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Locusts Swarmed East Africa, and This Tech Helped Squash Them

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In the NY Times Rachel Nuwer describes a very interesting approach toward controlling a plague of locusts in Africa:

. . . In 2020, billions of the insects descended on East African countries that had not seen locusts in decades, fueled by unusual weather connected to climate change. Kenya had last dealt with a plague of this scale more than 70 years ago; Ethiopia and Somalia, more than 30 years ago. Nineteen million farmers and herders across these three countries, which bore the brunt of the damage, saw their livelihoods severely affected.

. . . But as bad as 2020’s swarms were, they and their offspring could have caused much worse damage. While the weather has helped slow the insects’ reproduction, the success, Mr. Cressman said, has primarily resulted from a technology-driven anti-locust operation that hastily formed in the chaotic months following the insects’ arrival to East Africa. This groundbreaking approach proved so effective at clamping down on the winged invaders in some places that some experts say it could transform management of other natural disasters around the world.

“We’d better not let this crisis go to waste,” said David Hughes, an entomologist at Penn State University. “We should use this lesson as a way not just to be adapted to the next locust crisis, but to climate change, generally.”

Desert locusts are the Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes of the insect world. Normally, the grasshopper-like plant eaters spend their time living solitarily across the deserts of North Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East. But when rains arrive, they change from a muted brown into a fiery yellow and become gregarious, forming groups of more than 15 million insects per square mile. Such a swarm can consume the equivalent amount of food in a single day as more than 13,000 people.

The locust plague that hit East Africa in 2020 was two years in the making. In 2018, two major cyclones dumped rain in a remote area of Saudi Arabia, leading to an 8,000-fold increase in desert locust numbers. By mid-2019, winds had pushed the insects into the Horn of Africa, where a wet autumn further boosted their population. An unusual cyclone in Somalia in early December finally tipped the situation into a true emergency.

“Ten years ago, there would have been between zero and one cyclones coming off the Indian Ocean,” Dr. Hughes said. “Now there’s eight to 12 per year — a consequence of climate change.”

Countries like Sudan and Eritrea that regularly deal with small, seasonal swarms have teams of locust trackers who are trained to find the insects and recognize which life cycle stage they are in. They use a tablet-based program to transmit locust data by satellite to national and international authorities so experts can design appropriate control strategies.

But people outside of those frontline locust nations who may want to start using this system today would encounter a typical technology problem: The version of the tablets that the locust-tracking program was written for is no longer manufactured, and newer tablets are not compatible with the software. And even if the hardware were available, in 2020, East Africa lacked experts who could identify locusts.

“We’d never had a dress rehearsal for the real thing,” said Alphonse Owuor, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization specialist in Somalia. “We had people who were very familiar with locusts in theory, but who didn’t have the experience or equipment required to carry out this massive operation.”

With swarms suddenly covering an area of Kenya larger than New Jersey, officials were tasked with creating a locust-combating operation virtually from scratch. Collecting dependable, detailed data about locusts was the first crucial step.

“Saying ‘Oh, there’s locusts in northern Kenya’ doesn’t help at all,” Mr. Cressman said. “We need longitude and latitude coordinates in real time.”

Rather than try to rewrite the locust-tracking software for newer tablets, Mr. Cressman thought it would be more efficient to create a simple smartphone app that would allow anyone to collect data like an expert. He reached out to Dr. Hughes, who had already created a similar mobile tool with the Food and Agriculture Organization to track a devastating crop pest, the fall armyworm, through PlantVillage, which he founded.

PlantVillage’s app uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help farmers in 60 countries, primarily in Africa, diagnose problems in their fields. Borrowing from this blueprint, Dr. Hughes and his colleagues completed the new app, eLocust3m, in just a month.

Unlike the previous tablet-based program, anyone with a smartphone can use eLocust3m. The app presents photos of locusts at different stages of their life cycles, which helps users diagnose what they see in the field. GPS coordinates are automatically recorded and algorithms double check photos submitted with each entry. Garmin International also helped with another program that worked on satellite-transmitting devices.

“The app is really easy to use,” said Ms. Jeptoo of PlantVillage. Last year, she recruited and trained locust trackers in four hard-hit Kenyan regions. “We had scouts who were 40- to 50-year-old elders, and even they were able to use it.”

In the last year, more than 240,000 locust records have poured in from East Africa, collected by PlantVillage scouts, government-trained personnel and citizens. But that was only the first step. Countries next needed to act on the data in a systematic way to quash locusts. In the first few months, however, officials were strategizing “on the back of envelopes,” Mr. Cressman said, and the entire region had just four planes for spraying pesticides.

When Batian Craig, director of 51 Degrees, a security and logistics company focused on protecting wildlife, saw Mr. Cressman quoted in a news story about locusts, he realized he could help.

Mr. Craig and his colleagues, who are headquartered at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Central Kenya, conduct regular anti-poaching aerial surveys that could be repurposed to seek out and destroy locust swarms. They also closely communicate with rural communities affected by the insects.

Additionally, 51 Degrees uses a free program called EarthRanger. Created by Vulcan, a Seattle-based philanthropic company originally co-founded by Paul Allen of Microsoft and his sister Jody Allen, EarthRanger compiles and analyzes geographic data ranging from rhino and ranger locations to sensor data and remote imagery.

Engineers at Vulcan agreed to customize a version of EarthRanger for locusts, integrating data from the eLocust programs and the computer loggers on aerial pesticide sprayers.

Lewa Conservancy quickly became the headquarters for aerial survey and control across the region. By June 2020, these efforts were paying off. Locusts were prevented from spilling into Africa’s Sahel region and west to Senegal.

“If we didn’t stop them, . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including a good college of large photos.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 10:54 am

Toilets – what will it take to fix them?

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Josie Glausiusz has an interesting book review in Nature:

Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet Chelsea Wald Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster (2021)

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret Catherine Coleman Flowers The New Press (2020)

Since the sixth century BC, when the Romans began building their Cloaca Maxima (“Greatest Sewer”), a safe sewage system has epitomized civilization. More than two millennia later, one Victorian novelist called a good sewer “nobler” and “holier” than the most admired Madonna ever painted. For sound reasons: the construction of a massive London sewer network in the 1860s ended waterborne epidemics of cholera that had killed tens of thousands of people. In 2007, more than 11,300 readers of The BMJ chose the sanitary revolution — the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal — as the most important medical milestone since 1840.

The need for innovative toilets is enormous. In 2017, two billion people lacked a minimally adequate toilet, and 673 million people still had to defecate in the open. Poor sanitation is linked to the transmission of diseases including cholera, typhoid, polio, hepatitis A and trachoma. Access to clean water and sanitation for all by 2030 is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the cost of achieving this is tens of billions of dollars per year, as two new books explore: Pipe Dreams, by Chelsea Wald; and Waste, by Catherine Coleman Flowers.

Today, “toilets no longer look quite so miraculous as they once did”, writes Wald in her deeply researched, entertaining and impassioned exploration of sanitation ancient and innovative. As cities grow, their aged sewage infrastructures become overwhelmed, especially during storms. Once-noble conduits are now frequently clogged by fatbergs, vast accretions of grease and wet wipes with the consistency of concrete and the weight of several elephants.

“Modern sanitation infrastructure has created the illusion that our excreta just disappear like magic,” Wald writes. “But poop doesn’t just drive down the highway into the sunset.” Often, it remains untreated, poisoning people and ecosystems. A new generation of toilets is needed, she argues: one that squanders less water, nutrients and energy. And so Wald travels from Alaska to Indonesia and many places in-between, interviewing scientists, public-health officials and toilet entrepreneurs.

Many countries are edging their way towards the SDGs by implementing inventive sanitation projects at minimal expense. In the town of Sneek in the Netherlands, Wald visits a company called DeSaH, which has put vacuum toilets into more than 200 apartments, whooshing away waste and treating it in a small local facility. Each toilet uses 1 litre of water per flush, compared with the usual eight. Vacuum systems are in use at sites in wealthy nations including the Netherlands and Sweden, and at Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London. But scaling up this water-saving technology on a global scale is challenging, Wald notes, given financial and other hurdles.

