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Kyle Blasch
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Helena, MT  59601
Phone: (406) 457-5901
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USGS Montana Water Science Center Newsroom

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Latest National News Releases

Wed, 16 Apr 2014 11:40:15 EDT
Summary: Mercury has been discovered in fish in some of the most remote national park lakes and streams in the western United States and Alaska. Mercury levels in some fish exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health thresholds for potential impacts to fish, birds, and humans

Contact Information:

Susan Kemp ( Phone: 541-750-1047 ); Jeffrey Olson ( Phone: 202-208-6843 );

WASHINGTON. — Mercury has been discovered in fish in some of the most remote national park lakes and streams in the western United States and Alaska. Mercury levels in some fish exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health thresholds for potential impacts to fish, birds, and humans.

The information about mercury, and its appearance in protected areas considered to be relatively pristine and removed from environmental contaminants, is in a recently published scientific report from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service.

The study of mercury in fish is the first of its kind to incorporate information from remote places at 21 national parks in 10 western states, including Alaska. Western parks were selected for this study because of the significant role that atmospheric mercury deposition plays in remote places, and the lack of broad-scale assessments on mercury in fish in remote areas of the west.

Mercury concentrations in fish sampled from these parks were generally low, but were elevated in some instances. This study examines total mercury in fish, of which 95 percent is in the form of methylmercury, the most dangerous form to human and wildlife health.

Mercury is harmful to human and wildlife health, and is among the most widespread contaminants in the world. It is distributed at a global scale from natural sources, such as volcanic eruptions and from human sources such as burning fossil fuels in power plants. Mercury is distributed at local or regional scales as a result of current and historic mining activities. These human activities have increased levels of atmospheric mercury at least three fold during the past 150 years. 

“Although fish mercury concentrations were elevated in some sites, the majority of fish across the region had concentrations that were below most benchmarks associated with impaired health of fish, wildlife, and humans. However, the range of concentrations measured suggest that complex processes are involved in driving mercury accumulation in these environments and further research is needed to better understand these processes, and assess risk,” said USGS ecologist Collin Eagles-Smith, the lead author of the publication. 

Between 2008 and 2012, NPS resource managers collected more than 1,400 fish from 86 lakes and rivers, and USGS scientists measured mercury concentrations in fish muscle tissue. Sixteen fish species were sampled, with a focus on commonly consumed sport fish found across the study area such as brook, rainbow, cutthroat, and lake trout. Smaller prey fish consumed by birds and wildlife were also sampled.

Scientists compared fish mercury concentrations among sites within an individual park, as well as  from one park to other parks, and identified areas with elevated mercury levels. They also compared the mercury concentrations in the fish to a range of health benchmarks including human health guidelines established by the EPA for fish consumption, and wildlife risk thresholds that indicate the potential for toxicity and impairment in fish and fish-eating birds.

The authors found that mercury levels varied greatly, from park to park and among sites within each park. In most parks, mercury concentrations in fish were moderate to low in comparison with similar fish species from other locations in the Western states. Mercury concentrations were below EPA’s fish tissue criterion for safe human consumption in 96 percent of the sport fish sampled. 

The average concentration of mercury in sport fish from two sites in two Alaskan parks exceeded EPA’s human health criterion. Mercury levels in individual fish at some parks from other states including California, Colorado, Washington, and Wyoming also exceeded the human health criterion.

Neither the USGS nor the NPS regulate environmental health guidelines. The NPS is coordinating with state officials in the 10 study states regarding potential fish consumption advisories. State fish consumption guidelines consider both the risks associated with mercury exposure and the benefits of fish consumption, such as improved cardiac health from increased omega-3 fatty acid consumption or potential reduced intake of unhealthy fats due to food substitutions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to high levels of mercury in humans may cause damage to the brain, kidneys, and the developing fetus. Pregnant women and young children are particularly sensitive to the effects of mercury.

