Blue Marble - October 2013

Deadly Cyclone Hits India

| Fri Oct. 11, 2013 7:08 PM EDT
Cyclone Phailin NOAA

UPDATE 10:45 a.m. PT, Sunday, October 13, 2013: According to CNN, in India's Odisha state, which was battered this weekend by Cyclone Phailin, "at least 13 people were killed after trees fell and walls collapsed when the storm hit, Police Chief Prakash Mishra said. Another death was confirmed in Andhra Pradesh state, India's disaster management authority said. Many had feared the death toll would be higher. Massive evacuation efforts helped limit the number of casualties, officials said."

 

UPDATE 7:30 p.m. PT, Saturday, October 12, 2013: Cyclone Phailin made landfall on Saturday night around 9 pm local time, according to the Times of India. "Broken glass pieces, wood shreds and asbestos sheets flew like killer projectiles in the adjoining cities of Gopalpur and Berhampur," the Times reported. An estimated 12 million people were in the storm's path by the time it made landfall, with wind speeds around the predicted 130 miles per hour. 18 fishermen were stuck at sea when the cyclone hit, according to the Times. As the sun rises in India Sunday morning, the country will begin assessing the damage.

 

By Saturday afternoon, a massive cyclone currently traveling across the Bay of Bengal is expected to hit the coast of India. The government has evacuated more than a quarter million people to prepare for the storm, named Cyclone Phailin (pronounced: phie-lin), which it expects to cause massive power outages, floods, and damage to homes in the region. Here are some facts on the storm, and what's ahead:

How bad is this storm?

The India Meteorological Department describes Phailin as a "very severe" storm, and the National Center for Atmospheric research rates it as a Category 5. It's expected to hit the coast with winds up to 137 miles per hour, 9.8 or more inches of rain, and storm surges up to 11.5 feet. For reference, the storm surge in the Battery in New York City during Superstorm Sandy peaked at 9.2 feet, and the surge in nearby Kings Point, NY was 12.7 feet according to the Weather Channel. The India Meteorological Department predicts "extensive damage" to houses made from hay and mud, which are common in the region, as well as flooding, power outages, traffic disruption, and "the flooding of escape routes" in areas affected by the cyclone.

Writing at Quartz, meteorologist Eric Holthaus thinks that Cyclone Phailin could be more damaging than current estimates (emphasis added):

At one point (2 am Friday, India time), one satellite-based measure of Phailin’s strength estimated the storm’s central pressure at 910.2 millibars, with sustained winds of 175 mph (280 kph). If those numbers were verified by official forecast agencies, they would place Phailin on par with 2005′s Hurricane Katrina, and break the record for the most intense cyclone in Indian Ocean recorded history.

To get a sense of the size of the storm, this satellite image from the University of Wisconsin shows the cyclone, which appears to be about half the size of India.

Where is it heading?

Cyclone Phailin will primarily hit two states on the eastern coast of India, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, and is expected to cause heavy rainfalls in a third, West Bengal. Low-lying areas near the coast, which is dotted with small fishing towns, are expected to be damaged by the storm surge. Reuters reports that the Indian government has made an effort to evacuate people, though not all of them are willing to leave:

Some 260,000 people were moved to safer ground and more were expected to be evacuated by the end of the day, authorities in the two states said. Not everybody was willing to leave their homes and belongings, and some villagers on the palm-fringed Andhra Pradesh coast said they had not been told to evacuate.

"Of course I'm scared, but where will I move with my family?" asked Kuramayya, 38, a fisherman from the village of Bandharuvanipeta, close to where the hurricane is expected to make to landfall, while 3.5-metre (12-foot waves) crashed behind him. "We can't leave our boats behind."

What's the difference between a cyclone and a hurricane?

There isn't one. Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are all the same weather phenomenon, but they have different names depending on where they occur. (This National Geographic article has a complete breakdown of storm names by region.)

Do cyclones hit India often?

