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Notes from an Apocalypse – Mark O’Connell


Notes from an Apocalypse

A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back

Mark O’Connell

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $12.99

Publish Date: April 14, 2020

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

"Harrowing, tender-hearted, and funny as hell" —Jenny Offill “Fascinating…Oddly uplifting”  —The Economist "Smart, funny, irreverent, and philosophically rich" — Wall Street Journal By the author of the award-winning To Be a Machine , an absorbing, deeply felt book about our anxious present tense—and coming to grips with the future We're alive in a time of worst-case scenarios: The weather has gone uncanny. Old postwar alliances are crumbling. A pandemic draws our global community to a halt.  Everywhere you look there's an omen, a joke whose punchline is the end of the world. How is a person supposed to live in the shadow of such a grim future? What does it mean to have children—nothing if not an act of hope—in such unsettled times? What might it be like to live through the worst? And what on Earth is anybody doing about it? Dublin-based writer Mark O'Connell is consumed by these questions—and, as the father of two young children himself, he finds them increasingly urgent. In Notes from an Apocalypse , he crosses the globe in pursuit of answers. He tours survival bunkers in South Dakota. He ventures to New Zealand, a favored retreat of billionaires banking on civilization's collapse. He engages with would-be Mars colonists, preppers, right-wing conspiracists. And he bears witness to those places, like Chernobyl, that the future has already visited—real-life portraits of the end of the world as we know it. In doing so, he comes to a resolution, while offering readers a unique window into our contemporary imagination. Both investigative and deeply personal, Notes from an Apocalypse is an affecting, humorous, and surprisingly hopeful meditation on our present moment. With insight, humanity, and wit, O'Connell leaves you to wonder: What if the end of the world isn't the end of the world?


Notes from an Apocalypse – Mark O’Connell

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Climate change fueled the Australia fires. Now those fires are fueling climate change.

Australia is in the midst of a devastating wildfire season that is being exacerbated by climate change. But the fires, which have been burning for months and could rage on for months to come, are also impacting the earth’s climate in several ways. Some of those impacts are well understood, while others lie at the frontiers of scientific research.

The most obvious climatic impact of the fires is that they’re spewing millions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to a vicious feedback loop of heat and flame. But the fires are also kicking up lots of soot, creating a smoke plume that’s circling the globe and could hasten the melting of any glaciers it comes in contact with. Preliminary evidence suggests some of that smoke has even made its way into an upper layer of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, buoyed aloft by rare, fire-induced thunderclouds. That, too, could have subtle but far-reaching climate impacts.

The fires, which started burning at the end of Australia’s winter, raged across the eastern half of the country throughout the spring and kicked into high gear in the country’s populous southeast over the last few weeks. They’re a disaster of an unprecedented nature.

Exceptionally hot, dry, gusty weather, brought on by recurring ocean and atmospheric dynamics and amplified by the warming and drying effects of human-caused climate change, has made it all too easy for an errant match or a lightning strike to explode into a raging inferno. Which is exactly what’s been happening. To date, the Guardian estimates that more than 26 million acres of land have burned nationwide — a region larger than Indiana. That includes over 12 million acres in New South Wales alone, a dubious new record for the state.

Much of the land that’s burning is covered in eucalyptus forest, although flames have also razed farmlands, grasslands, heathlands, and even some patches of Queensland’s subtropical rainforests, said Lesley Hughes, an ecologist and climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. Whatever the fuel source, the net effect on the atmosphere is a massive release of ash, dust, and a cocktail of different gases, including carbon dioxide.

From the start of September through early January, the wildfires released around 400 million tons of CO2, which is roughly the same amount the UK emits in an entire year, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. That’s not a record, he said, noting that considerably more carbon was emitted in 2011 and 2012, when very large fires raged across Australia’s northern territory and out west. But in New South Wales, this year’s wildfire emissions are off the charts.

By any measure, 400 million tons is a significant chunk of heat-trapping gases that will get mixed into the atmosphere, fueling more global warming. “It’s a great example of a positive feedback of climate change,” Hughes said. “It all comes together, unfortunately.”

In addition to carbon pollution, the fires are producing, well, regular air pollution. Since early November, vast smoke plumes have been wafting from eastern Australia all the way across the Pacific to the shores of South America. Just this week, Parrington said, forecasts from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service showed carbon monoxide from wildfire smoke creeping into the South Atlantic, a “really clear indicator of just how intense those fires have been.”

