The Days, Years After: Recovering from Bigger, Badder Disasters

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Link suite overview: on recovering from disasters; the lessons of Irene, Joplin, Fukushima, Pakistan flood, Queensland flood, Christchurch quakes, Haiti quakes, Katrina; collateral damage and eco-smart design as insurance

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It has been a banner year for disasters in the US with  a record-breaking 10 “billion-dollar-plus” knock-out punches, and still four months to go. So far: massive blizzards, epic floods, murderous tornadoes and one staggeringly large, coast-shredding hurricane. As  a grace note, an earthquake on an previously unknown fault in Virginia put cracks in the Washington monument—a wound as disturbing symbolically as structurally.

Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.

Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).

The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly.  As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.

It made a difference. People got out of harm’s way. Although the death toll has now climbed into mid-forties, with likely a few thousand more injured, an estimated 65 million people felt some part of Irene’s fury. Most stayed safe, which is remarkable.

Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.

The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.

It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.

There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.

Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.

Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”

IN RECOVERY

“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.

  • Political gridlock (Japan) can be just as devastating as corruption (Haiti) in slowing recovery
  • Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)

On a more encouraging note, all sorts of new and better tools for  mapping, clean-up, construction and communication have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, all made accessible, and some made possible, by the web.

Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.

Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.

Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.

Additional highlights of the link suite include:

… and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

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Soggy Spring, Silent Seas (link suite overview)

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On storms, floods, food prices and foolish farm policies; Redistributing fertility from where it’s needed to where it’s not; Corn, gullies and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone

TrackerNews link suite on the record storms and floods in the US. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

According to insurance industry consultancy EQECAT, the damage caused by the hundreds of tornadoes that exploded across the southern tier of the US in April rank right up there in Hurricane Katrina territory: $2 to $5 billion. That’s 2 to 5 times the average seasonal toll. Meanwhile, the death count—still not final at 340—is more than four times the seasonal average. And while the outbreak itself lasted several days, individual tornadoes shredded cities, tossed cars, stripped trees and pulverized farms in mere  seconds, the strongest storms packing winds far more powerful than even a “Cat 5” hurricane.

The before-and-after photos are Hollywood blockbuster extreme: Landscapes scoured beyond recognition. Whole neighborhoods reduced to spiky plywood shards and lumps of fast-molding candy-pink insulation. With almost tornadic speed, a Facebook page was set up in the aftermath to reunite photographs and documents tossed from homes that no longer exist with their owners. The successes only underscore just how much is gone.

Heavy, steady rains and snow melt have combined to swell streams, rivers and lakes from Canada through the Deep South to the highest levels seen in decades. But it is the raging waters of the Mississippi and Ohio drowning America’s breadbasket that have grabbed most of the headlines.Gravid with topsoil-rich run-off,  they are breaking all the wrong kinds of records. To save Cairo, Illinois, a small, historic, hardscrabble city at the southernmost tip of Illinois where the two rivers meet—and was once a critical stop on the Underground Railway—the US Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile hole in a levee, turning nearly 200 square miles of rich Missouri farmland flood-plain into an insti-lake.

FARM REPORT

It will be months before the land dries out. Even then, the legacy of  chemical residues and storm debris will likely render the land unusable for some time. The situation is almost as dire throughout farm country. As of the last week of April, only 13% of the corn crop had been planted. Usually, 40 and 60% is in the ground by now. Prospects for the winter wheat crop are also bleak, with over 40% considered to be in “poor” or “very poor” condition. Predictably, commodity prices are soaring, with corn up 99% from a year ago and wheat up 55%. What began as a regional tragedy will become global catastrophe as food costs climb beyond the reach of millions.

At this point, even planting “fence row to fence row” will not be able to make up the losses. In fact, part of the problem has been this  push—supported by government subsidies—to plant every-last-possible–square-inch. Spring rains carve out deep gullies, funneling run-off laced with chemical fertilizers into creeks and streams—hundreds of tons of topsoil literally washed away every season.

Well, not quite away. The Mighty Mississippi will be delivering a mighty mother lode to the Gulf of Mexico in the coming days, where it will fertilize a bumper crop of algae, which will suck so much oxygen out the water, fish will either flee or float. Many predict a record hypoxic “dead zone” this year.

Stormy weather, indeed.

Scientists won’t know for sure whether any of this can be chalked up to climate change—a warmer world is a juicier, rainier one—until, frankly, it is too late to matter. It will take years of wretched weather to establish a proof-positive pattern.

But while we wait, there actually are some fairly simple things that could be done to mitigate damage from future storms. According to “Losing Ground,” a new report by the Environmental Working Group, creating land-cover buffers around creaks, streams and rivers would reduce farm run-off significantly: “97% of soil loss is preventable by simple conservation means.”

Really, why wouldn’t we want to do that?

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Japan: The Big One

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On primal forces and perspective, how climate change may make nuclear an even more dicey option and better, smarter search & rescue bots (background and link suite-story overview)

TrackerNews link suite on the Japanese earthquake, tsumami and nuclear disaster. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

The March 11 earthquake off the east coast of Japan was one for the record books. Now rated a 9.0 on the Richter scale by the Japanese Meteorological Society, up from what was still a rather gobsmacking 8.9 initial estimate, the temblor known locally as Great Earthquake of Eastern Japan is officially tied for fourth in the official record books.

