Blue Marble

Missing Icecap Begets More Melting

| Fri Aug. 24, 2007 11:57 PM PDT

This from Jeff Master's Wunderblog on the disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice. The record low was smashed (again) just last week:

With one third of the Arctic ice cap already gone, and another month of melting to go, we need to consider what effect this will have on weather, climate, and sea level rise. Well, we don't need to worry about sea level rise, since the polar sea ice is already in the ocean, and won't appreciably change sea level when it melts. However, the remarkable melting of the ice cap will likely lead to unusual weather patterns this fall and winter. The lack of sea ice will put much more heat and moisture into the polar atmosphere, affecting the path of the jet stream and the resultant storm tracks. Expect a much-delayed arrival of winter to the Northern Hemisphere again this year, which may lead to further accelerated melting of the ice cap in future years.

Here's an animation of the past, present and forecast future from UCAR. JULIA WHITTY

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Weird Weather Watch: Tropical Storm in the Midwest

| Fri Aug. 24, 2007 1:37 PM PDT

Say what? That's right, the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin have plagued Ohio this week, causing the worst flood in a century, killing 25 and causing 1,000 homes to be evacuated. The crest of the flood has passed, but the rain is expected to continue. Oh yeah, in those places where it has cleared, record heat has taken its place. Take me to Ohio!

Electric Shocks Prompt "Impulsive" and "Primitive" Side of Brain

| Fri Aug. 24, 2007 12:08 PM PDT

A recent study coming out of Britain finds that when the threat of electric shock looms near, humans shift from the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs rational thought—in order to engage the "fight or flight" part of the brain. In the study (published in its entirety yesterday in Science), volunteers played a game similar to Pac-Man, in which they had to evade a predator. When the computer predator caught them, they would receive a shock to the hand. Researchers found that as the predator closed in, the threat of imminent punishment moved the player's thinking from rational to impulsive and primitive.

This study makes me wonder, then, how autistic and mentally retarded students—profiled in "School of Shock," a feature from the current issue of Mother Jones—react to the constant threat of punitive electric shocks. If what the British study suggests is true and the threat of electric shock makes people less rational, I'd assume the shocks would also make it harder for autistic and developmentally disabled students to reason out why they're being punished. And if fear and the threat of electric shocks increase incidents of impulsive behavior, it seems like a vicious and terribly inefficient system to me, considering these impulsive acts are the very behaviors students are often punished for in the first place.

In addition, a pervasive environment of fear at school (described in detail in our article) would also make academics more difficult because students are using the "fight or flight" part of their brain rather than the prefrontal cortex, which rules abstract reasoning and complex decision-making.

Glacier Surfing

| Thu Aug. 23, 2007 8:49 PM PDT

New climate, new sport. Opportunity in the midst of chaos? JULIA WHITTY

Bush Okays Blowing Up Mountains for Mining Companies

| Thu Aug. 23, 2007 10:59 AM PDT

Bush is set to release a regulation tomorrow that will allow mining companies to blast the tops off mountains and dump the resulting waste in nearby streams and valleys. Currently the practice, called mountaintop mining, exists in a hazy legal status but has been used regularly for the past two decades. The new rule will loosen a 1983 law which prohibits disturbing soils within 100 feet of streams (in the past, companies have been sued under the Clean Water Act for dumping mining waste into streams), essentially giving coal companies the go-ahead.

As we reported last year, the Appalachian mountains (where the majority of mountaintop removal mining takes place) have been so degraded that the public can take tours of the mind-boggling environmental damage. But mining companies and their coal mining advocates think they are providing a great service. Proponents claim that coal reduces our reliance on foreign oil and mountaintop removal provides more flat land for big box stores like Wal-Mart. Woo-hoo!

Where Are All the Dolphins?

| Wed Aug. 22, 2007 5:09 PM PDT

Worrying news from Europe on the lack of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in the Bay of Biscay this summer. Researchers from the wildlife conservation group Marinelife have been conducting scientific surveys of whales, dolphins and seabirds in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay every month for the last 13 years. All told they've counted more than 20 cetacean species and more than a hundred thousand animals. However, as Science Daily reports, this summer is proving alarmingly different. The three main dolphin species, Common Dolphin, Striped Dolphin and Bottlenose Dolphin, are down ~80% from last year. Seabirds — auks, shearwaters, and gannets — are also largely absent. The year is also marked by a collapse of the anchovy fishery — such that fishing bans are in place for the Spanish and French fleets. The researchers worry this reduction in fish stocks, which may be due to overfishing, may also be linked to climate change (read MoJo's The Last Days of the Ocean package for more on these issues). Furthermore, dolphins in these waters are frequent bycatch victims of the fishing fleets, with thousands dying each year in the nets, and many of them washing up dead on the beaches. . . Well, there's a lovely way to start your summer holiday, on a beach devoid of any living thing but loaded with the sad carcasses of dead dolphins. Can we get a louder SOS from the ocean? 

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Underwater Turbines Set To Generate Record Power

| Tue Aug. 21, 2007 5:44 PM PDT

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

Weird Weather Watch: Dean's Revenge

| Mon Aug. 20, 2007 11:37 PM PDT

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 5:00 PM PDT

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 2:31 PM PDT

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!