Blue Marble

Weird Weather Watch: Another Category 5 Hurricane

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 2:50 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, as Dean approached Mexico, I wrote that just 30 hurricanes have attained Category 5 status since record-keeping began in 1886. Twelve of those occurred since 1980; 7 since 2000.

Make that 31 total, and 8 since 2000: Hurricane Felix hit Central America with a vengeance this morning. It was the first time two Category 5 storms have made landfall in a single season.

More than 14,000 people were evacuated.

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Speed of Climate Change An Unseen Danger

| Sun Sep. 2, 2007 9:52 PM EDT

The total amount of global warming we allow has dire consequences for our planet. But so too does the speed of that climate change. According to the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), this focus has not yet appeared in either science or policy.

CICERO highlights some ecological studies focusing on the rate of climate change, most of which leave no doubt that the expected rate of change during this century will exceed the ability of many animals and plants to migrate or adapt. One such study found that five percent of all ecosystems cannot adapt more quickly than 0.1°C per decade over time:

Forests will be among the ecosystems to experience problems first because their ability to migrate to stay within the climate zone they are adapted to is limited. If the rate is 0.3 °C per decade, 15 percent of ecosystems will not be able to adapt. If the rate should exceed 0.4 °C per decade, all ecosystems will be quickly destroyed, opportunistic species will dominate, and the breakdown of biological material will lead to even greater emissions of CO2. This will in turn increase the rate of warming.

There is also a risk that rapid climate change will increase the likelihood of the really big and scary changes, i.e., the irreversible ones, such as a weakening of the Gulf Stream, and/or the melting of the Greenland ice sheets. Rapid change increases the risk of triggering positive feedback mechanisms that will increase the rate and level of temperature change still more. Read more about these in MoJo's The Thirteenth Tipping Point.

According to CICERO, to focus on the speed of climate change we need to concentrate more on the short-lived greenhouse gases (methane and tropospheric ozone), as well as particles with a warming effect, such as soot (black carbon). They also suggest a greater focus on the medium-term—the next few decades—since the fastest changes will likely occur around that time.

Of course, that requires that we speed up the grindingly-slow gears of public policy and determination. First step in that process: Stop fighting the naysayers. It's a waste of time and energy and we've already lost a decade doing it. We need to step around, over, or through their obstinate refusal to face the truth. Luckily, we have a model for doing this, since we hopscotched over the "science" of the tobacco industry long ago.

On that cheery note, I'm off to the wilderness for a week or three, close to the comforts of nature, far from the madding consumers. JULIA WHITTY

Study Confirms Human-To-Human Spread Of Avian-Flu

| Wed Aug. 29, 2007 10:38 PM EDT

Doctors on scene were mumbling about this when it happened. Now researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center confirm that the avian influenza A (H5N1) virus spread between a small number of people within a family in Indonesia in 2006. Using a computerized disease-transmission model that took into account the number of infected cases, the number of people potentially exposed, and the viral-incubation period, the researchers produced the first statistical confirmation of humans contracting the disease from each other rather than from infected birds.

The cluster contained a chain of infection involving a 10-year-old boy who probably caught the virus from his 37-year-old aunt, who had been exposed to dead poultry and chicken feces, the presumed source of infection. The boy then probably passed the virus to his father—a possibility supported by genetic sequencing. Other person-to-person transmissions in the cluster were backed up with statistical data. All but one of the flu victims died, and all had had sustained close contact with other ill family members prior to getting sick—a factor crucial for transmission of this particular flu strain.

"The containment strategy [quarantine] was implemented late in the game, so it could have been just luck that the virus burned out," said lead author Ira M. Longini Jr. "It went two generations and then just stopped, but it could have gotten out of control. The world really may have dodged a bullet with that one, and the next time we might not be so lucky."

The researchers estimate the risk of one infected person passing it to another to be 29 percent—a level of infectiousness similar to seasonal influenza A in the United States. They also assessed another large avian-flu cluster in eastern Turkey with eight infected people in 2006, four of whom died. In this case, there was no statistical evidence of human-to-human transmission—though that was most likely due to a lack of sufficient data. "There probably was person-to-person spread there as well but we couldn't get all the information we needed for the analysis," said author, Yang Yang.

After near hysteria, the media's gone Rip Van Winkle on this one. Not a good idea. The problem has not gone away. JULIA WHITTY

Natural Disasters More Destructive Than Wars

| Tue Aug. 28, 2007 8:21 PM EDT

Natural disasters are far more destructive than wars. And the damage will only worsen unless drastic change is taken to address global climate change. This according to Jan Egeland, the United Nations head of humanitarian affairs from 2003-2006. In an interview with AFP [via Yahoo], Egeland said: "Already seven times more livelihoods are devastated by natural disasters than by war worldwide, at the moment, and this is going to be much worse, the way the climate is developing. Climate change, it's happening. It's not a threat. It's happening today and those who suffer the most are the poorest in Africa. Where there was already drought, the droughts are getting worse. Where there was already flooding the floodings are getting worse, as we speak." Egeland called for dramatic changes in lifestyles "if we are to avoid having disasters virtually every month in large parts of the world."

You mean, like: Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, Greece, England, India, China, Mexico, Sudan, Taiwan—to name a few.

Btw, if you have time to follow only one link to recent disasters, I suggest the Christian Science Monitor piece on how the Greek fires are linked to a deadly dearth of environmental protection. It's a good example of how our hubris towards the natural world creates ugly synergistic feedback loops.