But in many ways, this was an earthquake like no other.

Nearly 60 million people felt direct shaking. The breakdown as measured by the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, which is calibrated to measure surface impact rather than seismic energy: “2.14 million (VIII – Severe), 29.96 million (VII – Very Strong), 19.69 million (VI – Strong) and 7.07 million (V – Moderate).”

Then the tsunami hit, a 30-foot killer wave weaponized with debris, racing inland with pedal-to-the-metal speed, flattening buildings, drowning fields, swamping towns, shredding lives.

This being Japan, where all phones are smart and digital cameras abound, the catastrophe was documented in staggering detail. In near real-time, images raced across the planet even faster than the tsunami. We watched in collective global horror as dark water oozed across the land, snuffing out all signs of life and civilization in its path. From Tokyo came video of chandeliers shaking, computers tumbling, books falling. We felt people’s terror in the crazy angles of videotaped escapes. We cried out as shards of glass rained down on frightened office-workers.

The images were mesmerizing: Pirates of the Caribbean-style maelstroms, boats rammed into bridges, cars and trucks bobbing in water like so many assembly line-perfect white metal rubber duckies.

By night, fires lit up the sky. By day, black smoke spewed from an oil refinery.

And then the first of two nuclear plants plant buildings exploded, unleashing the twin specters of Hiroshima and Chernobyl (whose 25th anniversary comes up in a few weeks). If the sight of a flattened landscape wasn’t enough to drive home the sobering truth of man’s limitations against primal forces of nature, hundreds of aftershocks—dozens measuring 6.0 or higher— continued to shake the ground for the slow learners.

So strong was the initial jolt, report scientists, the Earth itself was moved inches off its axis and sped up ever-so-slightly, while Japan shifted eight feet closer to the US.

The death toll, which could top 10,000, comes nowhere near the scale of the human tragedy witnessed in Banda Aceh after the tsunami there six years ago. Still, it is beyond all ken: Thousands gone in an instant. For the survivors it will be a slow, costly recovery, strewn with stark choices.

Japan relies on nuclear power to supply one-third of its energy needs. Rolling blackouts are planned for the next several weeks, a forced conservation to make up for loss of the plants damaged in the quakes. Economists predict that alone could shave off nearly a third of a percentage point of GDP: “A 25 percent cut in the power supply may hurt production in the manufacturing sector by 2.5 percent, 5 percent for the non- manufacturing sector and 10 percent for the financial, insurance, information and telecommunications sectors…”.

Around the world, over 400, mostly older, nuclear plants are online, some in areas vulnerable to natural disaster. Some 65 new reactors are under construction worldwide, with another 155 planned. Earthquake-prone Italy is banking on nuclear. So are India and China, seeing it as a way to counter carbon-spew from coal-burning power plants. The Japanese disaster has caused the Indians to reassess, but the Chinese are determined to go forward, albeit with a bit more caution.

Ironically, it may be the very carbon-spew these countries seek to curb that is making nuclear power an increasingly dangerous option.

CONNECTIONS & CONSEQUENCES

Last April, a group of scientists specializing in climate-modeling called for “wide-ranging research into whether more volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis could be triggered by rising global temperatures under global warming.” This came after years of small studies suggested the likelihood of such links.

In polar regions, melting ice releases pressure on land, allowing it to bounce back to its pre-glacial state (a process called isostatic rebound). That, in turn, alters pressure on tectonic plates, increasing the odds for volcanic and seismic activity. Meanwhile, drip by drip, the water from the melted ice raises sea levels, which alters stress levels elsewhere on the planet.

Fourteen years ago, a study published in Nature looked at the rate of sea level rise and volcanic activity over an 80,000 year stretch in the Mediterranean. “When sea level rose quickly, more volcanic eruptions occurred, increasing by a whopping 300 percent.”

Speed, then, plays a role. Worryingly, the rate at which the ice in Greenland and Antarctica is melting is accelerating, according to new research published this month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

1) North American Plate 2) The Eurasian Plate 3) The Philippine Sea Plate 4) The Pacific Plate

Japan sits at the juncture of four tectonic plates, making it particularly vulnerable to volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis (tsunami: from the Japanese words tsu, meaning port, and nami, meaning wave). Even sans the extra water weight, 20% of all Richter scale 6.0+ earthquakes happen here.

A large quake—7.5 or above—was, in fact, predicted to occur sometime over the next 30 years for the fault that gave way so spectacularly last Friday, but no one expected, or was prepared for, a 9.0. Indeed, no major earthquake for which there is any record or reference over the last 1,300 years in Japan has been that powerful.

Could tectonic pressures linked to climate change have played a role?

When we think of climate change, we tend to think of droughts, floods, extreme weather and ocean acidification. But the atmosphere and the lithosphere have had an eons-long relationship, full of subtleties beyond current human understanding. Researchers just now are beginning to tie specific weather events to climate change. We still cannot predict seismic events, much less make connections to specific triggers.

The past, however, does offer some disturbing clues. And one way or the other, as greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere, warming the planet at record speed, melting its ice and changing its weather patterns, we are bound to find out.

