Monday, November 16, 2015

How can Arabian Desert have a river of ice?

My Family Has Been Hit by Extreme Weather. Has Yours?

[Huffington Post] Three years ago, Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on my hometown of Long Beach, New York--destroying the first floor of my brother's house along with dozens of homes and obliterating our two-mile boardwalk. In a nearby town my sister and her neighbors were without electricity for days. Many families suffered far worse; more than 140 in all were killed by the storm, and New York State alone racked up more than $40 billion in damage.
My family is not unique. Every year, weather-related disasters like Sandy injure or kill hundreds of Americans and cause billions of dollars in losses. And scientists say that warmer temperatures are now making some of these extreme weather events worse - including drought like the historic one still ravaging California, or intense rainstorms like those that flooded South Carolina last month.
This fall, we at Environment America, along with researchers from the Frontier Group, have been crunching the numbers and gathering stories from across the country to find out the impact of storms, floods, drought, wildfires, and other weather-related disasters on average Americans. The results - revealed in an online, interactive map -- are staggering.
Ninety-six percent of Americans live in counties hit by at least one weather-related disaster in the last five years. Since September 2010, weather-related disasters were declared in all 50 states and in Washington, D.C. And 40 million people live in counties recently affected by five or more disasters. Read More

Did a missing trace element trigger mass extinctions?

[Cosmos Magazine] An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs and volcanic eruptions triggered “the Great Dying” at the end of the Permian. But the cause of our planet’s other three mass extinctions is a mystery. Could something as prosaic as dietary deficiency be to blame?
Palaeontologist John Long from Adelaide’s Flinders University thinks a selenium shortage crippled life on Earth at the end of the Triassic, Ordovician and Devonian periods. He and his colleagues published their work in Gondwana Research in November.
The study sprang from a hunt for minerals. Geologist Ross Large from the University of Tasmania was relying on the fact that the trace element selenium is often found near nickel and copper ore deposits. Large meticulously analysed trace elements in 4,000 samples of ocean sediments laid down over the past 560 million years.
Having amassed such a vast dataset, Large offered Long a look at it. The palaeontologist immediately noticed something intriguing: selenium levels plummeted just ahead of the three mysterious mass extinctions.
Selenium is an essential element for all forms of cellular life: it helps cells mop up damaging molecules called free radicals. Along with other essential trace elements, selenium enters rivers and seas when the Earth’s tectonic plates are active. As the plates grind into each other, mountain ranges rise. And as the mountains erode, sand and dust rich in trace elements into rivers and oceans, and marine organisms flourish.
But in periods where landmasses are drifting apart – such as 200 million years ago, when the vast supercontinent Pangaea was breaking up – selenium levels can collapse. Read More

The Melting Arctic is like Discovering a New Africa

[CNBC] Governments and the private sector are positioning to develop the Arctic, where the wealth of resources is akin to a "new Africa," according to Iceland's president.
The melting of the Arctic is an ongoing phenomenon: In October, about 7.7 million square kilometers (about 3 million square miles) of Arctic sea ice remained, around 1.2 million square kilometers less than the average from 1981-2010, according to calculations by Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis that was published by researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
One effect of the melting ice has been newly opened sea passages and fresh access to resources.
"Until 20 or so years ago, (the Arctic) was completely unknown and unmarked territory," Iceland's President Olafur Grimsson told an Arctic Circle Forum in Singapore on Thursday. "It is as if Africa suddenly appeared on our radar screen."
Grimsson cited resources that included rare metals and minerals, oil and gas, as well as "extraordinarily rich" renewable energy sources such as geothermal and wind power.
Developing the Arctic to access these resources "doesn't only have grave consequences," he said, noting that shipping companies had found new, faster sea routes through the area. Grimsson cited Cosco's trial Northern sea journey a couple years ago with a container ship, which was able to travel from Singapore to Rotterdam in 10 fewer days than the normal route, saving on fuel and other costs.
China's state-owned Cosco announced last month that it would begin a regular route through the Arctic Ocean to Europe.

Major investors are already eyeing the Arctic.
"The average economic annual rate of growth in the Arctic region is the highest in the world relative to any country or any economy," Scott Minerd, a managing partner at Guggenheim Partners, said at the forum. Guggenheim manages more than $240 billion.
"For investors, there is an opportunity here to take advantage of the impact of climate change," he said. Read More

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Scientists confirm their fears about West Antarctica — that it’s inherently unstable

