Blue Marble - August 2007

Underwater Turbines Set To Generate Record Power

| Tue Aug. 21, 2007 8:44 PM EDT

Here's a preview of the future. Twin underwater turbines are set to generate 1.2 megawatts of electricity off the coast of Northern Ireland by year's end. New Scientist reports how the world's largest tidal power project will use underwater turbines that look and work like wind power turbines, with blades up to 60 feet wide. Tidal currents will rotate the rotors at 10 to 20 revolutions per minute — a speed that Marine Current Turbines of the UK claims is too slow to affect marine life. The turbines will drive a gearbox that will drive an electric generator. The resulting electricity will be transmitted to the shore via an underwater cable. Eventually, MCT intends to build farms of turbines consisting of 10 to 20 pairs each. . . This is intriguing, probably necessary, and will doubtless lead to some kind of negative environmental issue(s). Let's hope the Brits monitor the impacts of what sounds like a promising, hopefully sustainable, technology &mdash one desperately needed on our tough road to a new energy economy. JULIA WHITTY

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Weird Weather Watch: Dean's Revenge

| Tue Aug. 21, 2007 2:37 AM EDT

After battering Jamaica yesterday and today, Hurricane Dean is headed toward Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as a category 5 storm. It is one of fewer than 30 hurricanes ever to earn the highest rating for tropical storms, and is as big as the state of Texas. (That's big, y'all.) Several significant—and exquisite—Mayan ruins will have to withstand Dean's power.

Update: Dean was the third most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to make landfall. One of the two that edged it out was 1988's Hurricane Gilbert, which hit...you guessed it, the Yucatan Peninsula.

FTC Continues Whole Foods Fight

| Mon Aug. 20, 2007 8:00 PM EDT

As we blogged last week, the Federal Trade Commission's injunction to stop Whole Foods' $565 million merger with fomer competitor, Wild Oats, was denied. Whole Foods was set to merge with Wild Oats as early as today. Not so fast. Friday, the FTC appealed the denial and requested that the judge delay the merger.

Whole Foods is "confident that the merger will be allowed to proceed" and I'm sure the organic grocer feels pretty good about stock prices too. Whole Foods shares jumped 7% after the appeal was announced.

Mother Jones Contributing Writer Julia Whitty Speaks in SF Tomorrow

| Mon Aug. 20, 2007 5:31 PM EDT

Bay Area residents: don't miss author, filmmaker, and Mother Jones contributing writer and blogger Julia Whitty ("Gone," May/June 2007). She'll be speaking tomorrow at the California Academy of Sciences about "wonders and warnings from the oceans." Time: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Location: 875 Howard Street, between 4th and 5th Streets. Admission price: $8 for non-members.

See you there!

What's Your Walkability Score?

| Mon Aug. 20, 2007 2:10 PM EDT

Bragging about your neighborhood's through-the-roof property values is, like, SO late nineties. These days, one-upmanship is all about establishing eco cred. Luckily, there's a handy new website, Walk Score: Just enter in your address, and the site instantly calculates your home's "walkability score," on a scale of 1-100. The principle is pretty simple: If you can walk to the supermarket and your favorite restaurant, for example, you can expect a high rating. If you have to get in your car just to get the newspaper at the end of your driveway, though, don't expect any walkability bragging rights.

But is walkability always a good thing? Crosscut Seattle's David Brewster isn't so sure:

And does walkability work? Sightline cites research showing that residents of compact areas (homes mixed with stores and services, and a street network designed for walking and strolling) are less likely to be obese, suffer fewer chronic illnesses, and may breathe cleaner air than suburbanites by being farther from the "pollution tunnel" of busy highways.
Such claims are probably true in a broad sense, but there are interesting complexities in the new science of walkability. All those nifty shops in walkable neighborhoods, for instance, are signs of gentrification, which normally drives density downward by replacing working class families with wealthier singles. Transit stations normally do not help bring more density, since many are surrounded by parking lots or have such high property values that neighborhood services can't pay the rent. Another paradox is that really charming walkable neighborhoods soon line up the pitchforks to oppose increased residential densification in any form.


