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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RELATED READING  / VIEWING

Plastics: Eco-Comedy / Eco-Tragedy

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On the power of humor, one farmer’s stand, birds, bottle caps, better bottles, trash-tracking and why corporations need  to push politicians toward smarter recycling policy

Here at TrackerNews, where our unofficial tagline is “One Damn Thing After Another,” the focus tends to be on the grim. Floods, droughts, plagues, blights, quakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, climate change, pandemics, drug-resistance, fake drugs,  oil spills, nuclear accidents, dead bees, dead trees, melting ice, rising seas, acidic oceans, aging populations, e-waste… Lather, rinse, repeat.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a sense of humor. Indeed, sometimes humor is the only thing that keeps us going. So when a music video on the evils of single-use plastic bags came flying in through the email transom, we perked right up (thanks Chris Palmer!). “A Plastic State of Mind,” co-winner of  this year’s Eco-Comedy Video Competition (who knew “eco-comedy” was a genre?), blew us away while hitting a bull’s eye on mission: We promise—we really do—to bring our canvas bags into the store, rather than forget them with a means-well shrug in the car. Or this could happen:

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Talk about “ads worth spreading”…

FARM(STAND) POLICY

Taking a more direct approach, farmer Henry Brockman, whose bounty is the stuff delectable legend at the summer market in Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago, charges for recyclable plastic bags, encouraging customers to bring their own re-usable bags instead. Within a single season, he managed to reduce demand 90%, taking 27,000 bags out of the plastic pollution equation. One little farm-stand. One small weekly market. A start.

Still, as his writer sister Terra notes, “recyclable plastic” isn’t exactly a get-out-eco-jail-card–free, so that’s still 3,000 bags too many:

First, we learned there is considerable doubt that biodegradable bags really do degrade under the conditions they are supposed to—including water, sun, and underground (e.g. landfill). Second, the renewable resource used to make most biodegradable plastics is corn, the chemical-intensive production of which has its own set of negative environmental impacts. To add insult to injury, we learned that the corn used to make the bags we purchased was grown in China. Thus, our “green” bags were contributing to soil loss, polluted wells, damaged ecosystems, and food insecurity in China—not to mention all the fossil-fuel use and concomitant pollution that started in a field in China, continued in a bag factory there, and then went on with emissions from trucks, ships, planes, and trucks again to finally get into our hands.

The Seasons On  Henry’s Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm

FOR THE BIRDS

If that isn’t enough for you to give up your errant plastic ways, do it for the birds. Photographers Chris Jordan and Kris Krug are currently on Midway Island,  filming a documentary follow-up to Jordan’s disturbing 2009 photo-essay on albatross killed from feeding in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirl of plastic rubbish in the middle of the ocean. The birds have a fatal fondness for plastic bottle caps, which accumulate in their stomachs, leading to agonizing deaths. Smaller bits of near invisible plastic—some no doubt that started out as single-use bags—threaten the food web itself.

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A BETTER BOTTLE?

Back in the grocery store, cola giants Pepsi and Coke are battling it out for “green” bottle bragging rights. Coke made the first move last year, introducing a 30% bioplastic bottle. Pepsi matched that and then some, announcing a new 100% bioplastic container to be rolled out in pilot trials next year.

With the cost of oil ever-rising, it’s a smart move financially. By some estimates, 200,000 barrels of oil per day are used to create plastic packaging, just in the US. Finding a cheaper, abundant, locally sourced feedstock is double eco-smart: ecological and economic.

Yet unless the recycle rate is vastly improved, there is a limit to the good it will do. Less than a third of all the plastic bottles that could be recycled actually are. The rest? Near-eternal entombment in landfills or swirling for decades in a toxic “ocean patch” vortex of death (every ocean has one…). The task isn’t made any easier when budget-slashing politicians, such as Wisconsin’s Governor Walker, cut municipal recycling funds.

