May 7, 2014

Satellite imagery of cloud vortices off Madeira and the Canary Islands, with El Hierro circled in red.     Photo: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

The First Energy Self-Sufficient Island

Wind farm and hydroelectricity independently support population of 10,000 in Canary Islands

A tiny burst of green off the West African coast, El Hierro has long been considered a backward outpost of Spanish rule. But the smallest of the Canary Islands is about to make history—and a windfall—on its own terms.

When five wind turbines at the volcanic island's northeastern tip begin operation at the end of June, El Hierro will become the world's first energy self-sufficient island.

El Hierro's $110 million 11.5-megawatt turbine farm will generate energy from gusts that buffet the coast to support water desalination plants and 10,000 residents. Wind power is expected to cut yearly carbon dioxide emissions by 18,700 metric tons and deliver a deathblow to annual consumption of 40,000 barrels of oil. In the event of heavy winds, El Hierro expects to sell surplus energy and profit handsomely, boosting the island's budget by one to three million euros (between $1,400,000 and $4,200,000).

El Hierro is not the first island to enjoy clean-energy independence through wind. The Danish island of Samso, guilty of high carbon emissions due to oil consumption and electricity imported by cable from the mainland, began conversion to all renewables in 1998.

But El Hierro is the first island to transition in energy isolation. El Hierro never had the luxury of cabled electricity. The topography of the seafloor surrounding the island can't sustain an interconnected electric grid.

"The true novelty of El Hierro is that technicians have managed, without being connected to any national network, to guarantee a stable production of electricity that comes 100 percent from renewable energy, overcoming the intermittent nature of the wind," climate historian Alain Gioda said in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

That isolation means El Hierro had to create a Plan B in the event of insufficient wind or surplus energy needs. To that end, engineers built a large reservoir in synchrony with the wind farm; should the turbines fail, energy reserves will get a second wind as water is released from the reservoir with the dregs of wind-generated power. As with hydroelectric dams, gravity-induced water pressure creates kinetic energy that powers turbines as the water flows past.

The wind farm is co-owned by El Hierro and Spain, which has had success incorporating wind power into its own energy mix.

The clean energy quest couldn't have happened at a better spot. El Hierro's sustainable development began in 1995—five years before UNESCO designated 60 percent of the island as a Biosphere Reserve.

Wind and water power are just the beginning. The island has partnered with the Renault-Nissan alliance with the goal of running its 6,000 vehicles entirely on electricity by 2020.

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Vibram is the latest company to be accused of false advertising. How accountable should we expect consumers to be?     Photo: Two Lazy Canucks/flickr

Vibram Settles Lawsuit

But admits to no wrongdoing

Vibram USA, manufacturer of the ubiquitous FiveFingers running shoe, has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit brought against the company.

Lead plaintiff Valerie Bezdek first sued in 2012, stating that Vibram was making false claims about the health benefits of its FiveFingers line. As Runner's World reports, "Bezdek alleged that Vibram deceived consumers by advertising that the footwear could reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles, without basing those assertions on any scientific merit."

Although Vibram hasn't admitted to any deceptive practices or any wrongdoing whatsoever, it has agreed to pay $3.75 million into an escrow account, from which claimants can be reimbursed for FiveFingers shoes purchased after March 21, 2009. FiveFingers will reward up to $94 per pair, though similar cases in the past indicate that claimants are unlikely to receive the full amount.

These developments have spawned a fair amount of schadenfreude from those who were skeptical about Vibram's popular product from the start, perhaps feeling that no alleged health benefits could make up for the shoe's aesthetic shortcomings.

With FiveFingers in hot water, will other up-and-coming footwear companies make a surge?

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Maybe fortunate news for smaller grizzlies: There's a new standard for the biggest one ever shot.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Alaskan Bags World Record Grizzly

Skull nearly 30 inches across

The bar has officially been raised. By decree of the Boone and Crockett Club, the nearly nine-foot grizzly bear taken by Larry Fitzgerald (not the Cardinals' wide receiver) near Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2013 is now officially the largest bear ever killed by a hunter.

The Boone and Crockett Club, which collects data on kills to help monitor hunting practices, measured the bear's skull at 27 and 6/16ths inches, second only to the largest bear skull in known history, found by a taxidermist in 1976.

Fitzgerald himself was more or less nonplussed when asked about his achievement. "I'm not really a trophy hunter or anything," he told Fox News. "But I guess it is kind of cool." Fitzgerald claims he brought down the bear from about 20 yards out with a shot to the neck from a Sako 300 rifle. "We knew it was big," he admitted. "It was a rush."

According to Boone and Crockett chairman Richard Hale, it's highly unusual to find such a large bear so close to an urban area. "One would think that a relatively accessible area, with liberal bear-hunting regulations to keep populations in line with available habitat and food, would be the last place to find one of the largest grizzly bears on record," he said.

  Photo: Larry Fitzgerald

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Drones, now shipping directly to your doorstep.     Photo: Flou-Net/Flickr

Student Receives Government Drone Via UPS

Equipment is worth $350,000; UPS now in hot water

When UPS came to his door, a student expected to receive the weight-lifting bench he'd ordered. Instead he saw a large black box with an official label that read "USA FEDERAL PROPERTY." Inside: what appeared to be wings and a control panel.

