Earth & Environment

Mountaintop mining, plastic fish and the return of the right whale in this week's news

Return of the right whales

Once hunted to local extinction, southern right whales are swimming back to the coasts of New Zealand. Until the 19th century when their populations crashed, the giant, acrobatic whales migrated north from sub-Antarctic waters to New Zealand during the winter. Now, scientists say seven individuals are again swimming these well-worn paths. Researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Auckland report the observation online June 27 in Marine Ecology Progress Series. Researchers used DNA sequences to identify the whales’ home population and found that a few whales had rediscovered their former New Zealand breeding grounds. —Nadia Drake

Fishy garbage disposals

Fish in the North Pacific consume 12,000 to 24,000 metric tons of plastic annually, debris that collects from across the Pacific into a slowly swirling offshore gyre known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Peter Davison and Rebecca Asch of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., report their plastics-removal estimate based on field data in the June 27 Marine Ecology Progress Series. Starting at the gyre’s eastern edge, some1,600 kilometers west of California, the team netted floating plastic and 27 species of fish. Stomach contents showed more than 9 percent of fish, mainly lantern fish, had eaten bits of plastic. —Janet Raloff

Birth defects linked with mountaintop mining

Rates of birth defects in coal-mining regions of four Appalachian states exceed those in nonmining areas by at least 10 percent — and by 26 percent if local coal is mined by mountaintop removal, a new study finds. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that mountaintop mining can lead to contamination of local water supplies. University scientists from West Virginia and Washington State mined a federal database to show that although low income appears to play some role in the elevated risks associated with mining generally, mountaintop mining multiplied the risks. A report of the findings appeared online June 20 in Environmental Research. —Janet Raloff

More Stories from Science News on Earth