Bangladesh and the eastern coast of India have a history of devastating cyclones. According to Weather Underground's history of cyclones in the region, "most of the deadliest tropical storms on earth have occurred in the Bay of Bengal when tremendous storm surges have swamped the low-lying coastal regions of Bangladesh, India, and Burma." Of Weather Underground's list of the 35 deadliest storms on record, 26 of them occurred in the Bay of Bengal.

As cyclone Phailin heads towards land, the Hindu Times reports that many people are recalling the massive Cyclone 05B, often referred to as the Odisha cyclone, that hit the area in 1999 and killed nearly 10,000 people.

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Blizzard Catastrophe Kills Tens of Thousands of Cows; Shutdown Leaves Ranchers on Ice

| Thu Oct. 10, 2013 3:06 PM EDT
A cow lies frozen to death following last weekend's "historic" blizzard in South Dakota.

Last Wednesday, the weather was sunny and warm at Bob Fortune's cattle ranch in Belvidere, S.D. On Thursday, it started raining. By Friday night, the rain had turned to snow. By the weekend, the snow turned to a blizzard with 60 mile an hour winds. By the weekend, Fortune says, "the cattle just couldn't stand the cold anymore, and they just started dying."

Only a year after sweeping drought left ranchers across South Dakota desperate for feed, this week they're just beginning to reckon with a freak early snowstorm, dubbed Winter Storm Atlas, that wiped out an estimated 10 percent of the cattle in the state's western region, up to 100,000 animals. In the coming weeks they will dig through the mess to try to tally the damage to an industry worth $5.2 billion statewide, that also killed an unknown number of horses, sheep, and wildlife. Fortune, president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, says losses like this would be enough to cripple many ranchers even in the best of times, especially with the loss of future calves next spring whose would-be mothers were killed. But with the federal Department of Agriculture still shut down, ranchers are cut off from the livestock insurance that would normally keep them afloat following a disaster like this.

"We have no idea if there'll be federal aid for these ranchers," Fortune says.

"We have no idea if there'll be federal aid for these ranchers," Fortune says.

After catastrophes, livestock producers typically turn to the federal Farm Service Agency's livestock indemnity program, which offers compensation for lost cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, and other livestock. As long as the government stays shut, FSA offices nationwide will be shut too, leaving ranchers without support. A spokesperson for the state's Department of Agriculture said the most their office can do is offer advice on how to document and carry out a cleanup effort. Even before the shutdown, the insurance program was already threatened by delayed passage of a new federal farm bill, which allots money for a range of food and ag-related programs from food stamps to incentives to go organic. While the shutdown debate rages, the Senate and House are still hashing out the farm bill, leaving the livestock indemnity program in midair.

The weekend blizzard, which dumped up to five feet of snow in some places, was "very historic," according to meteorologist Darren Clabo at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology's Institute of Atmospheric Sciences. Rapid City, the largest city in the state's western half, received the most snowfall ever recorded in October, and the third-highest one-day snowfall for any time of year. While South Dakota residents and ranchers are accustomed to brutal winters, Clabo said, "we don't get these kinds of storms in the first week of October." That means that cattle were still covered in thin summer coats, and left out in exposed summer pastures.

historic frozen cow
A snow-covered steer in South Dakota after a blizzard in 1966. Ranchers are still reeling from this weekend's blizzard. NOAA

The storm, Clabo said, was the result of a strong high-altitude storm that pushed in quickly from the Pacific, gathered energy over the Rockies, and peaked just over Rapid City. While it's too early to say what role climate change might have played in this particular storm, higher levels of heat trapped in the atmosphere can result in more frequent and severe storms. Last month's IPCC report found it "very likely" that extreme precipitation events like blizzards will increase over this century.

For now, the South Dakota state Department of Agriculture is picking up the slack as best it can, urging ranchers to fully document their losses so they can get aid if and when it reappears, said spokesperson Jamie Crew. Meanwhile, Fortune and his peers will continue to dispose of dead livestock, which state law requires be cleaned up within 36 hours for public health reasons. 

"The more snow melts," he says, "the more dead cattle they're finding."