BOTS TO THE RESCUE

In the meantime, in a lemonade-from-lemons sort of way, at least there has been some progress on the Search and Rescue bot front. Two in particular caught our attention:

  • Survivor Buddy sports a Max Headroom-style screen “head,” programmed with friendly animations created by a Pixar artist. The point? To create a socially appropriate robot to more effectively help the victims it finds.

“We need to design a robot that knows social graces and can garner trust and show respect and expertise. If you send down a robot that seems like a moron, that’s not going to help. It’s not going to make you like it. If it’s going to be a companion, a buddy, then you’d better like it. Think of all the things you need to be an effective search and rescue buddy. The robot has to likeable, seem smart, be trustworthy and seem caring, optimistic—but not overly optimistic.”

—Clifford Nass, Stanford University

  • The Kinect bot, developed by a student team at the U.K.’s Warwick University, using Xbox technology to detect survivor moment and distance—a clever hack that delivers tremendous functionality for little cost.

Also, some background on Disaster City, a 52-acre pile of rubble deep the heart of Texas, not far from the campus of Texas A & M in College Station, and the go-to place for putting rugged little robots through their paces. Designed to mimic a real disaster area and described as “Jerry Bruckheimer set,” the nearly $100 million testing ground was built in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing to train emergency responders. It looks strikingly like Sendai, Japan, full of collapsed building debris.

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It’s Melting! It’s Melting!: Linking Weather to Climate, Food to Revolution and a Rare Ray of Win-Win Hope

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On making predictions: Groundhogs and weather, distributed computing and climate, commodity markets and poverty and why a better way to keep things cool may help cool off the planet

February 2011, Chicago: What a difference less-than-three-weeks makes; Lake Shore Drive on Groundhog Day; Green shoots poking through dirt

It is hard to quibble with climate change when the freaky weather is freaky good. Less than three weeks after the Great Blizzard of 2011 stopped traffic literally in its tracks on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, it looks like April outside. Mountains of snow have disappeared into the ground and thin air as tree buds fatten and little green shoots of precocious flower bulbs poke up through the dirt. It’s like one giant “nevermind…”  The bill for all the plowing and salting and towing and snow-day-ing hasn’t even come due and the evidence has vanished.

We are flirting with 60 degrees. There are robins. The chill is gone from the wind. Our local groundhog, whose prediction came a day early this year—the zoo was closed on February 2—was right: early spring. Scratch that. Earliest spring.

Yes, it’s going to get cold again. Snow will fall. Water will freeze. But it won’t last. The earth is now tilted in our favor.

So is this really climate change or just a lucky break? Two studies recently published in the journal Nature point to the former. Although focused on “extreme weather events” in the Northern hemisphere rather than extremely nice days in the Midwest, both studies bolster the argument pointing blame at human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The first study focuses the intensity of rain storms and blizzards, analyzing a half century’s-worth of  rain gauge data from 6,000 reporting stations run through a variety of climate models. Weirdly, the models taking into account GHGs tend to low-ball the effects compared to actual changes in precipitation tallies. It other words, it’s soggier in real life.

Notably, the research doesn’t include data after 1999, which is when a significant number of recording stations were shut down. Yet even when the “best science available” isn’t as good as it might have been, it appears, at least in this case, to have been good enough to raise some major concerns.

Still, one wonders whether the missing data could have helped predict this winter’s record snows in Korea, the string of  Nor’easters in New England, or the recent megafloods in Germany and Pakistan. And if data from the Southern hemisphere had been included, would we have seen a pattern leading to the catastrophic storms in Australia and Sri Lanka?

FROM PATTERNS TO PREDICTIONS

The second study is, in a sense, much more ambitious: linking a specific weather event—floods in England 11 years ago—to man-mediated global warming. That kind of pin-point precision usually gets lost in climate study footnote caveats that point to variables surrounding any one particular storm.

…The researchers ran thousands of simulations of the weather in autumn 2000 (using idle time on computers made available by a network of volunteers) with and without the temperature rises caused by man-made global warming. They found that, in nine out of 10 cases, man-made greenhouse gases increased the risks of flooding. This is probably as solid a signal as simulations can produce, and it gives us a clear warning that more global heating is likely to cause more floods here…

…both models and observations also show changes in the distribution of rainfall, with moisture concentrating in some parts of the world and fleeing from others: climate change is likely to produce both more floods and more droughts.

(The Guardian)

Three things are especially worth noting:

1) These calculations were made possible by donations of otherwise idle computer time—40,000 years-worth all told. Even in an era of slashed research budgets, there are ways to make enough sense of available data to drive policy decisions (along with, potentially, lawsuits against power companies and insurance rate hikes).

2) We are all already paying the price—literally. Food costs are up by a nearly a third from a year ago, a spike so severe, the World Bank has voiced concern. According to its calculations, 44 million people  tipped into poverty due to higher food costs since June, 2010. Other commodities such as cotton are also up dramatically. Manufacturers are reigning in earnings estimates, citing weather-related crop shortfalls. Retailers, including Wal-Mart, are also bracing for the fall-out. The only thing going up is demand as global population continues to increase.

3) Soaring food costs, along with soaring unemployment and decades of repression, are fueling protests across North Africa, with global geopolitical ramifications.