In Kenya, a social enterprise named Sanivation collects human faeces, treats it and presses it into “poop briquettes” for fuel, Wald writes. The company has sold 1,500 tonnes of the small spheres so far, saving 88 trees for every tonne. In Indonesia, where there are few sewers, Wald shadows “sanitation entrepreneur” Koen Irianto Uripan, who put thousands of fibreglass septic tanks in the yards of homes in the city of Surabaya. With jokes and a papier-mâché poop prop, Uripan markets a cheap, easily installed indoor toilet connected to one of these tanks, in which bacteria break down waste. The work is part of a much larger, countrywide campaign to reduce the number of people who have to defecate in the open.

Our universal disgust over excretion inspires both humour and anxiety. The ancient Babylonians recognized a privy demon called Šulak that could trigger bad luck, injury or illness. In the Jewish tradition, rabbis composed blessings for angels who accompanied a person to the “house of the chair” and waited outside, and a blessing is recited on exiting the lavatory.

But fear is all too real for those without secure and hygienic toilets. Women who must share with strangers, or go outdoors, are at greatly increased risk of being raped, studies in South Africa and India have shown1,2. Toilets with doors that lock from the inside, and have shelves for clean menstrual products, can help women and girls — cisgender and transgender — to feel safe and dignified; and those still at school will be less likely to skip classes. In Durban, South Africa, among other places, city planners have refitted shipping containers for the purpose. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.≠

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 4:02 pm

Americans are still spanking their kids. A new study shows how harmful that is.

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I have long maintained that parents should not strike their children, and now research backs up that idea. Caitlin Gibson reports in the Washington Post:

When developmental psychologist Liz Gershoff began studying the effects of spanking and harsh parenting discipline in the 1990s, the topic was still the subject of intense debate in scientific circles: Was physical punishment actually harmful to kids?

In the decades since, a growing body of research has offered a clear and resounding answer. Spanking and other forms of severe discipline — such as verbally berating or humiliating a child — have been repeatedly linked to behavioral, emotional, psychological and academic problems, a conclusion that prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a new policy statement in 2018, strengthening its stance that parents should not use physical punishment.

But spanking is still prevalent in American families, and legal in all states. Though it appears to be steadily falling out of favor among younger generations, the 2018 General Social Survey — a long-running biennial national survey of American adults — found that 66 percent of Americans agreed that “a good, hard spanking” is sometimes necessary to discipline a child.

Why you just can’t choose: Parenting through pandemic decision fatigue

And one common argument in support of spanking has lingered: How can we be sure that a child’s lack of achievement or antisocial behavior can be traced back to physical punishment specifically, versus an innate or genetic factor?

Gershoff, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, set out to settle the question of nature vs. nurture with her newest study, published in the March volume of Psychological Science. Gershoff and her research team analyzed more than a thousand pairs of twins — including more than 400 identical twins, who share the same DNA — many of whom were disciplined differently by their parents. The researchers found that the child who was hit or yelled at more often was consistently more likely to display delinquent or antisocial behavior.

“Identical-twin studies are sort of the classic way that psychologists have of differentiating what is innate behavior from what is learned behavior, so this study follows in a long tradition,” says Robert Sege, a pediatrician at Tufts Children’s Hospital and director of the Center for Community-Engaged Medicine at Tufts Medical Center who co-authored the American Academy of Pediatrics’s 2018 statement. “This is yet another, different way of looking at this, but all the data points to the same direction. As a scientist, when you see that, no matter how you do the experiment, no matter how you ask the question, you get the same result — that’s conclusive.”

Gershoff spoke with The Washington Post about her decades of research into physical discipline in parenting, and the implications of her newest study. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve been studying the effects of spanking for a long time. How has the scientific understanding of this issue changed over your career?

A: When I began studying physical punishment, there was a lot of resistance to the idea that it might be harmful. I went into this with an open mind, thinking, ‘Well, maybe parents are right, maybe it does work, maybe that’s what the research shows.’ By then we had several-hundred studies that had been looking at it, but no one had taken an overview to say, ‘What did we find overall?’ So that’s what I did in 2002. There have been many, many more studies since then, and they have all continued to show that the more children are physically punished, the worse their behavior, the worse their mental health. Now we also have research showing they do worse in school, they have lower achievement.

Q: It seems like those conclusions are generally accepted among scientists and pediatricians, but what have you observed about our social and cultural perceptions of spanking?

A: It used to be that we only learned how to parent from our own parents, that was it, and maybe a couple friends. I think in the last 20 years we’ve seen more parents have access to parenting information from parenting books, from the Internet. Now we can talk to people across the world and find out how they’re parenting, what works for them. There has been more public discussion about physical punishment that we hadn’t really seen before — you started seeing figures like Oprah talk openly about how she was physically punished, and how harmful she thought that was. That was a big deal.

But there are still many parents who are under the impression that you have to hit children in some circumstances. That pattern cuts across cultural groups and racial groups and different areas of the country. So yes, there are still some parents to convince.

Q: Tell me about your new study, and why you focused on twins specifically. .. .

Continue reading. There’s much more. Later in the interview:

. . . parents see twins as individuals, they’re not parenting them as a set. And that much is good, but it’s just too bad that one kid is getting singled out for the harsh parenting. We didn’t ask them about the circumstances, so we don’t know why. But what we found was that the twin who was spanked more or yelled at more within each pair, they were the ones who had more antisocial behavior. It was the same for the kids who were identical twins and for kids who were not identical twins. The amount of genetic material they shared didn’t matter. It came down to how much harsh parenting they received.

And the interview concludes:

Q: Do you think this study settled that question then, of whether a child’s innate characteristics might be to blame for their behavior, rather than harsh discipline?

A: We are pretty convinced that this is definitive. There is just absolutely no evidence for a genetic component.

Q: You mentioned earlier that there are still clearly some parents left to convince. In light of these results, what would you most want those parents to know?

A: To me, it’s just further evidence that the way we parent our children really does impact them. And if parents are on the fence about physical punishment, this is just additional evidence that it’s not doing any good for the children, and in fact it seems to be making their behavior worse. And that in turn makes our jobs harder as parents — that’s the irony. People are trying to improve their children’s behavior when they’re using physical punishment, but they’re in fact making it worse.

See also the book Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Human.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 April 2021 at 11:17 am

The Spectacular Rise of Ornamental Plants

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MIT Press has an article excerpted from George Gessert’s book Green Light: Toward an Art of Evolution:

Aesthetic appeal may have played a role in the domestication of plants and animals, but the rise of pure ornamentals, that is, plants cultivated only for their aesthetic characteristics, is a much later development. Long after the emergence of urban civilization, ornamental and economic uses of plants seem not to have been distinguished. For example, the elegant gardens depicted in Egyptian tombs of the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1415 BCE) consisted, as far as we can tell, of multiple-use plants. Among those that have been identified are date palms, grapes, pomegranates, papyruses, and figs.

A few Egyptian tomb paintings show flowering plants that may have been pure ornamentals, but could just as well have been medicinals. Even blue water lilies, which are ubiquitous in Egyptian art, were more than symbolic and ornamental. The rhizomes of Nymphaea caerulea yield a powerful hallucinogen that the Egyptians probably used to make contact with the gods.

The earliest gardens that seem to have been intended primarily for pleasure were in Mesopotamia. The Gilgamesh epic, which refers to events in 2700 BCE, contains descriptions of what may have been ornamental gardens; however, the first unmistakable evidence of plants cultivated for pleasure is from Assyria. There, kings had hunting preserves and parklike tree plantations. Tiglath Pilesar I, who reigned about 1100 BCE, brought back cedars and box from lands he conquered. Other Assyrian kings left records of parks planted with palms, cypresses, and myrrh.

We do not know what these parks looked like. The first nonutilitarian gardens that can be loosely reconstructed date from the sixth century BCE. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were created by Nebuchadnezzar, who, the story goes, built them for his Persian wife, who was homesick for the mountains of her childhood. Babylon was situated on a river plain. The terraced gardens, which covered three or four acres, were said to resemble a green mountain. The earliest records of the Hanging Gardens are by the Greek historians Diodorus and Strabo, but no remains have ever been found. However, remnants of Cyrus the Great’s (ca. 585-ca. 529 BCE) garden at Pasargadae still exist. It had trees and shrubs planted symmetrically in plots.

Records of Mesopotamian parks and gardens emphasize trees. Why trees rather than flowers? In the case of Cyrus the Great’s garden, only the remains of trees and shrubs have survived the centuries. Herbaceous plants, if they existed, have vanished. The Greeks, whose records we must rely on for much of our information about Mesopotamian gardens, were not horticulturally advanced, and may have been unduly impressed by the largest, most obvious plants. Still, trees were almost certainly important features of Mesopotamian gardens. Trees provide shade, a necessity in that part of the world, with its intense light and scorching heat.

In addition to their utilitarian value, many trees are architecturally pleasing, and have symbolic and social significance. Like other agricultural peoples, the Mesopotamians cleared land for crops and cut trees for wood. Near towns and cities, groves left uncut may have gradually disappeared because cattle, sheep, and goats grazed and trampled seedlings, allowing no new trees to grow. When forests are reduced to memories, surviving remnants may take on new meanings. Groves can become emblematic of the past, and sacred. They can also become indicators of wealth and worldly power.

The same meanings do not necessarily accrue to smaller flowering plants. Agriculture and herding eliminate many kinds of small plants, but . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Environment, History, Science

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The paraquat poisoning problem carefully being ignored

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Sharon Lerner reports in the Intercept:

JON HEYLINGS WAS 34 when he found the notebook that would upend his life. A junior scientist at Imperial Chemical Industries, Heylings happened upon it in 1990 as he was trying to solve a mystery. Trained in toxicology, he had been brought to the company three years earlier to lead a team that would work to reduce the health risks of ICI products that contained the pesticide paraquat. He had spent much of that time testing formulations that did appear to be safer. Yet to Heylings’s puzzlement, the company hadn’t put them on the market. Curious about how ICI had arrived at the chemical concentrations in the version of the pesticide it was selling, he did some research in the corporate archives. There he came across the old book of notes that Michael Rose, a senior scientist at the company, had handwritten years earlier.

Heylings knew Rose and had seen his findings, which were known within the company as the Rose Report. ICI had used the report to justify the concentration at which it added a chemical called PP796 to its paraquat products. But the numbers and graphs he saw jotted in the notebook didn’t support the conclusion that Rose drew in his official report. “When I compared the data in his report to the original pharmaceuticals clinical trial data, I found they were different,” Heylings told The Intercept. “You know, very different.” While an accurate analysis would consider all the outcomes in an experiment, Rose had “cherry-picked,” according to Heylings. “He took some data out, he put some data in.”

The young scientist decided that he had to tell his bosses about his discovery — very carefully. “It’s taking a risk to criticize senior managers of fabrication, you know?” he said recently. “This wasn’t something to be discussed over coffee.” So he wrote up a memo documenting the problems with the data and explaining that based on the evidence he had just found, the concentration of PP796, an additive intended to protect against poisoning, should be 10 times higher than the amount in the Rose Report — and 10 times higher than the levels in Gramoxone, ICI’s bestselling paraquat product. He sent the memo to his manager, who assured him that he would send it on to the senior agrochemicals team. Satisfied that he had done the right thing, Heylings, a self-described “company man,” stayed in his job for another 18 years.

Heylings’s 1990 memo and the Rose Report, first drafted in 1976, are among almost 400 internal documents reviewed for this investigation, which The Intercept conducted in collaboration with the French newspaper Le Monde. More than 350 of those documents were disclosed by Syngenta, the successor to ICI, and other defendants in the course of ongoing litigation over the companies’ responsibility for personal injuries due to paraquat exposure. The nonprofit organizations Public Eye and Unearthed, an affiliate of Greenpeace, which have extensively researched both paraquat and PP796, supplied about three dozen more. Together, the thousands of pages of scrawled notes, stained letters, and meeting minutes, many of which are marked “company secret” and “confidential,” tell the story of corporate intransigence in the face of a dangerous but profitable product — what Heylings describes as “a conspiracy within the company to keep this quiet.”

Syngenta maintains that the concentration of PP796 that Rose calculated — the concentration still used in many of the company’s products today — is safe. “Our detractors have willfully misrepresented and mischaracterized a limited number of documents, which ordinarily form part of an entire dialogue on product design, and focused on them, making false accusations related to the weight we give to cost when considering safety,” Saswato Das, a spokesperson for Syngenta, wrote in an email.

But in the more than 40 years since Rose made his consequential calculations, many of the company’s own scientists have questioned his assertions. And during that time, tens of thousands of people have died from paraquat poisoning.

The Speedy Killer

Paraquat is prized for the speed at which it kills weeds. The chemical begins to disrupt plants’ cell membranes and interfere with photosynthesis on contact, causing them to visibly wither within hours. Because it acts so swiftly, paraquat was heralded as an agricultural breakthrough when it was introduced in the 1960s. Since then, hundreds of millions of pounds of the herbicide have been used in the U.S. alone. More than 10 million pounds were sprayed on corn, soybeans, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables in 2017, the last year data was available. And paraquat use is now on the rise, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The problem with paraquat — or one of them — is that the chemical that so quickly and effectively kills plants is also extraordinarily toxic to humans.

Continue reading. There’s more, and it is — or should be, were we not so desensitized — shocking.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 3:25 pm

Earth, wind, and solar fire: The next Carrington event

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Ian Steadman writes in Increment:

By the time COVID-19 started spreading in late 2019, experts had warned for years that a pandemic was the high-probability global threat. Still, many countries seemed caught on the back foot. As someone morbidly interested in the apocalyptic, I couldn’t help but wonder: What else do we think we’re prepared for, but really aren’t?

Plenty of disasters are a case of when, not if. Each has its own flavorclimate change is a whole buffetbut one in particular has similar traits to the pandemic: We know it’s coming, we know it’ll cause disruption on a global scale, and if we aren’t prepared, it could have a high death toll. It wouldn’t kill directly like a disease; instead, it could take out our electrical and communications infrastructure, disabling the health, food, and fuel supply chains that sustain billions of people. To understand why, and how, let’s go back to 1859, to the English astronomer Richard Carrington.

Carrington was part of the first generation of astronomers to study the Sun in detail. Born into a wealthy brewing family, he could afford to drop out of academia and build his own observatory on the grounds of his country manor in Redhill, a rural town halfway between London and England’s South Coast, where he would sit each day watching the surface of the Sun projected onto a cotton sheet via his telescope. At 11:18 a.m. on the morning of September 1, 1859, he saw two brilliant white points of light emerging from a large cluster of sunspots. He quickly sketched what he’d seen, and included the illustration with a report published in the Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society a couple months later. (Richard Hodgson, an amateur astronomer who lived in Essex, offered a less detailed version of events in the same journal.)

By the following evening, the particles from those flares had reached Earth, and the sky was ablaze with aurorasthe northern (and southern) lights. In the Rocky Mountains, campers woke and started making breakfast at midnight; a man in New Orleans went hunting at 1 a.m. From North America to East Asia, Hawaii to Colombia, Brisbane to Cape Town, crowds stayed up all night to stare at the razzle-dazzle: “alternating great pillars, rolling cumuli shooting streamers, curdled and wisped and fleecy waves,” reported The New York Times, “rapidly changing its hue from red to orange, orange to yellow, and yellow to white, and back in the same order to brilliant red [until] lost in the beams of the rising sun.

The appearance of auroras near the equator might not sound like a disaster, but the lights were just a sideshow. The huge, invisible storm behind the phenomenon is what should worry us today.

Earth is constantly being struck by charged particles blown out by the Sun across the solar system. Solar storms result from coronal mass ejections (CMEs), a release of billions of tons of charged plasma that follows solar flares. Particles travel along Earth’s magnetic field lines, which converge at the polesand, as they travel through the atmosphere, they excite oxygen and nitrogen atoms so they emit light. The worse the weather in space, the further south or north the particles break in, and the further the auroras travel: The Carrington Event was caused by the biggest known CME of the last 200 years. But the charge in those particles has to go somewhere. The Carrington Event happened during the early years of the telegraphthe first human-made technology vulnerable to such geomagnetic fluxwhich gives us an inkling of how chaotic a similar solar storm could be in the present.

During the most extreme storms, changes in Earth’s magnetic field induce electrical current in conductors on the planet’s surfacenotably, metallic structures like oil pipelines, railway tracks, and electrical transmission lines. In 1859, the global telegraph network had more than 200,000 kilometers of cables, mostly in North America and Europe. As the storm peaked, operators from San Francisco to Bombay found their cables and equipment overwhelmed by the “auroral current.” In New York City, one man was left stunned by an “arc of fire” that shot off a ground wire onto his forehead; an operator in Pittsburgh saw “streams of fire” pouring from his circuits as they nearly melted. Telegraph operators in Boston and Portland, Maine, disconnected their batteries but found the storm current was enough to power the line on its own, while across the world messages were blocked, their signals overwhelmed. Normal service only resumed after several days, as the flux faded and equipment was repaired.

The Carrington Event happened before mass electrification. Today, the world is criss-crossed by billions of kilometers of cablesand if a similar storm were to hit, the disruption could be orders of magnitude worse. Anything that handles high-voltage AC power, like substation transformers where power from the electrical grid is stepped down, is especially vulnerable to overheating, melting, or catching fire.

Transformers are large, expensive objects, often taking months to design, build, and test for specific sites. A 2014 Congressional report found that if more than eight transformers in the United States were destroyed simultaneously, the country’s entire grid system would collapse. Since it can take up to 20 months to build, test, and install new transformers, many areas could see extended periods with reduced grid power, or even none at all. At worst, the damage to the grid could lead to cascading economic and public health failures across large regions, or even continents, as logistics chainsfor food, gas, medicines, delivery of replacement partsstruggle to recover. A 2016 FEMA training exercise assumed the worst problems in urban and populated suburban areas would kick off on the eighth day after a hypothetical 1859-scale storm because most facilities that use backup generators, like hospitals, often only keep a week’s worth of fuel on site.

But even if the grid remains intact, solar storms can cause communications blackouts. High geomagnetic flux in space and the atmosphere can overwhelm some of the frequencies used for radio transmission, even interfering with cellular services. Some storms have temporarily or even permanently disabled satellites and significantly degraded GPS accuracy: A relatively minor storm in October 2011 knocked out North America’s flight navigation system for several hours. Anything that relies on satellites and/or radio transmissions could be affected.

The most dangerous place for satellites to be during a storm is . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and unfortunately, it’s grim.

We know clearly what will happen and that it will happen. We don’t know when, so we have collectively decided, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” — or, more likely, “We’ll die on that bridge when we come to it.”

UPDATE: After sleeping on it, I realized that all humans, individually and collectively, have trouble bring focus and action to bear on things that are important but not urgent. I can see evolutionary reasons for that: we developed razor-focus on urgent things. By definition, non-urgent things are not an immediate threat, so those get pushed aside.

The whole point of Covey’s 7 habits is to bring focus and action — identifying things that are both important and not urgent, and then schedule some actions every week to address those.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2021 at 8:59 pm

Disease outbreaks more likely in deforestation areas, study finds

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Forests are essential in many ways, it turns out. Jonathan Watts writes in the Guardian:

Outbreaks of infectious diseases are more likely in areas of deforestation and monoculture plantations, according to a study that suggests epidemics are likely to increase as biodiversity declines.

Land use change is a significant factor in the emergence of zoonotic viruses such as Covid-19 and vector-borne ailments such as malaria, says the paper, published on Wednesday in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Even tree-planting can increase health risks to local human populations if it focuses too narrowly on a small number of species, as is often the case in commercial forests, the research found.

The authors said this was because diseases are filtered and blocked by a range of predators and habitats in a healthy, biodiverse forest. When this is replaced by a palm oil plantation, soy fields or blocks of eucalyptus, the specialist species die off, leaving generalists such as rats and mosquitoes to thrive and spread pathogens across human and non-human habitats. The net result is a loss of natural disease regulation.

“I was surprised by how clear the pattern was,” said one of the authors, Serge Morand, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research. “We must give more consideration to the role of the forest in human health, animal health and environmental health. The message from this study is ‘don’t forget the forest’.”

The researchers examined the correlation between trends for forest cover, plantations, population and disease around the globe using statistics from international institutions such as the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the Food and Agricultural Organization and the Gideon epidemic database. Over the period of study from 1990 to 2016, this covered 3,884 outbreaks of 116 zoonotic diseases that crossed the species barrier and 1,996 outbreaks of 69 vector-borne infectious diseases, mostly carried by mosquitoes, ticks or flies.

The paper shows outbreaks increased over time, while plantations expanded rapidly and overall forest cover declined gradually. By itself, a correlation is not proof of causality because other factors may be involved, such as climate disruption. The authors bolster their argument with multiple references to individual case studies that highlight the links between epidemics and land use change.

In Brazil, scientists have demonstrated that deforestation increases the risks of outbreaks of malaria. In south-east Asia, studies have shown how forest clearing favours the mosquito Anopheles darlingi, which is a vector for several diseases. Loss of primary forests has also been identified as a factor in the emergence of Ebola in west Africa and the re-emergence of arthropod-borne leishmaniasis.

The new study adds to a growing body of evidence that viruses are more likely to transfer to humans or animals if they live in or near human-disturbed ecosystems, such as recently cleared forests or swamps drained for farmland, mining projects or residential projects.

This is shaped by trade patterns and consumer behaviour. A quarter of global forest loss is driven by the production of commodities such as beef, soy, palm oil and wood fibre. Mining adds to this problem by contaminating rivers and streams that are vital for a resilient ecosystem, carbon sequestration and soil quality.

Morand said his study showed that disease risks needs to be added to risk-benefit analysis of new projects. “We should take the costs of . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2021 at 12:40 pm

In the gut microbiome, at least, it’s nurture, not nature

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Clea Simon writes in the Harvard Gazette:

We are what we eat, and so are our microbiomes. A new study shows that alterations in diet, along with other environmental factors, had a major impact on gut biomes over time as animals were domesticated. In a process that closely tracks changes in the human diet since industrialization, this shift had implications on the health of domesticated animals — and possibly on humans as well.

The question that challenged human evolutionary biologist Rachel Carmody was one of nature vs. nurture. Her study “Effects of domestication on the gut microbiota parallel those of human industrialization,” published today in eLife, answered it definitively.

“Evidence in humans and many animals to this point suggests that, surprisingly, genetics plays a small role compared to environmental influences,” said Carmody, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and principal investigator of the department’s Nutritional and Microbial Ecology Lab.

Carmody and Aspen Reese, a junior fellow in her lab, looked at nine different pairs of wild animals and their domesticated descendants, such as wolves and dogs, wild boars and pigs, and wild European rabbits alongside the domestic variety. Though the pairs differed profoundly from one another, the tame counterparts have encountered many common environmental changes during domestication, including shifts in population density, physical activity, patterns of reproduction, medical interventions such as exposure to antibiotics, and human contact.

In addition, “We’ve changed their diets,” said Carmody. “For example, many domesticated animals are eating foods originally cultivated for human use, in processed forms that are relatively easily digestible, and that tend to be richer in fat.” While the microbiomes of wild and domesticated animal pairs resembled one another, “The process of domestication shifted the divergent microbiomes of these different species in a common direction. In other words, we were able to detect a global signature of domestication,” she said.