Mercury at elevated levels can also impact wildlife. High mercury concentrations in birds, mammals, and fish can result in reduced foraging efficiency, survival, and reproductive success. Mercury concentrations in fish exceeded the most conservative fish toxicity benchmark at 15 percent of all sites, and levels exceeded the most sensitive health benchmark for fish-eating birds at 52 percent of all sites.

Mercury threatens natural resources, including wildlife, which the NPS is mandated to protect. “This is a wake-up call,” said NPS ecologist Colleen Flanagan Pritz, a co-author of the report. “We need to see fewer contaminants in park ecosystems, especially contaminants like mercury where concentrations in fish challenge the very mission of the national parks to leave wild life unimpaired for future generations."

Funding for this study was provided by the NPS Air Resources Division, USGS Contaminants Biology Program within the Environmental Health Mission Area, the Ecosystems Mission Area to the USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, and with in-kind contributions from participating parks.

More information is available in the USGS Top Story "Mercury Finds a Way—Even into the Pristine National Parks."


Wed, 16 Apr 2014 9:00:00 EDT
Summary: Great Lakes fish in the salmon family that rely on the fish “alewife” as part of their diet face a major obstacle in restoring naturally reproducing populations, according to new U.S. Geological Survey research published in the journal Fish and Shellfish Immunology

Contact Information:

Christopher  Ottinger ( Phone: 304-724-4453 ); Christian Quintero ( Phone: 813-498-5019 );

LEETOWN, W.Va. — Great Lakes fish in the salmon family that rely on the fish “alewife” as part of their diet face a major obstacle in restoring naturally reproducing populations, according to new U.S. Geological Survey research published in the journal Fish and Shellfish Immunology.

For more than a decade researchers have been trying to unravel the mystery of why Lake Trout and other salmonids that consume alewife produce spawn that die young.  Although researchers have recognized the connection between thiamine and the death of the young fish for a decade, the new study provides an additional clue; fish that survive the initial impact of thiamine deficiency are experiencing changes in immune function that resemble those occurring in humans with inflammatory diseases.

Early Mortality Syndrome, or EMS, results in embryonic mortality in salmon, steelhead trout, brown trout, lake trout, and Chinook salmon. The symptoms of EMS include loss of equilibrium, swimming in a spiral pattern, lethargy, hyper-excitability, hemorrhage and death, which occurs between hatching and first feeding.

“Vitamin B1, or Thiamine, is an essential nutrient that animals must obtain through their diet,” said Chris Ottinger, a USGS immunologist and lead author of the study. “We found that alewives, one of the main diets of many Great Lakes fish, contains an enzyme called “thiaminase” that destroys the thiamine in fish that consume them. The lack of B1 leads to Early Mortality Syndrome as well as the newly reported immune dysfunctions that may be perpetuating infectious diseases in this fish community.”

Alewives were introduced to the Great Lakes as food fish for the species such as lake trout and the introduced Pacific salmon.

“There is some debate as to whether the thiaminase that is obtained through the consumption of the alewives is coming directly from the fish or from bacteria associated with the fish,” said Ottinger. “Either way the fish that eats the alewives becomes thiamine deficient through the destruction of the thiamine they obtain in their diet resulting in EMS as well the immune dysfunctions we have demonstrated.”

Thiamine is essential for energy production in cells, normal nerve function and also is an antioxidant. Other dysfunctions associated with Great Lakes salmonids consumption of alewives include changes in behavior and reduced ability to capture prey.

"In vitro immune function in thiamine-replete and-depleted lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush)" is available online in the journal Fish & Shellfish Immunology by C. A. Ottinger, D. C. Honeyfield, C. L. Densmorea, and L. R. Iwanowicz. 


Tue, 15 Apr 2014 12:24:40 EDT
Summary: The U.S. Geological Survey is celebrating the success of three distinguished researchers who are recipients today of the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This award is the highest recognition granted by the United States government to scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers

Contact Information:

Catherine Puckett ( Phone: 352-377-2469 );

RESTON, Va. — The U.S. Geological Survey is celebrating the success of three distinguished researchers who are recipients today of the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This award is the highest recognition granted by the United States government to scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers.