As the smoke circumnavigates the globe, some of it is passing over New Zealand’s alpine glaciers, turning them an eerie caramel color. Lauren Vargo, a glaciologist at Victoria University of Wellington who recently traveled through New Zealand’s Southern Alps, said that the soot is “really clear and obvious” and that “most of the ice on the South Island” is likely to have been impacted. Vargo is currently studying aerial photographs of New Zealand’s glaciers going back to the 1970s. In 40 years of records, she hasn’t seen anything comparable.

Soot on glaciers does more than spoil hiking photos. It reduces the reflectivity, or albedo, of ice, allowing it to absorb more sunlight, which can hasten its melt, said Marie Dumont, the deputy scientific director of the French Meteorological Service’s Snow Research Center. Exactly how much extra melt New Zealand’s browning glaciers will experience over the coming weeks and months is unclear, but the fact that the color change is occurring during the summer, when the sunlight is fiercer and there’s less chance of fresh snow falling, isn’t a good sign.

“It’s super likely that it will accelerate the melt” of these glaciers, Dumont said, “at least for this year.” She added that she wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar, albeit smaller effect on some Patagonian glaciers, given that the wildfire smoke is passing over South America.

“With ice, when we are seeing a color change, it means the change in albedo is about 10 percent,” Dumont said. “That’s already huge. Even a 2 to 3 percent change is a lot.”

Not all of the wildfire smoke is settling on the earth’s surface. More of it is lingering 3 to 4 miles up in the troposphere, Parrington said, scattering light and resulting in ominous reddish sunsets. Where the smoke is densest, it’s likely impacting the weather, said Robert Field, a climate and atmospheric scientist at Columbia University. Over hard-hit parts of Australia, Field said he wouldn’t be surprised if temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees F lower on dense smoke days as soot blocks incoming sunlight. He emphasized, however, that any such effects will be very temporary.

Where the smoke might have a more far-reaching impact is in the stratosphere, a very dry, very cold part of the atmosphere that starts around 6 miles up and is home to fast-flowing jet stream winds. Pollution from the earth’s surface doesn’t often reach the stratosphere, but recent satellite data shows that Australia’s wildfire smoke has hit this lofty mark, a fact that speaks to “the power and intensity of the fires,” according to Claire Ryder, a research fellow at Reading University’s meteorology department.

The most likely explanation, she said, is fire-induced thunderclouds.

Also known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds, these menacing-looking storms, which form when heat from intense wildfires creates a powerful updraft, can blast particles into the stratosphere in a manner similar to a volcanic eruption. Over the past few weeks, the wildfires in southeastern Australia have spawned a series of pyrocumulonimbus events that Neil Lareau, a fire weather researcher at the University of Nevada Reno, called “really superlative.”

The smoke that’s reached the stratosphere may linger there for weeks to months, Ryder said. But exactly what impact it’ll have is an open scientific question.

Volcanic eruptions, she said, shoot tiny sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. These particles reflect sunlight and can trigger temporary cooling at the earth’s surface. By contrast, fire smoke contains carbon-rich organic matter, including particles that are brown, gray, and even black in color. Black carbon, in particular, is a potent absorber of sunlight, and whether its presence in stratospheric soot will ultimately have a warming or cooling effect on the planet is unknown.

It will likely be years before scientists have teased out the full impact of this year’s wildfire season on the climate — first, the fires need to end. But it’s clear the effects have rippled far beyond Australia’s borders. As fire seasons become longer and more intense across the world, understanding this complex web of planetary impacts will only become more urgent.


Climate change fueled the Australia fires. Now those fires are fueling climate change.

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Antarctic melt holds coastal cities hostage. Here’s the way out.

After a quarter-century of intense study, we now know the unequivocal truth: Antarctica is losing ice to the oceans, and that ice loss is picking up speed.

Forty percent of sea level rise since 1992 has happened in just the past five years — a three-fold increase in the pace at which icebergs are breaking away from land, according to a comprehensive new study based on satellite data, ground measurements, and models. In West Antarctica, where the ice sheet is inherently unstable, the last five years saw an average net outflow of 159 billion tons of ice. In total, the frozen continent has lost 3 trillion tons of ice since 1992.

“As we observe the system for longer, we see more and more changes of the type we feared could happen as the climate warms,” says Helen Fricker, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California-San Diego who worked on the study, in an email to Grist.

The collective work, published in this week’s special edition of the journal Nature, assembles a half-dozen papers written by the world’s top experts on Antarctica. It serves as a major update to our understanding of how human activity affects the Earth’s largest store of ice — and what it would take to prevent a worst-case scenario.

