Tropical Cyclone Pam: A True Monster

Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest storms on record, struck the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu on March 13, 2015, killing 11 on the main island of Efate, and demolishing 90% of the dwellings. Wind speeds were clocked at 300 km/h (185 mph), making it a Category 5 storm.

Waves up to 8m (26 ft) surged inland, flooding huge areas of the islands and washing out crops and roads. Many thousands are reported homeless. Food and water are in short supply. Vanuatu is a vast archipelago of 80 islands lying 1,200 miles northwest of Australia, with a population of 250,000. The storm knocked out communications with Vanuatu’s outer islands, so the total number of killed, injured, or missing, and the full extent of the storm damage is not known at this time.

Tropical cyclones are called hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the North Pacific. They are powerful storms packing high winds and heavy rain rotating around a central eye.

Can a Category 5 storm as powerful as Pam strike the US mainland? The answer is yes. In the past 80 years, 3 destructive Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the continental US. The first, before hurricanes were given names, smashed into the Florida Keys in 1935. Hurricane Camille leveled parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia in 1969. And Hurricane Andrew did great damage in Florida in 1992. All 3 had wind speeds at landfall exceeding 270km/h (160 mph), plus high seas, storm surge, and heavy rain.

Hurricane Katrina which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, killing 1,500, was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall. But the associated heavy rain and storm surge breached New Orleans’ levees causing the worst flood in the city’s history. Superstorm Sandy was only a Category 1 storm with a wind speed of 80 mph (130km/h) when it made landfall in New Jersey and New York in 2012. But the storm was so massive, it pushed an unusually strong storm surge far inland, causing $50 billion in damage. In terms of wind speed and destructive power, Cyclone Pam was more than twice as strong as Superstorm Sandy.

With the world’s oceans rising and getting warmer because of climate change, it seems certain that a storm as strong as Pam will develop in the Atlantic and strike somewhere on the East Coast or Gulf Coast of the US. We don’t know when or where, but all coastal cities should be prepared.



Species Die-Off: A Silent Natural Disaster

According to a September, 2014, report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), half the world’s wild animals have become extinct in the past 40 years. Among the die-offs are the Vietnamese Rhinoceros, the Yangtze River Dolphin, the Zanzibar Leopard, the Caspian Tiger, the Lesser Madagascan Hippopotamus, the Japanese Sea Lion, and thousands of other animal, bird, and fish species. Whenever a species goes extinct, other species bound to it in a complex ecological system also start dying off in a snowball effect. 

The World Wildlife Fund lists 45,000 presently existing vertebrate species. 40 years ago, 90,000 vertebrate species existed on our planet. So, in just the last 4 decades, 45,000 vertebrates disappeared forever.

The existing 1,300,000 invertebrates and 300,000 plant species were not included in the report, but in all probability a large percentage of those were lost as well. Mind boggling numbers.

Species extinction is not new. Species have died off as climate and other conditions have changed over the eons. What is new is the rate of extinction. Over time, the rate of extinction has been 1 to 5 species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times that rate. Why are they suddenly disappearing at such a speeded-up pace?

Population has exploded from 3 billion people living on our planet in 1950 to 7 billion in 2010, to a projected 9 billion in 2050.  Humans are increasingly encroaching onto land occupied by animals, insects, and plants. Habitat is disappearing as forests are being cut down for more living space, and pastureland and marginal lands are being plowed and farmed to feed the growing population. When species lose their natural habitat, they have to move into new areas where they compete with existing species for food and space. There are winners and losers.

Pollution increases when population increases. Disposal of garbage and trash often poisons the land, rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans where species live.

Global Warming is considered by most scientists to be one of the major elements driving the rapid pace of extinction. As a growing population burns more fossil fuel, the air becomes saturated with more CO2, causing global temperatures to climb higher and higher. As temperatures rise, colonies that thrive in a cooler climate have to move toward the poles or to a higher elevation. Many species die off making the journey or in their failure to adapt to the new environment. Oceans warm and become more acidic as they absorb more and more carbon dioxide. Fish and shellfish populations seeking cooler water either move or die, or both.

We can’t do much about expanding population, but we can do something about the transition from carbon energy to green energy. As soon as we stop burning gasoline, oil, and coal and get our energy instead from wind farms, solar farms, and other non-polluting sources, the pace of global warming will subside. A cooler planet with cleaner air and cleaner water will be a better planet for all species, including the human race.   


Earth Observing Satellites

According to NASA’s Goddard Flight Center, 2,271 satellites currently orbit the earth. Russia has the most satellites in orbit, with 1,324. US follows with 658. The orbiting satellites are divided roughly into military, communications, GPS, and Earth Observing Satellites (EOS). It is this latter group that tells us most about how our planet is faring.