The 2012 PECASE recipients from USGS are ecologist Anna D. Chalfoun for her brilliant contributions toward an understanding of habitat and her tireless efforts in training students in conservation-based science; geophysicist Gavin P. Hayes for his critical contributions toward transforming the understanding of earthquake processes and incorporating these advances into real-time earthquake response activities, and for his educational and outreach efforts; and geophysicist Burke J. Minsley for his fundamental research on advancing airborne electromagnetic survey methodology and its use in studying permafrost, as well as his mentoring of students.

caption below
President Barack Obama talks with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) recipients in the East Room of the White House, April 14, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (Official White House Photo).












"The impressive achievements of these early-stage scientists and engineers are promising indicators of even greater successes ahead," President Obama said in a White House press release announcing the awardees. "We are grateful for their commitment to generating the scientific and technical advancements that will ensure America's global leadership for many years to come."

Each year, ten federal departments and agencies join together to nominate outstanding scientists and engineers whose discoveries and advancements expand the horizons of science and technology, contribute to their agencies' missions, and benefit America’s economy and the health and safety of the nation’s people.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

"The work of these creative and innovative young researchers is not only a huge asset to USGS – we couldn’t be prouder of them – but also to society because their work greatly benefits people and our country’s wild places," said Suzette Kimball, acting director of the USGS.

Meet the Awardees 

Dr. Anna D. Chalfoun

Presidential Citation: "For her brilliant contributions toward an understanding of habitat, the most critical element of species, landscape, and ecosystem management and for her tireless efforts to train students while imparting her enthusiasm for conservation-based science." 

Anna D. Chalfoun, assistant unit leader with the USGS's Wyoming Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit and assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, is known for her work addressing wildlife habitat issues and imparting that knowledge and enthusiasm to train students. Chalfoun integrates multi-scale research approaches, from small patches to the landscape, across taxa within ecosystems to understand the impacts of land change, and across broad scientific disciplinary areas.

"Anna is quickly becoming one of the experts on the ecology of the sage brush steppe and the various wildlife species that depend on this important habitat," said Matthew Kauffman, leader of the USGS Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and associate professor at the University of Wyoming. "She has also geared her research program to provide clear information to managers that seek to reduce the impact to wildlife species caused by human-caused changes to the landscape."

A unique mixture and synthesis of experiments and observational studies have made Chalfoun's contributions to science and conservation beneficial at the local, national and international levels. For example, a recent paper of hers in the prominent Journal of Animal Ecology was one of the most downloaded papers of that year.

Chalfoun's research with her graduate students has received significant local, national and international media attention. Her efforts to train graduate students in conservation-based science have been successful, with many of her students earning best student paper awards. Despite this very active research and he training of students, Chalfoun still finds time to serve and contribute to scientific societies. 

Current research in her laboratory spans the disciplines of ecology, evolution, behavior and conservation biology, including research on climate change, energy development, and the mountain pine beetle epidemic.  Chalfoun has a Ph.D. in Wildlife Biology from the University of Montana, Missoula.

Dr. Gavin P. Hayes

Presidential Citation: "For his critical contributions toward transforming our understanding of earthquake processes and incorporating these advances into the real-time earthquake response activities when major global earthquakes occur plus related education and outreach efforts in the U.S. and abroad."

USGS scientist Gavin P. Hayes is receiving a PECASE in recognition of his contributions to improving our knowledge of earthquake processes and integrating these developments into USGS operations for major earthquakes worldwide. After the massive Sumatra earthquake and resulting Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, it became clear that the existing geophysical models of major earthquakes at plate boundaries and seismologic analysis tools were inadequate to quickly and accurately define such events and estimate their impacts.