Antarctica’s glaciers are massive enough to flood every coastal city on Earth. So it’s no exaggeration to say that what happens in Antarctica over the next few decades will determine the fate of not just Miami and Mumbai, but also the course of human history. If we’re lucky and quickly start cutting emissions, Antarctica’s glaciers might mostly remain in place. The alternative is unthinkable.

There’s still so much we don’t know about Antarctica. But a series of major breakthroughs in recent years have raised the urgency and scale of scientists’ efforts. This week’s papers put that information into context. The clear takeaway: There is no sign of a slowdown in Antarctica’s melt rate.

After five major Antarctic ice shelf collapses in the past 25 years, there is now enough data for an emerging science of ice shelf “damage mechanics.” Ice shelves — floating extensions of glaciers grounded on solid bedrock — are vulnerable to melt from both warm air above and warm water below. Their health is increasingly at risk as climate change intensifies. In recent years, scientists have learned that ice shelf collapses are probably a precursor for major glaciers to accelerate toward the ocean — and therefore a requirement for worst-case scenarios of sea level rise in our lifetimes.

The biggest of these shelf collapses so far, Larsen B back in 2002, raised alarms throughout the research community. In a matter of weeks, a 10,000-year old mass of ice the size of Rhode Island was gone. Last year, a smaller and partial collapse of the nearby Larsen C ice shelf produced one of the largest icebergs ever seen.

Thanks to all the science that’s taken place since, we have the ability to project forward what could happen over the next 50 years. It’s the same story we know, but with more certainty: We are at a make-or-break moment when it comes to climate change. The ice shelf collapses that humanity has already kickstarted can’t be rolled back, so the goal now is to prevent more of them.

More than any other region on Earth, Antarctica holds humanity hostage — but humanity also has a way out.

“The next few years will be a pivotal period for decision making with regard to Antarctica,” Fricker says. “Depending on what is decided, we could be looking at significant and irreversible changes over the next 50 years.”

Believe it or not, there’s a clear bright side here. Quickly slash emissions, and the ice shelves should still remain stable across most of the continent. Doing so would require an unprecedented era of global cooperation, but the collaborative research taking place right now in Antarctica — an effort shared by dozens of scientists from 17 countries in this week’s update alone — could serve as inspiration. It’s a symbol of what’s possible when people work together for a common cause.

“If you are optimistic, you can find good news here,” says Christina Hulbe, a polar expert at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “Some amount of future change has been locked in by our past decisions, but there is still time to avoid the worst thatcan happen.”

Hulbe, whose first trip to Antarctica was in 1991 but was not directly involved with this week’s report, sees it partly as the culmination of what she’s been working for her entire life. In her view, the way the report is framed — as a stark choice presented to humanity — “accomplishes something that charts and graphs never will.”

In narrative prose unusual for a formal scientific study, the researchers imagine what Antarctica might be like in 2070 — with and without rapid cuts to emissions. Given the incredible size of the Antarctic ice sheets, actions taken in the next decade, the researchers conclude, will reverberate for millennia.

“I’ve never been at an Antarctic or climate conference where people said, ‘That happened slower than I thought it would,’” Hulbe says. “There is nothing here to be complacent about.”

Originally posted here: 

Antarctic melt holds coastal cities hostage. Here’s the way out.

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Here’s Why Trump Is Having a Cow Over Canadian Milk

Mother Jones

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Donald Trump hasn’t done much in his young presidency to delight high-powered Democratic lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). But last week, Trump did just that when he picked a fight with Canada’s dairy farmers, after receiving a letter urging him to do so from Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

Trump’s beef with Canadian dairy played well with Republicans, too. At a speech in dairy-heavy Wisconsin last week (video here), Trump fulminated against our northern neighbor’s milk policy and vowed to organize what sounds like a dramatically awkward group phone call involving the state’s most prominent politicians: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). “We’re going to get together and we’re going to call Canada, and we’re going to say, ‘What happened?'” he thundered. “And they might give us an answer, but we’re going to get the solution, not just the answer, okay?”


If you’re wondering what the hell Trump is babbling about—and why Canadian milk generates such strange, and angry, bedfellows south of its border—here’s a primer.

• US dairy producers are churning out way too much milk, and they have been for a while. “Farmers in the U.S. are pouring out tens of millions of gallons of excess milk, amid a massive glut that has slashed prices and has filled warehouses with cheese,” the Wall Street Journal reported last October. In the first eight months of 2016, the paper added, US dairy farmers dumped out 66 Olympic swimming pools worth of milk, the “most wasted in at least 16 years.” In 2015, too, there was “so much milk flowing out of US cows…that some is ending up in dirt pits because dairies can’t find buyers,” Bloomberg reported at the time.

The backstory: Goaded by rising demand for dairy products from Asia and low prices for feed, US farmers scaled up in 2014, increasing their herds and squeezing out more milk per cow. Trouble is, farmers in other big milk-producing regions like New Zealand made the same bet, and now there’s a global milk glut. The practice of dumping surplus milk has continued into this spring, the US Department of Agriculture recently reported.

US agriculture programs give dairy farmers incentive to produce as much as possible, embroiling them in boom-and-bust cycles like the current one, driving small farms out of business and forcing survivors to scale up. As recently as 1950, around 3.5 million US farms kept dairy cows; by 2012, that number had dwindled to 58,000, even as overall production surged. The shakeout continues. “In 2010, Vermont had more than 1,000 dairy farms, but by the end of last year there were just over than 800,” NPR recently reported.

Meanwhile, the massive overproduction persists amid heroic, government-led efforts to prod Americans to consume more dairy. As Josh Harkinson reported in 2015, USDA dietary guidelines urge everyone nine years old or older to drink three cups of milk per day, a recommendation that owes much more to industry lobbying than it does to sound nutrition science. Then there’s Dairy Management, a group overseen by the USDA that works with “influential and globally recognized companies such as McDonald’s, Domino’s, Quaker, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut” to work more dairy into fast food. Oy.

• Canada’s dairy farmers are largely insulated from these cycles. That’s because, in sharp contrast to the US government, Canada’s dairy policy is based on production quotas that prevent farmers from either under- or overproducing. The program guarantees farmers get a price that covers their production costs, and slaps a high tariff on dairy imports, protecting them from foreign competition. Canadian consumers tend to pay more for milk than their peers, but not prohibitively so. Overall, Canadians devote just 9.7 percent of their overall expenditures to groceries, one of the lowest rates in the world. (US consumers have the lowest rate of all: 6.4 percent.)

Canada’s dairy program, known as “supply management,” might sound crazy to US ears, but it has advantages. In an excellent 2010 Gastronomica article, Barry Estabrook noted that, while decades of booms and busts had hollowed out dairy farming in New England and upstate New York, small and mid-sized dairy farms just over the border in Ontario—farming the “same gently rolling tapestry of field and forest”—are thriving.

• But there’s a hole in Canada’s dairy-tariff wall. So-called ultra-filtered milk—made with a process that concentrates milk proteins, separating out the fat—is a relatively new invention, designed to make dairy products that are highly concentrated and shelf-stable, and thus easy to export. Because of a loophole in trade law, Canada’s dairy tariffs don’t apply to it, and so the US dairy industry has been exporting ultra-filtered milk into Canada for years, where it competes with less processed domestic skim milk in cheese making. Major production plants have “been built in recent years along the Canada-US border in states like New York and Wisconsin to service Canadian demand,” reports the Canadian news site iPolitics.com; and it has grown into a $150 million market for US producers.

• Canada just slammed shut that loophole—enraging the US industry and capturing Trump’s attention. In a policy change announced in February and put into effect recently, Canada dropped the price for processed dairy products, essentially pricing US ultra-filtered milk out of its market. Two US dairy companies geared to the Canadian market—one in Wisconsin, one in New York—immediately complained of lost sales; the Wisconsin one, Grassland Dairy products, delivered bad news to 75 farms: It would no longer buy their milk. The development inflamed politicians in Democratic Party-dominated New York and and GOP-heavy Wisconsin, and eventually in the White House.

• But the US dairy industry has been itching for years to break down Canada’s tariff wall and undercut its dairy program—as have Democratic politicians. Under Barack Obama, US negotiators pushed hard to fully pry open the Canadian market to US dairy under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal championed by Obama and ultimately killed by Trump. And Tom Vilsack, who served as Obama’s secretary of agriculture for the entire eight-year term, now leads the US Dairy Export Council, a Big Dairy group that for years has pushed against Canada’s program. Vilsack recently signed a letter to Trump demanding “immediate action” against Canada for icing out US ultra-filtered milk.

• Canada aside, though, US dairy farmers clearly can’t export their way out of the dairy glut. As Chris Holman, a Wisconsin farmer who is active in the Wisconsin Farmers Union, noted in a recent blog post, the underlying problem is a “vicious cycle” that leads to oversupply: “When markets are up, farms often expand and production increases to take advantage of better prices. When the milk supply goes up and markets are down, farms often expand and production increases as they try to keep their heads above water.” Holman recently told me that “if every dairy farm in Wisconsin culled one cow out of production, it would more than make up for the milk lost to Canada, and everyone can keep farming.”

But organizing such a move would essentially require supply management—something anathema to big US dairy processors, which enjoy all the cheap milk encouraged by a lack of production controls. Ferd Hoefner, former policy director and current senior strategic adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told me that the 2014 farm bill included a supply management program for dairy, but it was struck down at the last minute.

• Wisconsin is a dairy-heavy state—and one that Trump barely won. And also the home of Ryan, with whom Trump needs to be friendly if he is going to get anything done in Congress. Moreover, his anti-trade tirades have not been popular with US Big Ag interests, which rely heavily on exports. Applying his fierce trade rhetoric to pry open Canada’s domestic dairy market may be a way for him to appease those interests.

Meanwhile, this week, Trump added more fuel to his trade war with Canada, imposing hefty duties on lumber imports from there. As the Los Angeles Times noted, “Dairy and lumber are sensitive industries in the heartland and rural parts of America, and any moves to strengthen those domestic constituents could help the administration garner congressional support for its broader trade policy objectives.” And picking on Canada is less risky than picking on his usual targets, China and Mexico. “It’s not like Canada is going to open up the border and let a whole bunch of Central Americans into the United States. So Canada is a pretty safe target,” Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told Politico.

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Here’s Why Trump Is Having a Cow Over Canadian Milk

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We’re in the Process of Decimating 1 in 6 Species on Earth

Mother Jones

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Plants and animals around the world are already suffering from the negative impacts of manmade global warming—including shrinking habitats and the spread of disease. A great number are also facing the ultimate demise—outright extinction—among them the iconic polar bear, some fish species, coral, trees… the list goes on.

While most of the research on this topic so far has been piecemeal, one species at a time, a new study out today in Science offers the most comprehensive view to date of the future of extinction. The outlook is pretty grim.

The research, conducted by evolutionary biologist Mark Urban of the University of Connecticut, analyzes 131 other scientific papers for clues about how climate change is affecting the overall rate of species extinction. The result is alarming: One out of every six species could face extinction if global warming continues on its current path. The picture is less dire if we manage to curb climate change, dropping to only 5.2 percent of species if warming is kept within the internationally-agreed upon target of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The analysis makes clear that the climate change threat isn’t necessarily a separate issue from things like habitat loss and disease; indeed, it’s often climate change that is the driving force behind those impacts. The risk appears to be spread evenly across all types of plants and animals (i.e., trees, amphibians, mammals, etc.), but is more severe in geographic ares where there are more unique species and exposure to climate impacts.

South America takes the lead, with up to 23 percent of its species threatened. One classic case study there is the golden toad, a native of mountaintop rain forests that was last seen in 1989. The toad was driven to extinction in part due to an epidemic of chytrid fungus (which is wiping out amphibians worldwide), and because climate change-related drought is destroying the forests they called home. Australia and New Zealand also ranked highly at risk, with up to 14 percent:

Urban, Science 2015

Urban’s paper offers perhaps the most comprehensive scientific companion to a terrifying narrative made popular last year in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Sixth Extinction,” by Elizabeth Kolbert. The New Yorker journalist argued that when you look at the combined toll that pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change is taking on the planet’s biodiversity, humans are driving extinction on a scale only preceded in the geologic record by cataclysmic natural disasters (like the meteor that likely brought about the demise of the dinosaurs). Never before has one species been responsible for the demise of so many others. (Check out our interview with Kolbert here).

Still, Urban’s study makes clear that many species that avoid extinction still face grave threats from climate change:

“Extinction risks are likely much smaller than the total number of species influenced by climate change,” Urban writes. “Even species not threatened directly by extinction could experience substantial changes in abundances, distributions, and species interactions, which in turn could affect ecosystems and their services to humans.”

Excerpt from:  

We’re in the Process of Decimating 1 in 6 Species on Earth

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All the best science experiments involve dynamite

All the best science experiments involve dynamite

By on 18 Feb 2015commentsShare

Picture a scientist. Good. Now make that scientist a geologist who studies tectonic plate movement. Are you picturing a total badass? Well, you should be, because from 20th century Arctic expeditions to modern day explosives, badassery abounds in the study of plate tectonics.

Let’s start with Alfred Wegener, the German scientist who first proposed the concept of continental drift way back at the start of the 20th century. Yesterday, the New York Times published this beautiful cartoon about Wegener’s work:

To recap: Wegener flew around in hot air balloons to study the atmosphere, hunted seals, fended off polar bears, traveled around on dogsleds, rigged up scientific equipment to box kites, and — perhaps most impressively — endured wicked backlash from the scientific community for what was then a radical new concept. (Lest you forget, this all happened in the early 1900s, which makes these expeditions about a thousand times more impressive.)

Okay. I promised you explosives.

While continental drift is now common knowledge, scientists still don’t entirely understand how the continents move, which is why some of them recently decided to detonate a bunch of dynamite 50 m below the ocean floor off the coast of New Zealand.

No, this was not the move of a bunch of mad scientists, but an attempt to create some harmless seismic waves. Seismic waves like those generated by earthquakes have long been a useful tool for geologists to explore the earth’s underbelly because they pass through (or bounce off of) different surfaces differently. By measuring how these waves travel, scientists can effectively see the different layers of whatever the waves are moving through.

The problem is, seismic waves from earthquakes are too big to get a very precise picture. Seismic waves generated with carefully placed explosives, on the other hand, provide a much more fine-grained view of whatever they’re traveling through.

And so, equipped with plenty of dynamite and hundreds of seismometers, this international crew of researchers continued the tradition of badassery in their field and blew up the ocean (they didn’t really, but it sounds cool when I say it like that). More importantly, the team came away with some valuable new information about how the plate under New Zealand moves around. Turns out, there’s a thin, lubricating layer of rock between the plate and the mantle that allows for some slippage. Scientists have suspected layers like this to exist under other plates, so this is further evidence that this may be a common feature of tectonic plates around the world.

Our big takeaway? Scientists should probably use dynamite more often.

Geophysicists blast their way to the bottom of tectonic plates

, Physics World.



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All the best science experiments involve dynamite

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Will Climate Change Make Men Extinct?

Mother Jones

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The world is warming. The beasts are dying en masse. The oceans are rising. The deserts are roasting. It’s the survival of the fittest out there, guys. Who’s going to win, evolutionarily speaking?

Men or women?

It turns out that warming temperatures may have a surprising gender bias—in favor of women. That’s the conclusion of a team of Japanese researchers who have discovered a “statistically significant” association between climate change—including rising temperatures and extreme weather events—and the birth rates of boys and girls in Japan. Warmer temperatures have accompanied an increased proportion of female babies in the population, and a decline in males.

The findings, published in the journal Fertility and Sterility—reveal that the proportion of male Japanese newborns has steadily declined since the 1970s. At the same time, the number of male “fetal deaths” during that general period—those that were spontaneously miscarried after 12 weeks of pregnancy—has increased. The researchers see a clear link to Japan’s temperature fluctuations.

This chart shows yearly mean temperature differences in Celsius compared to the male-female ratio of “spontaneous fetal deaths” (after 12 weeks of pregnancy); and the male-female ratio of newborns from 1968 to 2012 in Japan. Fertility and Sterility, 2014.

The team also picked out one very hot summer in 2010—Japan’s warmest since 1898—and one very cold winter in 2011, and found similar trends linked to climactic extremes: more fetal deaths followed by a lower ratio of male to female newborns.

It’s not an open and shut case. The researchers point out that climate change certainly isn’t the only factor affecting the newborn gender ratio—and they stop short of arguing that there’s a causal relationship between increased temperatures and more female offspring.

In general, the birth ratio is fairly constant around the world, with sightly more males born than females. And while the science is far from settled, female fetuses appear to be the tougher of the two when presented with outside stresses. At a population level, the gender mix at birth is thought to be influenced by external factors such as air pollution, chemical exposure, and “extraordinary stresses” like war and economic hardship. The Japanese researchers argue that male fetuses appear “especially vulnerable” to these factors, “including climate changes.”

Their hypotheses are supported by other studies. “The results regarding the association between the increase in annual temperature and the change in sex ratio seem fairly robust,” says Claudia Valeggia, a professor of biological anthropology at Yale University, who did not work on the study, but reviewed the findings at my request. “There seems to be now very strong evidence suggesting that male fetuses are more vulnerable, in general, to sub-optimal conditions—for example maternal malnutrition or stressful situations.”

