Tagged: destruction

How tech can — and can’t — solve climate change, extinction

Somewhere around two hundred thousand years ago, a new primate emerges on Earth.

“The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile,” the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her new book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” “They are, however, singularly resourceful.”

It is, of course, us — big-brained, small-browed genetic mutants clever enough to outcompete animals ten times our size and gradually fan out across the globe.

Eventually, humankind invents axes, engines, cities and strip malls. We tear down forests and dig up fuel from the ground.

Other times we excavate out of curiosity, traveling backward in time through the records of bones, fossils and rocks that eventually give up clues to mass tragedies in the ancient past. Huge portions of the world’s creatures disappeared in a geologic blink of the eye.

In fact, five blinks — so far. The reasons aren’t always settled in science, but strong possibilities for the various mass extinctions include a dramatic release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, climatic shifts that tipped the globe into prolonged ice ages and a gigantic asteroid strike that kicked up enormous clouds of dust.

The early part of Kolbert’s new book is an exploration of this exploration of the past, telling the stories of scientists who worked to reconstruct this grim timeline of species loss. But mostly it’s scene setting for the real subject of the book, the one telegraphed in the title: The Sixth Extinction.

The salient characteristics of the latest epoch are that we appear to be living through it now — and causing it…

That’s the start. In between the start and finish there’s lots of important science stuff.

It’s not that I have a solution I’m trying to work toward and just haven’t said what it is. I don’t have a solution. It’s possible that massive thinking and massive effort will yield, not a solution, but a much better future than the one we seem to be heading toward.

Sherwood Rowland, one of the scientists who discovered ozone depleting chemicals and who recently died, had a couple of great lines, including one I quoted in the book. “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world…”

The politics of the discussion is simple enough:

“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

The combination of know-nothings, The Party of No, idjits and Cowardly Lions in Congress aren’t even doing that much. RTFA for lots more about the book, what can and can’t be done – you already know who needs to be thrown out of Congress and state legislatures to achieve anything more than political babble.

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Big-hearted oil company hands out pizza gift certificates after deadly explosion

The Chevron Corp. donation of free pizzas to Greene County, Pa., residents affected by a gas well explosion last week is not going over well, residents say.

Chevron is dispensing 100 gift certificates for pizza and soft drinks to those in the area of the southwestern Pennsylvania county where a gas well exploded Feb. 11. The incident killed a worker, injured another and sparked a fire that burned for four days…

Chevron’s attempted outreach was the topic of a Twitter user, who wrote Tuesday, “Worst apology ever. Sorry our fracking well exploded, here’s a free pizza.”

Another unidentified resident said he found the gift certificate when he returned home Sunday, and noted it was the first and last time Chevron contacted him about the incident…

BTW, Chevron says…the situation at the well “remains serious, and teams are working around the clock to safely approach and shut the well.”

Golly gee. They’re sticking around for a spell to clean up their mess. How thoughtful.

BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill may take decades to recover


Reuters Pictures used by permission

The deep-sea soft-sediment ecosystem in the immediate area of the 2010′s Deepwater Horizon well head blowout and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will likely take decades to recover from the spill’s impacts, according to a scientific paper reported in the online scientific journal PLoS One.

The paper is the first to give comprehensive results of the spill’s effect on deep-water communities at the base of the Gulf’s food chain, in its soft-bottom muddy habitats, specifically looking at biological composition and chemicals at the same time at the same location.

“This is not yet a complete picture,” said Cynthia Cooksey, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science lead scientist for the spring 2011 cruise to collect additional data from the sites sampled in fall 2010. “We are now in the process of analyzing data collected from a subsequent cruise in the spring of 2011. Those data will not be available for another year, but will also inform how we look at conditions over time.”

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Britain’s puffins at risk because of climate change

cliffside puffins
Click to enlarge

Puffins as well as other coastal species are under threat in Britain as erosion and climate change destroy their habitat, the country’s National Trust warned on Friday.

According to the organization, Britain’s 8,050-mile coastline is already seeing rising sea levels, with projections suggesting waters could be half a meter higher than at present by 2100.

In a bid to show how plants, animals and humans would have to live alongside “an increasing rate of environmental change”, the Trust published a list of six species or “six canaries in the mine”, referring to the birds sent down mines to reveal the presence of dangerous gases.

It said puffins, whose black back, white underparts and brightly colored beak make the birds instantly recognizable, were among those which could be “seriously affected” by unpredictable weather…

“Wildlife which relies on the gradual erosion of soft rock cliffs or lives on loose sand and shingle habitats could be caught out by an increasingly mobile landscape as a result of extremes in weather.”

Britain has been recording more hottest, coldest, wettest or driest months on record, potentially affecting costal habitats.