CHARTS: Nearly 70 Percent of Fox Climate Pundits Doubt Global Warming

| Thu Oct. 10, 2013 9:59 AM EDT
Fox News on the morning of September 27, 2013, covering the new IPPC report on climate change.

Following last month's release of the biggest study in climate science—the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report—there have been many rumblings about skewed, misleading media coverage. But we didn't have any data breaking down the press's performance on the most important climate story in years…until now.

Media Matters has a new content analysis of coverage of the report's release by major newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times), networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC), and online and wire services (Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News). The period analyzed was from the beginning of August through the end of the September, since the report was leaked and much coverage occurred prior to its official release date of September 27.

So what did Media Matters find? The picture isn't entirely bleak, but it contains plenty to be troubled about. Most notably:

Fox overrepresented climate skeptics by a factor of 23, compared with how they are represented in scientific publications. At the extreme of doubt-mongering was Fox News, whose reporting has previously been shown to sow feelings of distrust toward scientists. Sixty-nine percent of Fox's guests discussing the IPCC report raised doubts about climate science, according to Media Matters' analysis. This despite the fact that the global warming consensus is embraced by 97 percent of scientists publishing on climate change in peer-reviewed journals.

In other words, you might say that Fox coverage overrepresented skeptics by a factor of 23, compared with how they are represented in the scientific literature.

Climate "doubters" dominated Fox News coverage of the IPCC report.
Climate "doubters" dominated Fox News coverage of the IPCC report. Media Matters

Notably, this percentage is higher than in a previous study by American University's Lauren Feldman and her coauthors, which found that 46 percent of Fox guests were climate science doubters during the period from 2007-08. Perhaps Fox has grown even more skeptical since then; or perhaps there was a burst of skepticism associated with the new IPCC report in particular.

The press discussed the misleading global warming "pause" extensively. No other media outlet examined in the study was as doubt-centered as Fox. And yet, there are reasons to worry about the tenor of the coverage overall.

According to Media Matters, 41 percent* of overall news coverage of the IPCC report, and 49 percent of newspaper coverage, contained a discussion of the idea that the planet has not warmed in the last 15 years or so. That's no crime in and of itself: It really depends on how these outlets covered this issue of the global warming "pause," which has been blown out of proportion by climate skeptics but was also lent credence in a leaked draft of the IPCC report itself. For instance, was it adequately contextualized by noting that a small recent decrease in the rate of warming of late does not undermine climate concerns? And did journalists note that many of those citing the "pause" rely on selective use of statistics, such as starting their analysis with the year 1998, a record warming year?

Media Matters found that "many" of the outlets that brought up the pause did explain that it doesn't mean global warming has gone away. But such a high percentage of mentions certainly suggests that the "pause" has become a meme. Overall, that's a bad thing, because the meme has been widely used to cast doubt on the urgency of dealing with climate change. For more detail on how the media created the "pause" (with scientists' help), see here. And for a thorough rebuttal, see here.

"Pause" coverage
Media outlets and their coverage of an alleged "pause" in global warming.* Media Matters

CBS News also veered towards doubt-mongering coverage. Among other publications analyzed, Media Matters found significant issues with CBS News. It did a misleading segment on the "pause" on September 26, which started off with this opener by journalist Mark Phillips: "Another inconvenient truth has emerged on the way to the apocalypse. The new UN report on climate change is expected to blame man-made greenhouse gases more than ever for global warming. But there's a problem. The global atmosphere hasn't been warming lately." (We discussed this CBS report here.)

Praise, as well as blame. There were plenty of media outlets that did a good job, too. As you can see above, ABC, MSNBC, and NBC* didn't cover the "pause" at all. Meanwhile, Media Matters also found that the New York Times, Reuters, the Associated Press, and USA Today avoided quoting climate skeptics; not every media outlet felt a misguided desire to achieve "balance."

What's the big picture here?

Overall, the body of coverage couldn't be called terrible. Yet the Media Matters report shows that climate skeptics still get plenty of air time, and one of their top talking points, the "pause," filtered deeply into press coverage.