A study published in The Lancet in 1997, for example, documented a decline in the proportion of male newborns in Denmark between 1951 and 1995, possibly due to environmental hazards. Another study looking at China’s famine during the tumultuous Great Leap Forward—a failed economic program to rapidly modernize the countryside—from 1959 through 1961 and found that women during that period were more likely to give birth to girls.

A more recent Swedish study showed that the temperature shifts expected from climate change could influence which fetuses—male or female—would be more likely to survive pregnancy and succeed in a more extreme world. Natural selection, they argue, tends to favor female babies during times of temperature upheaval, with mothers’ bodies evolutionarily programmed to give birth to girls.

“When you are not 100 percent in top shape, it’s more advantageous, evolutionarily speaking, to carry on with a female fetus pregnancy,” Valeggia says; that’s because women are more stable producers of offspring, so it’s better to have more of them around when times are tough.

And yet similar studies using data sets from Finland and New Zealand failed to produce any compelling connections between temperature and male-to-female sex ratios.

The Japanese researchers, led by Dr. Misao Fukuda, of the M&K Health Institute in Ako, acknowledge the discrepancy, but point out that Finland and New Zealand don’t experience the same enormous shifts in temperature between summer and winter as Japan does. Japan has also warmed at a greater rate than the global average over the last century, which might account for the differences in the results.

Valleggia is less convinced on this point. “I would like to see this repeated in other latitudes, with variations in temperatures in different parts of the world,” she says. Another aspect unaccounted for in the Japanese study, she notes, is that in Japan “most of the population must have some kind of access to shelter from these wide swings in temperature,” due to air-conditioning and central heating. “I would like to have more data on populations in which this is not the case, like developing countries, where you don’t have this kind of manmade shelter from temperature changes.”

So will climate change give rise to a female super-race? No—these birth fluctuations are small ones. Vallegia cautions that this is a study of demographics at a population level, not a study of impacts on individual pregnancies. That is, pregnant women should not take it to mean they should avoid warmer temperatures. So you’re free to enjoy the beach.

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Will Climate Change Make Men Extinct?

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Here’s a Great New Cause For the Tea Party

Mother Jones

Harold Meyerson writes today about something called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision, a feature of most trade agreements since the Reagan administration. Basically, it means that if, say, a Mexican company objects to a regulation in Texas, it can sue Texas. But not in a US court. Instead the case is heard in a special extra-governmental tribunal:

The mockery that the ISDS procedure can make of a nation’s laws can be illustrated by a series of cases. In Germany in 2009, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall, seeking to build a coal-fired power plant near Hamburg, used ISDS to sue the government for conditioning its approval of the plant on Vattenfall taking measures to protect the Elbe River from its waste products. To avoid paying penalties to the company under ISDS (the company had asked for $1.9 billion in damages), the state eventually lifted its conditions.

Three years later, Vattenfall sued Germany for its post-Fukushima decision to phase out nuclear power plants; the case is advancing through the ISDS process. German companies that owned nuclear power plants had no such recourse.

After Australia passed a law requiring tobacco products to be sold in packaging featuring prominent health warnings, a Philip Morris subsidiary sued the government in Australian court and lost. It also sued the government through the ISDS, where the case is still pending. The health ministry in next-door New Zealand cited the prospect of a Philip Morris victory in ISDS as the reason it was holding up such warnings on cigarette packages in its own country.

Meyerson wants to know why Democratic presidents continue to support ISDS, but I’m more interested in why the tea party crowd hasn’t yelled itself hoarse over this. After all, this is a tailor-made example of giving up US sovereignty to an unaccountable international organization, something that normally prompts them to start waving around pocket copies of the Constitution and going on Hannity to complain that President Obama is trying to sabotage America. Agenda 21, anyone?

So why not this time? I guess it’s because ISDS is normally used by big corporations to challenge environmental laws. So which do you hate more? The EPA or an unaccountable international organization? Decisions, decisions….

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Here’s a Great New Cause For the Tea Party

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Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere, As Far As the Eye Can See

Mother Jones

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One of the fundamental causes of the housing bubble of the aughts was a global glut of investment money with nowhere productive to go. So instead it went into housing, causing bubbles in the U.S. and several other countries. When the bubble burst, the economy tanked. And since the United States is so big, the Great Recession affected the whole world.