“Even on hard rock cliffs less affected by increased erosion, we are likely to see the boom and bust of more specialist plants and animals, as they suffer from increased flooding, salt deposition or drought stress,” Oates said…

The Trust said puffins, whose main prey is sand eel, have turned to eating snake pipefish as a result of overfishing and warming seas. Puffin chicks have occasionally been found dead, having choked trying to swallow pipefish, it said…

Growing up subsistence fishing along the southern New England coast this is the kind of warning that breaks my heart. Having fought alongside other fisherfolk, coastal residents, to turn the tide of pollution from local industry, reclaim much of coastal waters ravaged by crap and crud from uncaring corporations – I cannot look forward to the battles starting all over again…This time not only the emperors of the financial and corporate world; but, their flunkeys on a federal scale.

Congress prepares to declare war on the internet


 
Many internet users in the United States have watched with horror as countries like France and Britain have proposed or instituted so-called “three strikes” laws, which cut off internet access to those accused of repeated acts of copyright infringement. Now the U.S. has its own version of this kind of law, and it is arguably much worse: the Stop Online Piracy Act, introduced in the House this week, would give governments and private corporations unprecedented powers to remove websites from the internet on the flimsiest of grounds, and would force internet service providers to play the role of copyright police.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes in a post on the proposed legislation, the law would not only require ISPs to remove websites from the global network at the request of the government or the courts (by blocking any requests to the central domain-name system that directs internet traffic), but would also be forced to monitor their users’ behavior in order to police acts of copyright infringement. Providers who do not comply with these requests and requirements would be subject to sanctions. And in many cases, legal hearings would not be required…

In addition to using what some are calling the “internet death penalty” of removing infringing websites from the DNS system so they can’t be found, the proposed bill would also allow copyright holders to push for websites and services to be removed from search engine results and to have their supply of advertising cut off — and would require that payment companies like PayPal and ad networks comply with these orders. If you liked what PayPal and others did when they shut off donations to WikiLeaks, you’re going to love the new Stop Online Piracy Act…

The bottom line is that if it passes and becomes law, the new act would give the government and copyright holders a giant stick — if not an automatic weapon — with which to pursue websites and services they believe are infringing on their content. With little or no requirement for a court hearing, they could remove websites from the internet and shut down their ability to be found by search engines or to process payments from users. DMCA takedown notices would effectively be replaced by this nuclear option, and innocent websites would have to fight to prove that they deserved to be restored to the internet — a reversal of the traditional American judicial approach of being assumed innocent until proven guilty — at which point any business they had would be destroyed.

Just as our Congress has become the kind of legislative body that would make any corporation happy and content, this bill would make for the kind of internet that would increase smiles and profits for media conglomerates — regardless of the stifling blanket dropped on the whole Web.

Obama can text terror warnings to all US phones – Woo-Hoo!

From next year, new phones and other hand-held devices will be required to be fitted with special chips to receive the alerts, which will also be sent by state and local authorities. Users will be able to opt out of every type of alert except those from the president, said the Federal Communications Commission.

The system will include alerts about missing children and will supersede all other phone traffic to avoid delays.

Mr Obama, who has been dubbed the “texter-in-chief” thanks to his devotion to his BlackBerry and heavy use of text messages during his 2008 campaign, may face criticism from libertarians for the compulsory nature of the presidential alerts. But, most of our politicians will welcome yet another advance beyond the technological limits of Cold War panic-mongers.

But officials see the system, known as Personal Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, as a logical progression from alerting the public via radio and television.

“The lesson that was reinforced on 9/11 was the importance of getting clear and accurate information to the public during a crisis,” said Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, where the scheme will be deployed first next year. It will then move to Washington and most other large cities.

He called the alerts a “quantum leap forward in using technology to help keep people safe”.

The warnings will have a unique signal and vibration, said officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Depending on where you carry your cell phone you may receive a truly thrilling message from the White House.

On a more rational note – though Republican nanny state advocates will disagree – think of what a boon this would be for the NSA. Instead of current procedures involving a chipset in a listening device which has to work at sorting individual conversations, they probably could use the mandatory chip inside your phone [required by the proposal] to identify an individual conversation at their request.

Northern Ireland coppers defuse huge homemade bomb

Police have said that a 500lb bomb left in a van under the main Belfast to Dublin road near Newry may have been destined for a town centre.

Chief Superintendent Alasdair Robinson said the device, which was stored inside a wheelie bin, was “sophisticated and substantial”. He said that it could have caused huge devastation and loss of life.

The major alert was less than a week since the murder of PSNI constable Ronan Kerr in Omagh, County Tyrone.

Police believe that the van containing the bomb was abandoned in the underpass because of increased police activity in the wake of the murder last Saturday…

Police have refused to be drawn on which organisation was responsible

Acting NI Policing Board chairman Brian Rea said the “pure purpose” of the bomb was “death and destruction”.

“The public and political revulsion at the murder of Constable Kerr clearly shows that the people of Northern Ireland do not want any more devastation inflicted on our community and our police service…”

Meanwhile Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has reiterated his call for dissidents to meet his party for talks. Writing on his blog, he said that republican heartlands were “seething with anger” following the recent murder of Constable Kerr.