Although higher commodity prices should at least be good news for growers, national subsidies have distorted global markets. In Africa, for example, even farmers with high-demand crops such as cotton can find it difficult to eek out a living.

A WIN-WIN AMIDST THE LOSE-LOSE

All in all, pretty bleak stuff. Except for the one little ray of good news / bad news hope that if the shift in climate is indeed driven by fossil fuel emissions—as a growing mountain of evidence indicates—maybe we can still do something about it. It may be too late to get the climate train back on  long-term track, but still possible to slow it down. That’s something.

Last fall, we wrote about some encouraging news on that front: an agreement between Greenpeace and the Consumer Goods Forum, which represents dozens large / multinational manufacturers, mandating a switch to climate-friendlier cooling technologies. The so-called “F-gases” released by traditional refrigerants account for a whopping “17% of the world’s global warming impact,” according to Greenpeace Solutions director Amy Larkin, who helped broker the deal. “That’s not annual emissions. That’s cumulative impact.”

Although several of the biggest companies, led by Coca-Cola, are already well on their way to making the switch, the language in the CGF agreement was softened at the last minute: Instead of requiring members to complete the transition by 2015, they are only required to begin making the transition by 2015.

What are they waiting for? Climate change-driven extreme weather is already taking a toll on bottom lines and shareholder confidence. F-gases may only a piece of the puzzle, but a piece that consumer goods companies can take the lead on: “positive change” that’s good for profits, too. In an era of a lot of lose-lose, that’s a rare win-win.

RELATED RESOURCES / ARTICLES:

Cry Me a River…and Pass Me a Shovel: On Rain, Snow, Sleet and Ice, Atmospheric Rivers and a World Gone Soggy

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Wintry Buffet: Blizzard, Ice Storms, Tornado Watches & Thundersnow / Feburary 1, 2011

The opening rounds of a potentially record-shattering blizzard swirl outside my office window. It is one thing to report on extreme weather around the globe and quite another to literally be in the howling midst of the story. It is a storm the likes of which has not been seen, at least in the hundred-some years since people have been keeping records.

Two-thousand miles across. A hundred million people in harm’s way. Blizzard warnings in at least nine states. Tornado warnings in others. Ice storms sealing whole cities in shells of slick an inch thick. Snow tallies measured in feet. Snow drifts sculpted into frozen dunes. Winds 30-40-50-even 60 mph driving temperatures into negative double-digit insti-frostbite territory. Twenty-five foot waves on Lake Michigan, powerful enough to turn Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive “into an ice-skating rink” (or, as it turned out, a parking lot…)

And yet we saw it coming, so it won’t be quite so bad. For the past couple of days, people have been stocking up on everything from salt and shovels to groceries and fireplace logs. Snow plows have been pre-positioned, and flights, by the thousands, canceled in anticipation by the airlines. Warming shelters have been opened and schools closed. The entire cast and crew of The Weather Channel is “in position,” ready to freeze for the camera so we don’t have to…

By Thursday, the sun will shine, though won’t make a dent in the mountains of snow now pushed Himalaya-high by the primal forces of snow plow and dump truck. If we’re lucky, thoughtful city crews will seize the opportunity to bury and maim much-hated foreign-leased parking meter boxes, giving us all a brief break from extortion-level fees.

Yes, there will be car accidents, stranded commuters, power outages, busted roofs, broken ankles, frostbitten fingers and toes, electric heater fires, and probably a few death-by-shoveling heart attacks. Municipal budgets, already struggling, will buckle under the costs. But mostly we will be alright.

TrackerNews link suite on global flooding

Not so the victims of floods in Australia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Germany, Italy, Mexico, England, Costa Rica, the Philippines and so many other places where record rains over the last year have led to tragedy beyond imagining. Normally quiet—or at least predictable—rivers have burst their banks, roaring Hulk-like over the land, submerging crops, stranding wildlife and sending millions of people scrambling for shelter, their lives forever altered, their hopes and dreams literally drowned. And when it wasn’t rivers on a rampage, it was the saturated ground itself that gave way, unleashing killer mudslides, burying thousands alive.

The future could be even soggier. In the short-term, Australia’s rain-wracked state of Queensland is currently bracing for Yasi “one of the most devastating cyclones on record.” A little harder to pin down schedule-wise  is something called an ARk storm, due to slam into the California, dumping up to 10 feet of rain over several weeks and costing, when all is said and done, three times as much as a big earthquake: an estimated $725 billion.

ARk storms have happened before, most recently 150 years ago when it rained for nearly two months straight. So many livestock drowned, ranchers traded in branding irons for plows in the aftermath and became farmers. In the USGS scenario, one of the world’s great food baskets, the Central Valley, fills up like a giant bathtub, 300 miles long and 20 miles wide.

Serious flooding also occurs in Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities. Windspeeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds. Across wider areas of the state, winds reach 60 miles per hour… Flooding evacuation could involve 1.5 million residents in the inland region and delta counties.