Here in America, we’d like to believe that we learned our lesson. And maybe we did. But there’s still a global glut of investment money around, and there still aren’t enough productive uses for it. So where’s it going? Neil Irwin reports that Nouriel Roubini thinks it’s still going into housing:

Roubini doesn’t see bubbles in the places where they were most severe in the pre-2008 period. He doesn’t mention the United States or Spain or Ireland. Rather, Roubini sees housing prices getting out of whack in quite a few small and mid-sized nations that are well-governed and managed to avoid the worst economic effects of the financial crisis: Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the London metropolitan area in the U.K.

….Roubini’s argument boils down to this: The major economies have been growing only slowly. Yet with low interest rates and aggressive central bank action across the globe, there is a giant pool of money that has to go somewhere. That somewhere has not been productive new investments, like companies building new factories. Rather, it has come in the form of people taking advantage of cheap credit to bid up the price of existing real estate in cities from Stockholm to Sydney.

The key problem, as it’s been for over a decade, is why investors can’t find enough productive uses for their money. Weak economic growth due to rising income inequality is one possibility. Another is the rise of cheap entertainment—Facebook, Xbox, World of Warcraft—which portends lower demand for physical goods and services in the future. Or maybe it’s because of steadily rising unemployment thanks to the growth of automation.

Whatever the reason, if this imbalance continues, it’s hard to see things turning out well in the medium term. We need either less capital formation or else more consumer demand—or both. The alternative is bubble after bubble. They may come in different places and different things, but what other alternative is there?

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Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere, As Far As the Eye Can See

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US Ranks 43rd on Climate Policy (and Canada is Even Worse)

Mother Jones

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Recently, there’s been some good news when it comes to US greenhouse gas emissions: They’re actually going down. The bad news, though, is that despite this progress, we still only rank 43rd in the world for the overall effectiveness of our climate policies.

That’s the upshot of a new report by the Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch, a public policy think tank with offices in Bonn and Berlin. The two groups release an annual Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) to assess how much individual countries are contributing to the global carbon problem, and how much they’re trying to do about it. The rankings include the globe’s 58 leading countries for greenhouse gas emissions—countries that, together, account for 90 percent of the globe’s carbon emissions from fossil energy use. Each country is assessed based its emissions trends, its energy efficiency, its progress on renewable energy, and its overall climate policies.

The US ranked 43rd last year and ranks 43rd this year as well, right between New Zealand and Croatia. We get particularly good marks for our 8-percent decrease in carbon emissions from energy sources in the last half decade, but we still fall well short of a stance that could be considered truly progressive or proactive on climate and energy. Still, if we want to gloat then it’s easy to compare ourselves to our northern neighbor, Canada, which was “the worst performer of all industrialised countries” and only fared better than Iran, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia. (For more on Canada’s recent dismal climate performance see here.)

Here are the Climate Change Performance Index rankings for the top ten biggest emitters (most of which have declined in rank since last year):

CCPI ranking and data for the ten largest greenhouse gas emitting countries. CAN Europe/Germanwatch

Based on the new report, here are some other surprising and intriguing facts about the nations of the world and how they’re performing in the uphill battle to save the globe from humans and their energy habits:

* Europe is one of the best performing regions overall, but there’s wide variability, especially among countries hit hard by the Eurozone debt crisis. On the one hand, bailed-out Portugal ranks sixth in the world on the CCPI index, suggesting economic hardship does not necessarily entail regression on climate policy. But on the other hand, bailed-out Greece ranks 47th, having “almost totally abandoned all climate policies” in the wake of its economic crisis.

* Morocco is a surprising success story, ranking 15th overall thanks to its “national solar plan” as well as a “national action plan against global warming.”

* Industrialized countries in the Pacific region have a lot to answer for. Japan slipped to 50th overall from 44th last year. Korea dropped to 53rd from 50th. And Australia plummeted to 57th thanks to its recent change in government.

* Large developing nations (the BRICs) are also lagging. India declined to 30th and Brazil slipped to 36th. Perhaps most important for the planet, China climbed to 46th in the rankings, a turnaround due to the fact that its dramatic rate of emissions growth is slowing somewhat, even as renewable energy investment continues apace. The Russian Federation is the worst of the BRICs, coming in at 56th.

Overall, there isn’t a ton of good news around the world this year when it comes to climate policy. No wonder, then, that the CCPI doesn’t put any country in positions 1, 2, or 3 of its rankings, noting that “no country is doing enough to prevent dangerous climate change.”

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US Ranks 43rd on Climate Policy (and Canada is Even Worse)

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