Blue Marble - November 2007

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powers British Lighthouse

| Tue Nov. 6, 2007 1:59 PM PST

Southgarelighhousehistoryone.jpg New Scientist reports how the South Gare lighthouse at Redcar on England's North Sea coast is now powered by a hydrogen fuel cell:

The Soviet Union once powered lighthouses on its Arctic coast using radioactive batteries, leaving its successors the problem of disposing of the nuclear waste. Now a cleaner technology is being harnessed to power lighthouses in remote places: fuel cells. A consortium led by CPI of Wilton, Teesside, UK, is using a fuel cell to power the South Gare lighthouse at Redcar on England's North Sea coast. It was previously prone to power outages when the mains power cable was damaged by the wind and heavy seas. CPI has proofed its fuel cell against the ravages of salty air and seawater, and has developed a novel water-based cooling system for it, too.

Reports are the fuel cell is working well, and the lighthouse is visible from 25 miles out at sea, as it always was.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Dwindling Parrotfish Key To Coral Reef Survival

| Tue Nov. 6, 2007 1:34 PM PST

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A study finds the future of the Caribbean's failing coral reefs tied to fish with an equally uncertain future. The University of California Davis reports on a study of reefs overrun by marine algae (seaweeds) after a plague in 1983 killed virtually all the plant's natural grazers, sea urchins. (Read more about this in MoJo's The Fate of The Ocean.) With urchins gone, the corals' only line of defense against algae is parrotfish—also grazers. But parrotfish are disappearing from overfishing, allowing algae to outcompete corals on the reef.

The researchers created a mathematical model of the reef, then looked at what the future holds, investigating a process known as hysteresis: whereby an effect lags behind its cause. "The idea of hysteresis is that you go over a cliff, then find the cliff has moved," said UC Davis theoretical ecologist Alan Hastings. "Going back is harder than getting there. In this case, the loss of sea urchins sent the reef off the road, and now the only guardrail is the parrotfish. Our model showed that if we overfish parrotfish, and the reef goes off the cliff, we would need four times the fish we have now to bring the reef back."

The authors suggest that local authorities act now to reduce parrotfish deaths, including outlawing fish traps. They also call on anyone visiting the Caribbean and sees parrotfish on a restaurant menu to voice their concern to the management.

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Well—as the pithy bumpersticker says—at least the war on the environment is going well.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Weird Weather Watch: Tabasco, Soused

| Mon Nov. 5, 2007 3:02 PM PST

Many environmentalist and NGO analysts are predicting that Mexico will suffer disproportionately from climate change, amplifying immigration problems in the United States.

It looks like they might be right. The state of Tabasco in southern Mexico is suffering from the worst floods the flood-prone region has ever seen. Water rose in Villahermosa, the state capital, fast enough to drown out one-storey buildings in an hour. More than 300,000 people had to leave their homes.

The most ominous problem is that the contaminated water may stimulate outbreaks of cholera, malaria and dengue fever.

New Species in Aleutian Islands

| Mon Nov. 5, 2007 12:03 PM PST

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Photo courtesy of Stephen Jewett, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Deep in the frigid waters of the Aleutian islands, scientists have discovered three new species—two kinds of sea anemones that drift along with ocean currents (other anemones tend to stay put in one place) and a ten-foot-long brown kelp that grows near ocean vents. Scientists believe that the new kelp might be part of a new seaweed genus or family. Check out a photo gallery of the newbies (and other Aleutian critters) here.

Stretching out about 1,200 miles between Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian islands are among the most remote land masses in the world. Last year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to ban the destructive practice of bottom trawling in more than 300,000 square miles off Alaska's coast, which is great news for the Aleutians. But the trawling ban doesn't solve the problem of pollution—researchers have found traces of industrial chemicals in the area, as well as unexploded ordinance leftover from WWII.

For an insider's perspective on conservation in this corner of the world, check out this interview with Erin McKittrick and Bretwood "Hig" Higman, a couple in the midst of a 4,000 mile hiking/rafting/skiing journey from Seattle up into the Aleutians.

Toxic FEMA Trailers

| Thu Nov. 1, 2007 10:22 AM PDT

fematrailerssmall.jpgTalk about adding insult to injury. It's been more than two years since Hurricane Katrina forced Gulf Coast residents out of their homes, and tens of thousands of them are still living in FEMA trailers today. As if that weren't bad enough, those trailers might be making people sick. FEMA trailer residents—especially kids—have been complaining of breathing problems, headaches, rashes, and allergies.

The EPA has tested trailers for formaldehyde—but strangely, only the empty ones. This led to a showdown between Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and FEMA Director David Paulison at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee federal hearing last summer:

"Did you test any other occupied trailers?" Waxman asked Paulison.
"We did not test occupied trailers," Paulson replied. "We went along with the advice that we received from EPA and CDC that if we ventilated the trailers that would reduce the formaldehyde issue."
Waxman pressed on, asking Paulison if FEMA tested to see whether ventilating the trailers in fact reduced formaldehyde levels. Paulison said that it did reduce levels in the empty trailers.
But Waxman interrupted the response, repeating that FEMA tests were conducted only on empty trailers with blowing fans, open windows and constant air conditioning.

Since the summer, there's been an outcry about the formaldehyde problem. The press has picked up the story, and at least one blog about toxic trailers exists.

In its "For the Record" release about formaldehyde, FEMA recommends that residents "increase ventilation," "keep indoor temperatures cool," and "keep the humidity low." Easy as pie. Unless, of course, you happen to live in cramped quarters in a subtropical climate.