Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Just a quick link to an important piece by climatologist Michael Mann detailing the ways in which global warming and climate change added destructive power to Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey:

The factors Mann details include sea level rise (compounded by subsidence from oil drilling); warmer surface and deep waters in the Gulf which added to the energy/intensity of the storm, the storm surge it caused, and the amount of water it dumped on land; and the fact that it stalled over Texas, producing those all-time-record-breaking rainfall totals.

In the absence of meaningful action to control climate change, we're going to see a lot more of these "once-in-a-thousand-year" disasters.

One of thousands of rescues in the aftermath
of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey
Credit: Dept. of Defense

Thursday, August 24, 2017


With President Trump and North Korea's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un engaged in a nuclear-armed chest-thumping competition, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock now just 2 and a half minutes before midnight, the possibility that our civilization may annihilate itself is hard to deny. And that doesn't count the risks from climate change, biodiversity loss, runaway artificial intelligence and other human-caused developments.

The Doomsday Clock may tick for most technological civilizations
Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

If we're in this fix just 350 years after the start of the Scientific Revolution and just 7 decades into the Atomic Age, how much longer can we reasonably expect our vaunted but fragile civilization to last?

Not all that long, says Daniel Whitmire, a retired astrophysicist now teaching mathematics at the University of Arkansas. Whitmire bases his argument on one of the long-established principles of philosophy and science, the principle of mediocrity.

The principle of mediocrity makes the reasonable assumption that we're more likely to observe or experience common events than uncommon ones. This idea has helped us to recognize that Earth is not the center of the universe, that our solar system is just one among billions in our galaxy, and that the Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.

Whitmire notes that we are Earth's first technologically advanced species and that it's early in our possible technological evolution. If we are in fact typical of technological civilizations in general, that leads to two unhappy conclusions--technological civilizations don't last long before destroying themselves, and when they do, they take their planet's biosphere down with them.

To grasp Whitmire's reasoning, we need to think like a statistician, in terms of a distribution of technological civilizations with different lifespans. Imagine a big bowl full of marbles, each representing a technological civilization somewhere in our galaxy. So far, we've only gotten to reach into the bowl once, and out came our particular civilization. What can that one draw tell us about the rest?

Whitmire points out that if most technological civilizations last hundreds of thousands or millions of years, our few-hundred-year experience with technology would be very atypical. However, Whitmire calculates, if most technological civilizations last no more than a few thousand years, we would be typical, falling in the middle 95 percent of the distribution, although among the youngest.

The implication from the most likely distribution--most technological civilizations don't last very long, say 500 years or so.

Five hundred or a thousand years may seem like a long time from the perspective of a human lifespan, but it's extremely short compared to the age of the Earth and the Earth's biosphere. Whitmire notes that, left to itself, Earth's biosphere can be expected to survive for at least another billion years. If humans (or other technological species that might evolve here) went extinct, but didn't damage the biosphere in the process, there would be time for many subsequent civilizations to evolve. But that would again make us, as first-timers, atypical.

The implication--when technological civilizations die, they destroy their planet's biosphere, or at least degrade it to a level that doesn't give the planet enough time to evolve a second technological civilization. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second chances for planets that evolve technological civilizations.

In short, if we are typical, than other technological civilizations would, like us, be early in in their potential life-spans (implying a short lifespan in general), and be the first on their planet (implying no subsequent technological civilizations, and hence destroyed or massively degraded biospheres).

Whitmire concludes:

Our inferences regarding the fate of the typical technological species are based
on two observations and essentially one assumption. The observations are that
our technological species is (1) the first such species to evolve on Earth and
(2) early in its potential technological evolution. The assumption is that the
Principle of Mediocrity applies to the reference class of all extant technological
species. Given this assumption, the suggested inference is that the typical tech-
nological species has a short lifetime and that their extinction coincides with
the extinction of their planetary biosphere.

Of course, we can always hope that we're not just a typical technological civilization, but one that's smart enough not to annihilate ourselves along with Earth's biosphere. That would be great, but if we follow Whitmire's logic, the odds are against it.

