Category Archives: DIsaster Daily

Permian Extinction Harder to recover from than thought

The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow? Maybe Not – ScienceNOW.



Survivors. The dicynodont Lystrosaurus browses on a stand of the lycopsid plant Pleuromeia. These species are two of the “disaster taxa” that proliferated in the wake of the end-Permian mass extinction.

The worst mass extinction of all time did far more than nearly denude the planet of life. This vast catastrophe—probably triggered about 252 million years ago by massive eruptions of the Siberian Traps volcanoes—destabilized life on Earth so drastically, according to a new study, that ecological aftershocks continued to hinder the recovery of life on land for millions of years.

Much of what paleontologists understand about the event, known as the end-Permian extinction, and its aftermath they learned from the fossil record of marine organisms. Up to 95% of known species, including the last of the trilobites, disappeared during the extinction. And the plentiful record of fossil fish and invertebrates indicates that ecosystems in the seas required about 5 million to 8 million years during the following Triassic period to regain their previous diversity and complexity. The story on land, however, has been unclear.

Now paleontologist Randall Irmis of the University of Utah and the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City and geologist Jessica Whiteside of Brown University propose online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that things were just as tough on dry land as in the seas. Irmis and Whiteside examined fossil vertebrate data sets from southern Africa’s Karoo Basin and the Ural region of Russia. They found that the number of different land-dwelling vertebrate genera dropped during the time interval when the extinction struck. In the post-extinction world, a small cadre of “disaster species” made the most of a bad situation. These survivors, including the “shovel lizard” Lystrosaurus (see picture), were hardy species that could make a living under distressed conditions. Such creatures quickly colonized and dominated the environments that had been shaken up by the mass extinction.

But life was not easy. According to previous geological studies, the global cycle through which carbon is recycled through land, air, and water was disrupted again and again during this time. Previous researchers blamed these cycles on continued volcanic activity. But Irmis and Whiteside propose instead that the perturbations point to a “boom-bust” cycle in which relatively minor changes in temperature, for example, caused some of the surviving species to go extinct. These smaller-scale losses then caused ecosystems to collapse. The events that triggered the end-Permian extinction drastically changed the climate, atmosphere, and other aspects of global ecology, hindering the recovery of life on land during the Early Triassic. Even as survivors of the mass extinction began to recover, the ecosystems they lived in were so fragile that the lingering influences of the end-Permian extinction—such as global warming—could cause those habitats to fail.

This ongoing cycle acted as a reset button, temporarily preventing land vertebrates from evolving the diversity their pre-extinction ancestors had enjoyed. “It seems that the rate of recovery in both marine organisms and terrestrial vertebrates was pretty similar,” Irmis says. “They didn’t really bounce back until the Middle Triassic, some 5 to 6 million years after the extinction.”

Paleontologist Peter Ward of the University of Washington, Seattle, agrees that the new study adds to the big picture of how life recovered from the end-Permian extinction. But our understanding of that time period is still changing, he notes. For one thing, what seems like a long recovery might look shorter as geologists revise figures of how long the Early Triassic actually lasted. If new studies find that the Early Triassic rocks were laid down during a shorter time frame than presently known, then the recovery of Early Triassic life would have happened more rapidly than presently thought.

However long it lasted, the Early Triassic world was likely a harsh one. Citing the work of geologist Lee Kump of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Ward says that in the millennia after the mass extinction there would have been hot snaps, lowered oxygen levels in lakes and oceans, and possibly the persistence of the poisonous “swamp gas” hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere. The powerful volcanic eruptions that likely triggered the extinction left a devastating imprint on the planet, which continued to shake up life on Earth even as ecological wounds began to heal.

Global supply of rare earth elements could be wiped out by 2012

(NaturalNews) It’s the bubble you’ve probably never heard of: The rare earth bubble. And it’s due to pop in 2012, potentially devastating the industries of western nations that depend on these rare elements.

What industries are those? The automobile industry uses tens of thousands of tons of rare earth elements each year, and advanced military technology depends on these elements, too. Lots of “green” technologies depend on them, including wind turbines, low-energy light bulbs and hybrid car batteries. In fact, much of western civilization depends on rare earth elements such as terbium, lanthanum and neodymium.

So what’s the problem with these rare elements? 97 percent of the world’s supply comes from mines in China, and China is prepared to simply stop exporting these strategic elements to the rest of the world by 2012.

If that happens, the western world will be crippled by the collapse of available rare earth elements. Manufacturing of everything from computers and electronics to farm machinery will grind to a halt. Electronics will disappear from the shelves and prices for manufactured goods that depend on these rare elements will skyrocket.

These 17 rare earth elements (REE) — all of which are metals — are strategic resources upon which entire nations are built. In many ways, they are similar to rubber — a resource so valuable and important to the world that many experts call it the “fourth most important natural resource in the world,” right after water, steel and oil. Without rubber, you couldn’t drive your car to work or water your lawn. Many medical technologies would cease to work and virtually all commercial construction would grind to a halt.

Many of the strategic battles fought in World War II were fought, in fact, over control of rubber, most of which now comes through Singapore and its surrounding regions (Malaysia and Indonesia).

Global shortage of Rare Earth Elements coming…
Now, by threatening to cut off the world’s supply of rare earth elements, China appears to be attempting to monopolize this extremely important strategic resource. According to information received by The Independent, by 2012 China may cease all exports of rare earth elements, reserving them for its own economic expansion.

An article in that paper quotes REE expert Jack Lifton as saying, “A real crunch is coming. In America, Britain and elsewhere we have not yet woken up to the fact that there is an urgent need to secure the supply of rare earths from sources outside China.”

And yet virtually no one has heard of this problem! People are familiar with peak oil, global warming, ocean acidification, the national debt and the depletion of fossil water, but very few are aware of the looming crisis in rare metals… upon which much of western civilization rests.

For those who still aren’t convinced this is a big deal, consider this: Without rare earth elements, we would have no iPhones. Yeah, I know. That’s a disaster, huh?

We would have no fiber optic cables, either. No X-ray machines, no car stereos and no high-tech missile guidance systems for the military. And here’s the real kicker: No electric motors.

Demand outstrips supply
The problem with the supply of rare earth elements is that demand has skyrocketed over the last decade from 40,000 tons to 120,000 tons. Meanwhile, China has been cutting its exports. Now, it only exports about 30,000 tons a year — only one-fourth of the demand the world needs.

In order to build more “green” technologies, the world will need 200,000 tons of rare earth elements by 2014, predicts The Independent. Yet China now threatens to drop exports to exactly zero tons by 2012.

It isn’t hard to do the math on this: Without China’s exports, the western world will quickly run out of rare earth elements.

Kiss your “green” wind turbines good-bye. And your Toyota Prius production lines, too. No more iPhones and iPods either. Without these rare earth elements, entire industries grind to a halt.

Can we mine it elsewhere?
China isn’t the only geographic region where these rare earth elements are found, but constructing mines to pull these elements out of the ground takes many years. Some mines are under construction right now in other countries that could help fill the demand for REEs, but making them operational is “five to ten years away,” says Lifton.

That means these other mines won’t really be operational until 2015 – 2020. Meanwhile, China could cut off its supply in 2012. That leaves a 3-7 year gap in which these rare earth elements will be in disastrously short supply.

This brings up a couple of very important realizations related to investments:

It is almost certain that the prices for rare earth elements will skyrocket over the next 2 – 5 years. This creates a huge investment opportunity for people willing to take a risk and bet their money on rising prices of these metals.

There’s another big investment opportunity here, too: Recycling rare earth elements. As prices leap higher, it will become more economically feasible to harvest rare earth elements out of garbage dumps and landfills where people are discarding electronics such as motors, computers, sound systems and other such items.

Some smart entrepreneur will no doubt make a fortune by setting up and operating a rare earth element reclamation operation of some kind. These elements, after all, aren’t destroyed when they’re thrown away. They sit around in the trash for eons, just waiting to be reclaimed and re-used.

Lead, for example, is a metal that is successfully recycled today. Something like 85% of all the lead used in America today is reclaimed out of lead-acid batteries and other similar devices. If similar programs could be initiated for the rare metals, we could go a long way towards meeting society’s demand for these elements without having to keep mining them out of the ground.

Because let’s face it: Mining these rare earth elements is a very DIRTY business. That’s part of the contradiction in “green” technologies, by the way: To manufacture them, you need rare metals mined out of ecologically disastrous operations in China. It’s the (literal) “dirty little secret” of the green industry. All these wind turbines, solar panels, hybrid car batteries and fiber optics may seem green to the consumer, but behind them there’s a very dirty mining business that rapes the planet and pollutes the rivers in order to recover these “green” rare metals.

In any case, unless scientists find less-rare alternatives to many of these rare earth metals, we are looking at a serious global supply crunch for the years 2012 – 2020. Add the “rare earth elements bubble” to your list of other bubbles to watch out for in the years ahead.

Some of the 17 rare earth elements
Dysprosium – Makes electric motor magnets 90% lighter

Terbium – Makes electric lights 80% more efficient

Neodymium – Used in motor magnets

Lanthanum – Used for hydrogen storage

Praseodymium – Used in lasers and ceramic materials

Gadolinium – Used to manufacture computer memory

Erbium – Used in the manufacture of vanadium steel

Ytterbium – Used to make infrared lasers

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Exxon screws up Yellowstone river with pipeline leak

Ruptured Pipeline Spills Oil Into Yellowstone River: is this the height of stupidity or what? Run a pipeline under a crucial and protected river, especially when there is tectonic activity??

“An ExxonMobil pipeline running under the Yellowstone River in south central Montana ruptured late Friday, spilling crude oil into the river and forcing evacuations.
The pipeline burst about 10 miles west of Billings, coating parts of the Yellowstone River that run past Laurel — a town of about 6,500 people downstream from the rupture — with shiny patches of oil. Precisely how much oil leaked into the river was still unclear. But throughout the day Saturday, cleanup crews in Laurel worked to lessen the impact of the spill, laying down absorbent sheets along the banks of the river to mop up some of the escaped oil, and measuring fumes to determine the health threat.

Fearing a possible explosion, officials in Laurel evacuated about 140 people on Saturday just after midnight, then allowed them to return at 4 a.m. after tests showed fumes from the leaked oil had dissipated, The Associated Press reported. While the cause of the rupture was not immediately known, Brent Peters, the fire chief for Laurel, told The A.P. that it may have been caused by high waters eroding parts of the river bed and exposing the pipeline to debris.

The pipeline is 12 inches wide and runs from Silver Tip, Mont., to Billings, an area with three refineries, ExxonMobil said. All three were shut down after the spill. ExxonMobil said it had summoned its North American Regional Response Team to help clean up the spill, and a fire spokesman in Laurel said more than 100 people, including officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, were expected to arrive at the scene by Sunday morning.

In a statement, the company said it “deeply regrets this release and is working hard with local emergency authorities to mitigate the impacts of this release on the surrounding communities and to the environment.”

“The pipeline has been shut down and the segment where the release occurred has been isolated,” the statement added. “All appropriate state and federal authorities have been alerted.”

The rupture occurred sometime around 11:30 p.m. Friday. Duane Winslow, a disaster and emergency services coordinator for Yellowstone County, told a local television station, KTVQ, that all oil companies with pipelines near the river were told to immediately shut them down, and that the damaged pipe was off within half an hour. He said drinking water in the surrounding area was being monitored and so far was determined safe. Officials in Billings initially shut down water intake but later reopened it, KTVQ reported.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 2, 2011

An earlier version of this article said that the pipeline burst 10 miles east, rather than west, of Billings, Mont.

Chilean volcano ash causes fresh disruption

Chilean volcano ash causes fresh disruption – CNN.

Chile’s Puyehue Cordon Caulle volcano is once again causing air travel disruption.

An ash cloud from a Chilean volcano is disrupting air travel in Australia and New Zealand once again, airlines said Wednesday.

“Volcanic ash from the eruption of the Puyehue Cordon Caulle volcano in Chile continues to cause flight disruptions to the Qantas network,” the airline said in a statement.

“At Qantas safety is our first priority and a number of flights have been canceled or rerouted to avoid the volcanic ash cloud.”

Qantas and Jetstar suspended Wednesday flights to and from Queenstown, Christchurch and Wellington.

Forget Mother Nature: This is a world of our making – environment – 14 June 2011 – New Scientist

Forget Mother Nature: This is a world of our making – environment – 14 June 2011 – New Scientist.

Humans have transformed Earth beyond recovery – but rather than look back in despair we should look ahead to what we can achieve

THE Holocene, with its mild climate so remarkably stable and good for us, is over. We humans have transformed Earth’s climate, geology, biology and hydrology so extensively, profoundly and permanently that geologists are proposing the formal designation of a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

International scientific panels will ultimately decide whether to recognise the new epoch, and it could be a decade or longer before we get a final ruling. Nevertheless, it’s high time that we – and I do mean all of us – take stock of the new Earth we have created. One reason to do this is to help answer a basic geological question: will the Anthropocene last long enough to justify its designation as a new epoch, or will it remain a mere geological event akin to the impact of an asteroid? It will also help us answer a more profound question: what do we do now?

The first lesson of history is simple: the Anthropocene was a long time in the making. Significant human alteration of the biosphere began more than 15,000 years ago as Palaeolithic tribes evolved social learning, advanced hunting and foraging technologies, and the use of fire, and used them to open up forested landscapes and kill off megafauna.

These Palaeolithic human impacts were significant and extensive, but they were minor compared with the impact of the rise of agriculture more than 8000 years ago. By domesticating plant and animal species and engineering ecosystems to support them, humans introduced a wide range of unambiguously anthropogenic processes into the biosphere.

Human alteration of Earth systems tends to be far more extensive and complex than one would expect based on numbers alone. Even 8000 years ago, with a population of just 10 million or so, humans had already altered as much as a fifth of Earth’s ice-free land, primarily by using fire to clear forest. The reason small populations had such extensive impacts is that early agriculture emphasised labour efficiency. Early farmers did not use the plough, and that meant constantly shifting cultivation to the most fertile areas. As a result, most of the landscape was in some stage of recovery, giving rise to “semi-natural” woodlands. These were among the first anthropogenic biomes, or “anthromes“.

In this way, human populations were able to increase and expand for millennia, converting vast tracts of pristine forest into semi-natural woodlands and less productive land into rangeland. As populations grew larger and more dense they created ever more intensively transformed anthromes by tillage, irrigation, manuring and cropping. By 1750, more than half of the terrestrial biosphere had been converted into anthromes, leaving an ever greater permanent record in soils, sediments and the atmosphere. This process ultimately gave rise to the densely populated village and urban anthromes most of us live in today.

The rise of industrial systems in the past century has transformed the majority of the terrestrial biosphere into intensively used anthromes dominated by novel ecological processes. Now more than 7 billion strong and growing, we continue to transform the last wild biomes into anthromes – a process that must end soon as we reach the limits of the usable biosphere. Already, more than 12 per cent of Earth’s ice-free land is used continuously for crops and 16 per cent for livestock.

Thus we find ourselves in the Anthropocene. Today, even if the population were to decline substantially or land use to become far more efficient, the extent, duration and intensity of human activity has altered the terrestrial biosphere sufficiently to leave an unambiguous geological record differing substantially from that of any prior epoch. Earth’s biodiversity, biogeochemistry and evolution are now profoundly reshaped by us – and are therefore in our hands.

There will be no returning to our comfortable cradle. The global patterns of the Holocene have receded and their return is no longer possible, sustainable or even desirable. It is no longer Mother Nature who will care for us, but us who must care for her.

This raises an important but often neglected question: can we create a good Anthropocene? In the distant future will we be able to look back with pride?

We have seen what we can do, and it is awesome. In just a few millennia, humanity has emerged as a global force of nature – a networked system of billions of individuals creating and sustaining an entirely new global ecology. We live longer than ever, and our average standard of living has never been higher. These unprecedented achievements clearly demonstrate the remarkable ability of our social systems and technologies to evolve and adapt, often to changes we ourselves have induced.

Yet it is also easy to see what we have lost and are even now destroying. Wild fish and forests are nearly gone. We are warming the atmosphere, melting the ice caps, acidifying the ocean, polluting land and sea, driving species to extinction and inducing invasions by species from around the world – and in some areas leaving only a wasteland of monocultures and weeds. Clearly it is possible to look at all we have created and see only what we have destroyed.

But that, in my view, would be our mistake. We most certainly can create a better Anthropocene. We have really only just begun, and our knowledge and power have never been greater. We will need to work together with each other and the planet in novel ways. The first step will be in our own minds. The Holocene is gone. In the Anthropocene we are the creators, engineers and permanent global stewards of a sustainable human nature.

Erle C. Ellis is an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Global warming not to blame for 2011 droughts

Global warming not to blame for 2011 droughts – environment – 15 June 2011 – New Scientist.

ADD one more to the list: after the driest spring in more than 20 years, parts of eastern England are officially in a state of drought, according to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This comes hard on the heels of some of the worst droughts on record across the globe, from Texas to China.

While global warming is an obvious suspect, there’s no evidence that it is to blame. Though climate change models predict extended droughts and periods of intense rainfall for the end of the 21st century, they don’t explain the current droughts, says Martin Hoerling at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “A lot of these extreme conditions are natural variations of the climate. Extremes happen, heat waves happen, heavy rains happen,” he says.

Drought across the southern US – and heavy rains across the north of the country – are a result of La Niña, says Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. An extended holding pattern in the jet stream, the same type of “blocking event” that caused last summer’s heat wave in Russia, is responsible for this year’s European droughts, says Michael Blackburn of the University of Reading, UK.

As for the apparent convergence of droughts worldwide, Mark Saunders of University College London says current conditions aren’t that unusual. News media may simply be more tuned in to reporting extreme weather events.

The New Geopolitics of Food

The New Geopolitics of Food – By Lester R. Brown | Foreign Policy.

In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family’s dinner table.

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we’ve seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute — and it has — to revolutions and upheaval.

Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year’s harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile — and a whole lot more contentious — than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.

Until recently, sudden price surges just didn’t matter as much, as they were quickly followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are ominously different.

For More

How Food Explains the World
By Joshua E. Keating

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An FP Slide Show

In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather — a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today’s price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.

More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world’s largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can’t do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.

That’s why the food crisis of 2011 is for real, and why it may bring with it yet more bread riots cum political revolutions. What if the upheavals that greeted dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a country that imports 90 percent of its grain) are not the end of the story, but the beginning of it? Get ready, farmers and foreign ministers alike, for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global politics.

THE DOUBLING OF WORLD grain prices since early 2007 has been driven primarily by two factors: accelerating growth in demand and the increasing difficulty of rapidly expanding production. The result is a world that looks strikingly different from the bountiful global grain economy of the last century. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by scarcity? Even at this early stage, we can see at least the broad outlines of the emerging food economy.

On the demand side, farmers now face clear sources of increasing pressure. The first is population growth. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million additional people, nearly all of them in developing countries. The world’s population has nearly doubled since 1970 and is headed toward 9 billion by midcentury. Some 3 billion people, meanwhile, are also trying to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China and elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better. But as global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock. (Grain consumption per person in the United States, for example, is four times that in India, where little grain is converted into animal protein. For now.)

At the same time, the United States, which once was able to act as a global buffer of sorts against poor harvests elsewhere, is now converting massive quantities of grain into fuel for cars, even as world grain consumption, which is already up to roughly 2.2 billion metric tons per year, is growing at an accelerating rate. A decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year. But the rate at which the United States is converting grain into ethanol has grown even faster. In 2010, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000). This massive capacity to convert grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes. And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union’s goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops.

This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world’s food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites. Take climate change: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This relationship was borne out all too dramatically during the 2010 heat wave in Russia, which reduced the country’s grain harvest by nearly 40 percent.

