica. The air that reaches the South Pole is so well mixed that its carbonyl sulfide level reflects the worldwide growth of plants.

Photo

The Amazon rain forest in Brazil. “The pace of change in photosynthesis is unprecedented in the 54,000-year record,” said one scientist, J. Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced. Credit Brazil Photos/LightRocket, via Getty Images

As ice forms in Antarctica, it captures bubbles of air, creating a historical record of the atmosphere reaching back thousands of years. Last year, Dr. Campbell and his colleagues analyzed carbonyl sulfide records from the last 54,000 years.

Over the course of several thousand years at the end of the ice age, the gas dropped significantly. Dr. Campbell said the decline reflected the retreat of the glaciers. As new land was uncovered, plants sprang up and began destroying carbonyl sulfide.

It is more challenging to interpret the more recent record in the ice. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have added extra carbonyl sulfide through textile manufacturing and other activities. This infusion of carbonyl sulfide has raised levels of the gas in the ice over the past century.

But Dr. Campbell and his colleagues found that it hasn’t increased very much. As we have been adding carbonyl sulfide to the atmosphere, plants have been pulling it out. In fact, the scientists found, they have been pulling it out at a staggering rate.

“The pace of change in photosynthesis is unprecedented in the 54,000-year record,” Dr. Campbell said. While photosynthesis increased at the end of the ice age, he said, the current rate is 136 times as fast.

With all that extra carbon dioxide going into plants, there has been less in the air to contribute to global warming. The planet has warmed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, but it might be even hotter if not for the greening of the Earth.

Dr. Berkelhammer, who was not involved in the new study, said the research would serve as a benchmark for climate projections. “It means we can build more accurate models,” he said.

To test out climate models, researchers often go back to the historical record and see how well they can replay it. Now they can see if their models project plants growing at the rate observed by Dr. Campbell and his colleagues.

It is still an open question what plants will do in years to come if carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise.

More carbon dioxide might spur even more growth. But many climate models project that plants will suffer as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns shift. Despite the extra carbon dioxide, worldwide plant growth may fall, and plants will no longer help to buffer the impact of global warming.

“I’ve been referring to this as a carbon bubble,” Dr. Campbell said. “You see ecosystems storing more carbon for the next 50 years, but at some point you hit a breaking point.”

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