An handful of companies and grocery chains, such as Aveda and Whole Foods, have plastic recycling programs, but it is a drop in the garbage bucket. And, though good-hearted, they take work. Who really wants to collect and schlep bags of plastic bottle caps to the store?

This is an issue that goes well beyond an “Earth Hour” or even a whole “Earth Day,” which, for all the hype and raised awareness, haven’t managed to move the dial nearly far enough. Policy, political will and corporate support must match the technical advances that have been made in materials science. Closed loop design only works if the loop can, in fact, be closed.

In 2009, a team from MIT’s Senseable City lab tagged 3,000 pieces of garbage in Seattle with tracking chips. Then they charted the journeys of each item over a two-month span, creating a mesmerizing data visualization video set to Hayden’s “Farewell Symphony.” An impressive 75% + found its way to a recycling facility and 95% was processed near the metro area. Those encouraging  numbers, however, may reflect skews specific to Seattle’s garbage / recycling pick-up services, the 500 garbage-providing volunteers, or the types of garbage collected. E-waste, for example, traveled an an average of nearly a 1,000 miles, adding a sizable carbon footprint to the process.

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Imagine if every major metro area developed a “garbage profile” to help pinpoint areas for improvement? The “feel-good” of recycling coupled with hard data to drive innovation: “Farewell Symphony”? Meet “Hello Dolly”!

It’s either that or a more “Plastic State of Mind”:

LYRICS
Shoulda brought your own bag
Yeah but you forgot it though
You were busy dreamin of ice cream and
all that cookie dough

Your life is wrapped in plastic
Convenience is your motto
But plastic addiction’s worse
than they want you to know

BP’s oil spill
Almost like we did it –
We use one million grocery-bags
every single minute

Recycling them’s a joke yo
That baggie don’t go anywhere
It turns to little pieces
and then it spreads over everywhere

Into your food supply
Into your blood supply
Not to mention birds and fish and
Cuties you don’t wanna die

Just look at baby Sammy
Dioxins in its milky way,
cuz even her breast milk it’s got
PCB and BPA

OK now you get it
How you gonna stop it though
Banning Single Use Plastic Bags
is the way to go!

Join other states and cities
Kick the nasty habit
Tell your representatives
Ban single-use bags made from plastic…

RELATED ARTICLES / RESOURCES:

The Nuke Factor: How to Make Disasters Worse and the Implications for Humanitarian Aid

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On 400+ aging nuclear reactors, quake-prone countries, food chains, trade networks and what this means for first responders and social entrepreneurs

TrackerNews link suite on the Japanese nuclear disaster. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Let’s get right to the point: What happens the next time a nuclear reactor goes rogue in the wake of a natural disaster? Japan is a worst case scenario in a best case place.

But what if the earth were to quake in Iran, China, Italy or Turkey—all of which are pursuing nuclear-fueled futures? Or Pakistan, where the IEAE  and US just gave their respective stamps of approval for two new Chinese-built plants? Each of those seismically-rocking countries floats precariously at (tectonic) plates’ edge. In fact, one of two reactors planned for Turkey is just a few miles from a major fault line.

The assurances of political leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are somehow less than reassuring: “I don’t think there will be any serious problem…The security standards there are the standards of today. We have to take into account that the Japanese nuclear plants were built 40 years ago with the standards of yesterday.”

Forty years may seem like an eternity to a politician, but is, in fact, a blink in a time-scale defined by nuclear radiation (see Chernobyl). Inspections have a way of getting missed (see Japan). Human error happens (see Three Mile Island).

In the meantime, major earthquakes striking all of these countries sometime over the projected lifespans of their reactors is a sure thing.

Beyond the issues of nuclear waste storage, the almost inevitable black market trade and surreptitious weapons programs, what happens when the “sure thing” meets the big risk? How does one keep radioactive fall-out from contaminating emergency food rations? Or find safe water? What happens when those best able to help are put in mortal danger if they try?

