Archives for August 2018

More than 2 billion people lack safe drinking water. That number will only grow

Science News reports:

Freshwater is crucial for drinking, washing, growing food, producing energy and just about every other aspect of modern life. Yet more than 2 billion of Earth’s 7.6 billion inhabitants lack clean drinking water at home, available on demand.

A major United Nations report, released in June, shows that the world is not on track to meet a U.N. goal: to bring safe water and sanitation to everyone by 2030. And by 2050, half the world’s population may no longer have safe water.

Will people have enough water to live?

Two main factors are pushing the planet toward a thirstier future: population growth and climate change. For the first, the question is how to balance more people against the finite amount of water available.

India has improved water access in rural areas, but remains at the top of the list for sheer number of people (163 million) lacking water services. Ethiopia, second on the list with 61 million people lacking clean water, has improved substantially since the last measurement in 2000, but still has a high percentage of total residents without access.

Short of any major but unlikely breakthroughs, such as new techniques to desalinate immense amounts of seawater (SN: 8/20/16, p. 22), humankind will have to make do with whatever freshwater already exists.

Most of the world’s freshwater goes to agriculture, mainly to irrigating crops but also to raising livestock and farming aquatic organisms, such as fish and plants. As the global population rises, agricultural production rises to meet demand for more varied diets. In recent decades, the increase in water withdrawal from the ground or lakes and rivers has slowed, whether for agriculture, industries or municipalities, but it still outpaced the rate of population growth since 1940.

That means every drop is increasingly precious — and tough choices must be made. Plant your fields with sugarcane to make ethanol for fuel, and you can’t raise crops to feed your family. Dam a river to produce electricity, and people downstream can no longer fish. Pump groundwater out for yourself, and your neighbor might just want to fight over it. Researchers call this the food-water-energy nexus and say it is one of the biggest challenges facing our increasingly industrialized, globalized and thirsty world. [Continue reading…]

The next five years will be ‘anomalously warm,’ scientists predict

The Washington Post reports:

The past four years have been the four warmest ever recorded — and now, according to a new scientific forecast, the next five will also probably be “anomalously warm,” even beyond what the steady increase in global warming would produce on its own.

That could include another record warmest year, even warmer than the current record year of 2016. It could also include an increased risk of heat extremes and a major heat event somewhere in the Earth’s oceans, of the sort that has triggered recent die-offs of coral reefs across the tropics.

“What we found is that for the next five years or so, there is a high likelihood of an anomalously warm climate compared to anomalously cold,” said Florian Sevellec, a scientist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, who co-authored the study published in Nature Communications with Sybren Drijfhout of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

Earth is warming, but this does not mean that every year is warmer than the previous one. Rather, there is an overall warming trend — meaning that each successive decade tends to be warmer than the last — but also plenty of bouncing around among individual years in how hot they get.

One key determinant of a year’s temperature is what scientists sometimes call the climate’s “internal variability,” as opposed to the contribution of human-released greenhouse gases. The new forecast for 2018 through 2022 arises from projecting how this internal or natural variability will play out.

During the global warming “hiatus” during the 2000s, for instance, these internal factors, such as oscillations in Earth’s oceans, helped keep the planet somewhat cooler than it might otherwise have been and blunted the pace of warming — launching a long-running scientific debate and 1,000 political talking points.

Now, though, these same internal factors are poised to do the opposite, says the new research (whose authors also note that their technique can successfully capture the earlier “hiatus”). And assuming that the steady rate of global warming continues, that means already rising temperatures will get an added boost. [Continue reading…]

California burning

William Finnegan writes:

On the northwestern edge of Los Angeles, where I grew up, the wildfires came in late summer. We lived in a new subdivision, and behind our house were the hills, golden and parched. We would hose down the wood-shingled roof as fire crews bivouacked in our street. Our neighborhood never burned, but others did. In the Bel Air fire of 1961, nearly five hundred homes burned, including those of Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor. We were all living in the “wildland-urban interface,” as it is now called. More subdivisions were built, farther out, and for my family the wildfire threat receded.

Tens of millions of Americans live in that fire-prone interface today—the number keeps growing—and the wildfire threat has become, for a number of political and environmental reasons, immensely more serious. In LA, fire season now stretches into December, as grimly demonstrated by the wildfires that burned across Southern California in late 2017, including the Thomas Fire, in Santa Barbara County, the largest in the state’s modern history. Nationally, fire seasons are on average seventy-eight days longer than they were in 1970, according to the US Forest Service. Wildfires burn twice as many acres as they did thirty years ago. “Of the ten years with the largest amount of acreage burned in the United States,” Edward Struzik notes in Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, nine have occurred since 2000. Individual fires, meanwhile, are bigger, hotter, faster, more expensive and difficult to fight, and more destructive than ever before. We have entered the era of the megafire—defined as a wildfire that burns more than 100,000 acres.

