SciTechBlog
November 19, 2008

Saving the waves

Posted: 11:40 AM ET

Over the years, cruise ships have been under fire for sometimes sketchy environmental practices.  But it's looking like the green movement is even moving to the aqua-blue waterways. 

Celebrity Cruises' new ship, Solstice.

I just got off the inaugural sailing of the new Celebrity Solstice cruise ship.  This boat is big pimpin' - stylishly appointed with all the bells and whistles. But what may be more impressive than all the onboard comforts are the advances Celebrity has made to help protect the ocean.

Save the Waves is a comprehensive environmental protection program Celebrity established 20 years ago.  You might say its just PR greenwashing, but some steps they take to be green are pretty dramatic.  For instance, recycling bins for aluminum, plastic, and glass containers are a breeding ground for bacteria. The only way to prevent the bacteria from growing is to cool the containers, so they store recyclables in a massive refrigerator.

On the alternative energy front the Solstice is the first cruise ship to utilize the sun with solar panels spread out around the ship.  They don’t generate a ton of juice but every little bit helps, as do the 25,000 LED light bulbs used onboard. 

What I found most cool was what they did with the hull of the ship.  The hull is coated with a non-toxic silicone to create less friction with the water.  The coating also reduces the growth of barnacles and algae on the ship, which helps reduce the chances of transporting an invasive species into a habitat it shouldn’t be in.  (Like the Zebra Mussels that are creating havoc throughout the Great Lakes.)  

As for physical design, they moved the longitudinal center of buoyancy forward to create smaller angles in the aft of the ship, resulting in smoother flow of water to the propeller.   They also put a kind of reverse spoiler on the stern to help reduce drag.  More than 90 wind tunnel and water tank tests were done to help design a hull that is 30 percent more fuel efficient than older ships.  That’s a huge reduction on greenhouse gases AND a huge cost savings to the bottom line.  (Though like just about any large oceangoing vessel, Celebrity Solstice still runs on diesel.   A lot of it.) 

Oh, and the ship also has a seaworthy lawn with real grass.  Its more of a novelty than an environmental initiative, but it does bring a literal accent to a ship that's trying - and succeeding - to be a little greener.

–Rob Marciano, CNN

Filed under: Energy • environment • Oceans


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November 10, 2008

Great big ozone hole this year - not as bad news as it sounds

Posted: 09:29 AM ET

The ozone hole over the Antarctic, which grows to its maximum annual size in September, peaked at the fifth-highest size ever since measurements began in 1979 this year, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.noaa-ozone

But experts say that the "fifth-largest" designation may not necessarily be bad news at all.  They're sticking to predictions that the ozone hole will repair itself over the rest of the 21st Century.  Colder-than-average temperatures and strong high level winds helped widen the hole this season.  Warmer weather as the Antarctic summer starts up helps close up the hole each year.

It's been nearly four decades since the first research drew links between man-made chemicals and destruction of ozone in the upper atmosphere.  Chlorofluorocarbons and freon - once widely used in air conditioners and spray cans respectively, were among the substances that broke down stratospheric ozone - the key to protecting us from harmful solar radiation.  Projections indicate that a thinning ozone layer could lead to increases in human skin cancer, eye cataracts, and other maladies.  Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen and Americans Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discoveries.

Global concern over ozone damage led to what is widely regarded as a remarkably successful international treaty.  The Montreal Protocol was ratified in 1987 and took full effect nine years later, banning most uses of ozone-destroying chemicals.

Scientists have reported a substantial reduction in the levels of ozone-destroying chemicals reaching the stratosphere.  But CFC's, freon, bromides, and other ozone-eaters are particularly long-lasting, and may take much of the rest of this century to dissipate.  "The decline of these harmful substances to their pre-ozone hole levels ... will take decades," said NOAA chemist Stephen Montzka.

Translation:   Don't lose the sunscreen.   Ozone layers have thinned planet-wide, and during the late-winter weather in either hemisphere, ozone protection reaches its lowest levels near the poles.  Less ozone in the upper atmosphere means more exposure to the ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer.

NOAA's Ozone measurements page can be found here

NASA offers daily updated graphics and animations on the size of the ozone hole here.

Peter Dykstra   Executive Producer   CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: environment • meteorology • NASA • science • Weather


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November 7, 2008

One campus's solution for "Squirrels Gone Wild!"

Posted: 11:06 AM ET

Squirrels at the University of California-Davis have it made.

5300 acres of lush habitat.

