Elevation map of sea surface temperature shows Gulf Stream

Here is ansnapshot00other 3D map. This one shows differences in sea surface temperature (SST) along the East Coast of the U.S. The elevation differences highlights the Gulf Stream, a surface current that flows north along the western edge of the North Atlantic, transporting warm water northward from the tropics.


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Aquaculture production of exotic species by country

Blue Frontiers: Managing the environmental costs of aquaculture (Hall et al., 2011), from the World Fish Center is an incredibly data rich report. It is a must read for anyone interesting in the promise of aquaculture and the challenges involved in moving towards more sustainable practices.
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Don’t make stuff up

People say the darndest things.  Take this alarmist article about AquaBounty GMO salmon:

…approval for its highly-allergenic AquAdvantage Frankenfish without so much as a shred of independent, legitimate scientific evidence proving that the imitation fish is safe for humans and the environment…

Approving AquAdvantage Salmon is controversial, but its risk as an allergen is not a major issues.  The fish has been tested for its allergenic potential. For this anti-GMO site to call the salmon “highly-allergenic” in the same sentence where they bemoan lack of evidence for the safety of the fish is the height of hypocrisy.

If you oppose making this fish commercially available, state your case.  But please don’t make stuff up.  It ruins your credibility.



Photo credit: © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.




Does “sustainable” have any meaning at all?

Ocean waves are a source of renewable energy.  Which is why I find the use of the word sustainable in this press release odd.  Take this line for example:

monitoring underwater noise generated by wave energy conversion devices, represents a significant step toward the ability to successfully and sustainably utilize the ocean as a new renewable energy resource.

The sustainability of a activity has to do with meeting our current needs without compromising the the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Wave energy conversion is sustainable.  Sure, harvesting wave energy causes environmental impacts.  All human activities cause environmental impacts.  Knowing as much as we can about these impact is important. Which is why the research IBM is doing to evaluate noise emissions is of value. However, suggesting that the technology can not be considered sustainable if some sound threshold is exceeded puts the focus in the wrong place.  Wave energy, like wind and sunlight are by their nature non-consumptive. Current use does not prevent future use.

Wave energy conversion is much more sustainable than burning fossil fuels.  This should be the starting point.  The goal then becomes to minimize, as much as is possible, the environmental impact of exploiting this abundant, sustainable resource.

This is more than a simple semantic argument.  Focusing on the study as an assessment if the impacts of an sustainable activity, puts the research into an appropriate comparative context. The questions this research is addressing are

  • How does the noise pollution caused by this technology compare to current ocean uses such as oil exploration and shipping?
  • How does the environmental impact of wave energy conversion compare with the impact from other energy sources?

How loud would this technology have to be to make compare unfavorably with climate change driven by continued dependence on carbon based fuels?  How much noise would the system need to produce to make  risking another deepwater horizon spill look good?


It is a microbial world

Bacterial CellsMoselio Schaechter at Small Things Considered recently posted a nice overview of the change our understanding of the microbial world  has undergone over the past 30 years.  Recognition of the role microorganism play in all living systems has had profound impacts on many scientific disciplines.

The central message of the post is that, until recently, the vast amount of bacterial biomass on the earth went unnoticed by modern science.  This changed with the use of new techniques to estimated bacterial abundance.  These techniques estimated cell numbers by direct counts.  The traditional methods required growing bacteria to establish their presence.  Since many bacteria do not grow under standard laboratory conditions, culture based approaches underestimate abundance.  As more and more environments were surveyed for bacteria, estimates of the number of bacterial on the planet rose from around 1020 cells, to the current value of over 1030. 1030 is one thousand, billion, billion, billion cells.  It is an enormous number. As Schaechter points out in his essay, there are more prokaryotic cells on this planet than there are stars in the sky. The number is so large that, despite the small size of each cell, these microbes account for about half of all living biomass on Earth.

Not only does prokaryotic biomass equal the biomass of all other organisms combined, microorganisms dominate life’s evolutionary and metabolic diversity. It is truly a microbial world.

Consider our own bodies.  Most people are vaguely aware that our skin and guts harbor bacteria, but they don’t always appreciate just how many bacteria we host.  Our bodies are teaming with bacteria.  There are so many, that bacterial cells out numbered our own cells by a factor of 10 to 1.  Think about that.  When you get up and walk across a room, you are transporting ten times more bacterial cells than human cells. The recognition of the abundance and diversity of bacteria we all host is driving new lines of research into the role bacteria play in our health and well being.

Given the sheer number of bacterial cells we harbor, one could argue that we’ve evolved as moving containers for bacteria.  Our purpose is to move our bacteria around, help them obtain food, grow and multiply.


Barefooted running

My kids had been stuck inside all day and were stir crazy.  So, as the winds from hurricane Irene died down and before it got dark, I took them outside to burn off some steam. I told them to run around the house.  As my 4 year old tore around the corner of the house at full speed, I was struck by the apparent truth behind the idea that we are naturally talented runners.

This idea is the premise of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. The book explores the basis of the human capacity to run and describes a reclusive tribe of mexican indians who are able to run long distances over rough terrain.  Watching his TED talk will give you a good idea of his thinking:

His effort to to link skill as a runner with capacity for compassion is a stretch, but all in all it is a fun talk to watch.  He has a good presence on stage, his stories are engaging and there is solid evidence to support the evolutionary basis for our ability to run.  See for example this recent interview with Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman in which he discusses how the muscles in our necks allow us to keep our heads steady as we run.




Powers of 10

Like many, I am a huge fan of the powers of 10 short movie made by Charles and Ray Eames back it the late 1960’s.

I remember seeing at the National Air and Space Museum as a kid and being blown away by the amount of stuff both big and small that exists beyond our daily experience. It was put up on youtube so if you have not seen it, check it out. Follow this link or go to the bottom of this post where it is embedded.

Recently, I came across a flash animation in the spirit of the original move. It does a great job giving an idea of the relative scale of things ranging from the very small – Planck length and quantum foam – all the way up to the entire universe. The animation is interactive, allowing the user to control the speed and direction of change.

The animation is particularly effective at the smaller scales where it shows the huge spans of empty space between the different types of subatomic particles. I like that it includes electromagnetic waves from picometer long gamma rays to 100 meter long AM radio waves.

One of the more profound points of the original powers of 10 film is the enormous amount of empty space out there between us and the rest of the universe. This new animation does not make this point as effectively because the authors include items at all scales from trees and buildings to planets, solar systems, nebulae, star clusters, galaxies and local galactic groups. The number of items shown obscures the vast amount of empty space present in the larger spatial scales. On the plus side, it is interesting to see all of the things that exist at these different scales. So, rather than seeing this as a drawback the inclusion of items at all time scales makes the animation an excellent compliment to the Aemes movie which still resonates over 40 years after it was made.

The Eames powers of 10 video: