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Bite!!! Life in a Warmer, Wetter World

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Link suite overview: On vector-borne disease and climate change, connecting the infinitesimal and the invisible, Dopey Does DDT, the need for ecosystems thinking & bugs gone borg

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It is a midsummer night’s feast and we are on the menu. Nibbled and sipped by winged vampires and  blood-sucking squatters, we scratch, swat and fret. But the bugs, annoying though they may be, are merely messengers. Virus, bacteria, rickettsia, protozoans and helminths—those are the ones turning the whole predator / prey equation on its head.

From a safe distance, preferably behind screens, pants tucked sensibly into socks and doused in parfum-de-DEET, the elegance of the big picture is both undeniable and astonishing. This is the web of life at its webbiest, connecting the fates of the infinitesimal to the invisible—shifts in weather patterns, changes in climate—and everything in between.

A bird flies a little further north than usual one spring, staking out territory in what, for it, is literally new territory.  A warmer, more humid world has brought earlier thaws and later freezes to this particular neck of the woods. Which is also  good news for the bird’s passengers: the ticks on its body, mites on its wings, virus and bacteria in its blood. Occasionally even something as big as a snail manages to survive the journey, berthed in a bird’s gut, likely carrying a parasitic payload of its own.

For everything we can see changing in the landscape—tundra to forest, swamp to sea, lake to desert—there is so much more going on at the edges of detection.

A deer tick finds itself in grasslands favored by voles rather than the forest, where white-footed mice rule the leaf litter. But a blood meal is a blood meal. So the tick latches on and borrelia—the bacteria carried by the tick that causes Lyme Disease—sets up shop in a new animal host. This is the Disease Cycle as jazz, constantly riffing theme and variation. Innovation as making do.

While global trade and travel do a mighty job of mixing up the pot, speeding the spread of pathogens and invasive species, climate change alters the basic recipe. How do you restore a tundra whose permafrost has melted? Or a rainforest weakened by repeated periods of drought? How do you make plans for a world in transition to a “new normal”?

Pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation—all at least hold out the possibility of reversal: things can be done, if only we would do them.

Climate change is a dragon awakened.

BITE!!!

“Bite!,” the new link suite-story on the TrackerNews aggregator, surveys a variety of vector-borne diseases, all on the rise due, at least in part, to climate change: Cold-blooded insects prefer a warmer, wetter world.

It is not their only stroke of luck. Tight budgets in the US have put mosquito abatement districts in the political cross-hairs as an easy target for “saving” taxpayers money, no matter the expense of taxpayer illness. Lose the public abatement districts and there would be no coordinated surveillance for West Nile virus. Or for dengue, which has recently established a foothold in Florida decades after it was eradicated. Or for the next headline horror—chikungunya?—on the horizon. The standard bureaucratic spin about”the best science available” falls flat when the “best” is barely any at all.

Bugs—and the bugs they carry—won’t disappear even if the data do.

Funding actually needs to go up. Way up, according to Peter Hotez, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, dengue is “a bigger threat than many of the biodefense pathogens that we’re spending huge amounts of money on. Dengue and other vector-borne diseases are a true homeland security threat.”

Really, though, they are a global security threat and public health disaster. For every breakthrough…

…there are setbacks.  Babesia, a parasite carried by ticks—including the tick that transmits Lyme Disease—causing a malaria-like illness, is on the ascent. Diagnosis and treatment an be tricky. There is no vaccine. Further complicating matters, a single tick can deliver both babesia and borrelia.

Humans are hardly the only animal hosts under assault:

  • Moose are facing a similar fate from “winter ticks.” These are ticks that latch onto to moose in the fall, burrow into their coats and feed all winter. It used to be a moose might pick up 30,000 ticks, a horrifying but survivable number. But a shifting climate means snow melts earlier. Ticks fall off onto dry ground in the spring, allowing more to survive. Their breeding season is longer, too. Now “ghost moose” have been found with over 100,000 ticks. Like the baby fish, they are being bled to death.

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DOPEY DOES DDT

Meanwhile, cases of  leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease carried by sand flies, are also on the rise, bedeviling everyone from soldiers in Afghanistan to the  beleaguered residents of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Efforts in India to eradicate the disease by 2010 failed spectacularly.

Yet simply getting rid of sand flies could lead to other problems: As larvae, they eat garbage.

Single-focus wars-on-fill-in-the-blank-disease rarely work (only smallpox and the cattle scourge rinderpest have been effectively wiped out, and notably neither were vector-borne).

