SciTechBlog
March 20, 2009

Spot climate change in your backyard

Posted: 04:54 PM ET

As you may have read, the Obamas are planting a vegetable garden. Seem like big news? Perhaps not, but I have a feeling one reason this tidbit is currently the No. 1 read story on the NYTimes homepage is that many Americans are itching for a lost connection to the land and the outdoors.

spring bloom

Some see the organic garden as a distraction from Obama’s gaffe over the Special Olympics or the ever-present AIG bonus debate, but it seems like it also hits on something larger.

Just take a look at what iReporters are saying about what they’ve learned from past generations about saving money and fending for themselves. (Post your 'victory garden' stories here). Many bring up gardens. And, in a recent interview with a four-generation family, younger members talked about how they wish they had the same survival skills their grandparents did. Gardening is chief among them.

I’m no master gardener. I tried for the first time last year: the jalapenos and Roma tomatoes were delicious, but mostly were overshadowed by the hip-high weeds that I let grow up between them most of the summer. But it was fun to try.

So, in that spirit, here are a couple tips for trying out your green thumb and learning a bit of science this season:

1. Become a volunteer scientists: Hoards of backyard scientists across the country again are participating in Project BudBurst. Check out their Web site and be part of a group effort to map the blooming of plants. Your small effort can help scientists track big trends, like climate change.

2. Learn about your local environment: Check out this USA Today story on planting maps - they’re changing, perhaps because of global warming. Learn what the climate is like in your area to better understand what will grow and when.

3. Find local food: Across the country people are banding together and sharing resources to get fresh food locally. Some join food coops, others, like guerrilla gardeners, take over public spaces to make group gardens. Local farmers' markets are another option.

Feel free to share you stories in the comments or on iReport.

Filed under: climate change • environment • gardening • science


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California regulators rile ethanol producers

Posted: 12:52 PM ET
Some ethanol producers are unhappy with California's proposed low carbon fuel standards.

Some ethanol producers are unhappy with California's proposed low carbon fuel standards.

California wants to take a big-picture look at decreasing carbon emissions from transportation, and in doing so, it has managed to step on some toes, mainly some ethanol producers. Since California is often a trend-setter on these type of things, this case could be a good example of what the rest of us might see in our own states down the road.

Biofuels play a big role in this, but it’s the way they’re doing it that has some people riled up. I’m a biofuel fan myself and have two vehicles (both 25-year-old-plus diesels, one of which was featured on CNN.com’s American Road Trips special) that I run on biodiesel, so I find this all quite interesting.

California's proposing a “Low Carbon-Fuel Standard” aimed at decreasing carbon, not only from tailpipe emissions but also from the overall production of fuels and their use. As part of this, it has proposed a rule limiting the use of ethanol in the strategy, mainly because it says ethanol from corn (because of its land use and impact on food crops) can have a higher impact than regular gasoline produced in the state (according to the Los Angeles Times).

Supporters of the proposal claim they aren’t trying to ban ethanol or anything; in fact, according to the fact sheet I linked to above, they’re advocating going from an ethanol blend fuel called E5 (5 percent ethanol, 95 percent gasoline) to E10 (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline) and E85 (85 percent ethanol) for flex fuel vehicles.

Mainly they’re stressing the change from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic-based ethanol (ethanol made from agricultural waste or switchgrass are cited examples), which the sheet says can have four or five times lower greenhouse gas emissions than corn.

The ethanol people don’t really like that. Tom Koehler of Pacific Ethanol told the Los Angeles Times that the proposal was a “perversion of science and a prescription for disaster.” And Wesley Clark (yes, that Wesley Clark), the co-chairman of ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy, told SFGate that in addition to bad science, it would be “bad policy to adopt a regulation that creates unfair standards” and would continue California’s reliance on fossil fuels.

If you live in California, you have until April 23 to comment on the proposal, when the Air Resources Board will vote. And I'm sure the rest of you will have plenty to say on this controversial topic. Fire away in the comments.

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Filed under: Cars • climate change • environment • Ethanol • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline • Road trip


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March 12, 2009

Whale sedated at sea - a scientific first

Posted: 11:33 AM ET

Two drops of whale tranquilizer is enough to kill a person.