—Overview of the ARkStorm Scenario

The good news is that an ARk storm is supposed to happen only once ever 500 to 1,000 years. The bad news? A warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere, so scientists suspect that those between-storm time frames to shrink. Add in all the “fossil water” that’s been pumped to the hydrologic system from slow-renewing aquifers over the last half century and it’s easy to see that there is more water in Earth’s atmosphere than there has been for quite a long time. (Although fossil water amounts to a tiny percentage of the overall total, even small changes can eventually lead to much bigger ones: the “butterfly effect.”)

The “AR” in “ARk” stands for “atmospheric rivers.” We know them as the Pineapple Express or the Alberta Clipper—conveyer belts of moisture laden air. Now, with more moisture in the air, they, too, have burst their banks. The floods above our heads beget the floods here on the ground.

An intricate weave of ocean surface temperatures driving global weather patterns—La Nina, El Nino and a slew of acronyms only meteorologists can keep straight—combined with man-made changes to the land—deforestation, development, crumbling, inadequate infrastructure—determine how severe damage will be. But clearly more people are in harm’s way. And more harm is on the way.

The climate is in shifting. Climate change is a done deal. Umbrellas for everybody…and some shovels, too.

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Trees, Food, Pakistan & the Lessons of Medieval Monks: How Ecosystems Thinking Can (Still) Save the World

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On deforestation, floods, global commodity markets and food empires; The lessons of medieval monks; Urbanization and ecosystems thinking; Saved by a worm?

On the frontlines of Pakistan flood: Chris Anderson's posts, videos and photographs

Of all the horrifying stories to come out of Pakistan in this long waterlogged summer of raging floods, perhaps the most tragic is why the disaster become a full-blown, future-blighting catastrophe: Deforestation had left the country stripped of almost all its forest cover. Trees that would have soaked up rain and slowed the flow weren’t there to do so. Nor were roots in place to keep land from sliding away.

Adding insult to injury, according to Al Jazeera, money from illegal logging near the Afghan border in Malakand found its way into the pockets of the Taliban. And in a literal cascade of bad to worse, the ill-gotten timber, stashed temporarily in ravines, magnified the destructive power of the flood-waters, shredding bridges and roads in the hurtle down river.

When the waters eventually recede, an eroded landscape will emerge. Whatever fertility the ground held will have been leached away, much of it to end up as mucky silt, clogging Pakistan’s over-extended, under-maintained massive irrigation network.

Even without flooding, deforestation means more than the loss of trees: Biodiversity flat-lines. In Pakistan, wild animals and plants that had been a source of food and medicine are no longer there to be hunted or gathered. The people who depended on the forests are out of luck. Another, albeit thin, slice of Eden gone.

Although the scars are local and downstream effects regional,  the impact is actually global.

Take, for example, Pakistan’s role as the world’s fourth largest producer of cotton, generating roughly 10% of global supply. Since this year’s crop is a literal wash out, the 2010 global harvest won’t meet demand. The situation is that much more serious, considering that even minus Pakistan’s contribution, the harvest will be larger than last year’s, coming in at 100 millions bales.  Increased demand from an ever-growing global population will translate to a 4 million bale shortfall, according to analysts. That means cotton prices are going up for everybody everywhere.

Next year, when you pay more for jeans, blame the Taliban…

(added 10/4/10: “Cotton Clothing Price Tags to Rise” / New York Times)

HOW MORE BECOMES LESS

Global supplies are also tight – and prices rising – for other commodities. What began as a season full of bumper crop predictions turned to whole wheat toast in the heat of Russia’s bumper drought, and mush in the wake of Canada’s floods. Supplies aren’t expected to ease until the end of 2011, the earliest a temporary Russian export ban may be lifted.

From corn to rice, and fish to fruit, the era of easy surpluses is over. Any glitch almost anywhere in the weather, or disease outbreak, insect infestation, pollinator decline or oil spill can send ripples throughout the global food network.

“Despite record harvests beteeen 2000 and 2007, the world ate more food than it produced. Back in 1998, human beings grew 1.9 billion tons of cereals and ate 1.8 billion tons of them. Since then yields have risen, but so have our appetites, and there’s a disjoint between the two. In five of the last ten years, the world consumed more food than farms have grown, while in a sixth year we merely broke even. Reserves are bottoming out. Even without a climate trigger, the ledger shows some unpleasant mathematics.”

Empires of Food

So entwined have commodity markets become  that instead of diluting risk, we share consequences. Inevitably, the consequences that are roughest on the most vulnerable: As the need for food aid increases, not only is there less food to go around, it is also more expensive.

FOOD / CULTURE

This is hardly the first time this sort of thing has happened. In their new book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas write with breezy style and depressing detail of how food networks throughout history have crashed for utterly predictable, if not always completely preventable, reasons.