The fact that environment rather than genetics drove that shift became apparent as researchers switched a single environmental variable between wild and domesticated pairs — feeding wolves dog chow, for example, and raw meat to dogs. “We used diet as one example of an environmental factor that we know has changed with domestication and with industrialization in profound ways,” Carmody said.

The researchers then sampled and sequenced the microorganisms in the animals’ fecal matter. With just a short-term diet change, the wolves’ gut microbial community became dog-like, and the dogs’ wolfish. This discovery confirmed earlier work done in Carmody’s lab with mice and humans that revealed how diet not only changed the gut biome but did so relatively quickly. “Within 24 hours of seeing a new diet, the gut microbiome looks and behaves very different,” she said.

To bring the study closer to home, researchers also looked at the closest parallels in human evolution, comparing chimpanzees’ gut biomes with those of modern humans. While the evolutionary distance between chimps and humans is greater than that between, say, wolves and dogs, the same kinds of changes were seen. Notably, the shifts were clearest in humans living in industrialized societies, who have experienced the greatest changes in diet, population density, physical activity, antibiotic use, and other factors that were also involved in animal domestication.

The implications are considerable. “We know that the gut microbiome has really important effects on human health,” said Carmody. Indeed, this internal environment has been linked to “a range of human diseases,” she said, including metabolic diseases like atherosclerosis and Type 2 diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and autoimmune disorders.

“In some ways, it’s great news that the gut microbiome is so sensitive to environmental conditions, as this means we can manipulate it more easily to improve human health,” Carmody said. “But it’s a double-edged sword, as all the changes our recent lifestyles have had on the microbiome may create opportunities for mismatch with human biology, which changes on much slower timescales.”

This study also  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 March 2021 at 12:10 pm

The Coal Plant Next Door

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Max Blau reports in ProPublica for Georgia Health News:

Mark Berry raised his right hand, pledging to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The bespectacled mechanical engineer took his seat inside the cherry-wood witness stand. He pulled his microphone close to his yellow bow tie and glanced left toward five of Georgia’s most influential elected officials. As one of Georgia Power’s top environmental lobbyists, Berry had a clear mission on that rainy day in April 2019: Convince those five energy regulators that the company’s customers should foot the bill for one of the most expensive toxic waste cleanup efforts in state history.

When Berry became Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental affairs in 2015, he inherited responsibility for a dark corporate legacy dating back to before he was born. For many decades, power companies had burnt billions of tons of coal, dumping the leftover ash — loaded with toxic contaminants — into human-made “ponds” larger than many lakes. But after a pair of coal-ash pond disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina exposed the environmental and health risks of those largely unregulated dumps, the Obama administration required power companies to stop using the aging disposal sites.

Berry had spent nearly two decades climbing the ranks of Southern Company, America’s second-largest energy provider and the owner of Georgia Power. By the time he was under oath that day, company execs had vowed to store newly burnt coal ash in landfills designed for safely disposing of such waste. But an unprecedented challenge remained: Figuring out what to do with 90 million tons of coal ash — enough to fill more than 50 Major League Baseball stadiums to the brim — that had accumulated over the better part of a century in ash ponds that were now leaking.

Georgia Power would have to shut down roughly 30 ponds from the Appalachian foothills to the wetlands near the Georgia coast. After draining all the ponds, the company would have two options for disposing of the highly contaminated dry ash left behind: It could either move the ash into a landfill fitted with a protective liner, or pack the dry ash into a smaller footprint and place a cover on top — leaving a gaping hole in the ground that, in some places, would be the larger than Disneyland. The former would cost more but vastly reduce the possibility of toxic leakage; the latter lowered expenses but would perpetually risk contaminating drinking water in neighboring communities.

As scientists had grown more aware of the threat posed by coal ash, Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina had forced utilities to move ash into lined landfills. But Georgia was something of an outlier. The state historically was known as a coal ash capital, a place where lawmakers touted their pro-business bona fides by denouncing regulations, and Georgia Power had a track record of delaying or blocking efforts to regulate pollution. The company was lobbying hard for the cheaper option.

Of course, the $7.3 billion price tag wasn’t all that cheap. Sitting on the Georgia Public Service Commission’s witness stand, Berry and his top deputy spent hours arguing that the whopping costs of cleaning up Georgia Power’s coal-ash ponds should be passed along to its customers. If Berry could persuade the regulators that the costs were both “reasonable” and “prudent,” the company could tack a monthly fee onto the bills of 2.2 million residential customers for decades to come, which would work out to each customer footing $3,300 of the bill to clean up the company’s mess. If he failed, the commissioners could effectively force Georgia Power to eat those costs — a major blow to investors in a publicly traded company that has annual operating revenues of over $8 billion.

During Berry’s testimony, PSC commissioner Tim Echols said he has concerns about putting ratepayers on the hook for the costs of cleaning up the ash ponds — and whether Georgia Power is spending more than it has to. “This is enormously expensive,” he said.

Berry didn’t mention that the cleanup costs could increase by billions of dollars if Georgia’s environmental officials adopted the safer standards used by neighboring states. Anticipating Echols’ next question, Berry said that Georgia Power’s $7.3 billion plan was the “most cost-effective way” to comply with coal-ash regulations.

“If we were to do something less,” Berry added, state environmental officials “would force us to go back and redo what we did not do right the first time.”

Had those five energy regulators swiveling in their chairs asked more pointed questions about Georgia Power’s waste-disposal practices, Berry would have been pressured to tell a long-hidden story about ash and avarice. In the second half of the 20th century, Georgia Power had saved money by building some of America’s largest coal-ash ponds without a protective liner underneath, despite knowing some of the risks of contaminating residents’ drinking water. It had also sought to do as little as possible to protect drinking water that’s now believed to be tainted by coal-ash toxins.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2021 at 9:45 am

Why Extraterrestrial Life May Not Seem Entirely Alien

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Don Falk interviews Arik Kershenbaum in Quanta:

On the website for the department of zoology of the University of Cambridge, the page for Arik Kershenbaum lists his three main areas of research, one of which stands out from the others. Kershenbaum studies “Wolves & other canids,” “Dolphins & cetaceans” — and “Aliens.” Granted, science hasn’t yet found any aliens to study, but Kershenbaum says that there are certain things we can still say about them with reasonable certainty. Topping the list: They evolved.

“The bottom line — why animals do the things that they do, why they are the things that they are — is because of evolution,” said Kershenbaum, a lecturer and director of studies in the natural sciences at the university’s Girton College. He argues that evolution is a universal law of nature, like gravity — and that studies of plants and animals here can therefore tell us something useful about potential inhabitants of worlds far beyond Earth. He finds evidence for this in the process of evolutionary convergence, in which unrelated lineages of organisms evolve similar features as adaptations to similar environmental challenges. It’s an argument he presents in detail in his new book, The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves, which draws on comparisons of animals’ physical adaptations as well as his own research (and that of others) into animal communications.

Quanta recently spoke with Kershenbaum at his home in Cambridge via videoconference. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’re a zoologist; you study life here on our own planet. What made you want to write a book about alien life?

When zoologists study life on Earth, we’re studying mechanisms. We’re studying how life became the way it is. And because evolution is the explanatory mechanism for life everywhere, then the principles that we uncover on Earth should be applicable in the rest of the universe. Thinking about how life on other planets evolves and behaves is just a natural extension of my work with animals on Earth. If we discovered a lost island on this planet, we’d be examining its animals from the perspective of what we know about the evolution of life in general. You can be sure that if we discovered alien life on another planet, we’d be using the same methods to ask why they look and behave the way they do, and how they evolved.

You argue that natural selection — the key mechanism behind evolution — is inevitable, and that it applies universally. What makes you so confident about that?

No planet will have a complex form of life that popped into existence all on its own. Whatever life is like on an alien planet, it must have begun simply. Now, it could be that it remained simple; that’s possible. Probable, even, on many planets. But if life is to achieve any kind of complexity, the only way that complexity can accumulate is if favorable changes and innovations are retained and unfavorable ones are lost — and that’s precisely evolution by natural selection.

One of the key ideas in your book is the notion of “convergent evolution.” What is that, and why is it important?