But last week, scientists used rifle-like guns and foot-long needles to shoot two cups’ worth of the stuff into an endangered whale off the coast of Georgia.

Scientists on Friday use poles and knives to try to untangle a whale off the coast of Georgia from fishing line.

And, for the first time, it worked.

Never before Friday had a wild whale been successfully tranquilized and freed from an entanglement that threatened its life, researchers told CNN. (See video of the dangerous encounter.) The whale - a rare, school-bus-sized whale named Bridle - was freed from hundreds of feet of fishing line that threatened the whale's life, scientists said.

That’s big news in the whale world, said Jamison Smith, large whale disentanglement coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It means that researchers have a new tool to help whales in dangerous circumstances.

Previously, when scientists tried to sedate whales, nothing noticeable happened.

The scientists cautiously upped the dosage until they were successful. The fear of using too much tranquilizer on a whale is great, because it could cause a whale to stop swimming and drown, he said.

Bridle is a North Atlantic right whale, which is one of the most endangered large whales on earth. Only about 400 of the school-bus-sized creatures remain, and scientists are worried by the fact that they’ve seen more of the rare whales entangled in fishing lines and gear this year than ever before.

Some of the right whales are giving birth through the end of the month off the Atlantic coasts of Georgia and Florida. Record numbers of whales are being born - which is a great thing, since scientists say each one gives the species a slightly better chance for survival.

But five whales have been found entangled in fishing line in the last six weeks, Smith said. He called that news "alarming," and said it's unclear what's causing the increase.

The lines wrap around their bodies and cause cuts and infections that often prove fatal.

Bridle, the whale that was sedated, was named because it had a rope strung through its mouth, like a bridled horse, said Katie Jackson, a marine mammal biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. (Read more about how Jackson and others free the whales.)

Friday was the fifth time scientists had tried to free Bridle. In other attempts, he didn’t respond to sedation and dove deep into the ocean and turned sharply to avoid tiny boats filled with rescuers, Jackson said.

Smith said the whale’s injuries are extensive. So, despite the fact that the whale was freed from hundreds of feet of rope, his chances for survival are still uncertain.

Jackson said Bridle’s recovery partly will depend on the whale’s will to survive.

“He’s a little bit emaciated and has been having to deal with this entanglement for months now - at least. So he’s not doing well overall,” she said. “He still may not be able to survive this ordeal. It’s just going to depend on him really - and his ability to bounce back from it.”

To learn more, check out these right-whale resources online:

- Watch video of scientists trying to disentangle Bridle

- See a CNN report on efforts to save these 'ugly' whales, which are slow swimmers and have funny warts on their heads

- Listen to a scientist tell the stories of individual right whales - from Stumpy to Van Halen

- And flip through a catalog of right whale sightings to learn more about their stories.

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Filed under: Animals • environment • Oceans • Scientists • whales


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March 2, 2009

Does the smart grid make you feel dumb?

Posted: 03:27 PM ET
ALT TEXT

The latest buzzword on the energy forefront is “smart grid.”  You may have seen the GE commercial featuring a re-worked scarecrow from the “Wizard of Oz” touting smart-grid products that promise to save you money, help keep the world green and make pink bunnies grow like wildflowers in your yard (well maybe not – but they do promise a lot).

There was a House subcommittee hearing this week on this very subject. And an article today on CNN.com.

So what does it all mean?  The technology GE is promoting is basically two-way communication between your electronic appliances, the outlets and the power company.  This will allow you and them better control over how and when you use electricity.  And in theory, the more control you have, the more efficient you can be.

All of that is very cool, but it’s a long way away.  For one thing, our current power grid (the one that actually brings electricity to you from the power plant) isn’t really set up to transmit energy from alternative sources such as rural solar or wind farms to far-away population centers.

Our current system is built around centralized power plants delivering energy to nearby areas. What we need to take full advantage of wind and solar power is a whole new grid - a decentralized one that can move power easily from one place to another. 

That won’t come quickly, easily or cheaply.  It’s one of the more expensive parts of T. Boone Pickens’ plan, and many say it will take trillions of dollars and at least a decade to finish.  Oh yeah, and our national grid is actually made up of several grids loosely tied together and owned by privately held consortiums - so it will take an act of Congress to get this done.