In early July 2018, there were twenty-nine large uncontained fires burning across the United States. “We shouldn’t be seeing this type of fire behavior this early in the year,” Chris Anthony, a division chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The New York Times. It has been an unusually dry winter and spring in much of the West, however, and by the end of June three times as much land had already burned in California as burned in the first half of 2017, which was the state’s worst fire year ever. On July 7, my childhood suburb, Woodland Hills, was 117 degrees. On the UCLA campus, it was 111 degrees. Wildfires broke out in San Diego and up near the Oregon border, where a major blaze closed Interstate 5 and killed one civilian. The governor, Jerry Brown, has declared yet another state of emergency in Santa Barbara County.

How did this happen? One part of the story begins with a 1910 wildfire, known as the Big Burn, that blackened three million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington and killed eighty-seven people, most of them firefighters. Horror stories from the Big Burn seized the national imagination, and Theodore Roosevelt, wearing his conservationist’s hat, used the catastrophe to promote the Forest Service, which was then new and already besieged by business interests opposed to public management of valuable woodlands. The Forest Service was suddenly, it seemed, a band of heroic firefighters. Its budget and mission required expansion to prevent another inferno.

The Forest Service, no longer just a land steward, became the federal fire department for the nation’s wildlands. Its policy was total suppression of fires—what became known as the 10 AM rule. Any reported fire would be put out by 10 AM the next day, if possible. Some experienced foresters saw problems with this policy. It spoke soothingly to public fears, but periodic lightning-strike fires are an important feature of many ecosystems, particularly in the American West. Some “light burning,” they suggested, would at least be needed to prevent major fires. William Greeley, the chief of the Forest Service in the 1920s, dismissed this idea as “Paiute forestry.”

But Native Americans had used seasonal burning for many purposes, including hunting, clearing trails, managing crops, stimulating new plant growth, and fireproofing areas around their settlements. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s claims of no collusion are hogwash

John O. Brennan writes:

When Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s internal security service, told me during an early August 2016 phone call that Russia wasn’t interfering in our presidential election, I knew he was lying. Over the previous several years I had grown weary of Mr. Bortnikov’s denials of Russia’s perfidy — about its mistreatment of American diplomats and citizens in Moscow, its repeated failure to adhere to cease-fire agreements in Syria and its paramilitary intervention in eastern Ukraine, to name just a few issues.

When I warned Mr. Bortnikov that Russian interference in our election was intolerable and would roil United States-Russia relations for many years, he denied Russian involvement in any election, in America or elsewhere, with a feigned sincerity that I had heard many times before. President Vladimir Putin of Russia reiterated those denials numerous times over the past two years, often to Donald Trump’s seeming approval.

Russian denials are, in a word, hogwash.

Before, during and after its now infamous meddling in our last presidential election, Russia practiced the art of shaping political events abroad through its well-honed active measures program, which employs an array of technical capabilities, information operations and old-fashioned human intelligence spycraft. Electoral politics in Western democracies present an especially inviting target, as a variety of politicians, political parties, media outlets, think tanks and influencers are readily manipulated, wittingly and unwittingly, or even bought outright by Russian intelligence operatives. The very freedoms and liberties that liberal Western democracies cherish and that autocracies fear have been exploited by Russian intelligence services not only to collect sensitive information but also to distribute propaganda and disinformation, increasingly via the growing number of social media platforms.

Having worked closely with the F.B.I. over many years on counterintelligence investigations, I was well aware of Russia’s ability to work surreptitiously within the United States, cultivating relationships with individuals who wield actual or potential power. Like Mr. Bortnikov, these Russian operatives and agents are well trained in the art of deception. They troll political, business and cultural waters in search of gullible or unprincipled individuals who become pliant in the hands of their Russian puppet masters. Too often, those puppets are found. [Continue reading…]

Revoke my security clearance, too, Mr. President

Retired Navy admiral William H. McRaven writes:

Dear Mr. President:

Former CIA director John Brennan, whose security clearance you revoked on Wednesday, is one of the finest public servants I have ever known. Few Americans have done more to protect this country than John. He is a man of unparalleled integrity, whose honesty and character have never been in question, except by those who don’t know him.

Therefore, I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.

Like most Americans, I had hoped that when you became president, you would rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs.

A good leader tries to embody the best qualities of his or her organization. A good leader sets the example for others to follow. A good leader always puts the welfare of others before himself or herself.

Your leadership, however, has shown little of these qualities. Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.

If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.

Living in ignorance about our ignorance

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write:

In 1806, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to the island of Martinique with a precious cargo. He had harvested ice from frozen Massachusetts rivers and expected to make a tidy profit selling it to tropical customers. There was only one problem: the islanders had never seen ice. They had never experienced a cold drink, never tasted a pint of ice cream. Refrigeration was not a celebrated innovation, but an unknown concept. In their eyes, there was no value in Tudor’s cargo. His sizable investment melted away unappreciated and unsold in the Caribbean heat.

