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The power of the Gulf Stream

August 10, 2009 |  9:42 am


Florida researchers are looking into whether the powerful Gulf Stream might be a renewable-energy resource. Florida Atlantic University is trying to find out if underwater power-generating turbines could harness the current off Florida's east coast.

Sounds good, right? Well, Stan Ulanski, author of "The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic," thinks it might work -- but it also might have costs. On the University of North Carolina Press blog, he writes:

Though the Gulf Stream can move for surprisingly long distances, hugging the eastern seaboard from Florida to North Carolina, southern Florida probably has the greatest potential for success for such a project....

How much energy can safely be extracted versus the environmental effects?

Potential obstacles to a full-blown project include the effects the turbines might have on the marine life, recreational activities, and shipping.

How the turbines might affect the Gulf Stream's flow, if at all, is another question he raises. While sailors and fishermen have known bits about ocean patterns for decades, the details of the workings of the Gulf Stream are yet to be fully understood. In the opening to his book, Ulanski outlines one serendipitous accident that set off a new line of scientific inquiry:

In January 1992, a merchant ship encountering storm conditions near the International Date Line in the North Pacific lost 12 containers overboard due to the heavy seas. Part of this cargo was 29,000 floatable, plastic bathtub toys: turtles, frogs, beavers, and yes, ducks. Some of these toys began coming ashore in southeast Alaska 10 months later. This unfortunate accident became a scientific gold mine.... Since 1992, these providential discoveries have continued as oceanographers tracked other floating objects, including 34,000 hockey gloves, 5 million Lego pieces, and at least 3,000 computer modules.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Key Biscane, Fla. Credit: joiseyshowaa via Flickr