So what next?  It seems our country is a bit adverse to paying for infrastructure; we know we need it, but it’s not a new and shiny gizmo waiting in our living room for us to play with.  For real progress to take place, we need to realize how important these improvements will be to our future.

Here’s a collection of links and articles I found interesting on this topic:

Smart grid

Outsmarting the Smart Grid

New York Times: Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits

How to fix the grid

DOE’s grid page

DOE FAQ (who owns the power grid)

As always, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this matter.

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Filed under: Energy • environment


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February 19, 2009

Shooting endangered whales with a crossbow

Posted: 11:32 AM ET

ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida - Katie Jackson has one of those jobs that must be fun to explain at a cocktail party: She uses a crossbow to fire darts at endangered whales.

whale.rescue.florida

When right whales become entangled in fishing rope, Katie Jackson and crew throw grappling hooks from a boat to try to disentangled the endangered mammals.

The marine mammal biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission uses her sharpshooting skills to try to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which, with a population of only 400, is thought to be the most endangered large whale in the world.

This time of year, the whales are giving birth off the coast of north Florida and Georgia (see CNN.com story here).

After new calves are born, Katie and crew are close behind in a boat. She fires a crossbow dart at the rump of the baby whales, which already weigh a ton. The hollow point of the dart removes a chunk of tissue scientists use to learn about the genetics of each whale.

Katie says the darts don't hurt the whales. They feel about like a paper cut would to a human.

The genetic samples are important, she says, because not much is known about right whales. The information helps researchers set up family trees for the whales. They also use the close encounters as a rare chance to observe the right whales' habits.

So far, scientists are on track to see a record number of new calves this year. The birthing season comes to a close at the end of March.

But scientists also are seeing more right whales entangled in fishing rope. The ropes restrict their movements and can cause cuts and infections that kill the whales. Katie's team also works to free entangled whales. From the front of an inflatable boat, she and other scientists toss grappling hooks toward the whales, hoping to catch and then remove the lines that threaten to kill them.

- John Sutter, CNN.com

Filed under: Animals • environment


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February 17, 2009

Whales' 'first line of defense'

Posted: 11:30 AM ET

FLAGLER BEACH, Florida - The wind is out today in Florida, and that means my quest to see one of the most endangered whales in the world will be shifted a bit.

whale.watchers.florida

Patsy Sater and Paul Henderson watch for endangered right whales from a restaurant balcony in northern Florida.

I had planned to venture into the Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable boat with scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to search for right whales. But the wind gusts are too strong, which makes boat trips like this risky and unproductive. It's difficult for the researchers to spot the whales in choppy waters.

So I went to my plan B, which ended up being tons of fun: I traveled by foot and car up the Florida coast with a group of retirees who look for the school-bus-sized whales from the shore.

Right whales are sometimes called “urban whales” because they live in waters so near the East Coast of the U.S. These volunteer whale watchers say the massive black whales sometimes come very near to the beach. Last Friday they spotted 11 of them at once - a group of juveniles playing.

Armed with binoculars, they troll up and down the coast looking for blackish blobs of whale on the horizon. John Kostiak, 62, told me the whales look like black Sharpie marks on the blue ocean.  When they spot a whale, they call in backup from scientists who then alert the shipping community to their presence. Collisions with ships are a major cause of right whale deaths, and these volunteers see themselves as a first line of defense. If they see a whale before a ship does, they could save a life. Only 400 of these whales exist, so each is critically important to the species' survival.

The volunteers showed true dedication: One wore whale earrings and a whale necklace. Another goes out on these watches four days a week - spending four hours each day just looking for the behemoths. They all spoke of the intense joy they feel when they find a whale. That's relatively rare, though. One told me he's only called in two sightings in eight years.

Like others, they hope their efforts contribute a small part to protecting a creature they’ve come to love. They also say they're raising whale awareness through their efforts. Many people - even in this part of north Florida - don't realize right whales give birth right off the coast here, well within eyesight.

Each morning, the volunteers are doing their part to change that.

- John Sutter, CNN.com

Posted by: , , ,
Filed under: Animals • environment


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December 2, 2008

Melting glaciers vs. melting economy

Posted: 02:50 PM ET

Ten thousand delegates are gathering this week in Poznan, Poland to hammer out a successor to the less-than-successful Kyoto accord on climate change.  But with a dizzying array of world events, from an exploding economy and U.S. presidential handoff to terrorists, rebels, and pirates in Asia and the Middle East, the world's attentions are mightily distracted elsewhere.

