The Scottish Islands Where Electricity Is Being Made From the Ocean’s Tides

Courtesy Orbital Marine Power
Courtesy Orbital Marine Power

The cutting edge of renewable energy may be in a place you least expect it—a rugged archipelago off the northern coast of mainland Scotland.

Home to about 22,000 people, the Orkney Islands are a stunning landscape known for having charming villages, ancient Neolithic structures, sheer cliffs, and churning seas. A collection of about 70 islands roughly 10 miles from the mainland, Orkney straddles the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and, as a result, is home to incredibly strong tides, making it a prime place to harness energy from the sea.

This shouldn’t be surprising—the Orkney Islands have been at the forefront of renewable energy for years. The world’s first grid-connected wind turbine was tested in Orkney in 1951. For more than 15 years, the islands were home to the world’s largest wind turbine. In 2014, the islands produced 104 percent of their needed power through renewable energy sources. And today, they are home to the European Marine Energy Centre, or EMEC, a facility that tests the viability of tide-based energy technologies.

Since its inception more than a decade ago, EMEC has helped install at least 30 different prototypes in Orkney’s waters, from a submerged Archimedes Screw to an underwater kite. According to the Orkney Renewable Energy Forum, there are “more grid-connected ocean energy devices tested in Orkney than at any other single site in the world.”

Most recently, a new prototype has been making a huge splash. This year it was announced that a newly installed tidal energy turbine called the SR2000—which resembles a yellow submarine bobbing on the current—generated an eye-popping three gigawatt-hours of electricity. “[T]hat’s more power generated in 12 months from this single turbine than the entire wave and tidal energy sector has done in Scotland in the 12 years preceding the launch of this turbine,” says Andrew Scott, CEO of Scotrenewables Tidal Power (now Orbital Marine Power), according to the BBC. As the network explains, the single device “can typically generate 7 percent of Orkney’s electricity, but at points has been able to power more than a quarter of the area’s homes.”

And it can do more than create energy from the motion of the ocean—it’s capable of helping produce hydrogen fuel, too. Earlier this year, electricity created by the SR2000 was fed into an electrolyzer and used to split water molecules into their component parts of oxygen and hydrogen. Plans are to use this hydrogen in fuel cells, which can become a supplemental power source for ferries docking in Orkney.

While all of the Orkney generators feed their electricity into the UK’s grid, there are hopes to introduce the technology to other parts of Great Britain's waters—the UK government estimates that wave and tidal energy have the potential to supply 20 percent of the country’s electricity needs.

The Tree That Inspired Dr. Seuss's The Lorax Has Fallen Over

Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Truffula trees at the center of The Lorax may have been a product of Dr. Seuss's imagination, but it's believed they were inspired by a real-life tree in La Jolla, California. Nearly 50 years after the environmental parable was published, Smithsonian reports that the iconic Monterey cypress has fallen.

The tree had grown for 80 to 100 years in what is today Ellen Browning Scripps Park in Southern California. It was clearly visible from the observation tower where Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, lived in La Jolla following World War II.

While the children's book author and illustrator never stated that the tree inspired his work, locals started referring to it as "The Lorax Tree." The resemblance it bears to Seuss's Truffula is undeniable: Both have skinny trunks with whimsical curves and thick, fluffy canopies of foliage concentrated at the top.

In The Lorax, the Truffula trees are threatened by the Once-ler, who wants to chop them down and turn them into garments called Thneeds. The title character "speaks for the trees" and conveys the book's environmentalist message.

Unlike the Truffula, La Jolla's Monterey cypress appeared to be in no danger until it recently toppled over. Arborists aren't sure what caused the collapse, as they hadn't noticed any prior health issues with the tree except for some termites. The past year's uncharacteristically wet winter and the effect it had on the surrounding soil may have played a role, so experts are looking into that possibility.

Most of the tree has been removed from the area, and the city plans to plant another tree in its place. There are also plans to salvage and repurpose the trunk from the fallen tree, though they haven't been made official.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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