The eastern fox squirrel is living large on the University of California Davis campus. Wildlife scientists will use a contraceptive vaccine to try to control the population. Photo courtesy UC Davis

More than a few crumbs from students and faculty who enjoy meals and snacks outside.

(And we're not talking the average "frugal student" ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly. UC-Davis is home to The Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.)

With nary a predator, there's been a population explosion of the non-native eastern fox squirrels, from zero to about 400 in the past seven years. And now there's worry the critters might get more aggressive, biting the collegiate hands that feed them. Squirrels can carry bacteria that is harmful to humans. And an unchecked population could become a threat to the regional economy, spreading to nearby farmland and chomping away at the local fruits and nuts.

When college officials searched for answers to these potential nuisances, they had to go no further than scientists on campus.

And as one might expect from a campus in California, the plan is to control the population with no harm to the animals involved.

Squirrel contraception.

"This new birth control method may potentially help control squirrels or other species, such as white tailed deer," said Sara Krause, a doctoral student in ecology who designed the plan.

"If we can test a birth control method and find it safe and effective, there's a possibility of it being a breakthrough method in both urban and suburban areas," she said.

Continued unchecked procreation and expansion of their territory could mean farmers and ranchers would put an end to the invasive fox squirrels permanently. Squirrels can do serious damage to almond and walnut orchards.

The birth control method being used is a vaccine, called GonaCon.

Krause explained that it's an immunocontraceptive vaccine, blocking the pathway to the production of sperm and eggs. One shot leaves the animals sterile for about two years. And the same vaccine works on both males and females.

(Now there's a concept that every female on the planet can appreciate.)

Krause and others have just begun placing 20-40 humane traps around the campus. The traps will be checked two to four times a day. On this first round, captured animals will be examined, marked with a nontoxic dye, and let go. The squirrels will be observed until next summer, when they'll be re-captured. Then, some will get the contraceptive injection, others a placebo. Again, they'll be set free to roam the campus.

If the experiment works as planned, the number of squirrels will decline to a sustainable number within ten years. And federal wildlife biologists could use the contraceptive on other prolific progeny producers.

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • environment • science


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November 5, 2008

How will a President Obama impact science, tech and the environment?

Posted: 12:22 PM ET

An eight-year presidency is coming to an end, and so is a two-year campaign full of hope, mud, hockey moms and long-forgotten candidates (Where have you gone, Vilsack and Tancredo?).  But in the end, "change" is the word of the day.

What will an Obama presidency mean for science and tech?

The transition from a Bush Administration to a Barack Obama Administration implies enormous policy differences in just about every one of the issues we cover in this blog.  

Here are some questions for the next four years:

Science:  The Bush Administration drew heavy criticism for allegedly censoring or softening federal scientific reports on global warming, endangered species, and other issues when the science didn't match Administration policy.   Will Obama clean this up?  Or will he draw fire from the opposite political direction?

Space:  The Space Shuttle faces mandatory retirement in two years.  Is Obama, and is America, ready to commit the money to continue exploration in the wake of our financial meltdown?

Tech:  From the classroom to the R&D lab, concerns are mounting that America has lost its research and innovation mojo.  Can the new administration turn this around?

Environment:  Both Obama and McCain drew sharp distinctions with the Bush Administration on addressing global warming.  Obama's campaign called for 80 percent reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.   Are we ready?  Can he deliver?

Energy:  Obama belatedly, and not too enthusiastically, embraced the possibility of expanding offshore drilling during the campaign.  He did so after the polls showed McCain scoring points with the "Drill, Baby Drill!" mantra.  Did Obama really mean what he said?  And now that gas is under $2.50 a gallon again for most Americans, do we still care?

Here are quick links to President-Elect Obama's campaign pledges on energy/global warming, environment, technology, and space.   Feel free to hang on to these links to see how many campaign promises are broken or kept.  

And let us know what you think.

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

Filed under: environment • Politics • science • Space


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October 22, 2008

Nuclear power: seeing less political fission these days

Posted: 11:30 AM ET

From the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference in Roanoke, Virginia:

Is nuclear power making a comeback?

After being battered by its own missteps, near-calamities, strong opposition and financial overruns, the nuclear power industry is showing increased signs of emerging from a three-decade coma in the U.S.

Many are giving a second look to the U.S.. nuke industry, including longtime skeptics on the lookout for alternatives to fossil fuels.  Here at SEJ's annual conference, there's a livelier-than-usual discussion about nuclear power as a part of the solution to America's energy woes.  One of the most prominent voices here calling for a nuclear power revival was R.K. Pachauri, who as Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore last year.