In his short tenure at the USGS, Hayes has developed new methodology to determine the seismologic context of major subduction earthquakes. He has also combined new and existing analysis tools into integrated real-time determinations of earthquake magnitudes, fault slip distributions, and potential for collateral effects such as tsunami and land failure.

Hayes also went a step further by implementing these tools into the real-time earthquake response activities of the USGS National Earthquake Information Center. Hayes developed new models of the earth structure in regions with major earthquakes, effectively combining those models with new methodologies to remotely and rapidly image the earthquake rupture. These advances provide key capabilities to the NEIC in fulfilling their mission of rapid and reliable analyses of global earthquakes, while also providing critical framework results for use by the earthquake science community in advancing the understanding of earthquake physics and earthquake vulnerability.

"Gavin is an outstanding scientist and dedicated public servant," said Jill McCarthy, director of the Geologic Hazards Science Center in Golden, Colo. "He has advanced our understanding of earthquake processes and applied that knowledge into the real-time response activities of the USGS. Gavin's new methodologies and insights enable us to better understand, prepare and respond to large, potentially damaging earthquakes."

Although still in the early stages of his career, Hayes has already had significant impact on very important problems in earthquake science. Hayes is unique in that he is both one of the leading, high-impact young research scientists in the global seismology community, while also developing and implementing critical mission-oriented capabilities for the NEIC and the global earthquake response community.

Hayes has a Ph.D. in Geosciences from the Pennsylvania State University. 

Dr. Burke Minsley

Presidential Citation: "For his fundamental research on advancing airborne electromagnetic survey methodology and its application to describe the extent and dynamic state of permafrost during a time of changing climate and his mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students."

As part of an interdisciplinary team of scientists developing applications of airborne electromagnetic methods for a variety of mission-oriented studies, Burke Minsley's work has significantly placed the USGS as a leader in scientific studies of permafrost terrains.  Minsley uses remotely sensed airborne geophysical data to provide detailed new information about the earth’s subsurface, where few details are available, but which is host to critical geological and environmental variables related to groundwater, mineral resources, infrastructure, and permafrost. 

His work has involved the development of new computational tools for uncertainty quantification that redefine how geophysical information is communicated to geologists, hydrologists, and other stakeholders.  For example, his research has resulted in significant advances in calibration of airborne electromagnetic (AEM) surveys and application of earth imaging algorithms.  These advances have resulted in significant contributions to USGS groundwater studies that use both geophysical and hydrologic modeling. His work exemplifies the team approach to integrated science studies, particularly in the challenging area of mapping permafrost.  In addition to permafrost studies, Minsley’s new processing and inversion algorithms have hydrological applications for investigations at the watershed scale to address emerging water resource management issues.

"Burke has made significant contributions in the challenging realm of geophysical and hydrologic modeling," said Trude Ridley, center director for the USGS Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center in Denver.  "His integrated science approach, particularly in the application of airborne electromagnetic methods, has resulted in a better understanding of the shallow subsurface environment."

One of his 2012 permafrost publications was an Editor's Choice article in Science Magazine, with the editor noting that the research not only provides a baseline for future studies on permafrost, but also reveals "important details about potential connections between surface and groundwaters and the evolution of the permafrost over the past 1,000 years."

Minsley began his studies with a B.S. in Applied Physics at Purdue University, followed by a five-year stint on seismic exploration vessels that solidified his interests in geophysics before completing a Ph.D. in Geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Archived Montana News Releases
More to Know about Alabama-Georgia Earthquake
To find out more about the 4.9 magnitude earthquake that hit along the Alabama-Georgia state line on April 29, 2003, go to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) Web site
Update on Alabama Seismic Event
Further analysis by U.S. Geological Survey seismologists has confirmed that the seismic waves recorded earlier today (corrected time: 3:42 am EST) were generated by the collapse of a mine.
Earthquake Shakes Up More Than Alabama
“This morning's earthquake in southern Alabama was a wake-up call in more ways than one,” said Dr. Mark Schaefer, Acting Director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

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