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Europe’s hurricane-fueled wildfires might become a recurring nightmare

This week, a hurricane broadsided Europe — a rare event considering most of the continent is closer to the North Pole than it is to the tropics. That would have been enough to make worldwide news, but the continent was due for much more.

As the storm, named Ophelia, approached, it was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the eastern Atlantic. Although weather watchers were initially focused most closely on Ireland, where the storm made landfall, its deadliest impact occurred hundreds of miles south in Portugal and Spain.

There, strong winds stoked hundreds of wildfires, killing more than 40 people. The ghastly images from southwestern Europe looked less like real life than illustrations from a cautionary fairy tale about the end of the world. Being there, as one person wrote, was like “a nightmare world of smoke and ash.”

These fires would have been the deadliest in Portugal’s history, were it not for massive blazes in June that killed more than 60 people, trapping many in their cars, as flames advanced too quickly for them to escape.

With its vast forests and typically warm and dry summers, Portugal is already Europe’s wildfire capital. And in recent decades, its profound and unique socioeconomic vulnerability to fire has only grown. Last year, half of the fire acreage burned in all of Europe lay in Portugal — a trend attributed both to haphazard forestry practices and climate change bringing hotter and drier weather.

This year, the sheer scale of the fires has been staggering. On Sunday alone, wildfires burned at least 300,000 acres — more than is normally burned in an entire year. Smoke from the fires quickly spread as far away as London.

Portugal’s wildfires this year have brought sharp focus on the escalating risk of these blazes — and what little officials have done to prevent them. Popular backlash prompted the resignation of a senior government minister and a formal request for a vote of no confidence in the ruling party. But they have also brought a lesson for the rest of the world: As climate change escalates, wildfires are a problem without an easy solution. (Just ask California.)

In a struggling post-recession Portugal, suppliers to its huge paper industry have accelerated a switchover from native species to faster-growing eucalyptus. Since trees consumed by fire can now be replaced more quickly, fire prevention — simple actions like trimming branches and clearing underbrush that could greatly reduce the country’s fire risk — has fallen by the wayside due to cost cutting. Add to that, more and more people are fleeing Portugal’s rural areas — leaving an aging population behind — it’s not clear who will be able to do that work even if resources were available to fund it.

“It really is a textbook example of wildfire as a socio-natural hazard,” José Miguel Pereira, a forest ecologist at the University of Lisbon tells Grist via email. Or to put it another way, human activity is making wildfires worse. These infernos are a product of our disregard for the fact that nature is now almost entirely something we’ve created — these disasters aren’t natural.

And as you know, our influence goes beyond simply neglecting tree management. There’s a growing consensus that the most important reason behind the recent surge in megafires is weather. September was the driest month in Portugal for at least 87 years, and this summer was among the hottest ever measured. All that’s led to a wildfire season that’s 525 percent worse than normal.

Climate models show that a warmer world will mean a drier southern Europe, and increasing ocean temperatures will likely bring more hurricanes further northward. That combination will boost the frequency of massive wildfires in Europe, especially in places like Portugal. On our current warming track, recent research shows the Mediterranean will cross a threshold into megadrought in the next few decades. Many of the trees in the region will likely go up in flames before next century.

This week, with the addition of Ophelia’s winds, weather conditions favorable for fire growth were extreme — and they occurred at a time of the year when farmers routinely set the ground ablaze to clear land. The mix resulted in fires so intense they created their own weather, spawning rare pyrocumulus clouds, literally a fire cloud.

“To the best of my knowledge this is new in Europe,” Paulo Fernandes, a forest ecologist at the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro, wrote to Grist, adding the weather was far outside what would be expected for mid-October. ”Extreme fires cannot be mitigated by a stronger firefighting force.”

What happened this week in Portugal points toward the scariest aspects of the Anthropocene: We are changing the world around us so fast that, in many cases, adaptation will be near impossible. As a hurricane, Ophelia was literally off the charts, and meteorologists have no doubt that the storm made the fires worse, rapidly transforming the smallest flames into towering infernos.

In my discussions with colleagues this week, not one weather or climate expert could think of an example of a tropical cyclone in the last 90-plus years that has sparked such a series of megafires. The closest corollaries were a 1978 storm in western Australia and a 2011 storm in Texas. Each fanned large fires, but the loss of life was relatively low. In 1923, a typhoon worsened the impact of fires sparked by a massive earthquake in Japan – but again, that required an earthquake.

Like Portugal, California has a Mediterranean climate that features a long summer dry season. In the wake of the state’s record-breaking wildfire season, which occurred under similar weather and climate conditions as the Portuguese fires, there’s a lot the West Coast can learn from what’s going wrong in Portugal. The most important lesson: Once huge fires get going, there’s not much that can stop them. The best hope, instead, is reducing risk in advance by preparing forests for the inevitable.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of Western senators proposed a reform of forestry practices that will do just that. And it’s already getting praise from firefighters, environmentalists, and industry. In 2017, the U.S. spent a record $2 billion on fighting wildfires, and the new bill would support low-cost preparedness efforts — like those shelved in Portugal — to try to prevent future fires.

In a statement accompanying the release of the bill, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, one of its sponsors said the time for action is now: “We can’t sit by and let devastating wildfires become the new normal.”

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Europe’s hurricane-fueled wildfires might become a recurring nightmare

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New Mexico: OK, fine, we’ll put science back in science standards.

The mayor of the coastal town of Rockport, Texas, said on Tuesday that the community will likely suffer permanent damage from the Category 4 storm.

It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas, leaving behind decimated buildings, torn-up infrastructure, and thousands of displaced people. While most national media attention focused on Houston, Rockport, population 10,645, suffered some of the hurricane’s worst wind and storm surge damage.

During a panel discussion in Victoria, Texas, Mayor Charles Wax said that approximately one-third of the town was destroyed in the hurricane, and a significant portion of that will be impossible to rebuild.

Only 300 of Rockport’s 1,300 businesses have reopened since the storm, 856 of Rockport’s 2,400 students have left the school district, and the town lost most of its trees in the storm. Disaster relief crews have cleared almost 800,000 cubic yards of vegetation felled by hurricane winds and rain. 

Wax, along with three other coastal Texas mayors coping with staggering devastation from the hurricane, said he has received more help from the state government than from FEMA. The agency is definitely spread a bit thin, it seems.

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New Mexico: OK, fine, we’ll put science back in science standards.

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Ophelia is the strongest storm to hit Ireland in at least 50 years.

In parts of the United Kingdom Monday morning, people woke up to a blood-red sun — a phenomenon seen around the globe this year.

The color was caused by smoke that blew in from wildfires across Portugal and Spain. Hurricane Ophelia deepened the reddish hue by dragging up dust from the Sahara.

Red skies have haunted the western U.S. recently as wildfires burned in Montana and ash rained down in Seattle. This month in Northern California, 20,000 people evacuated from massive wildfires under a red-orange sky.

Anadolu Agency / Contributor / Getty Images

On the other side of the world, wildfires burned in Siberia all summer long, covering the sun with enormous clouds of smoke and ash.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

To understand why this happens, you need to know a bit of optics. Sun rays contain light from the whole visible spectrum. As the sun’s white light beams into the atmosphere, it collides with molecules that diffuse some of the wavelengths. On a normal day, short wavelength colors, like purple and blue, are filtered out, making the sun look yellow.

But high concentrations of light-scattering molecules in the air (like smoke particles from a wildfire) crowd out more of those short-wavelength colors, leaving behind that hellish red color.

Since climate change makes wildfires worse, we’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

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Ophelia is the strongest storm to hit Ireland in at least 50 years.

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The sun keeps turning an apocalyptic shade of red. Here’s why.

In parts of the United Kingdom Monday morning, people woke up to a blood-red sun — a phenomenon seen around the globe this year.

The color was caused by smoke that blew in from wildfires across Portugal and Spain. Hurricane Ophelia deepened the reddish hue by dragging up dust from the Sahara.

Red skies have haunted the western U.S. recently as wildfires burned in Montana and ash rained down in Seattle. This month in Northern California, 20,000 people evacuated from massive wildfires under a red-orange sky.

Anadolu Agency / Contributor / Getty Images

On the other side of the world, wildfires burned in Siberia all summer long, covering the sun with enormous clouds of smoke and ash.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

To understand why this happens, you need to know a bit of optics. Sun rays contain light from the whole visible spectrum. As the sun’s white light beams into the atmosphere, it collides with molecules that diffuse some of the wavelengths. On a normal day, short wavelength colors, like purple and blue, are filtered out, making the sun look yellow.

But high concentrations of light-scattering molecules in the air (like smoke particles from a wildfire) crowd out more of those short-wavelength colors, leaving behind that hellish red color.

Since climate change makes wildfires worse, we’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

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The sun keeps turning an apocalyptic shade of red. Here’s why.

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Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science – Robert Kunzig

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Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science

Robert Kunzig

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: October 17, 2000

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Seller: W. W. Norton


A vivid, up-to-date tour of the Earth's last frontier, a remote and mysterious realm that nonetheless lies close to the heart of even the most land-locked reader. The sea covers seven-tenths of the Earth, but we have mapped only a small percentage of it. The sea contains millions of species of animals and plants, but we have identified only a few thousand of them. The sea controls our planet's climate, but we do not really understand how. The sea is still the frontier, and yet it seems so familiar that we sometimes forget how little we know about it. Just as we are poised on the verge of exploiting the sea on an unprecedented scale—mining it, fertilizing it, fishing it out—this book reminds us of how much we have yet to learn. More than that, it chronicles the knowledge explosion that has transformed our view of the sea in just the past few decades, and made it a far more interesting and accessible place. From the Big Bang to that far-off future time, two billion years from now, when our planet will be a waterless rock; from the lush crowds of life at seafloor hot springs to the invisible, jewel-like plants that float at the sea surface; from the restless shifting of the tectonic plates to the majestic sweep of the ocean currents, Kunzig's clear and lyrical prose transports us to the ends of the Earth. Originally published in hardcover as The Restless Sea. "Robert Kunzig is a creator of what oceanographer Harry Hess once referred to as 'geopoetry.' He covers vast tracts of time and space and makes his subjects electrifying."—Richard Ellis, The Times [London] "The Restless Sea immediately surfaces at the top of the list of journalistic treatments of oceanography. . . .The book opened my eyes to numerous wonders."—Richard Strickland, American Scientist  "When you head for the coast this summer, leave that trashy beach novel at home. Instead, pack Robert Kunzig's book. Because just beyond your rental cottage lies the restless sea, where three-mile-tall mountain ranges criss-cross the ocean floor, and deep trenches harbor mysterious creatures. . . . The book is easy to read, and will bring you up to date on the startling discoveries oceanographers have made during the past few decades."—Phillip Manning, The News and Observer [Raleigh, North Carolina] ] "Anyone who loves the sea should read this book."—Sebastian Junger

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Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science – Robert Kunzig

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Tropical Storm Nate could hit the Gulf Coast as a hurricane this weekend.

Sorry to ruin the party, but a report from the Food Climate Research Network casts doubt on recent suggestions that pasture-raised cattle could sequester massive amounts of carbon in the soil.

By nibbling plants and stimulating new root growth, the old argument goes, cows can encourage deeper root networks, which suck up more carbon. Proponents of grass-fed meat have embraced these findings, saying that pasture-raised livestock could mitigate the impact of meat consumption on the environment.

The new report — cleverly titled “Grazed and Confused?” — acknowledges that pastured cattle can be carbon negative, but this depends on the right soil and weather conditions. In most places, according to the report, grazers produce much more greenhouse gas than they add to the ground. It is an “inconvenient truth,” the authors write, that most studies show grass-fed beef has a bigger carbon footprint than feedlot meat. “Increasing grass-fed ruminant numbers is, therefore, a self-defeating climate strategy,” the report concludes.

Fortunately, grass-fed beef is not the only solution being bandied about: Research shows that a small dose of seaweed in livestock feed could drastically reduce methane emissions. And if you really want to reduce your impact on the climate you could, you know, stop eating meat.

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Tropical Storm Nate could hit the Gulf Coast as a hurricane this weekend.

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The Origins of Creativity – Edward O. Wilson

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The Origins of Creativity

Edward O. Wilson

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $11.99

Publish Date: October 3, 2017

Publisher: Liveright

Seller: W. W. Norton


An eloquent exploration of creativity, The Origins of Creativity grapples with the question of how this uniquely human expression—so central to our identity as individuals and, collectively, as a species—came about and how it has manifested itself throughout the history of our species. In this profound and lyrical book, one of our most celebrated biologists offers a sweeping examination of the relationship between the humanities and the sciences: what they offer to each other, how they can be united, and where they still fall short. Both endeavours, Edward O. Wilson reveals, have their roots in human creativity—the defining trait of our species. Reflecting on the deepest origins of language, storytelling, and art, Wilson demonstrates how creativity began not ten thousand years ago, as we have long assumed, but over one hundred thousand years ago in the Paleolithic age. Chronicling this evolution of creativity from primate ancestors to humans, The Origins of Creativity shows how the humanities, spurred on by the invention of language, have played a largely unexamined role in defining our species. And in doing so, Wilson explores what we can learn about human nature from a surprising range of creative endeavors—the instinct to create gardens, the use of metaphors and irony in speech, and the power of music and song. Our achievements in science and the humanities, Wilson notes, make us uniquely advanced as a species, but also give us the potential to be supremely dangerous, most worryingly in our abuse of the planet. The humanities in particular suffer from a kind of anthropomorphism, encumbered by a belief that we are the only species among millions that seem to matter, yet Wilson optimistically reveals how researchers will have to address this parlous situation by pushing further into the realm of science, especially fields such as evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and anthropology. With eloquence and humanity, Wilson calls for a transformational "Third Enlightenment," in which the blending of these endeavors will give us a deeper understanding of the human condition and our crucial relationship with the natural world.

