Will Driverless Cars Save Lives?

In 2010, 1.24 million people died in road accidents worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Research shows that 93% of those accidents were caused by human error. This annual manmade disaster takes more lives and injures more people than all the natural disasters put together, including tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, typhoons, landslides, and tornadoes.

The world’s auto makers constantly add safety features to their new cars in an effort to reduce the number and severity of road accidents. Airbags and antilock brakes were added in the past. Now some cars come equipped with cameras and sensors that perform a number of safety tasks. Among them is a Forward Collision Warning system (FCW) that monitors the distance between your car and the one ahead and issues audible alerts if you get too close.

In addition, some models come with a blind spot monitoring system that lets you know if a car is in a side or rearview blind spot. A pedestrian detection system alerts the driver if a pedestrian is approaching the car’s path. A lane departure warning system lets you know if it’s safe to change lanes. And a self-parking system parks the car safely at the curb. Adding such systems can increase the price of a car by $2,000 or more.

All these extras can help to reduce the traffic carnage, but as long as humans are at the controls there will be lapses of judgment, distractions, inattention, falling asleep at the wheel, drunk driving, speeding, and all the other human failures that lead to accidents.

In the near future, driverless cars may become the answer to drastically reducing road deaths and injuries. Still in development, self-driving cars replace the human at the wheel with automated systems. A combination of cameras, sensors, lasers, and GPS automatically navigate the car safely in even the heaviest traffic. They keep a proper distance from other cars, sense and evade obstacles, and apply brakes as needed. Google’s driverless test cars have driven 700,000 safe miles (1,270,000 km), mainly in San Francisco Bay Area traffic.

Google’s prototype test car contains $150,000 in automated equipment, including a 64-beam laser system that generates a 3-D map of its environment, precise within inches. It will take mass production to eventually make a driverless car affordable for the average owner. The Google system drives the car at the posted speed limit, maintaining a safe distance from other cars. It also provides an override that allows a human driver to take control by stepping on the brake or turning the wheel. Toyota, Nissan, Audi, BMW, Volvo, Mercedes, and other car makers have their own driverless vehicles in various forms of development.

Google and the car makers estimate that fully developed driverless cars will be ready for market by 2020. California, Nevada, Florida, and Michigan are the only states that currently allow driverless car testing on their highways. All 50 states and the federal government will have to change their traffic laws to accommodate driverless cars before they can be mass produced and sold to the public. The question is, will people buy them when they are ready? It will probably be many years before we are ready to hop in, punch in the destination, and catch up on our reading while the car delivers us safely to the office, the mall, or the hair appointment.   



Ebola — A Natural Disaster

Can a contagious disease be compared to a devastating earthquake or tsunami? If you base the comparison on loss of life and economic damage, then the answer is yes. There have been periodic outbreaks of Ebola in Africa in the past, but this 2014 epidemic is the biggest by far.

The first case in this latest outbreak of Ebola appeared in the West African nation of Guinea in December, 2013, and the disease quickly spread to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to figures published by the US Center for Disease Control, 18,653 cases have been reported as of December 17, 2014, resulting in 7,265 Ebola deaths. The CDC estimates that actual cases are 2 to 3 times higher than those reported. One source estimates a fatality rate of confirmed laboratory cases at 76%.

The first responders – the brave doctors and nurses who are working long hours to heal the sick and control the spread of the disease — have been working in primitive conditions and have suffered heavy casualties. According to an article in Boston.com, 350 health care workers have died after contracting the disease. Others have contracted the disease but have survived after lengthy treatment.

Ebola is a complex viral infection and therefore more difficult to treat than a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics. The World Health Organization (WHO) is monitoring clinical trials of two new Ebola intervention drugs. One, a drug developed by GlaxoSmithKline in collaboration with the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, uses a chimpanzee-derived adenovirus vector with an Ebola virus gene inserted, a gene therapy procedure.

The second drug in clinical trial was developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Also a form of gene therapy, their vaccine uses a pathogen found in livestock, with one of its genes replaced with an Ebola virus gene. The makers of both drugs are increasing their manufacturing capacities to provide enough vaccine for general use in case the clinical trials are successful.

One of the main challenges in controlling the spread of the disease is persuading the native populations to change their cultural practices. Traditionally, in West African societies, when someone dies, the body is washed and specific rituals followed in preparing the body for burial. Transmission of the disease takes place when bare skin touches bodily fluids of the infected. Through ongoing information campaigns, people are learning to change traditional behavior and avoid contact with others.