Earth Observing Satellites help meteorologists forecast the weather, track storms and predict their direction, speed, and intensity; and check earth’s vital signs in many different ways. The Committee on Earth Observing Satellites (CEOS) is made up of 55 agencies from around the world. The group is committed to coordinating their member’s satellite earth observation programs and sharing data. CEOS lists 112 Earth Observation Satellites now in orbit that are operated by its members. Of those, NASA, NOAA and other US agencies operate 30.

Here are a few of the US-operated Earth Observing Satellites.

AQUA measures atmosphere and ocean changes and analyzes their role in Earth’s climate.

AQUARIUS is a focused satellite mission to measure global sea surface salinity.

CALIPSO provides information about the effects of clouds and aerosols on changes in climate.

CLOUDSAT slices through clouds and sees how their structure impacts global climate.

The GOES series of satellites are used by meteorologists to forecast weather and track storms.

GRACE maps variations in Earth’s gravity field.

LANDSAT 7 and LANDSAT 8 provide seasonal coverage of Earth’s land surfaces.

OCO-3 measures the amount of carbon dioxide in the air in different parts of the world.

QUIKSCAT records sea surface wind speed and direction under all weather conditions.

Input from all EO Satellites helps scientists better understand how the world works. It helps them establish trend lines on extreme weather events such as droughts and blizzards, deforestation, desertification, ocean warming, rising ocean levels, ocean acidification, changes in growing seasons and growing areas, fisheries changes, coral reef health, glacier and ice cap melting, a warming arctic, and the amount of CO2 in the air from fossil fuel burning.

Satellite information can help scientists tell us what’s happening to our planet and how to fix it, but the satellites can’t do the fixing. That’s up to the 7 billion people who live on this planet. Can we give up the comfort of doing what we’ve always done, and make the needed changes? Can we devote ourselves to developing solar, wind, tidal, thermal and other forms of green energy to replace coal and oil before it’s too late? Can we rise to the challenge? We hope so.    









Vog: Hazardous to Health

Vog is the name given to volcanic gas emissions that create health hazards for people who live downwind of an erupting volcano. A new study is underway to find out how people living in a Vog zone cope with the problem. The study is being led by Dr. Claire Howell of Durham University in the UK, in cooperation with scientists at the USGS’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. The results of the study will be used to develop international protocols for protecting populations in the path of volcanic air pollution.

Vog is composed primarily of sulfur dioxide gas and its oxidation products such as sulfate aerosol. People living downwind of the continuously erupting Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii suffer from coughing, wheezing, sore throats, and headaches. People in the British Isles are sometimes affected by eruptions of Iceland volcanoes when the sulfur dioxide and other gasses are carried east by the jet stream. Alaska, Indonesia, Japan, and other active volcano areas undergo Vog sieges from time to time. Strategies for finding relief and staying healthy during a Vog attack should prove helpful to the affected populations. When completed, results of the study will be published online by the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network.

Water Wars Ahead?

The amount of water on our planet remains constant, but the number of people needing access to that limited water supply increases year by year. The UN estimates world population will grow from the present 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050. Also, global warming is changing water availability by bringing long-term drought to some areas and torrential rain and floods to others. The world’s aquifers that have supplied well water for thousands of years are being over-pumped, and at the present rate of withdrawal many underground sources will dry up within the next few years.

The world’s river basins fed by mountain snowmelt supply water to most of the world’s population. 263 of those river systems straddle international borders or flow through more than one country. Who owns and controls that river water is often a point of conflict.

India and Bangladesh have long disagreed over how much each can draw from the Ganges River. India and Pakistan have tried and failed to reach agreement on water withdrawals from the Indus River. China has built 4 giant dams on the Upper Mekong reducing downstream water flow to the 60 million people living in Cambodia and Vietnam. Ethiopia is building a massive hydroelectric dam on the Upper Nile without consulting the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan who also rely on the Nile for water. Turkey, the source of the Euphrates, is in a position to deny water to Iraq and Syria if it ever chose to do so.

Among the countries sharing river basin water, many attempts have been made to enter into water treaties. Although some agreements seem to be working, many of the treaties have failed because there is no international protocol for monitoring compliance.

Water sharing treaties that appear to be working include the Danube River Protection Convention signed by Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine; and the Amazon Basin Treaty signed by Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana, and Surinam. There are also several treaties in force in Africa for the river basins of the Niger, the Congo, the Chad, the Volta, the Zambezi, and other major rivers. The Nile is the one major African river with no current agreement.

As population and water use keep expanding, and long-term drought becomes more pervasive due to global warming, some of the major river systems could start drying up. If that should happen, will existing treaties hold or fall apart? And will those river basins without any transboundary agreements turn into a Wild West atmosphere where, as Mark Twain once said, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over?”

Many of these problems were discussed at the Annual UN Water Conference held in Zaragoza, Spain, January 12-17, 2015. 300 people representing more than 100 countries attended. We hope, as a result, all present treaties will hold, that new ones will be implemented where needed, that the UN will set up a workable monitoring system, that all disputes will be mediated and settled, and that potential water wars will not come to pass.

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.