[Washington Post] It may be the biggest climate change story of the last two years.
In 2014, several research groups suggested that the oceanfront glaciers in the Amundsen Sea region of West Antarctica may have reached a point of “unstoppable” retreat due to warm ocean waters melting them from below. There’s a great deal at stake — West Antarctica is estimated to contain enough ice to raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters, or well over 10 feet, were it all to melt.
The urgency may now increase further in light of just published research suggesting that destabilization of the Amundsen sea’s glaciers would indeed undermine the entirety of West Antarctica, as has long been feared.
In a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Johannes Feldmann and Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research use a sophisticated climate model to study what will happen if these glaciers are, indeed, fully destabilized. And in essence, they find that the process of retreat doesn’t end with the region currently up against the ocean.
“We showed that there is actually nothing that stops it,” said Levermann. “There are troughs and channels and all this stuff, there’s a lot of topography that actually has the potential to slow down or stop the instability, but it doesn’t.”
Or as the paper puts it: “The result of this study is an if–then statement, saying that if the Amundsen Sea Sector is destabilized, then the entire marine part of West Antarctica will be discharged into the ocean.”
West Antarctica can actually be considered the smallest of three planetary ice sheets — Greenland contains some 6 meters (20 feet) of potential sea level rise, and East Antarctica is the most vast of all, at nearly 60 meters, or 200 feet.
However, West Antarctica is currently believed to be the most vulnerable to rapid, large scale change, due to the fact that the Amundsen Sea’s glaciers are rooted on a seabed that slopes downward as you move further inland, in some places plunging a mile or more below sea level. The region’s largest glacier, the gigantic Thwaites, is bigger than Pennsylvania and over a mile in total thickness in places — and may be the single most vulnerable point. Read More

Saudi Hay Farm In Arizona Tests State's Supply Of Groundwater

[NPR] Outside of Phoenix, in the scorching Arizona desert, sits a farm that Saudi Arabia's largest dairy uses to make hay for cows back home.
That dairy company, named Almarai, bought the farm last year and has planted thousands of acres of groundwater-guzzling alfalfa to make that hay. Saudi Arabia can't grow its own hay anymore because those crops drained its own ancient aquifer.
Reporter Nathan Halverson tells NPR's Renee Montagne that Almarai bought about 15 square miles in the Arizona desert.
"They got about 15 water wells when they purchased the property. Now, each one of those wells can pump about 1.5 billion gallons of water. It's an incredible amount of water they're going to be drawing up from that aquifer underground," Halverson says.
The land in question had previously been under cultivation for corn, cotton and other crops, including smaller amounts of alfalfa for hay, he tells The Salt. Halverson's sources told him that the farm is now consuming significantly more water, since alfalfa is a particularly thirsty crop.
The remarkable thing about Saudi Arabia's story is that it'd done something similar in the desert until the water ran out. The aquifers essentially went dry. Ancient springs that were mentioned in the Bible began drying up, and the Saudi Arabian government told its dairy companies to start importing their hay and their wheat from other parts of the world.
It turns out that hay yields in the desert are the best in the United States. You can literally get three or four times as much hay growing in the desert because you have a very long growing season: It's hot, so the hay dries really quickly once you cut it. But the rub here is that you need ... lots of water. The temperatures are so high that it takes a lot more water to keep that barren soil moist for the alfalfa to grow.
The laws were put in place in the '70s, and kudos to Arizona — they were really one of the first states to put in groundwater laws. But the laws were really designed for local or domestic farming. The idea that another country would come and essentially export your water via crops just wasn't really around 30, 40 years ago. And so the laws that are in place are really inadequate for dealing with this new trend.
This is occurring in a part of Arizona that is unregulated for groundwater. So there are no limits on how much water they can pump. Read More

Inside the Secretive World of Tax-Avoidance Experts

A sociologist realized that if she were ever going to understand global inequality she would have to become one of the people who helps create it. So she trained to become a wealth manager to the ultra-rich.
[The Atlantic] Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, but the sociologist Erving Goffman added that most of the interesting stuff lies behind the scenes, in what he called the “backstage” areas of everyday life.
Having spent the past eight years doing research on the international wealth-management profession, I have to agree with Goffman: The most revealing information comes from the moments when people stop performing and go off-script. Like the time one of the wealth managers I interviewed in the British Virgin Islands lost his composure and threatened to have me thrown out of the country. His ire arose from an unexpected quarter:  He took offense to my use of the term “socio-economic inequality” in the two scholarly articles I had published on the profession. I thought the articles were typically academic, which is to say, the opposite of sensationalizing and of little interest to anyone outside my field.  But my suggestion that wealth managers might be connected to inequality in any way seemed alarmingly radical to this gentleman.
I was lucky that he merely threatened me. A journalist from Newsweek actually was deported from a different tax-haven island (Jersey) for her reporting there, and was banned from re-entering the island, or any part of the U.K., for nearly two years. Even though her story was unrelated to the financial-services industry, it was expected to bring negative publicity to the island, threatening its reputation as a place to do business. The message was therefore quashed by banishment of the messenger. The wealth-management industry does not mess around.
Wealth management is a profession on the defensive. Although many people have never heard of it, it is well known to both state revenue authorities and international agencies seeking to impose the rule of law on high-net-worth individuals. Those individuals—including the 103,000 people classified as “ultra-high-net-worth” based on having $30 million or more in investable assets—pay wealth-management professionals hefty fees to help them avoid taxes, debts, legal judgments, and other obligations the rest of the world considers part of everyday life. The general public doesn’t hear much about these professionals, since there are only a few of them worldwide (just under 20,000 belong to the main professional society) and they strive to keep a low profile, both for themselves and their clients. Read More