As a result, we can infer that the press, overall, sowed a great deal of doubt about climate science in the past two months. Scientists and journalists alike have some reckoning to do.

For the full study from Media Matters, titled "Media Sowed Doubt in Coverage of UN Climate Report," see here.

* Update: Media Matters' study originally reported that CNN had not covered the alleged global warming "pause," a finding we cited in this article. Media Matters subsequently corrected its study to include additional CNN segments, some of which did, in fact, mention the pause. We have revised this story accordingly.

 

The Shutdown Could Make This Serious Salmonella Outbreak Even Worse

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 11:07 AM EDT

Update: On Tuesday, the CDC recalled some of its furloughed employees to work on the salmonella outbreak. It also discovered that the strain of salmonella seems to be antibiotic resistant. Tom Philpott has the full story here.

Over at Wired, Maryn McKenna reports on a major outbreak of the foodborne illness salmonella. So far, 278 people in 18 states have been sickened with the pathogen, which causes fever, cramps, diarrhea, and in severe cases, even death. In a press release the USDA identified the source of the outbreak as contaminated raw chicken from a producer called Foster Farms and said that the products were sold at supermarkets in Washington State, Oregon, and California. As of 11:30 AM EDT Tuesday, Foster Farms had a note up saying, "No recall is in effect. Products are safe to consume if properly handled and fully cooked." Foster Farms' chicken was linked to another salmonella outbreak—134 illnesses in 13 states—in July, the CDC reported.

Usually when there's an outbreak of this scale, the CDC mobilizes to pinpoint the source of the contaminated food. However, McKenna explains that the shutdown "means that the lab work and molecular detection that can link far-apart cases and define the size and seriousness of outbreaks are not happening." Individual states can use their own resources to trace the outbreak, but so far it looks like they won't be able to use the federal government's databases.

Of course, this is hardly the first recent outbreak of salmonella linked to poultry; Tom Philpott writes about how crowded conditions and overuse of antibiotics on farms make for perfect bacteria breeding grounds here. This CDC graphic shows the growing number of salmonella cases over the past two decades:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 

The Scary Truth About Antibiotic Overprescription

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 2:54 PM EDT

When a patient complains of a sore throat or bronchitis, doctors prescribe antibiotics much more often than is medically necessary. That's the main takeaway of a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Findings from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey reveal that doctors prescribed antibiotics to 60 percent of sore throat patients—despite the fact that the drugs are only thought to be necessary in about 10 percent of cases. For acute bronchitis, antibiotics are not recommended at all, yet the researchers—a team from Harvard—found that doctors prescribed antibiotics to an astonishing 73 percent of patients diagnosed with the condition. 

"We use azithromycin for an awful lot of things, and we abuse it terribly," one doctor told the New York Times.

The number of doctor visits for acute bronchitis tripled between 1996 to 2010, from about 1.1 million visits to 3.4 million visits. The number of sore throat visits actually declined from 7.5 percent of all visits in 1997 to 4.3 percent in 2010—and yet the rate of antibiotic prescription remained consistent.

Another interesting finding: the growing popularity of expensive, broad-spectrum antibiotics such as azithromycin over tried-and-true strep-targeting drugs like penicillin. Last year, the New York Times noted that azithromycin "may increase the likelihood of sudden death" in adults who have or are at risk for heart disease. In that piece, Dr. John G. Bartlett, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the Times that he believed that overprescription of azithromycin could also contribute to antibiotc resistance. "We use azithromycin for an awful lot of things, and we abuse it terribly," he said. "It's very convenient. Patients love it. 'Give me the Z-Pak.' For most of where we use it, probably the best option is not to give an antibiotic, quite frankly."

If the looming threat of antibiotic resistance isn't reason enough for concern about doctors' free hand with antibiotics, there's also the considerable cost to our health care system—an estimated $500 million for antibiotics prescribed unnecessarily for sore throat alone between 1997 and 2010. If you include the cost of treating the side effects of unnecessary antibiotics such as diarrhea and yeast infections, the study's authors estimate that the cost would increase 40-fold.

