The Almanac


Government


Coins in the bank

June 1: The U.S. Treasury will receive for final approval the first of 50 new designs -- one for each state -- for the "tails" side of quarters. Each state's governor will choose a design from several approved by the Treasury; the coins will be minted over a 10-year-period in the order in which the states ratified the Constitution. The first new quarter, bearing Delaware's design, will circulate next year. This is the first time that states have been involved in national circulating-currency design. June 3: The last day on which the U.S. Air Force will accept requests for chimpanzees from its aerospace-research program. Although chimps were critical in the preparations for and early days of U.S. manned space travel (their reaction time, organ placement, and DNA are remarkably similar to those of human beings), the nearly 150 remaining chimps were declared "surplus to requirements" last year. A newly formed Institute for Captive Chimpanzee Care and Well-Being is trying to raise the funds to house the chimps, in the hope of preventing them from going to medical researchers.

Health & Safety

June 30: The most sweeping handgun-safety regulations in the country take effect in Massachusetts today. They are meant to prevent accidental discharges (each year hundreds of children and teenagers nationwide are killed by accidentally fired guns). All handguns sold commercially in the state must now pass drop tests that assess their propensity to discharge on impact, and must either meet standards for melting point, tensile strength, and metal density, or pass performance tests for malfunction and wear. And by September, to deter use by children, they must have a key-activated trigger lock and either have high trigger resistance or require multiple motions to fire. Under the regulations some 30 common types of handguns are likely to be barred from sale.

Demographics

June 1: Hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin officially begins today. Meteorologists and coastal residents will not be the only ones tracking this year's storms: investors in "catastrophe bonds," a new kind of security, will be keeping close watch as well. Catastrophe bonds are sold by insurance companies in order to boost reserves in the event of a major disaster. They offer high returns if losses over a specified period of time are lower than a specified amount; if losses are greater, the investor loses part or all of the principal. The idea of, in effect, betting against storms grew out of contrasting trends in demographics and in weather along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. While the population of these regions has soared (the Atlantic coastal counties now hold nearly a quarter of the nation's people), dramatically raising insurance losses when hurricanes occur, the incidence of hurricanes has fallen (only half as many major hurricanes have hit the coasts since 1970 as in the three preceding decades). However, investors may soon face less favorable odds, because hurricane activity is cyclical.

Environment


Testing

This month six teams of presidentially appointed scientists will complete the first phase of an evaluation of the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone" -- a low-oxygen area off the Louisiana coastline. Dead zones are created where high levels of nutrients, often from agricultural runoff, flow into the ocean, in this case from the Mississippi River. As the water grows warmer and solar radiation increases, these nutrients boost algal populations; after the algae die and sink, they decompose, depleting the oxygen near the ocean floor. The dead zone in the Gulf is the largest in the western Atlantic, last year covering an area the size of New Jersey. The phenomenon has serious ecological and economic implications; at risk, among other things, is the Gulf's fishing industry. A task force will be seeking ways to reduce nutrients in the Mississippi without unfairly penalizing the agricultural industry: one proposal, for example, involves federal compensation to farmers who convert riverside farmlands to wetlands.

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