While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation. This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.

Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All together, more than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow. Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?

Even as we are running our wells dry, we are also mismanaging our soils, creating new deserts. Soil erosion as a result of overplowing and land mismanagement is undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s cropland. How severe is it? Look at satellite images showing two huge new dust bowls: one stretching across northern and western China and western Mongolia; the other across central Africa. Wang Tao, a leading Chinese desert scholar, reports that each year some 1,400 square miles of land in northern China turn to desert. In Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests have shrunk by half or more over the last few decades. North Korea and Haiti are also suffering from heavy soil losses; both countries face famine if they lose international food aid. Civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive the loss of its soil reserves.

Beyond the changes in the environment that make it ever harder to meet human demand, there’s an important intangible factor to consider: Over the last half-century or so, we have come to take agricultural progress for granted. Decade after decade, advancing technology underpinned steady gains in raising land productivity. Indeed, world grain yield per acre has tripled since 1950. But now that era is coming to an end in some of the more agriculturally advanced countries, where farmers are already using all available technologies to raise yields. In effect, the farmers have caught up with the scientists. After climbing for a century, rice yield per acre in Japan has not risen at all for 16 years. In China, yields may level off soon. Just those two countries alone account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest. Meanwhile, wheat yields have plateaued in Britain, France, and Germany — Western Europe’s three largest wheat producers.

IN THIS ERA OF TIGHTENING world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage, and countries are scrambling to secure their own parochial interests at the expense of the common good.

The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when farmers began having difficulty keeping up with the growth in global demand for grain. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, tripling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to control the rise of domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Vietnam, the No. 2 rice exporter, banned exports entirely for several months in early 2008. So did several other smaller exporters of grain.

With exporting countries restricting exports in 2007 and 2008, importing countries panicked. No longer able to rely on the market to supply the grain they needed, several countries took the novel step of trying to negotiate long-term grain-supply agreements with exporting countries. The Philippines, for instance, negotiated a three-year agreement with Vietnam for 1.5 million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in mind, but had no luck. In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.

Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China, took the unusual step in 2008 of buying or leasing land in other countries on which to grow grain for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in Africa, where some governments lease cropland for less than $1 per acre per year. Among the principal destinations were Ethiopia and Sudan, countries where millions of people are being sustained with food from the U.N. World Food Program. That the governments of these two countries are willing to sell land to foreign interests when their own people are hungry is a sad commentary on their leadership.

By the end of 2009, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2010 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that a total of nearly 140 million acres were involved — an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect all downstream countries as well. Any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate crops in Ethiopia or Sudan, for instance, will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries with which Egypt must negotiate.

The potential for conflict — and not just over water — is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and in most cases, the land involved was already in use by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted about nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little backing to bring their cases to court. Reporter John Vidal, writing in Britain’s Observer, quotes Nyikaw Ochalla from Ethiopia’s Gambella region: “The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”

Local hostility toward such land grabs is the rule, not the exception. In 2007, as food prices were starting to rise, China signed an agreement with the Philippines to lease 2.5 million acres of land slated for food crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked, the public outcry — much of it from Filipino farmers — forced Manila to suspend the agreement. A similar uproar rocked Madagascar, where a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had pursued rights to more than 3 million acres of land. Word of the deal helped stoke a political furor that toppled the government and forced cancellation of the agreement. Indeed, few things are more likely to fuel insurgencies than taking land from people. Agricultural equipment is easily sabotaged. If ripe fields of grain are torched, they burn quickly.

Not only are these deals risky, but foreign investors producing food in a country full of hungry people face another political question of how to get the grain out. Will villagers permit trucks laden with grain headed for port cities to proceed when they themselves may be on the verge of starvation? The potential for political instability in countries where villagers have lost their land and their livelihoods is high. Conflicts could easily develop between investor and host countries.

These acquisitions represent a potential investment in agriculture in developing countries of an estimated $50 billion. But it could take many years to realize any substantial production gains. The public infrastructure for modern market-oriented agriculture does not yet exist in most of Africa. In some countries it will take years just to build the roads and ports needed to bring in agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and to export farm products. Beyond that, modern agriculture requires its own infrastructure: machine sheds, grain-drying equipment, silos, fertilizer storage sheds, fuel storage facilities, equipment repair and maintenance services, well-drilling equipment, irrigation pumps, and energy to power the pumps. Overall, development of the land acquired to date appears to be moving very slowly.

So how much will all this expand world food output? We don’t know, but the World Bank analysis indicates that only 37 percent of the projects will be devoted to food crops. Most of the land bought up so far will be used to produce biofuels and other industrial crops.

Even if some of these projects do eventually boost land productivity, who will benefit? If virtually all the inputs — the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds — are brought in from abroad and if all the output is shipped out of the country, it will contribute little to the host country’s economy. At best, locals may find work as farm laborers, but in highly mechanized operations, the jobs will be few. At worst, impoverished countries like Mozambique and Sudan will be left with less land and water with which to feed their already hungry populations. Thus far the land grabs have contributed more to stirring unrest than to expanding food production.