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Weird - er, New-Normal - Weather Watch: Too Hot to Cool Nuclear Reactors

| Sun Aug. 19, 2007 10:39 PM EDT

Frank Strait's blog at Accuweather informs us that it's so hot in the east that nuclear reactors in the Tennessee Valley are being shut down because the water drawn out of the Tennessee River is too warm to cool them. That's a first. The Tennessee Valley Authority said it would compensate for the loss of power by buying power elsewhere—though just Thursday they announced they were imposing a fuel surcharge on their customers because hydropower production is already down from the drought.

So maybe we won't have to learn how to cut our own profligate carbon footprints. Maybe it will all be done for us in a hand-of-imaginary-friend, I mean, -god kind of way.

Add to this news the extremely weird behavior of tropical system Erin—it actually got stronger after landfall. And the fact that those fabulously bizarre birds known as frogmouths are breeding at the London Zoo for the first time in nearly a decade because, apparently, they're mistaking the neverending deluge there for a monsoon. Seems someone likes the new normal. JULIA WHITTY

Arctic Sea Ice Shrinks To Record Low (Again)

| Fri Aug. 17, 2007 7:54 PM EDT

The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that Arctic sea ice broke an ominous record yesterday, with the least Arctic sea ice ever measured by satellite. The previous record low was set in September 2005 (see MoJo's Has The Age Of Chaos Begun?). Yesterday's record, August 16th, 2007, falls a full month shy of the typical summer low — which means there's a lot more melting yet to come. Sea ice extent is currently tracking at 2.02 million square miles, just below the 2005 record absolute minimum of 2.05 million square miles.

The Cryosphere Today scooped the news by a week, reporting on August 9th a new Arctic minimum sea ice.

A week before that, I heard it from Dave Carlson, an oceanographer at Oregon State University and current Director of the International Polar Year, during a talk he gave at Science Foo — a kind of science summit put together by O'Reilly Publishing and Nature Publishing, and hosted by Google at the Googleplex. Carlson reported then that NASA already saw the new record in their scopes.

The Sci Foo (FOO = friends of O'Reilly) meeting, by the way, proved exciting, exhilarating, inspiring, and terrifying, in no particular order. The good stuff came from the meeting of so many amazing minds, complete with their own onboard databases of experience and knowledge. The terrifying stuff came from listening to these physicists, mathematicians, bioengineers, biochemists, doctors, and about every other science and technology job known to humans, discuss the Really Big Problems of the day — everything from climate change to bioweapons. Everyone was probing science's responsibility and knowledge, and tossing around solutions. I'll be blogging more about this summit in coming posts.

In regards to the Arctic melting trend, it's likely to continue and even accelerate. You can read the how's and why's in my 2006 MoJo article, The Fate of the Ocean. It all has to do with albedo, water temps, positive feedback loops, and the like. JULIA WHITTY

Weird Weather Watch: Brutal Heat Wave in the South

| Thu Aug. 16, 2007 8:16 PM EDT

It was 107 in Memphis yesterday—an all-time high. The heat that has gripped most of the South for the past week and a half has killed at least 37 people.

Riffing the massive earthquake yesterday in Peru (which left almost 450 people dead), Memphis' mayor said, "This is pretty akin to a seismic event in the sense that there is no remedy, no solution that we here in this room can come up with that will take care of everybody."

Meanwhile, Americans presided over the deaths of 250 people in Iraq, where we are busily fighting for the fossil fuel we need to fight.

Perhaps our efforts would be more constructively directed at halting climate change.

Court Denies FTC Injunction Against Whole Foods Merger

| Thu Aug. 16, 2007 7:24 PM EDT

The proposed merger between Whole Foods and Wild Oats is back on the table. The Federal Trade Commission's recent injunction to stop the merger under anti-monopoly laws was denied today, and the merger may take place as early as Monday, August 20. That is, if the FTC does not file a stay for an appeal by then. Stay tuned for more Whole Foods news Monday. Until then, though, you can browse Michael Pollan's feature on why eating organic isn't necessarily sustainable.