Watch: Robots That Hunt Down Jellyfish and Destroy Them

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Over the weekend the world's largest boiling-water nuclear reactor, Sweden's Oskarshamn plant, was paralyzed after a bloom of moon jellyfish clogged plant's cooling systems, forcing it to shut down. According to the New York Times, the jellyfish had been cleared out of the plant's pipes by Tuesday, and engineers are preparing to restart the reactor. Odd as it sounds, this is actually a pretty common problem (yes, really). 

"The last time this happened [at this plant] was in August 2005, when we had to shut down Oskarshamn-1 because of a jellyfish invasion," a spokesperson for EON SE, the company that co-owns the plant, told Bloomberg. "This situation is caused by a huge amount of jellyfish, just one is definitely not enough to cause problems."

Jellyfish blooms—the term for giant swarms of jellyfish—have also been responsible for nuclear shut downs in California, Florida, Israel, Scotland, India, and Japan, where one plant has reported removing as much as 150 tons of jellyfish from its system in one day. In 1999, a jellyfish bloom clogged the cooling system of a major coal-fired plant in the Philippines, leaving 40 million people without power. And in 2006, in a nigh unprecedented act of aggression, jellyfish in Brisbane, Australia, afflicted the massive nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan with an "acute case of fouling," clogging its cooling systems and forcing it to leave the harbor.

Scientists at Korea's Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have come up with one solution to the jellyfish problem: build robots to kill them. For the last three years, the team has been working to create robots that can travel the ocean, seeking out swarms of jellyfish using a camera and GPS. Once the jellyfish are located, the robots set about shredding the jellies with an underwater propeller, according to KAIST and IEEE Spectrum.

This is what the robots look like on the surface. They roam in a group of three:

And the video at top is what they're doing beneath the surface, using a specialized net and propeller. Be warned, it's graphic.

In preliminary tests, the robots could pulverize 2,000 pounds of jellyfish per hour, KAIST says. The team sees other uses for autonomous sea-faring robots, too, such as marine waste removal.

Scientists have found that jellyfish are surprisingly resilient in the face of changing oceans. Though ocean acidification—caused by the uptick of carbon in the atmosphere being absorbed by the oceans—is harming coral reefs and imperiling shellfish, jellyfish are thriving. Prodigious blooms have decimated fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico, the Black Sea, and in southern Africa, where a 30,000 square-mile swarm has been described as a "curtain of death" and "a stingy-slimy killing field." Still, some scientists argue that jellyfish populations fluctuate naturally and that there hasn't actually been a significant increase.

In Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceanbiologist Lisa-ann Gershwin argues that human activities are damaging the world's oceans and paving the way for a jellyfish explosion:

We are creating a world more like the late Precambrian than the late 1800s—a world where jellyfish ruled the seas and organisms with shells didn’t exist. We are creating a world where we humans may soon be unable to survive, or want to.

The 1,400-megawatt unit at Oskarshamn should be back at full capacity sometime this week, according to National Geographic. But if Stung!​ is right, we might have much bigger problems to worry about soon. These jellyfish-shredding robots might just be our last, best hope.

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What Happens When The Government Shuts Down 94 Percent of the EPA

| Tue Oct. 1, 2013 6:46 PM EDT

Tuesday morning, 94 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's 16,000 workers were furloughed due to the government shutdown.

"They basically lock things up, batten things down, which takes a few hours, then a vast majority of people are sent home," says consultant Dina Kruger, who worked at the EPA during the 1996 government shutdown.

To make sense of what it means that over 15,000 EPA employees are now sitting at home instead of working, consider how many facets of the environment the agency has its hands in: The EPA monitors air quality, regulates pesticides and waste, cleans up hazardous chemical spills, and ensures that people have safe drinking water, among other things. Now, according to the plan it laid out for the shutdown, only some workers will be on hand to respond to emergencies and to monitor labs and property.