“The people of this island demand that you stop,” he wrote, addressing dissident republicans. “I am prepared to meet you anywhere at any time to listen to what you have to say and to tell you that there is now a democratic peaceful way to unite our people and our country on the basis of equality.”

Cynic that I can be – I consider that a possibility still exists that these expressly violent tactics may be a red herring from rightwingers trying to sabotage the peace.

Yes, I’m aware that anarchy is still the road of choice of nutballs either side of the road. Dimwits who care more about the thrill they get from making big noises – instead of actually accomplishing any sort of change.

Checking the death tab in Mexico’s drug war


Funeral parlor uses a pickup truck to haul away bodies in Acapulco
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

The launch this week of a comprehensive official database of drug-related killings around Mexico provides a new insight into the complexity of the conflict with criminal groups that traffic drugs into the United States.

Until now, the public relied mostly on tallies elaborated by national media outlets or on sporadic – and sometimes confusing – figures released by different government institutions.

Many in Mexico have therefore welcomed the publication of a unified set of data that for the first time includes not only fallen gang members, but also police, soldiers and innocent civilians killed in the fight against the cartels.

However, that positive development has been overshadowed by the grim scenario that the figures depict – and some complain that they only show one, even if the most tragic, aspect of the conflict.

According to the new database, the total number of people killed in the conflict between December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon came into power, and the end of 2010, stands at 34,612…

Total number of victims in drug-related violence in Mexico, per year

December 2006: 62
2007: 2,826
2008: 6,837
2009: 9,614
2010: 15,273

At least 89% of the fatalities are suspected gang members killed in turf wars between the different organisations that compete for control of trafficking routes into the US.

RTFA. Investigate the arguments for and against Calderon’s policies.

And I don’t know – do you think there will ever be a positive outcome?

Gulf oil spill firms ignored warning signs


BP, TransOcean, Halliburton
Daylife/Getty Images used by permission

BP was aware of equipment problems aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig hours before the explosion pumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a congressional hearing was told yesterday .

In a second day of hearings, the House of Representatives’s energy and commerce committee said documents and company briefings suggested that BP, which owned the well; Transocean, which owned the rig; and Halliburton, which made the cement casing for the well, ignored tests in the hours before the 20 April explosion that indicated faulty safety equipment.

“Yet it appears the companies did not suspend operations, and now 11 workers are dead and the gulf faces an environmental catastrophe,” Henry Waxman, the chair of the energy and commerce committee, said, demanding to know why work was not stopped.

The committee heard testimony from oil executives suggesting multiple failures of safety systems that should have given advance warning of a blowout, or should have promptly cut off the flow of oil.

The failures included a dead battery in the blowout preventer, suggestions of a breach in the well casing, and failure in the shear ram, a device of last resort that was supposed to cut through and seal the drill pipe in the event of a blowout.

Nothing has changed since I worked in the offshore oil drilling industry, decades ago. Preventive technology has improved. The willingness of corporate bosses to take a position on the side of safety – still appears to be non-existent.

Earthquake in Indonesia is just around the corner

The earthquake which rocked Padang, western Sumatra in September last year killing more than 1000 people was not the ‘great earthquake’ which earth scientists are waiting for. In fact, it may have made the next massive earthquake more likely, according to Ulster expert Professor John McCloskey…

Professor McCloskey and his group rapidly analysed the M9.2 earthquake that triggered the Indian Ocean 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and alerted the world to the threat of another large quake in the Sumatra region of the Indian Ocean 10 days before it struck. He is head of the Geophysics Research Group at Ulster’s Environmental Sciences Research Institute…

“For some years now scientists have been warning of the build up of stress on one of the earth’s great plate boundaries to the west of Sumatra in Indonesia. For more than 200 years the collision between the Indian ocean plate and the Asian plate has stored an enormous amount of energy.

“It’s just like slowly drawing a bow. For hundreds of years the energy is stored as the two tectonic plates bend and deform. Then, in just a few seconds all this energy is released generating a massive earthquake and sometimes flexing the seafloor to create a tsunami.

Off western Sumatra the bow is drawn tight. The last shock happened more than 200 years ago and the stresses are probably larger now than they were then; the earthquake must happen soon…

“Science and scientists do not have all the answers. We don’t know where or when the next big earthquake will happen. We disagree on a lot of the details about how earthquakes work, how they start and how they stop but there are many things about which there is no disagreement.

“All the indicators are pointing in the same direction for western Sumatra. Another massive earthquake is due there and could happen literally any day.

The question returns – what might nations do to prepare for global-scale natural disasters? If we still believe that “peace has broken out” with the end of the Cold War – one obvious proposal would be to constitute large sections of armies and navies to be trained for disaster response as an essential portion of their mandate.

Necessary wars and other delights of partisan politics always seem to get in the way, though.