"Did I just get a drone in the mail?" he asked Reddit.

Indeed, the parts belonged to an unmanned aerial vehicle that goes by the name of Puma. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses it for all kinds of aerial observation, such as measuring ocean debris or conducting seabird surveys.

Only after posting photos of the mystery shipment online did the student, who goes by the Reddit username Seventy_Seven, contact UPS. The company insisted that the package was now his and that "it was up to me if I want to keep it or not," Seventy_Seven said.

Luckily for the U.S. government, Seventy_Seven did not accept that answer and contacted NOAA directly. They confirmed that they had expected a shipment of eight boxes containing drone parts, totaling $350,000 in value. One box must have been mislabeled and never made it to the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts.

NOAA was understandably irritated with the mix-up. "We did not mail the package to the wrong address—the error occurred on the part of UPS," NOAA spokesperson David Miller told Vice. UPS spokesperson Susan Rosenberg simply said, "Mistakes can be made."

See the Puma drone in action below. Unfortunately, Seventy_Seven won't be able to take it out an a test run. UPS has reshipped the rogue package, which should soon be in the hands of NOAA.

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Why shoot fish in a barrel when you can collect them off the street?     Photo: Marius Pettersen/Flickr

Fish Rain in Sri Lanka

Village in western Sri Lanka gets an unusual downpour

A village in the Chilaw district of western Sri Lanka experienced a bizarre meteorological event when 110 pounds of small fish rained down from the heavens during a storm.

On average, the fish were between three and five inches long and, to the delight of some villagers, edible. Many of the fish were still alive after their brief airborne adventure as opportunistic locals gathered them off the streets and tossed them into water buckets for eventual consumption.

Although the raining fish phenomenon sounds like something from the imagination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Paul Thomas Anderson, there's a scientific explanation for what occurred. As Steve Cleaton, a forecaster at BBC Weather Centre, explains, "In the Sri Lankan storm, a tornado probably formed over land, drifted over river systems or coastal waters, and sucked up light fish that were lifted all the way into the base of the storm cloud. Later, the fish were rained out of the cloud."

Reports have noted that this isn't the first time such events have occurred in Sri Lanka; 2012 saw a "prawn rain" in the south of the country.

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This guy had a long-snouted cousin named "Pinocchio."     Photo: Getty Images

"Pinocchio Rex" Dino Discovered

Near-complete skeleton is a cousin to T. rex

Sixty-six million years ago, T. rex had a goofy-looking cousin. Its nose, in particular, was so funny looking that scientists at Scotland's Edinburgh University nicknamed the skeleton "Pinocchio" when they dug it up in a construction site near Ganzhou in southern China.

The Qianzhousaurus sinensis—the dino's official title—shared many characteristics with T. rex, but had several very distinct characteristics. Pinocchio's snout was 35 percent longer than that of other dinosaurs its size, and the creature had a leaner muscle build.

"It had the familiar toothy grin of T. rex, but its snout was long and slender, with a row of horns on top," Edinburgh University's Steve Brusatte told BBC News. "It might have looked a little comical, but it would have been as deadly as any other tyrannosaur, and maybe even a little faster and stealthier."

What can Pinocchio tell us about the tyrannosaur? Researchers believe there were many subgroups of the famous T. rex with longer snouts that hunted together.  

"The new discovery is very important," says Junchang Lu, a professor at the Institute of Geology at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences. “Along with Alioramus from Mongolia, it shows that the long-snouted tyrannosaurids were widely distributed in Asia.”

Scientists expect more dinosaurs to be added to the group as excavations in Asia continue to identify new species.

"This is the slam dunk we needed: The long-snouted tyrannosaurs were real," Brusatte says.  

That is, if Pinocchio rex's skeleton is telling the truth.

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Well, it's not completely in your imagination.     Photo: Marshall Astor/Flickr

Would You Like Jesus Toast with That?

Seeing faces in objects "perfectly normal"

When Christians suggest that Jesus is always with us, they're not speaking literally—but plenty of people still find the prophet in their food. Ten years ago, a woman sold her grilled cheese sandwich bearing an image of the Virgin Mary for $28,000 on eBay. And although we might laugh at our friends who see famous faces in everything from Cheetos to clouds, University of Toronto researchers now say this phenomenon is "perfectly normal."

The study, published in the new issue of Cortex, classifies these apparitions as "face pareidolia" and determined they can be explained by normal physical causes.

"Most people think you have to be mentally abnormal to see these types of images, so individuals reporting this phenomenon are often ridiculed," said University of Toronto professor and study author Kang Lee. "But our findings suggest that it's common for people to see nonexistent features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so even when there's only a slight suggestion of facial features, the brain automatically interprets it as a face."

Through analyzing brain scans and behavioral patterns, the study's authors found that our frontal cortexes generate expectations as we look at things and send signals to the posterior visual cortex to interpret stimuli in our environment. We see different images based on what our brains expect to see, and finding Jesus in toast is just a natural extension of a normally functioning frontal cortex. In other words, the phrase "seeing is believing" might be backwards.

So, go forth and bid on these food artifacts to your heart's content. We just can't promise we won't judge you.

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