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The Origins of Creativity – Edward O. Wilson

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Drawdown – Paul Hawken & Tom Steyer

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Drawdown

The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

Paul Hawken & Tom Steyer

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $13.99

Publish Date: April 18, 2017

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


•  New York Times  bestseller  • The 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming, based on meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world “At this point in time, the  Drawdown  book is exactly what is needed; a credible, conservative solution-by-solution narrative that we can do it. Reading it is an effective inoculation against the widespread perception of doom that humanity cannot and will not solve the climate crisis. Reported by-effects include increased determination and a sense of grounded hope.” —Per Espen Stoknes, Author,  What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming   “There’s been no real way for ordinary people to get an understanding of what they can do and what impact it can have. There remains no single, comprehensive, reliable compendium of carbon-reduction solutions across sectors. At least until now. . . . The public is hungry for this kind of practical wisdom.” —David Roberts,  Vox “This is the ideal environmental sciences textbook—only it is too interesting and inspiring to be called a textbook.” —Peter Kareiva, Director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. If deployed collectively on a global scale over the next thirty years, they represent a credible path forward, not just to slow the earth’s warming but to reach drawdown, that point in time when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peak and begin to decline. These measures promise cascading benefits to human health, security, prosperity, and well-being—giving us every reason to see this planetary crisis as an opportunity to create a just and livable world.

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Drawdown – Paul Hawken & Tom Steyer

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Chaos – James Gleick

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Chaos

Making a New Science (Enhanced Edition)

James Gleick

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: March 22, 2011

Publisher: Open Road Media

Seller: OpenRoad Integrated Media, LLC


The blockbuster modern science classic that, two decades ago, introduced the butterfly effect to the world and became an international sensation—now updated with video and modern graphics In the 1960s, a small group of radical thinkers upset the rigid foundation of modern scientific thinking by placing new importance on the tiny experimental irregularities that scientists had long learned to ignore. Miniscule differences in data, they said, would eventually produce massive ones—and complex systems like the weather, economics, and human behavior suddenly became clearer and more beautiful than they had ever been before. In this updated version of his seminal work, James Gleick lays out that new vision of a chaotic universe. Interviews with leading theoreticians, a video introduction from the author, and motion graphics depicting concepts such as the famous Lorenz attractor—the concept that birthed chaos theory—complement Gleick’s elegant prose. Never before has chaos been so easy to grasp. “Beautifully lucid . . . Gleick has a novelist’s touch for describing his scientists and their settings, an eye for the apt analogy, and a sense of the dramatic and the poetic.”— San Francisco Chronicle   “There is a teleological grandeur about this new math that gives the imagination wings.”— Vogue   “Gleick's Chaos is not only enthralling and precise, but full of beautifully strange and strangely beautiful ideas.”—Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach  Born in New York City in 1954, James Gleick is one of the nation’s preeminent science writers. Upon graduating from Harvard in 1976, he founded Metropolis , a weekly Minneapolis newspaper, and spent the next decade working at the New York Times . Gleick’s prominent works include Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman , Isaac Newton , and Chaos: Making a New Science , all of which were shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. His latest book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood ,was published in March 2011. He lives and works in New York.

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Chaos – James Gleick

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The Future of the Mind – Michio Kaku

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The Future of the Mind

The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

Michio Kaku

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $11.99

Publish Date: February 25, 2014

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC


Michio Kaku, the New York Times bestselling author of Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future tackles the most fascinating and complex object in the known universe: the human brain. The Future of the Mind brings a topic that once belonged solely to the province of science fiction into a startling new reality. This scientific tour de force unveils the astonishing research being done in top laboratories around the world—all based on the latest advancements in neuroscience and physics—including recent experiments in telepathy, mind control, avatars, telekinesis, and recording memories and dreams. The Future of the Mind is an extraordinary, mind-boggling exploration of the frontiers of neuroscience. Dr. Kaku looks toward the day when we may achieve the ability to upload the human brain to a computer, neuron for neuron; project thoughts and emotions around the world on a brain-net; take a “smart pill” to enhance cognition; send our consciousness across the universe; and push the very limits of immortality.

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The Future of the Mind – Michio Kaku

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