Blue Marble

Earthquake Warning Systems Exist. But California Won't Pay for One.

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The aftermath of California's August 24 earthquake in Napa, California

As Bay Area residents clean their streets and homes after the biggest earthquake to hit California in 25 years rocked Napa Valley this weekend, scientists are pushing lawmakers to fund a statewide system that could warn citizens about earthquakes seconds before they hit.

California already has a system, called ShakeAlert, that uses a network of sensors around the state to detect earthquakes just before they happen. The system—a collaboration between the University of California-Berkeley, Caltech, the US Geological Survey (USGS), and various state offices—detects a nondestructive current called a P-wave that emanates from a quake's epicenter just before the destructive S-wave shakes the earth. ShakeAlert has successfully predicted several earthquakes, including this weekend's Napa quake. It could be turned into a statewide warning system. But so far, the money's not there.

"For years, seismic monitoring has been funded, essentially, on a shoestring," says Peggy Hellweg, operations manager at UC-Berkeley's seismological lab.

Maintaining ShakeAlert in its current state costs $15 million a year—a tiny fraction of the estimated $1 billion in damage caused by the Napa quake. Turning it into a statewide early-warning system would require installing new earthquake sensors throughout the state, building faster connections between sensors and data centers, and upgrading the data centers themselves. Since many of California's population centers, including the Bay Area, sit on fault lines, a warning system would likely give residents little time to prepare, ranging "from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds," depending on a person's proximity to the earthquake's epicenter, according to ShakeAlert's website—not enough time to leave a large building, but perhaps enough to take cover under a desk or table. Warnings could be deployed via text messages, push notifications, or publicly funded alert systems. Setting the whole thing up could cost as much as $80 million over five years—and keeping it running would cost more than $16 million annually, according to a USGS implementation plan published earlier this year.

In September 2013, the California legislature passed a bill requiring the state's emergency management office to work with private companies to develop an early warning system, but forbade it from pulling money from the state's general fund. The effort got a boost last month when the House appropriations committee approved $5 million for the system, the first time Congress has allocated money for a statewide system. But the project is still short on funding. 

An earthquake early-warning system would not be a unprecedented: Similar systems already exist in China, India, Italy, Romania, Taiwan, and Turkey. In Mexico City, a warning system connected to sensors 200 miles to the south gave residents two minutes' warning before a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck earlier this year—enough time for many to leave buildings and congregate in open areas. 

More than 200 people were injured following last weekend's Napa earthquake, 17 of them seriously, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Among those hit was a boy who was hit by debris from a falling chimney. 

On Monday, the USGS said the likelihood of a "strong and possibly damaging" aftershock (magnitude 5.0 or higher) occurring within the next week was around 29 percent.

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5 Ways Climate Change Is Ruining Your Breakfast

| Sun Aug. 24, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Welcome to the worst breakfast-related crisis since Lord of the Rings: There might be an impending Nutella shortage. And there's a good chance the culprit is climate change.

The price of hazelnuts, a main ingredient in the delicious chocolate spread, is up 60 percent after unseasonable ice storms devastated hazel tree farms in Turkey's Black Sea coastal region this year. And colder winters and heavier precipitation are exactly what the EU's Centre for Climate Adaptation says the Black Sea coast should expect as climate change advances. Though Nutella's manufacturer hasn't raised its prices yet, it's facing increasing strain as palm oil and cocoa get more expensive, too.

It would be bad enough if Nutella were the only food that melting ice caps and changing weather patterns are threatening to rob from the breakfast table. But no—the list of climate change's culinary casualties goes on. Here are some other ways it's making the most important meal of the day a little less satisfying:

  1. Rising cereal prices. Kix might be kid-tested and mother-approved, but have fun buying them in 2030, when their cost could be as much as 24 percent higher due to drought-stricken grain crops, according to an Oxfam International report. (And that doesn't even account for inflation.) Lovers of Frosted Flakes and Kellogg's Corn Flakes should also start stockpiling now—Oxfam predicts their respective prices will rise by 20 and 30 percent by 2030.
  2. A global bacon shortage. The aporkalypse is nigh. Even if you're on a no-carb diet, shrinking grain supplies are bad news. Pricier corn and soybeans equals pricier pig feed, and pricier pig feed equals smaller pig herds. In 2012, Britain's National Pig Association announced that a pork and bacon shortage "is now unavoidable."
  3. Bland-but-costly coffee. There's an epic drought in Brazil, the world's largest coffee exporter. As a result, one commodities trading firm says caffeine addicts will consume 5 million more bags of beans than coffee growers can produce in the 2014-2015 season, and the price of coffee futures has already doubled to $2 a pound. To make matters worse, beans grown at higher temperatures don't develop the blend of aromatic compounds that give coffee its distinctive flavor.
  4. Waffle woes. The nation had to collectively leggo its Eggos in November 2009, when record flooding in Atlanta stopped waffle production at the local Kellogg plant. Sure, this has happened once so far, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, "projected sea level rise, increased hurricane intensity, and associated storm surge may lead to further erosion, flooding, and property damage in the Southeast."

Drought Weighing You Down? Nope, It's Lifting You Up

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Here's a odd piece of news: According to a study published Thursday in Science, the water loss due to this year's drought has caused the entire western side of the United States to literally rise. After examining data from nearly 800 GPS stations across the country, researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that the area west of New Mexico has risen by an average of four millimeters this year. In the Sierra Nevadas and along California's coast—two areas that have received far less precipitation this year than normal—the land rose 15 millimeters.

"The earth is an elastic material just like a block of rubber."

Adrian Borsa, a coauthor of the study, explained what's happening: "The earth is an elastic material just like a block of rubber. If you put a water load on it, the earth deforms, if you take the water away, the earth will come back." Using the GPS data, the researchers estimated that the Western United States has lost 62 trillion gallons of water to the atmosphere this year because of the drought. That's enough water to cover the entire Western US in six inches of water.

The earth rising seems not only vaguely biblical, but also counterintuitive; one might expect the earth's surface to fall if water is being taken from it. In fact, the ground is falling in some places: Some GPS stations in California had to be left out of the study because farmers are extracting so much groundwater that the ground is literally caving in. But this study didn't examine the ground at a surface-level—it showed that the earth's crust and mantle are responding elastically to the drought. So while some areas may be falling because of man-made changes at a local level, the West as a whole is rising.

As it turns out, the rise and fall of the earth due to water loss actually happens a little each year with the change of the seasons: Land is heavier in the winter and spring, and when water evaporates in the summer and fall, land is a little lighter. But the annual variation in California's mountains is about 5 millimeters—not this year's 15. The difference "sounds tiny," said Borsa, but from a geological standpoint, "it's a whopping signal" of the amount of water lost to the drought.

Contrary to most drought news these days, this rise of the West doesn't have looming disastrous effects in and of itself: The researchers, for example, don't think that this change will cause more extreme earthquakes.

But Borsa says that using GPS data on the rise of the earth could help regulators to understand how much water is being used in the West—particularly in California. California is the only Western state that doesn't measure or regulate major groundwater use; if you can drill down to it, it's all yours. A report produced for the state's Department of Food and Agriculture estimated that California's farmers will pump about 13 million acre-feet of groundwater this year—enough water to put a piece of land the size of Rhode Island 17 feet underwater.

With no regulatory system in place, though, it's challenging for officials to know if these estimates are lining up with reality. "The extractions aren't monitored, so no one really knows how to monitor the water supply," says Borsa. Using GPS data "could be a great tool for water managers."

Should Pregnant Women Eat Zero Tuna?

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Food-safety experts at Consumer Reports crunched the numbers on mercury levels in seafood—and they have a new recommendation for pregnant women: Don't eat tuna at all.

The FDA recommends that pregnant and nursing women consume between 8 and 12 ounces of fish per week to provide proper nutrition for a baby's brain development and overall health. But some fish are very high in mercury, a neurotoxin that can lead to serious cognitive problems and birth defects in children and babies. And the mercury levels in oceans are rising—humans have tripled the mercury content in oceans since the Industrial Revolution—leading to further mercury absorption by predators like tuna.

Consumer Reports provides charts to help curb mercury levels during fish consumption. Courtesy of Consumer Reports

A team at the Consumer Reports National Research Center analyzed data from the Food and Drug Administration's chart on mercury levels in seafood and determined that consuming 6 ounces of albacore tuna in a week—the level recommended as safe by the FDA for pregnant women—would put a 125-pound woman over the Environmental Protection Agency's "safe" mercury threshold by more than two ounces.

Canned light tuna is thought to offer a lower mercury tuna option, but 20 percent of the FDA's samples of it contained almost double the average level of mercury that it's supposed to. Some samples had more mercury than the king mackerel—one of the FDA's top four high-in-mercury fish—which the agency advises pregnant women and children to avoid. Canned tuna constitutes the second most frequently consumed seafood product in the United States.