If you observe two animals with similar features — feathers, for instance — you might presume that they inherited them from a common ancestor: the feathered dinosaur that was the ancestor of all modern birds. That’s just regular evolution, where children have similarities because they inherit the characteristics of their parents.

But sometimes you see animals with traits that they couldn’t possibly have inherited from a common ancestor. For instance, the wings of birds work in pretty much the same way as the wings of bats. But the common ancestor of birds and bats was a small lizardlike creature that lived over 300 million years ago, long before even the dinosaurs. It certainly didn’t have wings, and the large majority of its descendants, including elephants and crocodiles, don’t have wings (thankfully). So those wings must have evolved separately in different lines of descendants.

Sometimes this “convergence” of traits is for something obviously useful, like wings. But sometimes convergence produces bizarrely similar creatures that share so many characteristics, it can be hard to believe they’re not closely related. The recently extinct thylacine [a large predatory marsupial native to Tasmania and mainland Australia], for example, could easily be mistaken for a peculiar breed of dog, but it’s much more closely related to a kangaroo! And yet living a life similar to that of modern coyotes or jackals meant that it evolved many similar characteristics convergently.

You’re arguing that wherever organisms confront similar environmental challenges, they may come up with similar adaptive solutions. And you expect to see this throughout the universe?

Consider flight, since that’s the most famous example of convergence. If you live on a planet with an atmosphere, or even with an ocean or some other fluid, if you want to get from one place to another through that fluid, there’s only a handful of ways to do it. You can . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

I have great difficulty understand the reasoning of those who dispute the fact of evolution.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 March 2021 at 4:07 pm

The importance of Biden’s Dept of the Interior appointment

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Tonight, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) as Secretary of the Interior Department. An impressive woman in her own right, Haaland embodies the determination of the new administration to use the government for the good of all Americans, rather than for special interests. This makes her a threat to business-as-usual on issues of both race and the economy. Her confirmation vote was 50-41; only four Republicans voted in favor of her appointment.

Haaland is the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in our history, heading the department that, in the nineteenth century, abandoned Indigenous peoples for political leverage. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation, whose people have lived in the land that is now New Mexico for 35 generations. The daughter of two military veterans, Haaland is a single mother who earned a law degree with a young child in tow. She was a tribal leader focused on environmentally responsible economic development for the Lagunas before she became a Democratic leader.

Haaland brings to the position her opposition to further explorations for oil and gas on public lands, as well as an opposition to fracking, the process of extracting natural gas through fracturing rock with hydraulic pressure. Republicans have called her “radical” and say her opposition to the expansion of fossil fuels disqualifies her from overseeing an agency that, as Washington Post columnist Darryl Fears puts it, “traditionally promoted those values.”

Congress established the Department of the Interior in 1849 to pull together federal offices that dealt with matters significant to the domestic policy of the United States and were, at the time, scattered in a number of different departments. Among other things, the Interior Department took control of Indian affairs and public lands.

Reformers hoped that moving Indian Affairs from the War Department to the Interior Department, where civilians rather than army officers would control Indigenous relations, would lead to fewer wars. Instead, the move swept Indigenous people into a political system over which they had no control.

As settlers pushed into Indigenous territory, the government took control of the land through treaties that promised the tribes food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and usually the tools and seeds to become farmers. As well, tribal members usually received a yearly payment of cash. These distributions of goods and money were not payment for the land. They replaced the livelihood the tribes lost when they gave up their lands.

Either willingly or by force, tribes moved onto reservations, large tracts overseen by an agent who, once Indian Affairs was in the Department of the Interior, was a political appointee chosen by the U.S. senators of the state in which the reservation was located. While some of the agents actually tried to do their job, most were put into office to advance the interests of the political party in power. So, they took the money Congress appropriated for the tribe they oversaw, then gave the contracts for the beef, flour, clothing, blankets, and so on, to cronies, who would fulfill the contracts with moldy food and rags, if they bothered to fulfill them at all. The agents would pocket the rest of the money, using it to help keep their political party in power and themselves in office.

When tribal leaders complained, lawmakers pointed out—usually quite correctly—that they had appropriated the money required under the treaties. But the system had essentially become a slush fund, and the tribes had no recourse against the corrupt agents except, when they were starving, to go to war. Then the agents called in the troops. Democrat Grover Cleveland tried to clean up the system in 1885-1889, but as soon as Republican Benjamin Harrison took the White House back, he jump-started the old system again.

The corruption was so bad by then that military leaders tried to take the management of Indian Affairs away from the Interior Department, furious that politicians caused trouble with the tribes and then soldiers and unoffending Indians died. It looked briefly as if they might win until the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 ended any illusions that military management would be a better deal for Native Americans than political management.

By the twentieth century, much of the Interior Department’s work turned to managing mineral and grazing rights, not only on Indigenous land, but also on land owned by the federal government. Until 1920, federal law permitted companies to claim the minerals under land they staked out. The discovery of oil in the West sparked a rush, though, and in 1909, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey warned Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger that prospectors were taking up all the land. Ballinger in turn warned President William Howard Taft, who used an executive order to protect more than 3 million acres of public lands in California and Wyoming, reserving the oil under them for use by the U.S. Navy.

In 1920, Congress passed . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2021 at 8:52 pm

Not only wolves, but goats as well

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Reference is to this post.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 March 2021 at 6:02 pm

Whatever Happened to the War Against Terrorism?

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Kevin Drum has a good post:

In a post that happens to include a bit of mulling over the fate of Western civilization, Jay Nordlinger adds this aside:

(Want to know some good news? The threat of radical political Islam receded faster than many of us expected. It still lurks, of course — what doesn’t? But I well remember the concerns of the first decade of this century. Many of us were settling in for a long twilight struggle. In any event . . .)

This reminds me of something to brag about. Several years ago I predicted that the region from north Africa to the Mideast to central Asia would soon see a substantial decline as a source of terrorism. The reason was simple: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 March 2021 at 2:29 pm

Ten years ago, the world learned the wrong lesson from the tragedy of Fukushima

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Douglas Saunders writes in the Globe & Mail:

Ten years ago next week, in the aftermath of a terrible natural disaster, Japan offered the world a valuable lesson about nuclear power and climate change. Unfortunately, it was not the lesson the world took from it.

The tsunami that tore through coastal Japanese cities in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011, was the most powerful tidal wave in three centuries. It killed more than 18,000 people – thousands are still listed as missing – left hundreds of thousands homeless and devastated the lives of countless families.

As that humanitarian crisis was just beginning, the world’s attention turned away from the larger tragedy and focused on the former coal-mining town of Okuma, in Fukushima prefecture, on Japan’s eastern coast. There, the tsunami had washed over the 40-year-old nuclear plant, flooded its basements and knocked out its backup power, causing the cores to melt down in three of its six reactors.

The meltdown, the ensuing mass evacuation and the lengthy, clumsy operation to stabilize the reactors became a global event that shaped the world’s perception of nuclear power.

The incident was, in every way, a worst-case scenario. The reactors – primitive General Electric boiling-water units with Mark I containment vessels, designed in the early 1960s to be cheaper than other reactors – are considered by many engineers to be the worst ever built. In 1972, shortly after the first Fukushima units came online, officials at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission recommended the GE design be discontinued because its containment system was so badly flawed. No reactors with such weak containment have been built since the 1970s.

The Fukushima units were also built in the worst possible place: a tsunami-prone stretch of coast. In 1967, during their construction, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) decided to save money by building them only 10 metres above sea level, not the 30 metres required in the design.

And the units were operated with astonishing incompetence. In 2012, a Japanese parliamentary panel concluded the nuclear disaster happened because TEPCO and its regulator had “failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements.”

So in short: This was a case in which the worst possible reactor, built in the worst possible place and operated by perhaps the least competent people was exposed to the worst possible seismic event.

And yet the death toll, in terms of acute radiation exposure, was zero. In 2018, one plant worker’s family won a lawsuit claiming his death by cancer had resulted from the disaster, although radiation scientists argued it was far more likely caused by his exposure to cigarette smoke. The evacuation itself caused more than 2,000 deaths, most involving the elderly and none related to radiation.