As arguably the biggest of those stories, the financial meltdown may have the most profound effect on the Poznan meeting.  “The financial crisis will have an impact on climate change. You already are seeing around the world a number of wind-energy projects being pushed back,” said Yvo de Boer, head of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  One of them is the high-profile U.S. effort from Oklahoma oilman T. Boone Pickens.   Pickens launched a massive media campaign calling on the U.S. to increase wind and natural gas production in place of oil imports this summer, then said last month that portions of the project were "on hold" due to the global economic turmoil.

Hosted by a nation with one of the most coal-intensive economies in the world, the Poznan meeting is the second of three global gatherings to hammer out a "shared vision" and agreement on reducing greenhouse gases to replace the less-than-spectacularly-successful Kyoto accord.   By design, Kyoto focused on industrialized nations, leaving developing-world giants like China and India on the sidelines.   The U.S. chose to sit it out as well.   Neither the Clinton nor Bush Administrations forwarded the Treaty to the U.S. Senate for approval.   China has insisted that developed nations not only need to take the first steps, but also need to provide financial and technological aid to the developing world before real climate gains can be achieved.    To date, the U.S. has been unwilling to jump in while little is asked of India, China, and others.

So, a stalemate between the biggest greenhouse culprits continues.   As scientist Mark Levine of the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs told Congress, the U.S. and China are trapped in “a vicious circle in which neither country will act boldly unless the other acts first, and neither appears willing to act first.”
 

A subsequent meeting in Copenhagen next summer will set the stage for a potential agreement.  The Bush Administration has endured global criticism for its resistance to setting targets for greenhouse gas reductions.   The Obama Adminstration has promised change: A target of 80 percent greenhouse-gas reductions by mid-century. 

But the questions remain:   

Will a melting economy stop the climate change effort in its tracks?

Can Obama and successive presidents deliver on what amounts to a wholesale change in our energy strategy?

And will China and India play along?   By some measures, China may have already passed the U.S. as the world's largest greenhouse emitter.

–Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: climate change • environment


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November 25, 2008

Gas prices are down - will car mileage go back up?

Posted: 11:43 AM ET

On the eve of the busiest travel day of the year, AAA is predicting an overall drop in Thanksgiving travel.   The projected 1.2-percent dip in holiday trips would be the first decline since 2001 and 2002, the first post-9/11 Thanksgivings.

In recent weeks gas prices have fallen to less than half of what they were last summer.

But this year is also the first holiday we'll celebrate in the grips of the financial meltdown, and the first in the wake of this summer's $4-plus-a-gallon fuel prices.  It'll be interesting to see who flies, who drives, and who stays close to home over the long weekend ahead.

It's also a good time to take stock of The Year in Petroleum so far:

The gas-price spike really hit home in July, with about a three to five percent decline in vehicle miles traveled over the previous July.   The American Public Transit Association also reported that midsummer commuter bus and train trips jumped about 5 percent over last year.  (Althought the Los Angeles MTA and its commuter rail counterpart, Metrolink, just announced that ridership is back down by as much as 3 percent since mid-summer). 

The summer also saw two more correlated pieces of healthy news:

As prices rose in early '08, the National Safety Council noted a 9 percent drop in vehicle-related deaths (See, OPEC and the oil companies were just looking out for our safety!).

And the EPA reported that ground-level ozone levels (a.k.a. "smog") fell this summer in all but two major metro areas in the U.S.  Ground-level ozone is a warm-weather pollution threat, caused mainly by tailpipe emissions reacting with heat to create smog.  Fewer tailpipes on the road = less smog.   (This one may also be due in large part to very active wind patterns through the summer, according to CNN Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras).

Here in the Southeast, we've seen perhaps some of the wildest price swings in gas:  The refinery shutdowns following Hurricanes Gustav and Ike caused widespread shortages in September, and prices shot up to $4.30 a gallon in my neighborhood.   Yesterday I saw one of the same stations selling the same gasoline for $1.62.  Which begs the question:  Did you change your driving habits this summer when prices went through the roof?   And are you changing back now?

