The average price of gasoline in the U.S. has soared past $3.50 a gallon, up 14 cents from a week ago and up 77 cents from March 2010. But as many Americans try to save money by cutting back at the pump, those who drive hybrid or electric cars aren't necessarily the front-runners. As the Washington Post reports, a new generation of old-school cars is proving the internal combustion still has a few tricks up its sleeve. "The buzz has been all about electric vehicles and hybrids, but to me, the real buzz should be about the old internal-combustion engine," says Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of the automotive website Edmunds.com. "It ain't dead yet."
Take the Chevrolet Cruze Eco, for example (pictured above). It has a conventional gas engine, but can get up to 50 miles per gallon on the highway — not bad even by hybrid standards. The secret to its success isn't in rethinking the car, but simply re-tweaking it: Engineers shaved the Cruze Eco's weight by 200 pounds, installed drag-reducing grill shutters, lowered its height by 1 centimeter, and added a fuel-efficient turbocharged engine. They ended up with a car that's officially rated at 42 mpg on the highway, but has been anecdotally reported at more than 50 mpg. And it's not alone, either — the Ford Focus gets 40 mpg when you buy its "super fuel economy" package, while the Hyundai Elantra also gets 40 mpg standard in all models.
This rising tide of efficiency is lifting all cars, the Post points out, thanks to the financial woes of Detroit's Big Three automakers back in 2007 and '08. It takes three or four years to develop a new car and bring it to market, so we're just now seeing the full effects of the auto industry's rebirth. "The near-death experience of the auto companies when they got hit with the last gas-price spike finally convinced them to get off the gas-guzzling business model," says Roland Hwang, transportation program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. As a result, "we're seeing 40 mpg become the new 30."
Colombia's coffee farms are getting scorched by climate change, the New York Times reports, and the effects are already percolating around the planet. Rising temperatures and wild weather swings are not only plaguing coffee plants throughout Colombia and other Latin American countries, but they're also driving up coffee prices worldwide. The situation is deteriorating so quickly, in fact, that some experts have the jitters about "peak coffee."
"Coffee production is under threat from global warming, and the outlook for Arabica in particular is not good," U.K. coffee specialist Peter Baker says of Arabica coffee beans, a high-end variety that mostly grows in South America. Arabica is prized for its smoother taste and lower caffeine content, but it's also more sensitive to weather extremes than the world's other major coffee bean, Robusta. The latter is more heavily grown in Africa and Asia, and while it's not immune to the whims of global warming, the most immediate danger seems to be for Arabica. And that's bad news for Colombia: It's the No. 2 global supplier of Arabica beans after Brazil, but while Brazilian farms are large, highly mechanized and still growing, Colombia's more down-to-earth farming style is less trauma-resistant. "Half a degree can make a big difference for coffee — it is adapted to a very specific zone," agroclimatology expert Néstor Riaño tells the Times. "If temperature rises even a bit, the growth is affected, and the plagues and diseases rise."
Of course, no specific storms or heat waves can be traced to climate change, and no one can directly link carbon emissions to coffee output. But as Columbia University climate researcher Stephen Zebiak points out, there's a good chance this is just a glimpse of things to come, so we might as well be prepared. "It is hard to know whether this severe weather represents natural fluctuations or is a climate change signal," he says, "though from a risk management sense, there is good reason to consider how to cope with these extreme events." To that end, scientists in Colombia are teaching farmers to battle the new pests, providing them better weather forecasts, introducing a hardier strain of Arabica beans, and even rolling out a "product origin" certification program, so no other country can claim to sell Colombian coffee.
As work crews and volunteers dig through millions of dead sardines and anchovies
in Redondo Beach, Calif., this week — a task city officials say might cost more than $100,000 — the state received some much-needed good news Wednesday about another kind of fish. The Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that West Coast waters are teeming with the most chinook salmon they've seen since 2006. "What it means is we are going to have the best fishing opportunities that we've had in several years," the president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations tells the San Francisco Chronicle.
Salmon has long been big business in California, Oregon and Washington, with most of the catch coming from the Sacramento River and its tributaries, the Chronicle reports. The region's chinook salmon population peaked in 2002 with nearly 770,000 fish spawning, but things suddenly changed in 2008. Salmon populations mysteriously plummeted, forcing fishery managers to ban commercial salmon fishing off the coasts of California and Oregon. Then only 39,500 fall-run chinook returned to the Sacramento in 2009, their worst year on record. But the tide now seems to be turning once again, following last fall's count of 153,000 chinook. This year, state and federal biologists estimate there are 730,000 salmon swimming off the U.S. West Coast, preparing to spawn.
Scientists aren't sure why the salmon population is bouncing back, although they've proposed several possibilities, including fishing bans, water-use restrictions, increased precipitation and improved ocean conditions. Nonetheless, regulators plan to allow fishermen lots of freedom this year to make up for lost time, regardless of past overestimations. "[T]he prediction is such that even if it's a bit optimistic, there should be plenty of fish left to catch and plenty to go up the river," says Dave Bitts, the PCFFA president. "And that is the best news of all."
The Earth is about to get buzzed by the moon, leading some to speculate that lunar-influenced natural disasters will sweep the planet. The fly-by is expected to occur on March 19, when the moon will come within just 221,567 miles of the Earth's surface, closer than it has been in the last 18 years. It will also be full at the time, a combination that has inspired Web astrologer Richard Nolle to warn of giant storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other catastrophes.
That's unlikely to actually happen, points out Space.com, which also notes the non-scientific nature of the astrology industry. But Nolle isn't entirely off-base: It turns out a too-close moon really can trigger seismic unrest on Earth. It's already well-known that lunar gravity causes high and low tides in the oceans, but earthquake experts say it sometimes goes slightly beyond that. "Both the moon and sun do stress the Earth a tiny bit, and when we look hard we can see a very small increase in tectonic activity when they're aligned," says University of Washington seismologist John Vidale. That seems to be because the moon shifts around the ocean's weight, potentially relieving enough stress on a tectonic fault to let it slip.
Still, the effect is minimal and almost certain to go unnoticed. Aside from a gigantic, glowing moon in the sky on March 19, the lunar close-up — also dubbed "Supermoon" — won't be very dramatic, Space.com reports. "Practically speaking, you'll never see any effect of lunar perigee," Vidale says. "It's somewhere between 'It has no effect' and 'It's so small you don't see any effect.'"
A 56-mile national seashore is established, baptists vow to "do better" on climate change, and more
Photo (Chevy Cruze Eco): Seth Wenig/AP
Photo (coffea shrub in Guatemala): ZUMA Press
Photo (chinook salmon): U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Photo (moon and saguaro cactus): NASA