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In the early 1940s, the Walt Disney Company produced a series of short educational films, among them, “Winged Scourge,” in which the Seven Dwarfs (yes, those seven dwarfs) take on Public Enemy Number 1: the Mosquito—”wanted dead or alive”… (HT to epidemiologist and author of the marvelous Aetiology blog Tara C. Smith)

Wrapped in gobsmacking kitsch is a matter-0f-fact portrayal of then state-of-the-art pest control: drain wetlands, coat breeding ponds with oil and waterways with Paris Green, spray copious amounts of insecticide (likely DDT, given the time frame), put up screens, seal building cracks and use bed nets. It worked, too, at least for a while,  if you don’t count the cascade of eco-disasters that followed.

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Not only is there a need for an “ecosystems thinking” approach, but one that can accommodate fast-changing landscapes. What was, isn’t any more. What is, won’t be for long.

The climate dragon is awake, scattering clouds of mosquitoes, flies, fleas, mites, ticks and lice as it yawns, stretches and shakes off a millenia-long slumber.

RELATED:

  • Under Our Skin, documentary by Andy Abrahams Wilson chronic Lyme Disease / website

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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Additional Links include:

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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Additional links from the aggregator suite include:
  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

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.

FURTHER READING

When Tipping Points Collide: On Oil Spills, Dead Zones, Superweeds, Dead Birds, Dead Bees and Not-So-Funny Laughing Gas

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Graphic justice: from the Greenpeace BP logo competition

If only there were a rewind button.

From the first, almost cheerfully do-able estimate of 1,000 barrels of oil spewing daily into the Gulf of Mexico to a…

  • jaw-dropping 5,000 barrel revision
  • horrifying 19,000 barrel update
  • are-you-kidding-me? 25,000 barrel recalculation
  • and an it’s way-way-way-more-than-the-Exxon-Valdez admission

…the bad news on the BP catastrophe has gone so far off the dial, it has zoomed past “worst case scenario” to “pretty much the worst case ever.”

ABC News: Sam Champion & Philippe Cousteau don Hazmat suits to dive into the muck: "This is...what BP does not want you to see."

Dispersants that present environmental issues of their own have only made the situation more complex. “We’re dealing with an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil,” according to Admiral Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard commander in charge of the clean-up. It will takes months to scrub the surface. Years at least to scrub the wetlands.

The situation beneath the waves is even murkier, with massive underwater plumes comprised of tiny oil droplets hundreds of feet thick, stretching for dozens of square miles. They cannot evaporate or be burned off  and concerns run high that they are death traps for almost anything that swims by.

Specialized oil-loving microbes – either naturally occurring or lab-concocted – work slowly, especially in cold or low-oxygen waters. They also give off CO2 in the process, adding their microbial 2 cents to ocean acidification, and soak of oxygen, potentially to the point where nothing can survive: a Silent Spring beneath the waves.

THE DEAD ZONE

The BP geyser isn’t the biggest (at least for now) or even the longest-running oil-driven disaster in the Gulf. For over 60 years, chemical fertilizer-laced farm run-off has flowed into the Mississippi, then down to the Gulf where it annually triggers massive algal blooms, followed by equally massive algal die-offs. Microbes on decomposition duty soak up so much oxygen over an area averaging 6,000 square miles, the water turns into a lethal “dead zone.” (the size of the zone depends on a variety of factors, including which way the wind blows).

Crime Scene: Watersheds contributing to Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone"

America’s famous bumper corn crops are in large part thanks to chemical fertilizers. Since fossil fuel is a key ingredient in the manufacture of artificial fertilizers, it is a key ingredient in the production of corn-based ethanol. Oil’s would-be replacement requires…oil.

Writer Michael Pollan has spent a career tallying the costs of an agricultural system tipped so far out balance, there is almost nothing natural about it. Short term gains, measured in bountiful harvests and weed-free fields, have collectively blinded us to the full costs, unsustainability and sheer craziness of it all:

From the standpoint of industrial efficiency, it’s too bad we can’t simply drink petroleum directly, because there’s a lot less energy in a bushel of corn (measured in calories) than there is in the half-gallon of oil required to produce it. Ecologically, this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food–but “ecologically” is no longer the operative standard. In the factory, time is money, and yield is everything.