This shift in behavior is slowing the spread of the disease, but also slowing economic growth The economies of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the three West African countries where the Ebola outbreak is concentrated, have been crippled by the outbreak. People have curtailed shopping and social contact, workers are reporting in sick, farm and factory production is slowing. The International Monetary Fund is working with the economic ministers of these three countries to help them through the crisis.

We hope that one or both of the drugs in trial prove successful, and that the sick can be healed and this natural disaster brought quickly to an end.



Lake Effect Snow Hits Early

On November 17, 2014, a blast of frigid polar air began sweeping across the warmer water and warmer surface air of the USA’s Great Lakes. As the surface air uplifted with the surrounding terrain, it condensed into monster bands of snow that buried lakeshore communities from Western Michigan to Upstate New York in record snowfall.

Between November 17 and 21, communities on Lake Erie in and around Buffalo, NY received up to 88 inches (225cm) of snow. Normal total for an entire year in that area is 96 inches (244cm). Nearly a year’s worth of snow fell in 5 days. Heavy lake effect snowfall hit numerous other communities on the lee shores of Lakes Ontario, Michigan, Superior, and Huron.

Lake effect snow occurs when there is a difference of at least 13°C (23°F) between the air temperature and the water temperature. In the case of the November, 2014 storm, the polar air was unusually cold and the water in Lake Erie unusually warm. Normal late November water temperature in Lake Erie is 47°F. At the time of the storm, the lake water registered 54°F. The polar air mass that swept down through Canada registered near 0°F, a fifty-degree difference.

When that much variation exists, extreme amounts of moisture rise from the lake, and snow can fall at the rate of 5 to 6 in. (130-150cm) an hour. Lake effect snow usually occurs during the fall months when there is open water, before the lake freeze over. Once frozen, the moisture is locked under the ice. However, annual ice cover on the Great Lakes has decreased by 71% since 1973, giving lake effect snow a longer season.

It takes two to tango. Lake water is getting warmer due to our current global warming cycle. The same global warming cycle has hit the Arctic region especially hard, altering the behavior of the polar jet stream. The Arctic Ocean freezes much later than it did a few years ago and thaws much earlier, leaving open ocean for longer periods. The ice-free ocean reflects heat from the sun back into the atmosphere, slowing the polar jet stream and allowing it to sag and dip down into the American Midwest, instead of maintaining its historical course of blowing across the top of the world.

As air temperatures climb with global warming, lake water will continue to warm and Arctic oceans will become more ice free. The polar jet stream will probably continue to dip south. Monster lake effect snow storms may very well become the rule rather than the exception.

The Typhoon & The Big Chill

How could a warm water Pacific typhoon that started near the Philippines travel 7,000 miles (12,000km) and drop temperatures to minus 27°F in Casper, Wyoming one week later?

Super Typhoon Nuri started on October 31, 2014, as a tropical depression in the warm waters of the Pacific east of the Philippine Islands. By November 2 it had blossomed into one of the most powerful typhoons of 2014 with sustained winds of 180 mph (300km/h). Fortunately, Nuri did not make landfall in either the Philippines or Japan as it traveled northeast, but did kick up high surf. Waves up to 16 ft (5m) hit Japan’s eastern shoreline.

Three days later, on November 5, 2014, Nuri had been downgraded to a tropical storm, phasing from a warm core tropical system to a cold core post tropical system. It had traveled north far enough to be picked up by the jet stream and regenerated into a powerful post tropical cyclone over the Bering Sea southwest of Alaska, with winds gusting to 100 mph (170kp/h), waves cresting at 50 ft (15m) and atmospheric pressure dropping to a record low 924 millibars.

When the storm was at its height on November 7 the jet stream weakened and super cold air from Siberia and the North Pole flooded into the remnants of Nuri. At the same time, high pressure set in over Alaska on one side and northwest Canada on the other, creating a direct pipeline for the newly formed Polar Express to sweep through Canada and down into the Midwestern section of the US, bringing freezing weather from the Rocky Mountains to the Ohio Valley.

Livingston, Montana dipped to minus 21°F and Denver to minus 14°F, the coldest November day since 1880. Texas and the Plains states saw daytime highs in the twenties (F), and in the Ohio Valley daytime highs dropped into the thirties. A new blast of polar air is expected in the same area the week of November 17.

Often we think of weather as a localized phenomenon. Will it rain or snow here? Will the sun shine tomorrow? But Typhoon Nuri’s journey demonstrates quite clearly that weather is a product of massive global forces that have no regard for manmade borders or schedules.

October Disasters – 2014

October, 2014 was not a month of devastating disasters. No big earthquakes or tsunamis were reported. But like most months, October produced its share of disasters of different kinds.