Long-term exposure to radiation might theoretically have raised the probability of cancer deaths in the region, but no such increase has yet been detected. The World Health Organization and academic researchers have concluded that the increased cancer risk near the reactor is either negligibly low or non-existent – the radiation blew out over the Pacific, where it dissipated quickly to non-detectable levels.

Amid all the tsunami and evacuation deaths, the reactor itself proved to be close to harmless.

But that wasn’t the lesson the world took from it. The chaos and anger coming from Japan created a sense that the meltdown had produced a deadly radiation event. For years afterward, implausible theories about radiation drifting across the Pacific to North America went unchecked in the media.

And we learned this erroneous lesson at exactly the wrong time. By 2011, we knew the largest single source of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change was the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity. The most effective way to meet the target of limiting global warming to no more than two degrees is to convert the coal-fired generating plants in China, India and other countries to nuclear, as quickly as possible. Nuclear power is  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 March 2021 at 3:40 pm

Think of the total amount of CO2 emitted by burning (coal and oil and natural gas) since 1751. What percentage of that was during your own lifetime?

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 March 2021 at 2:12 pm

Beyond human-centered design: A human–silkworm collaboration shows the way to sustainable design

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Tomasz Hollanek, a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, working at the intersection of design theory, technology ethics and critical AI studies, writes in Psyche:

With advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), it’s common to hear designers preach about the need for human-centred technology – systems, devices and software that cater to our specific human needs, behaviours and foibles. As algorithms affect our lives in profound yet invisible ways, placing the human at the centre of the design process is meant to ensure that they work in our favour – and that we get technological progress right. Most often, this approach translates into products and tools that are intuitive and user-friendly, and that support human wellbeing.

But what if situating the human at the heart of design isn’t enough to steer innovation in the right direction? What if it’s precisely what we should avoid? Human-centred thinking has marked drawbacks. We can trace the desire to focus on the human – and the human alone – to an anthropocentric logic that has guided technological development for centuries and, ultimately, led to the current state of ecological crisis. Viewed in this light, the rise of AI represents a chance to forge new, less extractive but still productive relationships with the organisms and entities with which we share the planet.

‘[A]ll design is human-centred,’ argues Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, ‘in that it touches all live beings … but cares only about some – humans.’ For Antonelli, human-centric inevitably translates to egocentric, because it ‘reflects an old anthropocentric and anthropogenic view of reality’. The calls to prioritise the human in design, even if well-meaning, fails to address the biggest challenge ahead of us: reconciling our distinctly human needs with environmental concerns. The potential for change lies in what Antonelli calls allocentric design  as the opposite of egocentric – an approach to making that acknowledges the interdependence of species and aims to ensure the flourishing of us all.

In early 2020, Antonelli curated an exhibition at MoMA dedicated to the designer Neri Oxman. Oxman labels her work as naturecentric, but it’s of a piece with allocentric design, since nature for Oxman stands for a complex system of interactions in which the human is only a single component. Oxman’s process, which she has been working out with the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab, is a good example of what de-centring the human in design could mean in practice. It also shows how new, AI-based technologies could help us mediate between human needs, environmental constraints and the wellbeing of other entities with which we share the planet.

Silk Pavilion (2013), a dome of stainless steel and silk threads (275 x 275 x 300 cm), is one of Oxman’s most frequently exhibited projects. The Pavilion explores the potential for interspecies co-design, in which both human and nonhuman actors are co-creators and stakeholders. Searching for alternatives to synthetic materials used in product and architectural design, Oxman’s team studied the Bombyx mori silkworm’s cocoon-production patterns. To ‘reverse engineer’ the silkworm’s spinning behaviour, the group examined naturally occurring fabrication patterns to reproduce them on a new scale. They learned that the silkworm’s movements were affected by environmental conditions such as natural light and heat and that, by manipulating these factors, humans could direct the worm’s spinning.

In the subsequent phase, the collected data served to compute a scalable model for the Pavilion dome: composed of 26 polygonal stainless-steel frames, the structure’s skeleton was filled with silk threads by a computer-numerically controlled machine, generating an optimal scaffolding for living silkworms to begin their spinning. In the final phase, 6,500 silkworms were released on to the shell. Over a period of three weeks, they completed the dome, closing the gaps between the machine-spun threads with new silk fibres.

The algorithm that initially replicated the living silkworm’s behaviour also directed this process of biological growth – mediating between species so as to optimise construction and avoid excess use of resources. The benefits of the Pavilion model are manifold. Combining digital and biological fibre-based fabrication allows for . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

3 March 2021 at 11:48 am

“Power Companies Get Exactly What They Want”: How Texas Repeatedly Failed to Protect Its Power Grid Against Extreme Weather

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Perhaps in Texas it should be referred to not as a “power grid,” but as a “weakness grid.” Jeremy Schwartz, Kiah Collier, and Vianna Davila report in ProPublica:

In January 2014, power plants owned by Texas’ largest electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse.

The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid.

In the earlier cold snap, the grid was pushed to the limit and rolling blackouts swept the state, spurring an angry Legislature to order a study of what went wrong.

Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the “critical failure points” that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.

In May 2014, the PUC sought changes that would require energy companies to identify and address all potential failure points, including any effects of “weather design limits.”

Luminant argued against the proposal.

In comments to the commission, the company said the requirement was unnecessary and “may or may not identify the ‘weak links’ in protections against extreme temperatures.”

“Each weather event [is] dynamic,” company representatives told regulators. “Any engineering analysis that attempted to identify a specific weather design limit would be rendered meaningless.”

By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known.

The change, which experts say has left Texas power plants more susceptible to the kind of extreme and deadly weather events that bore down on the state last week, is one in a series of cascading failures to shield the state’s electric grid from winter storms, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

Lawmakers and regulators, including the PUC and the industry-friendly Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, have repeatedly ignored, dismissed or watered down efforts to address weaknesses in the state’s sprawling electric grid, which is isolated from the rest of the country.

About 46,000 megawatts of power — enough to provide electricity to 9 million homes on a high-demand day — were taken off the grid last week due to power-generating failures stemming from winter storms that battered the state for nearly seven consecutive days. Dozens of deaths, including that of an 11-year-old boy, have been tied to the weather. At the height of the crisis, more than 4.5 million customers across the state were without power.

As millions of Texans endured days without power and water, experts and news organizations pointed to unheeded warnings in a federal report that examined the 2011 winter storm and offered recommendations for preventing future problems. The report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation concluded, among other things, that power companies and natural gas producers hadn’t properly readied their facilities for cold weather, including failing to install extra insulation, wind breaks and heaters.

Another federal report released three years later made similar recommendations with few results. Lawmakers also failed to pass measures over the past two decades that would have required the operator of the state’s main power grid to ensure adequate reserves to shield against blackouts, provided better representation for residential and small commercial consumers on the board that oversees that agency and allowed the state’s top emergency-planning agency to make sure power plants were adequately “hardened” against disaster.

Experts and consumer advocates say the challenge to the 2014 proposal by Luminant and other companies, which hasn’t been previously reported, is an example of the industry’s outsize influence over the regulatory bodies that oversee them.

“Too often, power companies get exactly what they want out of the PUC,” said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas. “Even well-intentioned PUC staff are outgunned by armies of power company lawyers and their experts. The sad truth is that if power companies object to something, in this case simply providing information about the durability of certain equipment, they are extremely likely to get what they want.”

Luminant representatives declined to answer questions about the company’s opposition to the weatherization proposal. PUC officials also declined to comment.

Michael Webber, an energy expert and mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the original proposal could have helped in identifying trouble spots within the state’s power plants.

“Good engineering requires detailed understanding of the performance limits of each individual component that goes into a system,” Webber said. “Even if 99.9% of the equipment is properly rated for the operational temperatures, that one part out of 1,000 can bring the whole thing down.”