They point to four fraught assumptions:

  • Soil is fertile: Unless carefully managed, it won’t stay fertile. Fertility “bumps” from planting on newly deforested areas are temporary. Chemical fertilizers are addictive: The more you use, the more you need. Also, much is lost in farm field run off, which knocks nature’s balance out of whack as it moves downstream (e.g., algal blooms that lead to marine “dead zones”). Fertilizers and pesticides also take a toll on soil’s natural microfauna, further affecting fertility.
  • Weather is good: Civilizations tend to flourish when the weather is predictable, with nice long growing seasons. But climates change, with or without man-made greenhouse gases to goose the process along.  A drop of one degree in Europe’s average temperature during the 16th century was enough to tip the Little Ice Age. “While such aberrations may seem piffling, if spring temperatures drop by just half a degree, the growing season can shrink by ten days.”
  • Specialization is smart business: Monocultures are more vulnerable to disease and predation. A food network of monocultures is only as strong as its weakest link. “…(S)ince all our specialty food patches depend on one another to constitute our food empire, none of them can exist alone.”
  • Energy is abundant and cheap: From fossil fuels used in chemical fertilizers, to fuel for tractors, trucks, trains, ships and planes and electricity for refrigeration, the cost of modern food is wedded to the cost of energy. Oil prices rise and food prices follow. If they spike, expect food riots, such as those seen in 2008, despite record-breaking harvests. “The weight of the global breadbasket was 2.24 billion tons, a robust 5 percent increase over the previous year. Yet food prices utterly detached themselves from the fact that we had reaped the best harvest in the entirety of human existence.”

To be mistaken in one colossal assumption about our food empire may be a misfortune. To be mistaken in all four seems like something worse than carelessness. It seems like willful disregard for the truth. When we finally shed these assumptions, we’ll realize the genuine price of the way we produce, distribute, and consume food.

MONKS, MONOPOLIES & TREES (AGAIN…)

Fraser and Rimas tell a cautionary tale from the Middle Ages that offers particularly striking parallels the present. A thousand years ago, monasteries sat atop a vertically integrated food network that would have been the envy of  any modern transnational conglomerate. The monks had money to invest in innovative technology (the moldboard plow), which provided an unbeatable advantage over small farmers, who found themselves with no choice but to move to cities. The monks also had to clout to control processing (royal licenses for milling) and become gatekeepers for distribution (royal licenses to run market fairs). But even such divinely-blessed productivity wasn’t to last.

More than temporal success, the most striking impact that the Cistercians had on Europe was that they chopped down all the trees. …(R)eal estate in Europe had gotten expensive. Even marginal land, bits of scrub and hilltop, needed to come under the plow to feed the growing markets in the cities. Since chopping trees and tilling hilly ground is a sure means of exhausting and eroding soil, over time, the harvests worsened. The monks kept pushing their farms outward, even plowing uplands that once pastured sheep and cattle – animals whose digestive systems had done an effortless job of fertilizing the earth. With the loss of livestock’s manure and the added cultivation, the ground blew and washed away even quicker…

…By the end of the thirteenth century, margins between supply and demand had thinned to a razor’s breadth. A decline of 10 percent in a year’s harvest spelled hunger; a loss of 20 percent of the harvest meant famine.

…And then the financial system imploded. For centuries, bankers in Siena had loaned heavily to Europe’s royal houses, financing wars and armies. They overextended themselves on architecture, cavalry, and crusades, so when the harvests dropped and manors or cities defaulted on their loans, the banks collapsed. In 1298, the Gran Tavola bank of the Bonsignori, the Rothschilds of their day, failed. Rents soared as landlords struggled to pay their debts. Work on Siena’s great cathedral came to stop…”

It took a few centuries, but the clever Sienese finally figured out how to turn a giant half-built nave into a tourist-driven profit center offering a one-of-kind-view of the Tuscan countryside. In the meantime, things got worse:

For most of Europe. the crisis truly began with a midsummer storm in 1314. It rained too much and for too long, drumming flat the ripening crops and rotting them on the stalk. The grain harvest proved both late and short, and the next year was worse. Dikes collapsed, the sea engulfed the fields and pasture, and an epidemic carried by Mongol raiders, possibly anthrax, managed to snuff out much of the continent’s livestock. In England, the price of wheat jumped eightfold. In 1316, it rained again, and Europe toppled into the worst famine in its history.

Deforestation. Economic collapse. Torrential rains. Burst dikes. Floods. Famine. Disease. Sound vaguely familiar?

By some estimates, 10% of Europeans starved to death that year.

CENTURY OF THE CITY

Can we learn from the monks’ mistakes? Or is the tragedy of Pakistan a sign of things to come? From Haiti to Guatemala to Borneo, deforestation has amplified the effects of natural disasters, yet planting trees is rarely, if ever, part of comprehensive aid packages.

graph credit: "Foreign Policy" - from a package of stories on global urbanization

The disconnect is pervasive. Urbanization may be the defining trend of our time. Over half the population now lives in cities. One billion people live in slums – a number expected to double with a couple of decades. Collectively, cities are expanding at a rate of 130 people-per-minute. China and India alone will account for 2/5 of global urban growth over the next 20 years. Yet few urban planners, economists, policy-makers or politicians seem to take into account the importance of undeveloped land –  sometimes far beyond city limits – for the health and safety of cities.

Stanford economist Paul Romer tells of looking out a plane window while flying over Africa and seeing plenty of “uninhabited” land, perfect for  “charter cities.” These are settlements built from scratch, based on rules designed to “provide security, economic opportunity, and improved quality of life.” These rules of men, however, show a breathtaking obliviousness to the rules of nature. Land empty of people doesn’t mean it is uninhabited, or that is doesn’t provide key services. Wetlands, flood plains, forests – all have great value for people. But their value is tied up in costs avoided (storm damage, pollution-related expenses), which are always more of a challenge to slot into a spreadsheet for investors.