Is this the kind of border even doctors won’t cross?

No matter. The radiation will eventually come to them, traveling first through food chains, then trade networks. Some produce is already showing levels of radiation several times accepted limits, though authorities insist it is still safe. So far, the milk supply remains uncontaminated. But according the WHO, Japan is a big exporter of baby formula and powdered milk to China and the US. As the crisis drags on and radioactive particles work their way into cattle pastures, that could change.

In short, bad gets worse—much worse—once nuclear is part of the equation.

WAKE UP CALL

The tragedy in Japan should be a wake up call to NGOs, social entrepreneurs and all those working, as they say, “for positive change.” The nuclear issue is not an abstraction to be relegated to politicians, engineers and lobbyists. This threatens your work, potentially reversing years of hard-fought economic gains in poor countries and undoing decades-worth of global public health efforts. This isn’t just about regional clusters of radiation-related illnesses, but also of the loss of infrastructure for disease surveillance and drug distribution that would tip the balance in favor of infectious diseases outbreaks and pandemics.

Finally, the thorniest of ethical questions:  Who makes the call to send staff into disaster zones so dangerous that not only is personal health at risk, but that of future offspring as well? (As a 1950s military film put it: “the ultimate symptom, death itself”)

With more than 400 reactors spread across the globe—many now nearing their “sold-by” date—the next Japan is more a matter of when, not if. Power plants, of course, are not designed as weapons, but that doesn’t make their  fall-out any less lethal.

Humanitarian aid workers: Are you ready?

Global earthquake activity since 1973 and nuclear power plant locations (click through to map web page)

* Addendum 3/31/11:

Hospitals and temporary refuges are demanding that evacuees provide them with certificates confirming that they have not been exposed to radiation before they are admitted….

…The eight-year-old daughter of Takayuki Okamura was refused treatment for a skin rash by a clinic in Fukushima City, where the family is living in a shelter after abandoning their home in Minamisoma, 18 miles from the crippled nuclear plant….

…Prejudice against people who used to live near the plant is reminiscent of the ostracism that survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 experienced. Many suffered discrimination when they tried to rent housing, find employment or marriage partners…

—”Japan nuclear crisis: evacuees turned away from shelters” / The Telegraph

Discrimination based not on race, creed or color, but on a cruel twist of geographic fate: simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It is tragedy compounded, reverberating through generations.

Perhaps we need to add a “futures wrecked” column to graphs purporting to show the comparative benignness of nuclear energy versus that produced by coal and oil. It is a lobbyist’s argument, telling a truth, but not the whole truth.

The whole truth? All of these energy sources are fraught in the present and threaten the future. A warming earth with rising seas and wilder weather will send millions of climate refugees fleeing to higher, safer ground—human migrations on a scale unimaginable.

Radioactive refugees have nowhere to go.

We need to get beyond this devil’s choice fast, to invest in renewables at every scale, macro to micro (e.g., micro-wind). We—as in “We the people,” as in our governments—need to support research and innovation and help ideas scale for practical, commercial use.

One the few hopeful stories this past week was the announcement of an “artificial leaf” that can create energy from photosynthesis. MIT professor Daniel Nocera has been working on ways that essentially cut out the middleman in energy generation. Unlike coal and oil, which are fossilized sunlight—energy banked in the past—or nuclear power, which requires vast investment to tap, Nocera’s inexpensive playing card-size solar chip can harvest enough energy from a gallon of water—stored in a small fuel cell—to power a home in a developing country for a day. The water doesn’t even have to be all that clean, either.

The latest version of Nocera’s technology is of commercial interest because, by integrating the catalyst with the chips, it dispenses with the need for traditional solar panels. That, he says, will cut costs considerably, by eliminating wires, etc. “The price of the silicon of a solar panel isn’t much,” he says. “A lot of the cost is the wiring. What this does is get rid of all that.”