And this rich country-poor country divide could grow even more pronounced — and soon. This January, a new stage in the scramble among importing countries to secure food began to unfold when South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, announced that it was creating a new public-private entity that will be responsible for acquiring part of this grain. With an initial office in Chicago, the plan is to bypass the large international trading firms by buying grain directly from U.S. farmers. As the Koreans acquire their own grain elevators, they may well sign multiyear delivery contracts with farmers, agreeing to buy specified quantities of wheat, corn, or soybeans at a fixed price.

Other importers will not stand idly by as South Korea tries to tie up a portion of the U.S. grain harvest even before it gets to market. The enterprising Koreans may soon be joined by China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other leading importers. Although South Korea’s initial focus is the United States, far and away the world’s largest grain exporter, it may later consider brokering deals with Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other major exporters. This is happening just as China may be on the verge of entering the U.S. market as a potentially massive importer of grain. With China’s 1.4 billion increasingly affluent consumers starting to compete with U.S. consumers for the U.S. grain harvest, cheap food, seen by many as an American birthright, may be coming to an end.

No one knows where this intensifying competition for food supplies will go, but the world seems to be moving away from the international cooperation that evolved over several decades following World War II to an every-country-for-itself philosophy. Food nationalism may help secure food supplies for individual affluent countries, but it does little to enhance world food security. Indeed, the low-income countries that host land grabs or import grain will likely see their food situation deteriorate.

AFTER THE CARNAGE of two world wars and the economic missteps that led to the Great Depression, countries joined together in 1945 to create the United Nations, finally realizing that in the modern world we cannot live in isolation, tempting though that might be. The International Monetary Fund was created to help manage the monetary system and promote economic stability and progress. Within the U.N. system, specialized agencies from the World Health Organization to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) play major roles in the world today. All this has fostered international cooperation.

But while the FAO collects and analyzes global agricultural data and provides technical assistance, there is no organized effort to ensure the adequacy of world food supplies. Indeed, most international negotiations on agricultural trade until recently focused on access to markets, with the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina persistently pressing Europe and Japan to open their highly protected agricultural markets. But in the first decade of this century, access to supplies has emerged as the overriding issue as the world transitions from an era of food surpluses to a new politics of food scarcity. At the same time, the U.S. food aid program that once worked to fend off famine wherever it threatened has largely been replaced by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), where the United States is the leading donor. The WFP now has food-assistance operations in some 70 countries and an annual budget of $4 billion. There is little international coordination otherwise. French President Nicolas Sarkozy — the reigning president of the G-20 — is proposing to deal with rising food prices by curbing speculation in commodity markets. Useful though this may be, it treats the symptoms of growing food insecurity, not the causes, such as population growth and climate change. The world now needs to focus not only on agricultural policy, but on a structure that integrates it with energy, population, and water policies, each of which directly affects food security.

But that is not happening. Instead, as land and water become scarcer, as the Earth’s temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. Land grabbing, water grabbing, and buying grain directly from farmers in exporting countries are now integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.

With grain stocks low and climate volatility increasing, the risks are also increasing. We are now so close to the edge that a breakdown in the food system could come at any time. Consider, for example, what would have happened if the 2010 heat wave that was centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago. In round numbers, the 40 percent drop in Russia’s hoped-for harvest of roughly 100 million tons cost the world 40 million tons of grain, but a 40 percent drop in the far larger U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons would have cost 160 million tons. The world’s carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) would have dropped to just 52 days of consumption. This level would have been not only the lowest on record, but also well below the 62-day carryover that set the stage for the 2007-2008 tripling of world grain prices.

Then what? There would have been chaos in world grain markets. Grain prices would have climbed off the charts. Some grain-exporting countries, trying to hold down domestic food prices, would have restricted or even banned exports, as they did in 2007 and 2008. The TV news would have been dominated not by the hundreds of fires in the Russian countryside, but by footage of food riots in low-income grain-importing countries and reports of governments falling as hunger spread out of control. Oil-exporting countries that import grain would have been trying to barter oil for grain, and low-income grain importers would have lost out. With governments toppling and confidence in the world grain market shattered, the global economy could have started to unravel.

We may not always be so lucky. At issue now is whether the world can go beyond focusing on the symptoms of the deteriorating food situation and instead attack the underlying causes. If we cannot produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils, many agricultural areas will cease to be viable. And this goes far beyond farmers. If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand. The time to act is now — before the food crisis of 2011 becomes the new normal.

Eight million gallons of water drained from reservoir after man urinates in it

Eight million gallons of water drained from reservoir after man urinates in it – Telegraph.

The operation is costing the state’s taxpayers $36,000 (£22,000) and was ordered after Joshua Seater, 21, was caught on a security camera relieving himself in the pristine lake.

Health experts said the incident would not have caused any harm to people in the city of Portland, who are supplied with drinking water from the reservoir.

They said the average human bladder holds only six to eight ounces, and the urine would have been vastly diluted.

But David Shaff, an administrator at the Portland Water Bureau, defended the decision to empty the lake.

