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Posted by Ellen

Twenty years ago, the SS United States was tied up to a wharf on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia to rust away next to Home Depot and Ikea and the cars whizzing by on Columbus Boulevard. The plan was to eventually ???

Once upon a time, this was the largest and fastest ocean liner on earth. Building it was the forty-year obsession of a man who never spent a day in school studying ship design; William Francis Gibbs was a lawyer by training, but in 1913, a year after that thing happened with the Titanic, he left his law practice and started drawing sketches for a bigger, better, safer, faster passenger ship.

The ship is 980 feet long, more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic.  It's divided into 20 watertight compartments reaching almost fifty feet above the waterline, and it's designed to keep on sailing even if as many as five of the compartments are breached and flooded. It's also virtually fireproof; the only wood on board was in a Steinway grand piano.

When the SS United States was finally constructed after World War II, certain of its design features, including its four propellers and the shape of its hull underwater, were classified military secrets, in case the ship were ever refitted as a troop transport. Its maiden voyage from New York to Rotterdam–during which its engines ran at about about two-thirds of full speed–took less than four days, setting an Atlantic crossing speed record that was only broken by subsequent SS United States crossings.  To this day, no other ocean liner has ever been built that could sail any faster.

But air travel, of course, waits for no ship. In 1969, the SS United States sailed for the last time under its own power. After idling for a while in New York, it was towed to Ukraine, where it was stripped of all its fittings (and of the asbestos that had helped make it so fire-resistant). Eventually, it was tied up a pier in Philadelphia, designer Gibbs's hometown, where business plan after business plan for the hulking hull never could attract the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be necessary just to stop the rust and turn it into something commercial, perhaps a floating hotel that would never leave the pier.

A nonprofit conservancy organization, meanwhile, has had to raise $60,000 a month just to keep the rusted thing afloat. This year is the final deadline, they say; if the money for a real plan doesn't show up this year,  the ship will finally have to be scrapped.

At the moment, there's a new plan: Crystal Cruises, a Hong Kong–based cruise line, has taken over the monthly maintenance costs and signed an option to buy the ship within a year. The company says it is currently studying the feasibility of restoring it as a luxury cruise vessel, which could cost something like $700 million.

So maybe she'll sail again. Meanwhile, you can get a really good view of what's left of the SS United States from the parking lot outside Longhorn Steak House.

Posted by Ellen

All across this great land, my friend, from Iowa to New Hampshire and all sorts of places betwixt and between, politicians are by no means the only Americans who are taking it to the mat.

To start with, from Lacey, Washington, to Riviera Beach, Florida, now is the season when Stein men are coaching high school wrestling. In Lacey, Hank's working with the Timberline Blazers, and in Riviera Beach, Allen's got the Suncoast Chargers. As the regular season winds down,  the coaches are seriously busy, trying to prepare their wrestlers for sectionals and regionals and states.

Pictured here is one of Hank's Blazers bringing it on, in a tournament last January at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

Posted by Ellen

Years of drought have drastically lowered the water level of Lake Abbe, along the border between Djibouti and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. Vast stretches of what used to be lake bottom are now exposed, including clusters of limestone formations like these, many of which are chimneys venting sulfuric steam.

The chimneys formed when the vents were underwater; heat from the steam caused minerals to precipitate out of the lake water and build up around the rims of the vents.

Lake Abbe is a salt lake, the lowest point of a desert drainage system that has nowhere to drain. It's full of steam and sulfur because it's probably the birthplace of a new ocean, a triple junction of spreading faults where three tectonic plates are being pulled relentlessly apart from one another. Two of the faults are already so deep that they are full of ocean water: the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The third fault stretches south from Lake Abbe through eastern Africa as a chain of lakes and deep depressions: the East African Rift. 

Along these faults, tectonic plates are pulling apart from one another at rates approaching an inch a year, thinning out the earth's crust in the region, and generating much volcanic activity and gaseous emissions. The geologic evidence strongly supports the likelihood that someday the land around Lake Abbe will be thousands of feet underwater, near the middle of a big blue sea.

But it will take a while. Rifting began here about 60 million years ago. At current rates of divergence, the new basin is spreading roughly 10 miles every million years. In another 100 million years, we'll have an ocean about a thousand miles across.

The drought may (or may not) be over by then.

Posted by Ellen

Just another day at the beach, in Australia.

When global warming brings us beach weather in January here in the mid-latitudes of the northern Hemisphere, this particular Australian beach, as well as all our American beaches and those of all the other continents, will be under water. The city of Philadelphia will be under water, along with most of the world's major cities. Oh well. Beaches in West Virginia could be nice.