You can access Whitmire's article in the International Journal of Astrobiology at this URL.


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Monday, August 21, 2017


The researchers who leaked the National Climate Assessment in early August did so out of fear that the Trump administration would censor or simply refuse to publish the report--the product of years of work by 13 federal agencies.

Trump has already proved them right by shutting down the advisory committee charged with evaluating and translating the assessment's scientific findings into action.

It's not as though action on climate change isn't urgently needed--the assessment found that temperatures are rising rapidly, especially in the western US and the northern Great Plains; the Atlantic seaboard can expect more destructive hurricanes; California can expect more droughts; the Northeast can expect more deluges and floods; coastal cities will suffer more flooding as sea levels rise; and the risk of irreversible climate tipping points is growing.

Hurricane Isabel hits East Coast of US, 2003
Credit: Wikipedia
With Trump in the White House (or at Mar-a-Lago), and Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA, the US will not just be ignoring climate change, it will be moving full speed in reverse.


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Sunday, August 20, 2017


Here's a quicklink to a Cleantechnia,com story about how South Miami is coming to its senses about global warming, climate change and, especially, the region's risk from rising sea levels and storm surges. It's the first city outside of California to mandate solar panels on all new homes.

Tidal flooding on a sunny day, Miami, 2016
Credit: B137

While our leaders at the federal level continue to march backwards with respect to climate change and its impacts, cities like South Miami and states like California and New York are, of necessity, taking the lead.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Climate scientists have been concerned about the risks from rising sea levels for nearly 50 years.

That a warming climate will raise sea levels makes intuitive sense--water, including all the water in the world's oceans, expands as it warms, and melt water from glaciers, ice sheets and the Antarcitc ice cap will of course end up in the oceans.

Although the pace of sea level rise seems small, on the order of a millimeter per year, its impact is multiplied by higher tides, stronger storm surges, sea-level-rise hotspots, and by the fact that 634 million people, close to ten percent of the world's population, live in low-lying coastal areas. The US is among the top ten countries with large numbers of people at risk from sea-level rise.

Pinning down the rate of sea level rise has proved to be challenging (see "Sea level measurement" at this URL). Now, however, a team of researchers has used sophisticated statistical techniques to deal systematically with the sources of uncertainty in different sea level data sets. "This likely is the first time a group of statisticians have had really close examination of sea level data," says Andrew Parnell, at University College Dublin.

Their approach allowed them to trace sea level changes over the past 2000 years, with increasing accuracy as more, and more accurate, data have become available in recent decades.

The group found that from 1 AD through 1800 AD, global sea levels rose by much less than one millimeter per year. They began to rise more rapidly at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and are currently not just rising, but rising faster and faster. They estimate that globally the rate is now 1.7 millimeter per year.

"Some people argue that sea levels are not rising," says Parnell. "We are showing them that sea levels are not only rising, but accelerating.

In terms of potential impacts, the East Coast of the US is at particularly high risk. It happens to be one of the sea level rise hotspots. For example, sea level near New York City is rising by 3 millimeters per year, putting more than $25 billion of infrastructure at risk.

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
September 11, 2005
Source: NOAA
Author: Lieut. Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Corps, NMAO/AOC

Parnell and his colleagues presented their new findings at the 2017 Joint Statistical Meetings, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017


In his prescient novel, 1984, George Orwell introduced the world to Newspeak, a minimized and simplified revision of English designed to make nuanced, reasoned, independent thought impossible.

Inspired by our current president and his climate-change denial, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)--the agency whose mission is to guide and enhance American agriculture, conserve and improve the rural environment, and help feed America and the world--has decided to outlaw phrases such as "climate change," "climate change adaptation," "reduce greenhouse gases," and "sequester carbon." Newspeak is alive and well at the USDA.

Flooding in New Orleans--yet again

Those now-forbidden terms are to be replaced in official communication by what Orwell would call "goodthink"--terms approved by the all-powerful Party. "Climate change" becomes "weather extremes" or "intense weather events," "climate change adaptation" becomes "resilience to weather extremes," while "reduce greenhouse gases" and "sequester carbon" become "build soil organic matter" or the mind-numbing "increase nutrient use efficiency."