Tudor’s ice tale contains an important point about human affairs. Often, human fate rests not on what people know but what they fail to know. Often, life’s outcomes are determined by hypocognition.

What is hypocognition? If you don’t know, you’ve just experienced it.

Hypocognition, a term introduced to modern behavioral science by anthropologist Robert Levy, means the lack of a linguistic or cognitive representation for an object, category, or idea. The Martinique islanders were hypocognitive because they lacked a cognitive representation of refrigeration. But so are we hypocognitive of the numerous concepts that elude our awareness. We wander about the unknown terrains of life as novices more often than experts, complacent of what we know and oblivious to what we miss.

In financial dealings, almost two thirds of Americans are hypocognitive of compound interest, unaware of how much saving money can benefit them and how quickly debt can crush them. In health, a full third of people suffering from Type II diabetes remain hypocognitive of the illness. They fail to seek needed treatment—despite recognizing blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination—because they lack the underlying concept that would unify the disparate warning signals into a single alarm.

Hypocognition is about the absence of things. It is hard to recognize precisely because it is invisible. To recognize hypocognition requires a departure from the reassuring familiarity of our own culture to gain a grasp of the unknown and the missing. After all, it is difficult to see the culture we inhabit from only within. [Continue reading…]

Music: Nils Petter Molvaer — ‘Hover’

 

How Russia, China or America could accidentally start a nuclear war

BBC News reports:

A mysterious Russian satellite displaying “very abnormal behaviour” has raised alarm in the US, according to a State Department official.

“We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it,” said assistant secretary Yleem Poblete at a conference in Switzerland on 14 August.

She voiced fears that it was impossible to say if the object may be a weapon.

Russia has dismissed the comments as “unfounded, slanderous accusations based on suspicions”.

The satellite in question was launched in October last year.

“[The satellite’s] behaviour on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities,” Ms Poblete told the conference on disarmament in Switzerland.

“Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development,” she added, citing recent comments made by the commander of Russia’s Space Forces, who said adopting “new prototypes of weapons” was a key objective for the force.

Ms Poblete said that the US had “serious concerns” that Russia was developing anti-satellite weapons. [Continue reading…]

Michael Peck writes:

What happens when you use the same satellites to control nuclear forces as well as conventional troops?

Accidental nuclear war, that’s what could happen.

That’s the warning by a Washington think tank, which argues that the U.S. is inviting nuclear war by using the same command and communications systems to oversee both nuclear and conventional forces. But such “dual use” systems risk an inadvertent nuclear war, because an attack on non-nuclear assets, such as satellites or radars, could be perceived as an attempt to cripple America’s nuclear deterrent.

The Trump administration’s draft nuclear policy already states that cyberattacks against America, or attacks on U.S. satellites, could constitute a strategic threat that merits a nuclear response. But this raises a problem called “nuclear entanglement,” where the traditionally bright lines between nuclear and non-nuclear systems become blurred. [Continue reading…]

Senate intel wants to follow the money in the Russia probe. But Treasury isn’t making that easy

BuzzFeed reports:

In its investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, the Senate Intelligence Committee has spent more than a year trying to follow the money. But its efforts, unparalleled on Capitol Hill, have been hampered by a surprising force: the US Treasury Department, which has delayed turning over crucial financial records and refused to provide an expert to help make sense of the complex money trail. Even some of the department’s own personnel have questioned whether Treasury is intentionally hamstringing the investigation.

Little is known about what, exactly, goes on behind the locked doors that lead into the committee’s offices. But now, interviews and emails obtained by BuzzFeed News lay bare the numerous hurdles the secretive committee has faced in its mission to obtain and decipher troves of banking records that could shed more light on the Russian scheme — and whether the current president had anything to do with it.

Treasury has at times been reluctant to cooperate with the committee’s requests for sensitive financial documents that are significant to the Russia probe, at one point going at least four months without responding to one of the committee’s requests. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s racism is evident throughout his presidency, irrespective of whichever racial slurs he has or hasn’t uttered

Jason Johnson writes:

Trump is a racist. That doesn’t hinge on whether he uttered one particular epithet, no matter how ugly it is. It’s about the totality of his presidency, and after only 18 months in office you can see the roots of his racial animus throughout his policy initiatives whether you hear it on tape or not.

Over the course of his career, well before he took office, Trump’s antipathy toward people of color has been plainly evident. In the ’70s, his real estate company was the subject of a federal investigation that found “Trump employees had secretly marked the applications” of minority apartment rental applicants with codes such as “‘C’ for ‘colored.’ ” After black and Latino teenagers were charged with sexually assaulting a white woman in Central Park, he took out full-page ads in New York City newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty, but never backtracked or apologized when the teenagers’ convictions were overturned. He championed birtherism, and wouldn’t disavow the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya until the end of his 2016 presidential campaign. [Continue reading…]