SCIENCE MONDAY, June 4, 2012

Aquifer depletion may force change in Plains farming

Agriculture may prove unsustainable in some of the country’s most productive farmland as farms there deplete groundwater supplies at unsustainable rates, a new study finds. Farmers in the southern section of California’s Central Valley used up enough groundwater during the 2006-09 drought there to fill Lake Mead, far more than can be replaced in the same time period. The researchers, writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, recommended Central Valley farmers switch to more efficient sprinkler or drip irrigation systems and better store excess surface water. Farms in the southern parts of the High Plains, however, may not have as many options. Farmers in the Texas Panhandle and western Kansas eventually will have to switch to non-irrigated crops or rangeland once groundwater-supplying aquifers drop too low, the researchers found.

■ A monkey that sneezes when it rains, a millipede the length of a sausage, a worm that lives so far underground the water in the borehole where it lives has not had contact with the atmosphere in 4,000 to 6,000 years, the first known night-blooming orchid (there are over 25,000 known orchid species), and a mushroom named for Spongebob Squarepants that looks more like a sponge than a fungus and smells of fruit. These are among the species selected by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University last month as the highlights among species newly identified in 2011. The scientists hope the list brings attention to Earth’s biodiversity and the speed at which it is disappearing even as researchers continue to gain new insights. Photos of the highlighted species are online at species.asu.edu/Top10.

Separate studies have said that 19,232 new species were identified in 2009, or 52.7 a day, the last year for which there is complete data. Meanwhile, 150 to 200 species, both known to science and as-yet undiscovered, are estimated to go extinct each day.


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