To help make his case, Romer shows a graphic that visualizes all the arable land on Earth as a series of identical dots. The planet’s 3 billion city-dwellers take up only 3% of the dots. Add another billion living in proposed charter cities and it is 4%. Which sounds like a pretty reasonable deal, but, of course, the dots are not identical. Some land is good for wheat, other for rice. Some is ruined for a season by flood or drought, or just plain marginal. Some dots are former forests that have been slashed and burned to make way for  biodiversity-busting palm oil plantations. More people means we probably need more dots of arable land, not fewer. And as for wildlands that help nourish and provide water for the arable lands that feed the people in cities? Dot-less.

NODES & NETWORKS

Likewise, the truth behind the much-touted efficiencies of scale that make dense cities “greener” than car-dependent suburbs can get a little messy. “Green-ness” isn’t only about whether people walk or drive to stores, but also a function of how “green” the products and services they purchase may be, shipping included (which is why hybrid cars, loaded with globe-trotting battery components, aren’t quite as eco-friendly as billed). A true urban footprint extends as far as the trade routes used to bring in the goods that keep a city going. By that definition, almost every city is now a global city.

Boundaries are further blurred as urban areas merge and sprawl into megacities. In a sense, cities have become nodes of a single globe-spanning “supra-urban” network.

It will take systems thinking – preferably ecosystems thinking – to fully understand the dynamics of the network, and the keystone roles played by “undeveloped” lands.

Still, the connections are are clear enough to merit serious attention in the U.N.’s first “Global assessment report on disaster risk reduction,” published last year. Fast-growing slums are singled out as especially vulnerable to natural disasters. Along with improving urban infrastructure, the report underscores the need to protect ecosystems.

SAVED BY A WORM?

According to Fraser and Rimas, civilizations are only as strong as their food empires, and our global food empire is fraying badly. The quick fixes of chemical fertilizers, miracle pesticides, massive water projects and genetically modified seeds have either come up short or led to unintended consequences. Old blights, including Norman Borlaug’s nemesis, wheat rust, are staging comebacks, wiping out crops with as much ruthless efficiency as our increasingly erratic weather.

Growing Power's Will Allen with agricultural gold: vermicompost and worm casings

Although the situation appears bleak, ecosystems thinking – this time  writ small –  may help tide us along. Urban agriculture, from Havana to Brooklyn to Detroit, has gone from  green-hearted curiosity to a movement with the potential to change the dynamics of the global food empire. Small, local, replicable, scalable, flexible – it offers an alternative that can be adapted to almost any urban configuration.

Incorporate a closed-loop  aquaponics component, as MacArthur genius Will Allen has done at his three-acre Growing Power farm in Milwaukee, and there is a replenishable source of protein to go with all the fresh veggies. Fish – perch and tilapia by the thousands – swim in water filtered through plants grown in compost fertilized by the castings of red wriggler worms that have munched through mounds of garbage.

The worms –  Allen refers to them as “the hardest working livestock on the farm” – are the lynchpin of the operation. They generate the fertility that drives the biomimicked ecosystem, starting with a product that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Sweet Water Organics, the first commercial scale-up based on Allen’s blueprint, has now been in operation in Milwaukee for about a year. The learning curve has been steep, but the first crops of fish have now been harvested and sold.

Would such an operation work in Pakistan? Possibly. It would not answer the need for grains, which require fields. It would take time and investment. But it could provide a model for a local sustainable food supply. It could be a part of the solution.

So… If you really want to make a make a difference and help save the world, start by planting trees. Lots of flood-slowing, land-stabilizing, biodiversity-nurturing, CO2-absorbing trees. Then be humbled by the talents of worms. Support urban agriculture. Finally, try very, very hard not to repeat the food mistakes of the past. The story, guaranteed, always ends the same grim way.

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Hot, Cold, Wet, Dry: When Weather Becomes Climate

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The past as prologue: fortune-telling from tree rings; The Green Revolution hits the skids: genetically resilient pathogens and monoculture crops

What happens when the future comes early? When does record-breaking weather segue from unfortunate inconvenience to an inconvenient truth?

Trailer from Al Gore's documentary on climate change

When…

  • the Rio Grande actually looks like a big raging river? Some sections along the U.S. / Mexican border have risen 17 feet and more above flood stage, cutting off clean water supplies, affecting tens of thousands of people, destroying thousands of homes and triggering mass evacuations. Or…

“Warmer than average global temperatures have become the new normal,” says Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate analysis at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, which tracks these numbers. “The global temperature has increased more than 1 degree Fahrenheit [0.7 degree C] since 1900 and the rate of warming since the late 1970s has been about three times greater than the century-scale trend.”…

…”Frankly, I was expecting that we’d see large temperature increases later this century with higher greenhouse gas levels and global warming,” Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, who headed up the research, said in a prepared statement. “I did not expect to see anything this large within the next three decades.”

Was last Spring’s  Nashville flood, which took the region by surprise after 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, a local catastrophe or part of much larger trend? What about the 8 inch deluge than drowned Milwaukee last week? Or the second tornado ever to hit the Bronx?