I'll start:  I'm finding it a little harder to drag myself to the bus stop and am driving more often.   What about you?

–Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Cars • climate change • environment • Fuel • Gasoline


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November 21, 2008

A little good news, for a change

Posted: 10:10 AM ET

Forget about your 401 (k).  Forget about that little Dow Jones number in the corner of the TV screen that almost always has a minus sign in front of it.  Forget about the sudden media interest in the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover's presidency.   We've got an hour's worth of good news for you.solutions_v1

For the past year, CNN's Miles O'Brien has searched high and low for Solutions: ideas, inventions, and people that have stemmed environmental impact and in most cases, saved a little money to boot.

"Green Warriors:  The Fight for Solutions" airs on CNN/US at 6 p.m. ET Saturday Nov. 22, and again at 2 p.m. ET on Sunday, the 23rd.   CNN's international audience can catch the show at 10 p.m. ET Saturday.

We visited a guy in El Paso whose growing business is, well, growing pond scum.  The algae can be converted into diesel fuel.  Another segment profiles a wildlife officer who pretty much singlehandedly restored the bald eagle population in New York State.  In other segments, you'll see old tires turned into new products, soda bottles turned into carpet, and as a result, garbage turned into money.

The "Solutions" series has its own page on CNN.com here.   Enjoy.

Filed under: environment


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Make fun of this story and urine trouble

Posted: 09:40 AM ET

Okay, that headline is the only joke in this post about turning astronaut waste into drinking water.

The newly-delivered Water Recovery System uses filters and chemicals to purify astronauts’ perspiration, urine, and station waste water into drinkable H20. NASA photo

So please get the "yuck" factor out of your system and read on.

Among tons of equipment that the space shuttle Endeavour hauled to the International Space Station (ISS) is a new water-purification system that recycles everything - humidity, condensation, sweat and yes, even urine - into purified drinking water.

(CNN's intrepid space correspondent Miles O'Brien sampled an earth version of the H20 during his coverage of Endeavour's launch on Friday. Other than a hint of an iodine aftertaste.... he pronounced it OK.  Miles did several live shots on CNN TV, and eventually finished the bottle.)

The WRS, or water recovery system, includes two refrigerator-sized racks packed with a distiller and filters.

"We use some traditional technology, such as filtration systems, but some of the technology is unique to our operation, like working without gravity," said Bob Bagdigian of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He's the project manager for NASA's Environmental Control Life Support System (ECLSS).

Each crew member on the ISS uses just under a gallon of water a day. Water is needed for drinking, brushing teeth, flushing toilets, showering, and washing hands, clothes and dishes. About two thirds of that water now comes from Russian Progress resupply vehicles, the European Space Agency's Jules Verne automatic transfer vehicle, and NASA space shuttles. The remaining third comes from a small water processor on the Russian side of the station. That system captures sweat, and other water vapor in the air as it passes through the air-conditioning system, filtering it and turning it into drinkable water.

With the planned doubling of the station crew from three to six, there's a need to look for more efficiency in handling supplies - especially water, that is plenty heavy and therefore plenty expensive to bring up from the ground.

Any long-term outpost on the moon or Mars will have no choice but to recycle liquids. So it made sense that an early version of such a system be tested on the space station. If this system works as planned, it should cut the need for water delivery by 65 percent, producing 6,000 pounds of potable water each year.

The environmental team at Marshall in Huntsville, Alabama, does more than just water purification. These microbiologists, chemists, materials, chemical, mechanical, and software engineers are part plumbers, part HVAC workers and part environmental police for the space station crew. Their systems do everything from providing oxygen and potable water to removing carbon dioxide from the cabin air and maintaining cabin temperature and humidity levels.

So how sure will the station residents be that the water is fit for human consumption?

They won't drink a drop until several samples have been flown back to Earth and are tested and re-tested.

The purification technology design also has provided assistance on Earth. Similar equipment has been used in aid centers after earthquakes in Iraq and Pakistan, said Bagdigian.

Does Bagdigian, trained as a biologist and chemical engineer, ever get tired of the bathroom humor?

He laughed. Non-scientists, especially kids, can identify with such a basic human function, he said.

"Everybody is interested in living in space and how that is going to become a reality."

–Marsha Walton, Producer, CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: environment • NASA • Space


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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