Some experts like Deborah Rice, a former senior risk assessor for the EPA, think that research since 2001 suggests that there is "no question" that the FDA and EPA's current limit for mercury consumption is "too high," she told Consumer Reports. The magazine is urging the FDA and EPA to recommend that pregnant women avoid eating any tuna—and to provide more safety information concerning tuna for pregnant women, children and people who eat a lot of fish (24 ounces of fish, around seven servings, or more per week).

How Much It Costs to Raise a Kid, in 4 Charts

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

A middle-income family with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend about a quarter of a million dollars in child-rearing expenses over the next 18 years, according to a new report from the USDA.

Costs such as housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care, and education will amount to an expected $304,340 ($245,340 in 2013 dollars) for middle-income families, a 1.8 percent increase from last year's report. For each income bracket, costs will increase as the child ages:

Although households with incomes in the lowest third will spend less than half as much on child-related costs as higher income families, their spending will amount to a far greater percent of total income.

Housing is the highest child-rearing expenditure, amounting to 30 percent of expenses for middle-income, husband-wife families with two children. Raising a child is costliest in the urban Northeast and least expensive in rural areas.

USDA

The report notes that child-rearing costs have grown 24 percent since 1960, when a middle-income family could have expected to spend $25,230 ($198,560 in 2013 dollars). The USDA has also released an interactive calculator to help families estimate child-rearing costs based on type of household, number of children, location, and income.

Are Your Kids' Rainbow Bracelets Toxic?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 1:35 PM EDT

Bracelets and other trinkets made on the wildly popular Rainbow Loom—a toy that allows kids to weave together brightly colored elastic bands—could contain cancer-causing chemicals, a British laboratory has found.

In a study commissioned by a British toy retailer, the Assay Laboratory in Birmingham, United Kingdom, tested charms meant to be attached to bracelets and necklaces woven on the looms. The researchers found that while Rainbow Loom's own name-brand products were safe, some charms made by knockoff brands contained high levels of phthalates, a class of carcinogenic chemicals. Some of the knockoff charms were composed of as much as 50 percent (by weight) phthalates, the Irish blog Mummy Pages reports. (It's currently illegal in the United States to sell a toy that contains more than 0.1 percent of six kinds of phthalates, though some products still slip through the cracks.)

Marion Wilson, a spokeswoman from the lab, told Mummy Pages that while only the charms were tested, it was likely that the bands themselves also contained phthalates. In an email to Mother Jones, Wilson declined to share the names of the brands that were found to have high phthalate levels. "We would never share our customer information as it is clearly commercially sensitive," she wrote. "However, please note that the customers that have received test results like this will have tested the product prior to it going on the market." It's unclear whether the brands tested at the lab are sold in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom.

Phthalates aren't the only dangerous thing about Rainbow Looms: BuzzFeed notes other horrors, including injuries to children. Animal advocates in the Philippines say that the bands can harm creatures that swallow them.

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Video: "Holy Shit!" Freak Weather Event Stuns Brooklyn's Hipster Beach

| Sun Aug. 10, 2014 5:12 PM EDT

The weekend peace and quiet of McCarren Park in Brooklyn, New York—sometimes dubbed the "hipster beach" by locals—was shattered on Sunday afternoon​ by a strange, towering meteorological visitor. And also by the howls of my friend Michael Gambale, who took this video, yelling like the world was fast coming to an end. "It was amazing," he said. "I had my 'oh shit, a double rainbow' moment."​

The spiraling, orange tunnel-like phenomenon appears to be a textbook specimen of a "dust devil", which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration​ definition, is a "small, rapidly rotating wind that is made visible by the dust, dirt or debris it picks up." It's not a tornado, which is much more powerful and connected to a cloud, and certainly not as dangerous (though in 1992, an Alburquerque dust devil produced 70 mph winds, equivalent to a typical severe thunderstorm.) Instead, according to NASA, "a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right." And they were.

According to Gambale, who was relaxing in the park with friends, it lasted about a minute, leaving some locals "perplexed", and others filled with a sense of adventure: "Some dude ran into it, that's why I said don't run into it," Gambale added. "And he did! He just got all dusty. It wasn't that strong obviously."

But don't diss the dust devil by calling it weak or short-lived: "It's a dirtbag hipster tornado and it's Brooklyn's."