“There are people who will say it’s an over reaction. I don’t think so. I think what you have to deal with here is the ‘yuck’ factor,” he said.

“I can imagine how many people would be saying ‘I made orange juice with that water this morning.’ “Do you want to drink pee? Most people are going to be pretty damn squeamish about that.”

Mr Seater had been out drinking with friends when he decided to relieve himself in the open air reservoir at 1.30am.

He has not been arrested or charged with a crime, but may ultimately face a fine.

He apologised publicly for his behaviour, adding: “It was a stupid thing to do. I didn’t know it was a water supply, I thought it was a sewage plant.

“I wouldn’t mind paying for it but I don’t have a job right now. I’m willing to do community service to clean up the place because I feel bad and feel pretty stupid.” Sergeant Pete Simpson, of Portland Police, said: “It’s really an unfortunate incident that probably could have been avoided if he had just chosen a bush.”

The Next Big Solar Storm & End of the Solar Cycle?

Getting Ready for the Next Big Solar Storm – NASA Science.

June 21, 2011: In Sept. 1859, on the eve of a below-average1 solar cycle, the sun unleashed one of the most powerful storms in centuries. The underlying flare was so unusual, researchers still aren’t sure how to categorize it.  The blast peppered Earth with the most energetic protons in half-a-millennium, induced electrical currents that set telegraph offices on fire, and sparked Northern Lights over Cuba and Hawaii.

This week, officials have gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC to ask themselves a simple question: What if it happens again?

SWEF (powerlines, 200px)

Modern power grids are vulnerable to solar storms. Photo credit: Martin Stojanovski

“A similar storm today might knock us for a loop,” says Lika Guhathakurta, a solar physicist at NASA headquarters. “Modern society depends on high-tech systems such as smart power grids, GPS, and satellite communications–all of which are vulnerable to solar storms.”

She and more than a hundred others are attending the fifth annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum—”SWEF” for short.  The purpose of SWEF is to raise awareness of space weather and its effects on society especially among policy makers and emergency responders.  Attendees come from the US Congress, FEMA, power companies, the United Nations, NASA, NOAA and more.

As 2011 unfolds, the sun is once again on the eve of a below-average solar cycle—at least that’s what forecasters are saying.  The “Carrington event” of 1859 (named after astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the instigating flare) reminds us that strong storms can occur even when the underlying cycle is nominally weak.

In 1859 the worst-case scenario was a day or two without telegraph messages and a lot of puzzled sky watchers on tropical islands.

In 2011 the situation would be more serious. An avalanche of blackouts carried across continents by long-distance power lines could last for weeks to months as engineers struggle to repair damaged transformers. Planes and ships couldn’t trust GPS units for navigation.  Banking and financial networks might go offline, disrupting commerce in a way unique to the Information Age.  According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, a century-class solar storm could have the economic impact of 20 hurricane Katrinas.

As policy makers meet to learn about this menace, NASA researchers a few miles away are actually doing something about it:

“We can now track the progress of solar storms in 3 dimensions as the storms bear down on Earth,” says Michael Hesse, chief of the GSFC Space Weather Lab and a speaker at the forum.  “This sets the stage for actionable space weather alerts that could preserve power grids and other high-tech assets during extreme periods of solar activity.”

SWEF (3D CME, 558px)

Analysts at the GSFC Space Weather Lab created this 3D forecast-model of a coronal mass ejection (CME) heading for Earth on June 21st. Click here to watch the CME sweep past our planet.

They do it using data from a fleet of NASA spacecraft surrounding the sun.  Analysts at the lab feed the information into a bank of supercomputers for processing.  Within hours of a major eruption, the computers spit out a 3D movie showing where the storm will go, which planets and spacecraft it will hit, and predicting when the impacts will occur.  This kind of “interplanetary forecast” is unprecedented in the short history of space weather forecasting.

“This is a really exciting time to work as a space weather forecaster,” says Antti Pulkkinen, a researcher at the Space Weather Lab.  “The emergence of serious physics-based space weather models is putting us in a position to predict if something major will happen.”

Some of the computer models are so sophisticated, they can even predict electrical currents flowing in the soil of Earth when a solar storm strikes.  These currents are what do the most damage to power transformers.  An experimental project named “Solar Shield” led by Pulkkinen aims to pinpoint transformers in greatest danger of failure during any particular storm.

“Disconnecting a specific transformer for a few hours could forestall weeks of regional blackouts,” says Pulkkinen.

Another SWEF speaker, John Allen of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, pointed out that while people from all walks of life can be affected by space weather, no one is out on the front lines quite like astronauts.

“Astronauts are routinely exposed to four times as much radiation as industrial radiation workers on Earth,” he says.  “It’s a serious occupational hazard.”

SWEF (astronaut, 200px)

Astronauts are on the front line of stormy space weather.

NASA keeps careful track of each astronaut’s accumulated dosage throughout their careers.  Every launch, every space walk, every solar flare is carefully accounted for.  If an astronaut gets too close to the limits … he or she might not be allowed out of the space station!  Accurate space weather alerts can help keep these exposures under control by, e.g., postponing spacewalks when flares are likely.