“The real goal here,” he adds, “is giving energy to the poor” – especially, he notes, in rural Africa, India, and China.

Even better, he adds, the device doesn’t need ultrapure water. “You can use nature water sources, which is a big deal in parts of the world where it’s costly to have to use pure water.”

MIT scientist announces first “practical” artificial leaf / Nature

Recently, Tata Group, an international conglomerate best known as India’s largest automaker, invested $9.5 million in Nocera’s company, Sun Catalytix.

Follow the money. The smart money.

(video: Daniel Nocera explains personalized power / Poptech / 1 of 2)

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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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Good, Evil, Digital: The Promise and Peril of Life in the Cyber Lane (link suite overview)

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TrackerNews link suite on internet freedom, internet security and the power of digital networks. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

“Good, Evil, Digital” is one of the largest link-suite “stories” we have ever featured on the aggregator, with more than four dozen links to articles, books, videos, websites and software tools. It has also been one of the most fascinating to research and challenging to assemble.

Internet freedom and internet security are two sides to the same coin:

Likewise, determining who’s a hero and who’s a villain isn’t always so clear cut. When ad hoc vigilante “hackivists” under the theatrically ominous moniker “Anonymous” go after the inarguably awful Iranian government, it’s Robin Hood in bits and bytes. It is a tougher call for “Operation: Titstorm,” which targeted the Australian government over censorship issues, using porn as the standard bearer for free speech.

The curious case of Aaron Barr, a software security expert singled out for attack, crosses the line straight to creepy. Barr, who had boasted of being able to strip the hacktivists of their most precious asset—anonymity—found himself on the wrong end of some sharply aimed code. The Anonymous crew tunneled through tens of thousands of Barr’s emails, making them public, along with his cell number, address and social security number. Found among the email booty, a possible smoking gun, implicating not one, not two, but three security firms proposing a variety of dirty tricks—including cyber attacks—on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America.

In the midst of all this cyber-sniping, some are calling for a “Geneva Convention” to outline the rules of cyberwarfare, spare “civilian targets” and inject some ethics into battle.  Others say the “war” analogy doesn’t really work when dealing with an enemy can’t be seen or even tracked all that easily. The “Stuxnet” worm that attacked Iranian nuclear facilities, for example, was designed to cover the evidence of its own existence. It went about wrecking gyroscopes with commands to speed up and slow down while simultaneously generating data reporting that everything was operating as it should.

Meanwhile, the award for innovation in mobile data distribution goes to the Jihadists, for whom Bluetooth has become a “…a distribution mechanism of choice. ” From crunching video files to developing special encryption-friendly operating systems, they’ve got it down.

Taking the opposite tack, Egyptian-Googler-turned-freedom-fighter Wael Ghonim and a network-savvy generation placed their bets on openness, struggling to keep a nascent revolution alive through posts on Facebook and Twitter. Throughout the 18 days of unprecedented protest, the government tried everything it could to throttle communication, including shutting down the country’s internet and cell phone services.

Despite the limits, the “Facebook revolution” prevailed, not only sweeping a despot from office, but also shredding in the process Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis on activism and the “strong ties” of personal friendships versus the “weak ties” of internet networks. Clearly, is not an either/or choice, but a powerful cross-reinforcing combination.

Indeed, at this point, the only force that could possibly bring down the internet and put an end to this furious, sometimes frightening, often marvelous flowering of digital communication is an extra-terrestrial event: a solar storm. And it could happen. After years of quietly shining in the distance 93 million miles away, the sun is starting what scientists dryly describe as a “more active phase.” Tongues of particle-charged plasma are reaching across the heavens to short circuits here on Earth. In 1859, a solar storm fried telegraph lines. Today, that same storm would cause an estimated $2 trillion worth of “initial damage,” which could take a decade or more to fix. What Mubarek couldn’t manage, Apollo can do in a blink.

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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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