WEATHER HAPPENS / CLIMATES CHANGE

If man-made greenhouse gases are behind the deadly weather, that’s good news: We can still do something about it. But as a new study of historic droughts in Asia shows, the ramifications of disturbed weather patterns can be devastating, no matter what the cause.

Scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory spent 15 years collecting samples from more than 300 sites across Asia to create an atlas of tree ring data for monsoon weather patterns. The correlations between major droughts and political unrest are striking, if not completely surprising. From the collapse of the Khmer civilization to the demise of the Ming Dynasty and the French Revolution, nothing topples a government faster than a desperate hungry mob.

Perhaps the worst drought, the scientists found, was the Victorian-era “Great Drought” of 1876-1878. The effects were felt across the tropics; by some estimates, resulting famines killed up to 30 million people. According to the tree-ring evidence, the effects were especially acute in India, but extended as far away as China and present-day Indonesia. Colonial-era policies left regional societies ill-equipped to deal with the drought’s consequences, as historian Mike Davis details in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. Famine and cholera outbreaks at this time in colonial Vietnam fueled a peasant revolt against the French.

The political opposition to the now crippled U.S. Climate Bill should be quaking in their boots. Given the staggering amount of scientific evidence linking human-generated greenhouse gas emissions to global warming and climate change, they will bear the blame for blocking action when it could have made a difference. (According to a new survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97% of scientists say climate change “very likely” has a man-made component.)

A BOUNTY OF BLIGHTS: CAUSE & EFFECT OR COINCIDENCE?

The cruelty of blight is uniquely insidious. Hopes, dreams and futures are destroyed along with crops. A blight is promise snatched away. In a matter of weeks, sometimes days, sometime hours, months of labor is laid to waste and investment is turned to debt.

It doesn’t take much: just a few invisible spores carried by the wind to a host plant. Once a botanical beach-head is established, blights – which thrive in the monocultures of modern agriculture – quickly become “community diseases,” spreading from plant to plant, field to field, region to region, painting once verdant fields black with the brush of death.

The first major victory in the The Green Revolution was genetic lab-tweak that made wheat impervious to a blight called stem rust, while also increasing yields – a rare and remarkable “two-fer” benefit. So significant was this breakthrough, plant biologist Norman Borlaug was award the Nobel Prize for it. The dream of eradicating hunger seemed within reach. Yet a little over a half-century later, the solution – crop protection provided by a single gene – has become part of the problem.

In 1999, a strain of rust was discovered in a wheat field in Uganda that had evolved past the genetic barrier. Dubbed “Ug99,” it has since splintered off into several strains or “races,” some of which are impervious to more recently developed multi-gene defenses. In a little over a decade, stem rust has traveled 5,000 miles and now threatens grain production in Africa and Asia, and indirectly threatens production everywhere else. From the pathogen’s perspective, all wheat has become more or less alike as diversity has been systematically bred away.

Wheat is the primary source of calories for millions of people worldwide, and accounts for around 30 percent of global grain production and 44 percent of cereals used as food. Globally, wheat provides nearly 55 percent of the carbohydrates and 20 percent of the food calories we consume every day.

Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General of the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

With so much at stake, an international collaborative effort, spearheaded by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, is playing a frantic game of defense, developing resistant strains to deploy strategically as barriers to slow the blight’s spread. But the work requires the cooperation of countries otherwise at odds, such as India and Pakistan. And it takes money: steady, dependable funding and lots of it.

Stem rust isn’t the only globetrotting super-pathogen:

  • An especially aggressive strain of brown streak virus is attacking Cassava, a staple for 800 million people in Africa, Asia and South America. In the 6 years since it was first spotted in East Africa, it has spread at pandemic speed. Cassava, a drought-tolerant plant that requires very little tending, is particularly important for regions beset with malaria and HIV/AIDS. Its loss means billions of dollars more needed for basic food aid. Cassava is also under siege from mealybugs in Thailand, which produces 60% of the world exports. Last year, many farmers suffered lost their entire crop.
  • Late blight, a.k.a. the blight that caused Ireland’s Great Potato Famine, turns out to also have a taste for American tomatoes. Last year, its spores not only rode the wind, but took to the highways, hitching on seedling plants trucked to home improvement stores across the country. In only two years, it appears to have become entrenched.
  • Stripe rust, another wheat  plague, was recently discovered to have an alternate host, the common ornamental barberry plant, on which the fungus sexually reproduces. The resulting genetic diversity of the fungus, set against the genetic uniformity of wheat, supplies the resilience that has made it so difficult to stamp out.

A warming world favors pathogens’ survival over winter, while shifting weather patterns can blow them into new territories. Human-mediated transport (trade and travel) clearly play a large role as well.

Whatever the drivers, these colliding trends of record-breaking weather / climate change and emerging plant diseases spell big trouble for global food security. In just the past month, wheat prices spiked 30%, due mostly to the Russian drought. Russia will still have enough for domestic needs, but higher prices are expected to drive up inflation, and there will be that much less for export. Stem rust primarily affects small farmers gowing for local consumption in the developing countries. Higher global commodity prices also translates into higher food aid costs.

According to the scientists at NOAA, the extreme weather of 2010 may very well be the “new normal.” Hotter, colder, wetter, drier. And way beyond inconvenient.

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