FIRE AND ICELAND: A volcano in Iceland is wreaking havoc across Europe today, spurring local flooding and sending out a plume of volcanic ash that has grounded flights from Ireland to Finland. The problems are coming from a crater buried below 660 feet of ice at Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier, where another volcano also erupted last month and only began dying down on Monday. Wednesday's eruption partially melted the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, causing a major flood that threatened to damage roads and bridges and forced more than 700 people to evacuate their homes. It also pumped out a steady stream of smoke and ash that has been swept up by easterly winds and carried hundreds of miles across Scandinavia and into Russia. British aviation officials shut down the country's airspace Thursday, while Denmark, Sweden and Norway also restricted air travel. Some 6,000 flights have been canceled in Britain alone, although skies look largely clear and blue to frustrated passengers, as experts warned the ash may not be visible from the ground. (Sources: Reuters, BBC News, New York Times)
FINGER TO THE WIND: It's been nine years in the making, but this month, the U.S. government will finally decide whether to approve the nation's first offshore wind farm, proposed for Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The Cape Wind project was first pitched in 2001 and has faced a regulatory gauntlet in the years since, plus staunch opposition from critics including the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and two Wampanoag Native American tribes. Kennedy and others have argued the 130 turbines would spoil scenic ocean views from Cape Cod (namely from the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass.), while Native Americans say the turbines would hinder their sunrise rituals and disturb long-submerged ancestral burial grounds. Proponents point out the Northeast has few other options for generating much-needed renewable energy, and say Cape Wind could supply three-quarters of the area's electricity in addition to creating jobs and spurring the local economy. President Obama was close to Kennedy and has never spoken publicly about the project, but it would fit in with his push for cleaner, domestically produced energy — and he already set a precedent in March for opening new offshore energy development, announcing the first offshore oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast. The Cape Cod Times reports that at least one local Native American tribe expects the project will be approved, and is already planning to challenge any approval in court. (Sources: Associated Press, Cape Cod Times)
WHALING WALL: The United States is leading a charge to end rogue whaling by Japan, Iceland and Norway, but some conservationists worry the plan might actually just make things worse for the planet's largest marine mammals. Officials from the International Whaling Commission and more than a dozen countries are meeting in Washington, D.C., this week to hash out the details of the plan, which supporters say could protect up to 5,000 whales from being killed over the next 10 years. The idea is to let Japan, Norway and Iceland continue flouting a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling in exchange for increased catch limits, monitoring and transparency, and for an end to the practice within the next decade. Some critics have called the idea "a whaler's wish list," however, arguing it condones illegal whaling and secures no guarantee the rogue nations will actually stop whaling in 10 years, even if they give their word now. But, as U.S. whaling delegate Monica Medina counters, anti-whaling activists shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. "We can't stop it; we can only try to control it," she tells the [skipwords]New York[/skipwords] Times. "If we can prevent thousands of whales from being hunted and killed, that's a real conservation benefit. This proposal would not only help whales, we hope, but also introduce rigorous oversight, halt the illegal trade in whale meat and bring respect for international law back to the IWC." This week's meetings come days after scientists with [skipwords]Oregon[/skipwords] State University genetically traced whale meat illegally sold at a California sushi restaurant to whales caught by Japanese whalers, suggesting a global black market for whale meat may be developing. (Sources: New York Times, Nature News)
A SUDDEN TWIST: A new fleet of unmanned U.S. drone planes will take to the skies in a few weeks, tracking down and demystifying a force that kills dozens of Americans every year. These drones aren't hunting terrorists in Afghanistan or Pakistan, though — they're hunting tornadoes from Texas to South Dakota. The remote-controlled planes are part of an ambitious tornado study, known as VORTEX 2, that launched last spring and will begin its second phase May 1. VORTEX 2 is the largest tornado experiment ever conducted, and is building on work begun by the original VORTEX study in the mid-'90s, which helped inspired the 1996 movie Twister. The tornado-chasing drones will offer scientists a rare bird's-eye view into a funnel cloud, which they hope will help them finally understand how exactly these unpredictable storms develop. The VORTEX 2 researchers say they're already on the verge of a major discovery about tornado formation, following new revelations in data collected during a Wyoming tornado they measured on June 5, 2009. So far 76 tornadoes have been reported in the United States this year, just 36 percent of the average, but experts say tornado season should shift into high gear next month. (Source: USA Today)
RETRO PETRO: As the 40th anniversary of Earth Day approaches, scientists have discovered that one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history still isn't over, more than 21 years after it first began. Lingering petroleum from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound is still being ingested by some wildlife in the area, according to researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who have published their findings in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground on March 24, 1989, unleashing 10.8 million gallons of crude into the sea and forming an enormous oil slick that spanned 1,300 square miles. The Simon Fraser researchers focused on harlequin ducks as an example of wildlife that's still feeling the effects of the two-decade-old disaster, examining a "biomarker" called CYP1A that the animals' bodies produce once they've been exposed to crude oil. "We found CYP1A levels were unequivocally higher in areas oiled by the Exxon Valdez spill than in nearby areas," says the study's lead author. "We believe this shows harlequin ducks continued to be exposed to residual oil from the spill through at least 2009, 20 years after the event. We believe it is important to recognize that the duration of presence of residual oil and its associated effects are not limited to a few years after spills, but for some vulnerable species may occur over decades." (Source: e! Science News)
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Photo (Iceland volcano on April 14): Icelandic Coastguard/AP
Photo (Danish wind farm): U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Photo (humpback whale): NOAA
Photo (2008 tornado in Iowa): Lori Mehmen/AP
Photo (Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989): NOAA
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