Space Explosions.  On October 28, an unmanned rocket carrying 5,055 pounds of supplies and scientific material for the International Space Station blew up seconds after liftoff. The Antares rocket manufactured by Orbital Sciences was powered by engines made by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. A formal investigation is under way, but many believe the failure occurred in the 50-year-old engines. The costs were $200 million for the rocket and $237 million for the cargo, a total loss of $437 million, plus a setback for commercial spacecraft development.

Another commercial space explosion occurred on October 31 in the stratosphere above the Mojave Desert in California, killing one test pilot and injuring a second. Virgin Galactic was test flying a rocket ship designed to carry passengers into space. The spaceship was dropped from its mothership 10 miles above the earth. Minutes later, shortly after ignition, the spacecraft exploded. Debris was scattered over a 2 square mile area in the Mojave Desert. Further development of civilian space travel is on hold pending an investigation into the cause of the failure.

Ebola. As of October 29, 13,567 cases of the virus had been reported virtually all in West Africa, and 4951 people had died of the disease. One Liberian immigrant died of the disease in Dallas, Texas, and two nurses who had treated the immigrant contracted the disease but have recovered. One doctor who treated Ebola patients in Africa returned to the US with the disease. He has been treated and has recovered.

Hillside collapse. On October 28, heavy rains caused a hillside in Sri Lanka to sheer off and bury hundreds of tea plantation homes in a river of mud. At first it was thought that over 300 tea workers had died, but updated reports indicate 38 confirmed deaths. Every year, monsoon rains soak the Sri Lankan hillsides, making them spongy and unstable. Mudslide tragedies are not uncommon.

Colorado Earthquake. The USGS reported on Oct. 29 that observations from a radar satellite showed major ground subsidence in the Raton Basin area of Colorado and New Mexico. Analysis indicates that the sinking ground and a magnitude 5.3 earthquake in that area in 2011 were likely caused by natural gas extraction and wastewater disposal from fracking operations. In fracking, high pressure fluid is injected into deep wells to extract the gas, then withdrawn and re-injected into the ground for disposal. The wastewater seeps into fault lines, causing the slippage that produces an earthquake. Having abundant natural gas supplies is good for the consumer, but we pay a high price for it in the degradation of our natural landscape.

On the plus side, the flaws that caused the two space explosions eventually will be tracked down and fixed, and before long people and cargo will be flying safely in space. Thousands of health care workers from around the world are working in West Africa to treat those with Ebola, limit new infections, and keep the disease from spreading.     



Storms, Satellites, & Methane

Storms. Hurricane Gonzolo was downgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 3, and finally to a Category 2 storm when it struck Bermuda on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014, with sustained winds of 110mpn (175km/h). No deaths or injuries were reported, but the island suffered heavy wind and rain damage, power outages, and storm surge flooding from 40 ft. (12m) waves. Gonzolo is expected to track north from Bermuda, grazing Newfoundland, and then curving east toward the British Isles.

Also on October 17, out in the Pacific, Tropical Storm Ana which was headed for Hawaii with sustained winds of 80mph (135kmh) veered south and missed the Big Island by 155 miles (250km). Ana’s outer bands brought some wind and rain to the islands.

New Satellites. On Sept. 20, 2014, NASA launched JPL’s RapidScat to help meteorologists spot hurricanes developing in their earliest stages. RapidScat, lodged on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS), measures surface wind speed and direction over the ocean. Using this early information, weather forecasters are able to make much more accurate predictions about a storm’s eventual path and strength.

NASA’s SMAP satellite, scheduled for launch in January, 2015, will provide high resolution global measurements of soil moisture, which is critical for plant growth and recharging underground water supplies. SMAP data will aid in predictions of agricultural productivity, improve weather and climate forecasts, and gauge severity of droughts and where floods might occur.

Methane. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is making it possible for energy producers in the US to tap into new underground gas supplies. As a result, natural gas, which is 80% to 95% methane, is plentiful and relatively cheap. More and more, industry is switching from coal to natural gas to generate power and run factories. Good news and bad news. Natural gas is less polluting than coal, but burning it still pumps 7 billion tons of methane into the atmosphere every year. Also, many believe that fracking is bad for the environment, tainting aquifers, causing earthquakes, and releasing methane into the air. Energy producers say such charges are yet to be proven.

According to a study conducted by DOE’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory and 5 teams of international climate scientists, and published in Nature Advanced Online Publication on October 14, 2014, the switch to natural gas is doing nothing to slow global warming. The low price and plentiful supply encourages industry to burn gas and continue polluting, and postpones for many years any serious efforts by industry to fully develop non-polluting energy sources such as wind, thermal, and solar. The trade-off is temporarily good for the pocketbook, but continues to heat the planet and pollute the air we breathe.