A relentless heat wave that's been roasting the U.S. for days is now in high gear, with many parts of the country expected to remain historically hot well into the weekend. Up to two dozens deaths have been blamed on the extreme heat and humidity so far, which are combining to create heat-index values as high as 115 degrees in some areas, according to the National Weather Service. "These triple-digit temperatures are forecast to remain in place across the eastern U.S. through Saturday," the NWS warns.

The heat wave has already broken 55 temperature records and tied 60 more in parts of the Midwest and Ohio Valley, CNN reports, and roughly half of the country is now under an official heat advisory. All this is due to a so-called "heat dome" — a huge high-pressure system pushing hot, moist air against the Earth's surface — that's been expanding eastward from the central U.S. since last week. Originally concentrated over the Great Plains, the dome has now enveloped most of the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard, and it's not likely to let go until at least Sunday. Humid air from the Gulf of Mexico is also swirling throughout the dome, traveling farther inland than it normally would, and is helping fuel thunderstorms along a "ring of fire" on the dome's perimeter. These storms can provide temporary relief, NWS meteorologist Kevin Birk tells Business Insider, but the dome is so enormous that it rebuilds heat quickly.

The heat dome is putting a strain on the U.S. power grid, USA Today reports, as millions of Americans take solace in climate-controlled buildings. Rolling blackouts are already under way in Detroit, according to ABC News, while Chicago reached an all-time peak usage rate Wednesday and New England's ISO utility — which covers six states — expects to break into its top 10 highest-usage days Saturday. Some relief could be on the way later this weekend, though, says NWS meteorologist Michael Eckerdt. "There is a cold front that is going to be dropping into the eastern U.S. this weekend," Eckerdt tells ABC News. "The heat will continue into Saturday and then we will see moderating temperatures back down into around the 90-degree range as we move into Sunday and Monday. But it's going to still remain very warm."

(Sources: CNN, USA Today, ABC News, AccuWeather, Business Insider, NWS)


Farmers from California to Florida are fighting a growing crime wave, the New York Times reports, as sophisticated thieves increasingly pilfer things like almonds, avocados, grapes, tomatoes and even honeybees. A rash of bee thefts recently plagued Madera County, Calif., for example, where one beekeeper lost 400 hives worth $100,000. "They'd just go in there and they smoke the bees, sedate them and take them," Sheriff John Anderson tells the Times. "And they wear protective gear just like the pros."

The economy is partly to blame, law enforcement officials say, as thieves grow more desperate and local governments cut rural crime-fighting budgets. As the director of rural crime prevention for the California Farm Bureau points out, the lack of violence involved in most farm burglaries makes them a lower priority for funding. "Violent crimes have to come first," she says. The California Emergency Management Agency offers grants for rural crime fighting in agricultural areas like the Central Valley, but those grants have shrunk in recent years, the Times reports — down from nearly $4 million in 2008-'09 to about $2 million in 2010-'11. Meanwhile, Kern County Sheriff's Sgt. Walt Reed tells the Times that "all of our ag crimes are up." He attributes it partly to a wet winter and warm summer, which have led to big harvests: "Everything this year is doing well. And if it's doing well here, there's somebody looking to steal it."

And while "ag crimes" aren't typically violent, they can still be devastating for victims. Thieves have taken about $15,000 worth of crops and property this year from California farmer Steve Mello, for example, who says it's impractical for him to keep them off his land. "It's difficult to lock up 1,400-plus acres," he tells the Times. "The value of the fences would be worth more than I'm worth." He tried standing guard on his tractor with a shotgun for a while, but fortunately never had a confrontation. "Death for thievery is kind of a severe sentence," he says. "I wouldn't want that on my conscience."

(Source: New York Times)


Now that the U.S. space shuttle program is over, and NASA is mired in a bit of an identity crisis, other countries are racing to fill the void — and not just Russia. As the Los Angeles Times reports, China, India and Iran are all nursing ambitious space-travel plans, while Israel, Japan, North Korea and South Korea are also developing their own rockets to launch from their own facilities. 

Most of the world still lags far behind the U.S. when it comes to space-flight technology and engineering, the Times points out, and only Russia is even in the same league as NASA at this point. But with the shuttle fleet now grounded, and NASA without its own vehicle to send astronauts to space, many other countries see an opening. China plans to launch the first phase of its own space station later this year, for example, and aims to put a person on the moon within a decade. India is planning its second robotic moon mission, and hopes to land a lunar rover within two years and send a human into orbit by 2016. The European Space Agency is working on a Mars mission, and Iran will send a monkey into orbit this summer. That's seen as a first step before a followup launch of the first manned Iranian mission into space.

As former Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell tells the Times, this could be a wake-up call for Americans to refocus once again on the final frontier. "It's hard to believe that other nations will surpass us in space technology," Lovell says. "But if we continue down the road we're headed, it can be done. I hope we turn it around soon." While Russia and the U.S. have been collaborating for years on the International Space Station, even Russian space agency Roskosmos couldn't resist a little boasting after Atlantis landed Thursday morning. "Mankind acknowledges the role of American space ships in exploring the cosmos," the agency said in a statement. But, it added, "From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability."

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse)


Fish in the Great Lakes can't seem to catch a break. Whether it's industrial pollution from shoreline factories, invasive lampreys from the Atlantic Ocean, invasive mussels from Russia or invasive carp from China, the giant glacial lakes have been the country's ecological punching bag for decades. And as the Chicago Tribune reports, hundreds of millions of Great Lakes fish are also being killed every year by old power plants as they suck up lake water to cool their equipment.

"These plants are consistent killers, plain and simple," commercial Lake Erie fisherman Frank Reynolds tells the Tribune. "They're trying every way they can to avoid doing something to protect the fish." The Tribune obtained records showing that hordes of fish are regularly killed by intake systems at dozens of Great Lakes power plants, including those fueled by coal, gas and nuclear fission. Billions of eggs, larvae and young fish are also small enough to pass through the intake systems' filter screens, meaning they're "cooked to death by intense heat and high pressure," the Tribune reports. As the warm water is then pumped back out into the lakes, up to 30 degrees warmer, it promotes the kind of oxygen-depleting algae that can kill fish by creating aquatic "dead zones."

This "once-through" cooling system is banned at new power plants, but regulators have effectively grandfathered in older plants — even as fish populations plummet and states spend millions in tax money to restock the lakes with game fish. The power industry has long fought rules that might force it to upgrade these plants, however, arguing that it would force many to close, thus costing jobs and raising electricity rates. The Obama administration has proposed new rules that would force plants to either meet specific fish-kill limits or reduce the speed of intake systems, the Tribune reports, but it's unclear how much effect they would have. The EPA would leave enforcement up to state officials who have already neglected the issue for years, and exemptions would let up to 60 percent of plants affected by the rules avoid making any changes.

(Source: Chicago Tribune)


U.K. tackles animal cruelty, EPA admits problems with "environmental equity," and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (hot summer sun): Tim Samoff/Flickr

Photo (grapes in Amador County, Calif.): Lee Coursey/Flickr

Photo (Chinese orbital rocket lifting off on July 6): ZUMA Press

Photo (Fermi nuclear plant in Michigan): NOAA/NCCOS

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 7/22/2011
U.S. heat wave peaks, crooks steal crops, Iran aims for space, and more.