Right now, the U.S. gets just under 20% of its electricity from nukes, and about half from coal.  Natural gas is good for nearly another 20% of energy generation, with oil, hydro, wind, and solar contributing most of the last 10%.  To listen to the rosy projections a half century ago, nuclear would have provided power "too cheap to meter" from over 400 reactors by the year 2000.

We topped out at just beyond 100 reactors total when Wall Street got cold feet from the risk, the opposition, and the above-average costs of boiling water by splitting atoms.  The 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania put the chill on the industry, and the disaster at the Soviet reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine seven years later brought on the deep freeze.  Nuclear advocates didn't help their cause by acting like the shark-denying mayor of Amity Island in the movie "Jaws."  No new reactor orders were placed in the U.S. for three decades.

But the permit requests are trickling in, and in this election season, the candidates are hopping aboard the nukewagon:   Obamas cautiously supports new licensing (his home state of Illinois hosts eleven reactors, more than any other state).  McCain gets more specific, targeting 45 new reactors by the year 2030 - a goal many say is unrealistic.   With the industry in cold shutdown and steel manufacturing pulling up stakes in the U.S., we don't make reactors any more, and would have to wait in a long, long line to order reactor vessels from the steelworks in Japan.

The nuke industry's arguments are piling up: Thirty years of relatively safe operation with no major incidents; improving technology; and a measure of liberation from fossil fuels, imports, and greenhouse-gas emissions.  Its public front is now a lot more polished than back in the Mayor-from-"Jaws" days, and they're much better positioned to argue against nuclear opponents, some of whom are falling back on hidebound, reactionary, dubious arguments. 

But the questions haven't gone away:

The industry still has no answers to ensure safe storage of nuclear waste, potentially dangerous for thousands of years.  Britain and France reprocess spent fuel and re-use the recoverable material, but the reprocessing facilities at Sellafield, UK and La Hague, France have left a messy environmental legacy.  For the U.S., the designated site is Yucca Mountain, Nevada.   Overruns at the Yucca Mountain site are measured in the billions, and the delays are into the decades, with commercial nukes continuing to store their own waste on site across the country.   And the desert site north of Las Vegas has a powerful home-state foe in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, so there's little chance of action there soon.

The world is a more dangerous place than it was 30 years ago.  Spreading nuclear fuel always leaves the risk of spreading nuclear weapons to those who would be eager to use them.

Also, many nuclear arguments overlook the continuing, shameful legacy of uranium mining.  Los Angeles Times reporter Judy Pasternak did a remarkable series of stories last year on the widespread damage to human health and the environment in the US Southwest last year.

So what's your take?   Is it a fair trade to swap the risks for a weapon against global warming and an increase in electrical capacity?  Or are nukes still too hot and costly to revive?

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

Filed under: Energy • environment


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October 21, 2008

McCain, Obama both AWOL on environmental votes

Posted: 11:04 AM ET

The non-profit, non-partisan League of Conservation Voters has released its updated National Environmental Scorecard, which ranks each Senate and House member on key environmental votes. The LCV awarded presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama rock-bottom scores for skipping Senate votes for the campaign trail.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain missed a lot of Senate votes on environmental issues this year.

The LCV scored the Senate on 11 key votes in the current session covering global warming, energy policy, oil drilling, public lands, and hurricane insurance. But here’s the catch: An “absent” vote counts as a “no” vote in LCV’s scorekeeping. That gave John McCain, consistently among the highest-scoring GOP Senators on the 30-year-old LCV scorecard, a perfect zero.

Obama scarcely did better, siding with the environmentalists twice while missing the other nine votes for an 18% score. Running mate Joe Biden scored a 64% for the session by LCV’s standards. Biden has an 81% LCV score for his Senate career. Both Obama (72% lifetime) and McCain (24% lifetime) saw their career averages plummet after a year on the campaign trail and away from the Senate.

This year, 27 Senators and 67 House members got a perfect 100% score from LCV; Two Senators and 70 Representatives received a perfect 0%.

Though the LCV maintains its non-partisan status – retired GOP Congressman Sherwood Boehlert is a Board member, and former Kansas Governor John Carlin is a former LCV Chair – the group’s numbers consistently score Democrats higher on key environmental votes. Senate Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Dick Durbin both received 100% scores, while their Republican counterparts, Mitch McConnell and John Kyl, scored 9% and 18% respectively.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Whip James Clyburn both scored 92%; their GOP counterparts, John Boehner and Roy Blunt, both received a 0% from LCV. Nancy Pelosi received no rating, as the Speaker of the House traditionally does not vote.