Speaking at the forum, Allen called for a new kind of forecast: “We could use All Clear alerts. In addition to knowing when it’s dangerous to go outside, we’d also like to know when it’s safe.  This is another frontier for forecasters–not only telling us when a sunspot will erupt, but also when it won’t.”

The educational mission of SWEF is key to storm preparedness. As Lika Guhathakurta and colleague Dan Baker of the University of Colorado asked in a June 17th New York Times op-ed: “What good are space weather alerts if people don’t understand them and won’t react to them?”

By spreading the word, SWEF will help.

More information about the meeting, including a complete program of speakers, may be found at the SWEF 2011 home page.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA



End of the Sunspot Cycle?

Things may be about to get very dull on the sun. Three different measurements of solar activity, reported by scientists at a press conference today, suggest that the next 11-year-long solar cycle will be far quieter than the current one. In fact, it may not happen at all: Sunspots, the enormous magnetic storms that erupt on the sun’s surface as the cycle builds, might disappear entirely for the first time in approximately 400 years.

If the reported trends continue—a big if, other researchers note—a hibernating sun would have only a slight cooling effect on climate. But solar storms hurtling toward Earth that can disrupt satellites, power grids, and other electronics, would be much subdued, giving scientists a chance to study the sun in a phase unseen in modern times. For centuries, solar activity has been swinging from solar maximum (lots of dark sunspots, solar flares, and massive ejections of plasma, some aimed at Earth) to a far quieter solar minimum every 11 years or so. The current solar cycle, dubbed number 24 (it’s the 24th solar cycle since 1755, when sunspot activity began being recorded), has just gotten off to a late, slow start in the past year as more sunspots appear.

At the press conference, held at the annual meeting of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society in Las Cruces, New Mexico, three scientists gave a forecast of sorts for the next solar cycle, number 25. “Cycle 24 may be the last normal one for some time,” said solar physicist Frank Hill of the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in Tucson, Arizona, “and the next one, cycle 25, may not happen. The solar cycle may be going into hiatus, like a TV show.” Hill and colleagues reported on a jet-stream-like flow within the sun that they have been monitoring since 1995 using “helioseismology,” the study of sun-wide oscillations of the solar surface. They expected the next cycle’s jet to appear in 2008 or 2009, but it’s still a no-show.

Another still-missing harbinger of the next solar cycle is the rapid march of magnetic activity toward the poles in the sun’s very hot but faint gaseous corona high above the visible surface. Richard Altrock of NSO in Sunspot, New Mexico, showed a 40-year record that suggested this “rush to the poles” is far behind schedule in the current cycle. That might mean that this cycle will not clear the decks, magnetically speaking, to make room for the next cycle. In that case, “it’s not clear what would happen” in the next cycle, Altrock said.

And Matthew Penn of NSO in Tucson and colleagues reported a trend in the intensity of the magnetic field of sunspots as gauged using a ground-based telescope during 13 years. The stronger a spot’s magnetic field, the darker the spot. Below a certain field strength, a spot will fade away. Penn finds that the typical field strength of spots began declining in the past cycle and continues to decline in this cycle. Assuming the trend continues, the maximum of the current cycle would have half as many sunspots as the previous cycle did, and the next cycle would have no spots at all, he said.

Taken together, the scientists say, the three trends suggest that no visible solar cycle will begin at the next expected start time, around 2020. Such a gap last happened during the Maunder Minimum 400 years ago. But other researchers are cool to the idea. Solar physicist Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, notes that success forecasting solar activity a few years out has been modest at best; forecasting a decade or two out would be even trickier. “The data is very limited as yet, only one or two cycles,” she says, making prediction difficult.

Dikpati and space physicist Yi-Ming Wang of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., also interpret some of the physics underlying the three observed trends differently from the three forecasters. In their alternative interpretations, the trends are of little help in forecasting. All in all, writes space physicist Judith Lean of NRL in an e-mail, the understanding of the sun’s behavior “is so uncertain that projections far into the future are more or less speculation.”

World's oceans move into 'extinction phase'

World’s oceans move into ‘extinction phase’ – Telegraph.

Maybe a dupe of something V posted….

A preliminary report from an international panel of marine experts said that the condition of the world’s seas was worsening more quickly than had been predicted.

The scientists, gathered for a workshop at Oxford University, warned that entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could be lost in a generation.

Already fish stocks are collapsing, leading to a risk of rising food prices and even starvation in some parts of the world.

The experts blamed the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for pushing up ocean temperatures, boosting algae so there is less oxygen and increasing acidity of the water.

The conditions are similar to every previous mass extinction event in the Earth’s history.

Dr Alex Rogers, scientific director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) which convened the panel with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said the next generation would suffer if species are allowed to go extinct.

“As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean the implications became far worse than we had individually realised,” he said.

“This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level.

“We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime and, worse, our children’s and generations beyond that.”

The marine scientists called for a range of urgent measures to cut carbon emissions, reduce over-fishing, shut unsustainable fisheries, create protected areas in the seas and cut pollution.