What’s Eating America

SUPERWEEDS: NATURE BATS LAST…AGAIN

But the end of the era of easy bushel-busting gains may be over. All around us, the “ag bubble” is deflating. Fertilizer isn’t the only thing coursing down the nation’s waterways. So is topsoil. By the ton. And the more topsoil that’s lost, the more dependent crops become on fertilizer, which means the more dependent they become on…oil.

NYT: Spread of Roundup resistant weeds. “It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen.”

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds were sold, in part, as a way to reduce topsoil erosion. The genetically modified seeds were designed (and patented, but that’s another story) to be impervious to the company’s proprietary herbicide, Roundup. Farmers could stop tilling the soil – reducing erosion – and simply spray their weed-troubles away. Man-engineered genetic selection, however, turned out to be no match for the old-fashioned natural kind. Roundup-defiant “superweeds” have now invaded millions of acres in the U.S. and they are just warming up.

ABC News: Hardy pigweed defies chemical assault."There is no rhyme or reason how we can control it"

Like a rural touring company of “The Little Shop of Horrors,” giant pigweed plants dot farmers’ fields, growing as much as three inches per day, sucking up water and nutrients, threatening tractors and devouring livelihoods. Not only must farmers till the soil once again, but also apply a witch’s brew of poisons in an escalating battle for control of the fields.

Since petrochemicals are ingredients in herbicides and pesticides, the more crops need to be treated, the more dependent they become on…oil.

ENGULFED

NYT: Oil disaster timeline, updated regularly

Back in the Gulf, the magnitude of the devastation caused by a hole in the sea floor roughly the size of sewer cover goes beyond words, and even beyond maps. The now iconic New York Times infographic, updated regularly and viewable as a disturbingly long, mesmerizing time animation, only shows the story on the surface. Data are harder to come by for the deeper story, and what little is known isn’t encouraging.

While waves of oil and “mousse” wash up on beaches, ooze into marshes, and devour sea-life and shorebirds, deep-sea droplet-plumes flirt with Altlantic-bound currents, threatening to spread the disaster straight up the Eastern seaboard. Although progress is finally being made toward diverting the oil, if not stopping the flow, the devastation continues to cascade. Entire food chains are on the line. From micro to macro, wildlife face either direct annihilation or a slower, equally grim fate marked by illness and starvation. The biochemistry of the Gulf itself could be forever altered. What was once may never be again.

The damage isn’t confined to water and wetlands, or even to a region. Migrating birds, including those currently nesting in blissful ignorance in my Chicago neighborhood and as far away as the Canadian arctic, will find themselves in harm’s way when they fly south again for the winter.

The entire planet could feel the effects. New research suggests that marine dead zones can trigger an an increase in the amount of nitrous oxide filtering into the atmosphere. That might be kind of funny – it’s laughing gas – except that N2O, per unit weight, is nearly 300 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. It also contributes to the development of the ozone hole, increasing the planet’s exposure to UV light. So, more climate change and skin cancer. Great. Just great…

WHATEVER IT TAKES – WHATEVER THAT IS

Skimming, burning, setting booms around hundreds of miles of coastline, dredging insti-sand berm islands, collecting the hairy/furry leftovers from nation’s hair-cuts and pet trims to make oil-absorbant materials, spreading hay across the water’s surface – in the face of such overwhelming disaster, the only right answer is “all of the above.” (And if all else fails, there is always “Stephen Colbert’s Oil Containment Solution Randomizer.”)

But only microbes have what it takes to break apart oil and get things back on ecological track.

Communities of naturally-occurring microbes, evolved to dine on oil burbling up from natural seeps (of which there are many across the world’s oceans), have, so far, proven more effective than any microbes developed in the lab. “A superbug fails because it competes with this community that is adapted to the environment,” notes Ron Atlas, a microbiologist who worked on the Exxon-Valdez spill and has co-written one of the definitive books on the subject, Bioremediation.

That hasn’t stopped researchers from trying, yet even GMO bugs need a dollop of nitrogen and phosphorous – the same ingredients found in the fertilized run-off behind the Gulf’s dead zone – to pick up their naturally slow pace. Getting it to them in the middle of the open ocean isn’t so easy.

Enter NASA.

In 1992, a failed attempt to create liquid crystals in zero gravity led to the discovery of microspheres, bubbles of gas trapped in tiny crystalline structures. NASA Tech Hall of Famer, Petroleum Remediation Product (PRP) is based on this technology and designed to soak up oil spills. The sphere-lettes, less than 100 microns across, are made of beeswax, which is naturally full of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Beeswax is also oleophilic, which means it binds with oil. PRP has been used to clean up everything from boat bilges to driveway stains. Once the oil is gone, PRP biodegrades and that’s that.