The American Land Rights Association is a national property owners’ group that produces a scorecard offering a near mirror-image opposite of the LCV scorecard. Last updated in February, the ALRA scorecard gave a 20% approval rating to Obama and his VP candidate, Joe Biden, and and 30% score to McCain.

ALRA’s scorecard gauges votes on environmental and land-use issues, as well as other property-related votes like those on the inheritance tax. The group designates any Congressman or Senator with a score of 80% or better as a “Champion” of property rights; a 20% or lower score is a property rights “enemy” by ALRA’s standard.

Thirty Senators and 103 House members, all Republicans, scored the “Champion” label. Six Senators and 208 House members were labeled “Enemies” by the property rights group – all Democrats save for GOP congressmen Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Chris Shays of Connecticut.

- Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer CNN Science, Technology & Weather

Filed under: environment


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October 15, 2008

World's 4th-largest lake almost gone

Posted: 11:35 AM ET

The latest satellite image of the Aral Sea shows a disappearing body of water. What was the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake is almost gone due to an engineering project gone wrong, despite a last-ditch effort to save it.

The Aral Sea straddles the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union. Its water was mainly supplied by two rivers, the Syr Darya (the Persian word for sea) and the Amu Darya. In 1960, the sea covered 25,600 square miles, about 10 percent larger than Lake Michigan.

An October 2008 NASA image, showing the Aral with about 10 percent of its original water volume.

On the left: A 1987 USGS image of the Aral Sea. On the right: An October 2008 NASA image, showing the Aral with about 10% of its original water volume.

Under a Stalin-era plan, the Aral started to shrink as the former Soviet Union drastically diverted the two feeding rivers for irrigation of cotton and other crops. Today, the lake’s water is about 10 percent of its original volume and its surface area has shrunk by 74 percent, according to a report published in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences in 2007. And the lake’s salinity has increased tenfold.

In 2001, the Kazakh government initiated a rehabilitation plan for the lake, improving the flood levees and building a dam to divide the smaller northern Aral Sea from its larger and more polluted southern portion. By the time the 6 mile-long Kok-Aral Dam was completed in 2005, the surface areas of the northern Aral grew by 30 percent and the water depth increased by about 20 percent.

Deane McKinney, a professor at the University of Texas who led a water research program in the Aral Sea area five years ago, said: “I suspect that it (the northern Aral) may slightly increase in size over the coming years, but that will depend on the climatic conditions of those years.”

But the latest satellite image still found that the main body of the Aral Sea, the much larger southern portion that mostly sits in Uzbekistan, has been shrinking non-stop.

The Uzbeks have announced no plans to reverse this. According to Professor McKinney, the volume of water necessary to refill the Southern Aral Sea is simply so large that “it would require these countries to relinquish their use of the water for other purposes for decades.”

“This is just not economically viable at the present time,” he added.

The Uzbek government, instead, has announced plans to explore the drained Aral seabed for oil. Whether that will change the welfare of local people is unknown, but the consequences of leaving the Aral Sea to die are obvious.

The interruption of the Aral ecosystem has led to many serious problems. The local fishery collapsed. Respiratory and other diseases began to spread. And increased salt and dust storms have taken their toll on both people and property.

Another potential threat may come from Vozrozhdenie (rebirth), which was once a large island in the center of the Aral Sea. Vozrozhdenie was a Soviet germ-warfare facility during the Cold War. The island is now physically connected to the land, increasing security risks and enabling easier transmission of any possible biological hazards on this island to a larger environment.

–Chong Wu, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: environment


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October 10, 2008

Manpowered car

Posted: 01:07 PM ET

When powering the green car of the future, one man is turning to Fred Flintstone for inspiration. Charles Greenwood is the creator of the HumanCar, an automobile that’s powered by you and me and maybe some of your friends.

The Imangine "Urban" concept design by Stephen Brand for the HumanCar.

Rowing handles produce the electricity the car needs to move it forward. Greenwood says it’s made entirely of recycled plastics and can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour as you row away, but he says there’s also a back-up electric motor in case you get tired of rowing.

“It's just exactly like an engine firing around the four cylinder cycle. In this case, we can see we got one, two, three, four, firing around” Greenwood says as he points to four people rowing the HumanCar.