Oh, and this is what it will cost to keep natural disasters from getting a lot worse. A bargain. JULIA WHITTY

Massive Investment Needed Against Climate Change

| Tue Aug. 28, 2007 7:29 PM EDT

Hey, compared to the cost of the war in Iraq, this is fire sale. Plus, a whole lot more effective for homeland security [read why]. A new UN report presented in Vienna says that more than 200 billion dollars will be needed by 2030 just to keep greenhouse gas emissions at today's levels. According to AFP, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change estimates that between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of global gross domestic product, and between 1.1 and 1.7 percent of global investment, will need to be spent on addressing climate change. This will include investing in technology research and renewable energy. It will also require energy efficiency for transport, industry and construction, as well as supporting agroforestry, and implementing sustainable forest management. The report also states that, in the short term, energy efficiency remains the most promising means to reduce emissions. . . So, have you changed to flourescent light bulbs yet? Are you riding that bike? It's well known in the bike industry that most Americans ride their new bikes a full 18 miles before garaging them forever. Come on. Our cheapest fuel remains human fat. JULIA WHITTY

California's Healthcare Battle In A Nutshell

| Sat Aug. 25, 2007 3:37 PM EDT

Leave it to the Washington Post to give the best synopsis I've read of the battle currently underway in California between the Republican governor (Schwarzenegger) and the Democratic legislature over efforts to create a statewide healthcare plan. Though California hasn't actually led the way in this kind of initiative (look to Hawaii and, much later, Massachusetts), its decision—due in three weeks—may well set the agenda for other states and presidential candidates to follow.

The urgency here, reports the Post, is that Californians are less likely to be covered than residents of 45 other states, and those who are covered are concerned it's not going to be there for them when they need it. . . [sure is a familiar feeling in my world, read: self-employed and paying scary, ever-increasing percentage of meager earnings for dubiously useable health insurance. . .] Read here for examples of why that is.

From the WP:

Under both the governor's proposal and the Democrats', employers would have to spend a minimum amount on health care for workers or pay money into a state-run purchasing pool through which people could buy private insurance. But the employer's fee under the Democrats would be higher—7.5 percent of payroll, compared with 4 percent of payroll under Schwarzenegger's plan. Another difference: The governor would require physicians to pay 2 percent of their revenue to the state, and hospitals 4 percent, to help finance the new system. The Democrats' plan has no such charges. The governor would require everyone to have a basic level of health insurance; the Democrats have no individual mandate. Both plans would expand public programs and subsidized coverage for low-income families. Neither is cheap. Schwarzenegger's plan would cost $12 billion annually and cover an estimated 4.1 million people; the Democrats' would cost $8.3 billion and cover 3.4 million.

Let's hope they reach a tenable consensus and trigger tons o' momentum on a national agenda. Once again, Californians, have more power than they realize. . . JULIA WHITTY

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Missing Icecap Begets More Melting

| Sat Aug. 25, 2007 2:57 AM EDT

This from Jeff Master's Wunderblog on the disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice. The record low was smashed (again) just last week:

With one third of the Arctic ice cap already gone, and another month of melting to go, we need to consider what effect this will have on weather, climate, and sea level rise. Well, we don't need to worry about sea level rise, since the polar sea ice is already in the ocean, and won't appreciably change sea level when it melts. However, the remarkable melting of the ice cap will likely lead to unusual weather patterns this fall and winter. The lack of sea ice will put much more heat and moisture into the polar atmosphere, affecting the path of the jet stream and the resultant storm tracks. Expect a much-delayed arrival of winter to the Northern Hemisphere again this year, which may lead to further accelerated melting of the ice cap in future years.

Here's an animation of the past, present and forecast future from UCAR. JULIA WHITTY

Weird Weather Watch: Tropical Storm in the Midwest

| Fri Aug. 24, 2007 4:37 PM EDT

Say what? That's right, the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin have plagued Ohio this week, causing the worst flood in a century, killing 25 and causing 1,000 homes to be evacuated. The crest of the flood has passed, but the rain is expected to continue. Oh yeah, in those places where it has cleared, record heat has taken its place. Take me to Ohio!

Electric Shocks Prompt "Impulsive" and "Primitive" Side of Brain

| Fri Aug. 24, 2007 3:08 PM EDT

A recent study coming out of Britain finds that when the threat of electric shock looms near, humans shift from the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs rational thought—in order to engage the "fight or flight" part of the brain. In the study (published in its entirety yesterday in Science), volunteers played a game similar to Pac-Man, in which they had to evade a predator. When the computer predator caught them, they would receive a shock to the hand. Researchers found that as the predator closed in, the threat of imminent punishment moved the player's thinking from rational to impulsive and primitive.

This study makes me wonder, then, how autistic and mentally retarded students—profiled in "School of Shock," a feature from the current issue of Mother Jones—react to the constant threat of punitive electric shocks. If what the British study suggests is true and the threat of electric shock makes people less rational, I'd assume the shocks would also make it harder for autistic and developmentally disabled students to reason out why they're being punished. And if fear and the threat of electric shocks increase incidents of impulsive behavior, it seems like a vicious and terribly inefficient system to me, considering these impulsive acts are the very behaviors students are often punished for in the first place.

In addition, a pervasive environment of fear at school (described in detail in our article) would also make academics more difficult because students are using the "fight or flight" part of their brain rather than the prefrontal cortex, which rules abstract reasoning and complex decision-making.

Glacier Surfing

| Thu Aug. 23, 2007 11:49 PM EDT

New climate, new sport. Opportunity in the midst of chaos? JULIA WHITTY