But wait a minute. Bees are dying from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). For the fourth year in a row, more than a third of the hives in the U.S. failed to survive the winter. No one has been able to pinpoint a single cause, though suspicions run high on a perfect storm of pathogens and chemical exposures. Dozens of pesticides have been identified in samples of bees, wax and pollen. Herbicides are another concern – and petrochemicals are in both. Could bees be yet another species doomed by oil? And since bee pollination is essential for so many crops, what does this mean for us?

THE NETWORK

Although humans may not be able to plug into the planet Earth as literally as the Na’vi on Pandora in Avatar, we are as inextricably linked to greater whole. The oil spill in the Gulf brings this into sharp focus. There is no escape: what goes around, comes around.

Have we reached a point where the resilience of the planet’s network of elegantly interlaced ecosystems has been stretched to the limit? In a few short centuries, we have taken a good deal of the “bounce” out of the system  And once tipping points start to collide, there is no predicting what could happen next.

Perhaps – finally – this is the “teachable moment” where something actually gets learned. In one form or another, fossil fuel plays a part in every one of these grim scenarios. There are alternatives. Yet somehow those greener, smarter, environmentally-friendlier, job-creating technologies only seem to get hauled out for display on Earth Day, World Environment Day, or during political campaigns to give us all a rosy glow about the promise of brighter tomorrow.

Even BP had hung its corporate hat (top hat?) on a greener, cleaner future, spending millions of dollars on a sunny logo and a “beyond petroleum” ad campaign.

Well, yes, now that you mention it, I would like a world beyond petroleum.

As soon as possible.

Boston.com "Big Picture" slideshow

RELATED READING / VIEWING:

Post COP15, Part 2: Five Ideas That Could Help Save the Climate (Really)

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On biomimicry and the answers right in front of us; Photosynthesis & personal power; Urban farming, tropical agroforestry and (eco)system modeling; A carbon negative idea with fertile perks; Population balance

Waiting for diplomats to resolve the global climate crisis may take so long, it won’t matter. So what do we do in the meantime?

At TrackerNews, we have highlighted all kinds of promising green energy ideas, from micro-wind and solar textiles to vast arrays of concentrated solar collectors and giant “sea snakes” harvesting wave energy.

We love them all and their heartening range of ingenuity and resourcefulness. But none of them – or even all of them taken together – can do much to move the global thermostat in the near term, especially without the political will and the investment that results to grow them to scale.

We began to wonder whether there were any ideas that could make a difference, that could actually help stabilize our feverish planet within a matter of years instead of decades. We found five – an encouraging start. Notably, all take their design cues from nature and offer multi-faceted benefits. Nature, notes Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute, relies on technologies that have been field tested for millions of years, the ultimate in iterative design. It works. Every time.

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1) TAKING A LEAF FROM NATURE

MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera says he can solve the world’s energy needs with a little bit water – and while he’s at it, make a dent in the water crisis. Although the most theoretical of the four ideas, Nocera’s breakthrough could lead to a quick and decisive global conversion to a hydrogen-based economy.

He began by calculating global energy needs past and future (best case and business-as-usual scenarios), comparing them with the most optimistic projections for energy generated from non-carbon sources (wind, solar, nuclear) and noting the physical limitations that prevent significant improvement in battery storage.  Disturbingly, even if we all did everything possible to minimize per capita energy consumption and the number of “capitas” was kept in check by educating poor women – the fastest way, according to Nocera, to reduce the birth rate, the future looks pretty gloomy.

In the hopes of rosying things up, he studied how plants make energy by splitting water molecules. For years researchers had focused on finding catalysts that could survive the process. Nocera noticed that nature didn’t bother, instead using catalysts that simply reassembled themselves. The system was “self-healing.” Then he came up with a way to do the same thing.

Within  “8.1254 years, ” Nocera envisions homes outfitted with solar panels tied into  inexpensive water-splitting systems (no pricey precious metals such as platinum required – common pvc pipe will do). The resulting hydrogen will be stored on site to take care of the home’s energy needs and recharge electric cars.  Each building will become its own power station, with no grid  – and no coal-powered central power stations – required. As a bonus, the catalyst is hardy enough to handle dirty water, so the system  can be set up almost anywhere. And if you reverse the process, reuniting hydrogen with oxygen, presto, clean water. Continue reading