Greenwood’s son, Chuck, the CEO of the HumanCar design company, says one of the designs, the Imagine_PS Electric-Human Hybrid Car can also be a source of power for your home: “Theoretically, you can operate 100 of these vehicles to create a 100-kilowatt mobile power station.”

The HumanCar costs $15,500 and you can pre-order one for a $99 deposit. They are set to roll out next year on Earth Day.

What do you think? Is a human-powered vehicle a good fuel alternative? Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to just ride a bike?

Paulo Nogueira - Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Cars • environment


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October 9, 2008

Doing the right thing for endangered whales

Posted: 11:45 AM ET

After years of both scientific study and political wrangling, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued a regulation designed to protect North Atlantic right whales.

The long debated “Ship Strike Rule” requires large commercial ships (65-plus feet in length) to reduce their speeds to ten knots when traveling through right whale habitat. There are only 300-400 of these whales left in the world, making it among the most endangered marine species.

“The ship strike rule, based on science, is a major addition to NOAA’s arsenal of protections for this endangered species," said Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., NOAA administrator. (Lautenbacher has just announced his resignation from NOAA.)

Along the mid-Atlantic states, speed restrictions will extend 20 nautical miles near major ports. NOAA says 83 percent of right whale sightings are within 20 miles of land.

Right whales are very slow moving, and their migration routes take them across busy shipping lanes along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

The shipping restrictions only apply in certain months of the year, when the whales are likely to be present. The mammals spend summers around Cape Cod, Massachusetts and the Bay of Fundy in Canadian waters. They travel south off the coast of Georgia and Florida in the winter months, where females give birth.

Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing and lobster gear are currently the biggest threats to right whales.

The rule is expected to go into effect in early December. NOAA says the rule will be re-examined after five years so scientists can evaluate its effectiveness.

While conservation groups welcome the measure, they wish it had been even stronger.

“While we had hoped a 30-nautical-mile zone would be established around major ports, we are pleased by the U.S. government’s decision today to establish this new whale ship strike regulation,” said Jeffrey Flocken, Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Washington office.

IFAW is urging the U.S. government to use on-the-water enforcement and to step up new technologies for right whale protection.

The ship strike rule spent more than a year stranded in the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Vice President, as objections from the shipping industry were considered.

–Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology producer

Filed under: Animals • environment • Politics


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October 2, 2008

Hurricane Ike hits Chicago

Posted: 11:52 AM ET

Hurricane Ike went down in the weather annals as the third-costliest tropical cyclone in U.S. history. Weeks after Ike's landfall, a whirlwind of destruction can still be felt hundreds of miles inland, in the Great Lakes region.

Hurricane Ike
Getty Images/NASA

Heavy rains from Ike and the Pacific Tropical Storm Lowell inundated northwestern Indiana and metro Chicago. The ground was already saturated by a stalled cold front so the increased flooding caused runoffs from streams and rivers, dumping sediment into Lake Michigan and increasing E. coli levels in the water.

United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists have been monitoring the water in Lake Michigan after Hurricane Ike, as part of an effort to improve predictions of beach water quality.

Dr. Richard Whitman, USGS expert on beach health ,says, "The local effects that Ike had on Lake Michigan's Indiana shoreline, water depth, and water quality have been profound."

Typically after a storm, bacteria levels rise along near-shore water sources, but, Ike brought with it a slew of other problems. The flooding caused by Ike loaded up Lake Michigan with contaminants that could not be diluted for an unprecedented ten days.

The unexpected flooding also made it impossible for wastewater treatment plants to properly treat the overflow of storm water coming in. Run-off from agricultural and septic tanks all increased the E. coli levels in surrounding rivers, which then fed into Lake Michigan. At one point, river water levels during the storm got so high that they actually flooded the sewage plants.

The EPA says that E. coli concentrations of 235 CFU (Colony Forming Unit) per 100 ml of water would be an acceptable risk level for freshwater sources. At the height of its contamination, E. coli levels reached an estimated high of 1,200 CFU per 100 ml of water. In other words, an average of 17 out of 1000 swimmers could expect to get a gastrointestinal illness from swimming in parts of Lake Michigan after Ike, in comparison to the usual 8 out of 1,000 people.

USGS scientists say E. coli levels are now back to normal but the sediments in the water have yet to be cleaned up. Ike proves that we live in a fluid environment and what happens to our neighbors could eventually affect us too, be it upstream or downstream.

Azadeh Ansari, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: environment • Flooding • hurricanes • Severe weather • Uncategorized • Weather


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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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