The only other reference I could find to "twister" in McCarren park was of a very different kind: Mass "Twister" performed by a marauding group of Santas for 2009's Santacon. I like this one much better.

See? Everything exciting happens in Brooklyn.

Shorter Trees Could Make Peaches Cheaper

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 7:18 PM EDT
Millions of peaches, peaches for me.

When it comes to peach and nectarine trees, bigger isn't necessarily better. An orchard worker can spend as much as half of his or her day lugging around the ladders required to reach the branches of a typical 13-foot tree. Plus, the danger of climbing the ladders drives up the cost of workers' compensation insurance—growers of peaches and nectarines pay about 40 percent more for it than growers of low-lying fruit like grapes.

Now scientists at the University of California are trying to shrink the cost of labor on peach and nectarine farms by shrinking the plants themselves. In a 4-acre orchard south of Fresno, researchers are growing trees that they expect to max out at seven or eight feet. They say the shorter trees, which would not require a ladder to harvest or prune, could cut down on worker injuries and slash labor costs by more than 50 percent. If cultivated correctly, the mini-trees could be as fruitful as their taller counterparts.

If the experimental orchard works, it could have environmental perks too. In comments to UC Davis, one farmer estimated it costs him $1,400 an acre to thin his 250-acre peach and nectarine farm. Because of the high cost of ladders, many of his fellow growers are switching to almonds, he said. And almonds, as we've said before, are sucking California dry.

Humans Have Tripled Mercury in the Oceans

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 1:23 PM EDT

On Thursday, researchers released the first comprehensive study of mercury in the world's oceans over time according to depth. Their finding: Since the Industrial Revolution, the burning of fossil fuels and some mining activities have resulted in a more than three times increase in mercury in the upper 100 meters (about 330 feet) of the ocean. There, it builds up in carnivorous species like tuna—a food staple in the US that health experts have been concerned about for years because of its high mercury levels. Much of the 290 million moles (a unit of measure for chemical substances) of mercury in the ocean right now is concentrated in the North Atlantic.

Humans are "starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us." 

A neurotoxin, mercury is especially dangerous for children and babies: The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that exposure to it can lead to "poor mental development, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness." In adults, mercury poising can lead to problems with blood pressure regulation, memory, vision, and sensation in fingers and toes, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And if that wasn't scary enough, it's invisible, odorless, and hiding in fish meat.

The researchers say that the increase in mercury levels is starting to overcome the natural ocean circulation patterns. Typically, the coldest, saltiest water in the world's oceans naturally sinks and brings much of the mercury along with it, offering shelter to marine life from the chemicals. But now, because of the sheer volume of the stuff, the circulation of water can no longer keep mercury out of shallower depths. According to co-author Carl Lamborg, humans are "starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us." According to David Krebbenhoft, a geochemist working for the US Geological Survey, these shifts are directly correlated to the increase in mercury outputs over time.

The good news: If we can curb power plant mercury emissions and buy more products with reduced mercury, we can expect to see ocean mercury levels drop in the future. Says Krebbenhoft, "It's cause for optimism and should make us excited to do something about it because we may actually have an impact."

Wildfires Cause Nearly a Fifth of Manmade Carbon Emissions

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 4:27 PM EDT
A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in Oregon

Wildfires are raging around the western United States: As of yesterday, more than 10,000 firefighters were battling 20 fires in Oregon and California. Another fire in Washington state recently grew to cover more than 8,000 acres. While the immediate consequences of the blazes are obvious—scorched earth, destroyed homes, millions of dollars in damages—the longer-term consequences for the climate have, until now, been poorly understood.

In a study published at the end of July in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineer, says the burning of biomass like trees, plants, and grass—either by accident or deliberately (often to create room for agriculture)—creates 18 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions. Worse yet, that pollution kills people: Around the world, Jacobson writes, biomass burning may account for 5-10 percent of all air pollution deaths worldwide, or about 250,000 people annually.

Lightning strikes and lava flows can burn down forests just as effectively as campfires, cigarettes, and slash and burn agriculture. But worldwide, Jacobson notes, the proportion of wildfires that are caused by nature could be as low as 3.6 percent. The rest are started by humans.

Possibly the worst news of all: Wildfires are part of a vicious circle. Emissions from fires cause climate change, which leads to drier conditions—which make it easier for humans and nature to start fires and for those fires to spread.