Luminant defended its performance during last week’s deep freeze, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 February 2021 at 12:18 pm

Ancient kauri tree captures last collapse of Earth’s magnetic field

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Paul Voosen writes in Science:

Several years ago, workers breaking ground for a power plant in New Zealand unearthed a record of a lost time: a 60-ton trunk from a kauri tree, the largest tree species in New Zealand. The tree, which grew 42,000 years ago, was preserved in a bog and its rings spanned 1700 years, capturing a tumultuous time when the world was turned upside down—at least magnetically speaking.

Radiocarbon levels in this and several other pieces of wood chart a surge in radiation from space, as Earth’s protective magnetic field weakened and its poles flipped, a team of scientists reports today in Science. By modeling the effect of this radiation on the atmosphere, the team suggests Earth’s climate briefly shifted, perhaps contributing to the disappearance of large mammals in Australia and Neanderthals in Europe. “We’re only scratching the surface of what geomagnetic change has done,” says Alan Cooper, an ancient DNA researcher at the South Australian Museum and one of the lead authors of the study.

The study not only nails in fine detail the timing and magnitude of the magnetic swap, the most recent in Earth’s history, but is also among the first to make a credible, though speculative, case that these flips can affect the global climate, says Quentin Simon, a paleomagnetist at the European Center for Research and Teaching in Environmental Geoscience in Aix-en-Provence, France. But some paleoclimate scientists are skeptical of the team’s broader claims, saying other records show few traces of climate upheaval.

Earth’s magnetic field is created by the flow of molten iron in the outer core, which is prone to chaotic swings that not only weaken the field, but also cause the poles to wander and sometimes flip entirely. The magnetic orientations of minerals in rock record long-lasting reversals, but can’t capture the details of a flip lasting hundreds of years, like the one 42,000 years ago.

Radioactive carbon-14, however, can mark these shorter fluctuations. The isotope is produced when cosmic rays—charged particles from outer space—slip past the magnetic field and strike the atmosphere. It is taken up by living things, and its specific half-life makes it a standard clock. The team used radiocarbon to date the kauri wood by lining it up with accurate, but coarse, radiocarbon cave records from China. And by measuring finer carbon-14 changes in the rings, they tracked how its production varied over 40-year intervals, as the magnetic field ebbed and surged. “It’s just amazing you can do this back 42,000 years ago,” says Lawrence Edwards, a geochemist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who worked on the Chinese cave records.

Spikes in radiocarbon indicated the magnetic field weakened to some 6% of its present day strength by 41,500 years ago. At that point the poles flipped and the field recovered some strength, before crashing and flipping back 500 years later. Cooper notes that not only was Earth’s cosmic ray shield down; the Sun’s was, too. Evidence from ice cores suggests that, around this same time, the Sun was experiencing several “grand minima”—episodes of low magnetic activity. The resulting cosmic ray assault charged the atmosphere to a level that would have knocked out today’s power grid and created aurorae in the subtropics, Cooper says. “What happens when the atmosphere is that ionized?” he asks. “God only knows.” (The paper is the first Cooper has led since he was fired in 2019 from the University of Adelaide following allegations that he bullied staff and students; Cooper has denied the allegations.)

To explore the consequences, the team  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2021 at 1:17 pm

Posted in Environment, Science

What Are Sperm Telling Us? Not Good News.

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Nicholas Kristof’s column in the NY Times points out that trashing the environment brings unexpected payback:

Something alarming is happening between our legs.

Sperm counts have been dropping; infant boys are developing more genital abnormalities; more girls are experiencing early puberty; and adult women appear to be suffering declining egg quality and more miscarriages.

It’s not just humans. Scientists report genital anomalies in a range of species, including unusually small penises in alligatorsotters and minks. In some areas, significant numbers of fishfrogs and turtles have exhibited both male and female organs.

Four years ago, a leading scholar of reproductive health, Shanna H. Swan, calculated that from 1973 to 2011, the sperm count of average men in Western countries had fallen by 59 percent. Inevitably, there were headlines about “Spermageddon” and the risk that humans would disappear, but then we moved on to chase other shiny objects.

Now Swan, an epidemiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, has written a book, “Count Down,” that will be published on Tuesday and sounds a warning bell. Her subtitle is blunt: “How our modern world is threatening sperm counts, altering male and female reproductive development, and imperiling the future of the human race.”

Swan and other experts say the problem is a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors, which mimic the body’s hormones and thus fool our cells. This is a particular problem for fetuses as they sexually differentiate early in pregnancy. Endocrine disruptors can wreak reproductive havoc.

These endocrine disruptors are everywhere: plastics, shampoos, cosmetics, cushions, pesticides, canned foods and A.T.M. receipts. They often aren’t on labels and can be difficult to avoid.

“In some ways, the sperm-count decline is akin to where global warming was 40 years ago,” Swan writes. “The climate crisis has been accepted — at least by most people — as a real threat. My hope is that the same will happen with the reproductive turmoil that’s upon us.”

Chemical companies are as reckless as tobacco companies were a generation ago, or as opioid manufacturers were a decade ago. They lobby against even safety testing of endocrine disruptors, so that we have little idea if products we use each day are damaging our bodies or our children. We’re all guinea pigs.

Aside from the decline in sperm counts, growing numbers of sperm appear defective — there’s a boom in two-headed sperm — while others loll aimlessly in circles, rather than furiously swimming in pursuit of an egg. And infants who have had greater exposures to a kind of endocrine disruptor called phthalates have smaller penises, Swan found.

Uncertainty remains, research sometimes conflicts and biological pathways aren’t always clear. There are competing theories about whether the sperm count decline is real and what might cause it and about why girls appear to be reaching puberty earlier, and it’s sometimes unclear whether an increase in male genital abnormalities reflects actual rising numbers or just better reporting.

Still, the Endocrine Society, the Pediatric Endocrine Society, the President’s Cancer Panel and the World Health Organization have all warned about endocrine disruptors, and Europe and Canada have moved to regulate them. But in the United States, Congress and the Trump administration seemed to listen more to industry lobbyists than to independent scientists.

Patricia Ann Hunt, a reproductive geneticist at Washington State University, has conducted experiments on mice showing that the impact of endocrine disruptors is cumulative, generation after generation. When infant mice were exposed for just a few days to endocrine disrupting chemicals, their testes as adults produced fewer sperm, and this incapacity was transmitted to their offspring. While findings  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it looks bad.

Seafood is now contaminated with microplastics, which are endocrine disruptors, because humans use the oceans as a big garbage dump. Take a look at some of these brief videos’

How Much Microplastic Is Found in Fish Fillets?
Are Microplastics in Seafood a Cancer Risk?
Microplastic Contamination & Seafood Safety
BPA on Receipts: Getting Under Our Skin
Why BPA Hasn’t Been Banned

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2021 at 8:58 pm

Arkansas School District Goes Solar, Boosts Teacher Pay

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A Batesville School District rooftop solar array. Entegrity

Diana Madson reports in EcoWatch:

In Batesville, Arkansas, teachers are getting raises – thanks, in part, to solar power.

Megan Renihan is communications coordinator for the Batesville School District. She says that four years ago, teacher salaries were below average for the state, and lower than other districts in the county.

“In order to attract and retain our staff, we wanted to increase the pay,” she says.

So the district started looking for ways to cut costs.

At the time, it was spending more than half a million dollars a year on utilities. To reduce its energy costs, the district installed thousands of LED lights, replaced windows and HVAC units, sealed leaks, and improved building insulation.

And it installed almost 1,500 solar panels that now generate about half of the district’s electricity.

“We were the first school district in the state of Arkansas to invest in solar panels,” Renihan says.

Together, the solar power and energy efficiency improvements are saving the district more than $300,000 a year. Along with other cost-cutting measures and state funding, those savings have helped raise teacher pay across the district.

“And that money is going to continue to go back into our teachers’ salaries. That’s the whole goal,” Renihan says. “We want to be the best in the area for teachers, because that means that our kids are getting the best.”

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2021 at 11:17 am

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