Wildfire, Black Forest, Colorado, June 12, 2013
Credit: DoD--photo by Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt, U.S. Air Force

In Oldspeak--plain old English--it's at least possible to think and speak clearly about the global problem of climate change and ways to minimize or adapt to it. But, in Newspeak, in Trump's Department of Agriculture, that's now a thoughtcrime, or, better yet, simply unthinkable.

The flash drought that's currently decimating the high plains' wheat crop is simply an isolated weather extreme. It can't be linked to the raging wildfires in the Pacific Northwestflooding in New Orleans, the fact that Virginia's Tangier Island is washing away or that Death Valley just experienced the hottest month ever measured anywhere on Earth. The concept that ties these "weather extremes" together no longer exists, at least at the USDA.

You can see this in action at the EPA, where scientists explaining how climate change has added to the destructive power of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey are being accused of politicizing the storm. In other words, understanding is politicizing. Remaining ignorant is the right thing to do.

 Credit: Stephen Bettany

One of the three guiding slogans of the Party in 1984 was "Ignorance is Strength." If that's true, Trump's USDA is certainly flexing its muscles.


You can read environmentalist Bill McKibben's comments  on this issue here.


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Sunday, July 23, 2017


Persistent organic pollutants--POPS--are pervasive in the environment and accumulate in our bodies. Pesticides, pharmaceuticals and many industrial chemicals contribute to this potentially toxic tide.

Some common organic pollutants
Credit CunhaEnviroSci

In an earlier post, I reported on findings by epidemiologist Miquel Porta and his colleagues revealing that ten percent of Americans have 10 or more different POPS in our blood at abnormally high concentrations.

Porta and his team are now studying the impacts of these long-lived organic compounds that many of us unknowingly carry in our bodies and bloodstream.

His most recent findings, reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, reveal a strong correlation between people's toxic loads and metabolic abnormalities such as high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high blood sugar, unhealthy lipid profiles, and chronic inflammation--factors that increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease.

Porta and his colleagues at the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute in Barcelona (IMIM), and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, evaluated 860 people enrolled in the Catalan Health Interview Survey. Participants included obese and normal-weight men and women from the age of 18 to 74. Statistical analyses controlled for the effects of age, sex, BMI, educational level and social-economic status. It's the first study looking at the relationship between POPs and metabolic abnormalities in  normal-weight individuals.

"The take-home message of our study," says Porta, "is that POPs contribute to cause unhealthy metabolic phenotypes as well as the metabolic syndrome."

 Intriguingly, the correlation was stronger for people of normal weight than for obese people. This may help to explain why many people of normal weight turn out to be metabolically unhealthy, and why some obese people remain metabolically normal.

It wasn't  a small effect--people of normal weight carrying high loads of POPs were four times more likely to be metabolically unhealthy than normal-weight peers with low toxic loads. Obese individuals with high toxic loads were 1.4 times as likely to suffer from metabolic abnormalities than those with low levels of toxins in their blood. And regardless of weight, metabolically unhealthy people carried nearly twice the load of toxins than their healthy peers.

A separate research study reports that normal-weight people who are metabolically unhealthy have three times the risk of heart attack, stroke or death compared to their metabolically healthy, normal-weight peers.

Although we are all exposed to organic pollutants from many sources--the air we breathe, the water we drink, furniture, fabrics, food containers and many other sources, the authors point out that fatty animal foods are the biggest source, and one that we can control by what we choose to eat.

They add, however, that individual efforts to eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight are only part of the solution. Government action to minimize the accumulation of POPs and other toxins in the workplace, consumer goods and the environment are also needed, as well as similar efforts by private companies.

"Individual habits play a role, but so do public and private policies," says Porta, "that is, polices of governments and companies that have been shown to decrease 'internal contamination' by POPs."


You can access the abstract of Porta's journal article at this URL.

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