July, 2014 – Bad & Not So Bad

Four natural disasters struck different parts of the world in the first half of July, 2014. One was quite destructive, causing multiple fatalities, injuries, population displacement, and considerable property damage.  The other events, though serious, with some injuries and property loss, could have been worse. But all served as reminders that major catastrophes have struck these areas in the past, and will do so again in the future.

July 15 – Typhoon Rammasun, a Category 3 Tropical Cyclone with winds gusting to 170 km/h ((106 mph), swept across the island of Luzon in the Philippines. 38 people died in the storm, 25,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, over a half million people took refuge in evacuation centers, and 2 million homes lost electrical power. Rice, corn, and other crops suffered $15 million in losses due to flooding. Typhoons causing much greater devastation have hit the Philippines many times in the past, including Super Typhoon Haiyan that struck the southern Philippines in November, 2013, killing more than 6,000.

July 11 – Japan Earthquake. At 4:22 am local time, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck off Japan’s northeast coast near Fukushima, site of the devastating 9.0 megathrust quake and tsunami of March, 2011, that wiped out villages, killed 19,000, and knocked out the Fukushima nuclear power plant. 100,000 people who were evacuated at the time are still unable to return to their homes because of radiation contamination. Authorities reported only one injury and no significant damage from the recent July 11 quake. 8 coastal towns in the area issued an evacuation advisory causing thousands of people to move to higher ground. The advisory was cancelled 2 hours later when the tsunami wave created by the earthquake turned out to be only 20cm (8 in) high.

July 7 – Mexico/Guatemala Earthquake. At 6:23 am local time, a magnitude 6.9 quake rattled southern Mexico and Guatemala, killing 3, injuring 35, and causing widespread property damage. The quake epicenter was on the Pacific Coast in a seismically active area that has spawned 12 quakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher in the past 100 years. In 1985, a quake registering 8.1 with its epicenter off the Pacific Coast in the same general area caused extensive damage and loss of life in Mexico City 220 miles (350km) away. The official death toll for the 1985 quake stands at 10,000, but other sources estimate fatalities could have been as high as 40,000.

July 3 – Hurricane Arthur, the first named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane season, made landfall in North Carolina with a sustained wind speed of 100 mph (155km/h). Classified a Category 2 storm, Arthur weakened as it travelled north, moving ashore again in New England as a tropical storm, bringing flooding and power outages. No deaths or injuries directly related to the storm were reported. However, Arthur was a reminder that far deadlier hurricanes have hit the US East Coast in the past, such as Sandy in 2011, and will again at some future time..

The motto for all these areas vulnerable to natural disasters should be the same as that of the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared.        


Can We Feed 9 Billion?

One billion people on this planet suffer from chronic hunger. With world population projected to increase from the present 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, will there be enough food to go around, or will even more human beings go chronically hungry? Chronic hunger means a basic lack of calories and protein to sustain human health. One-third of the children in developing countries now experience stunted growth, and malnourished people are far more susceptible to disease.

According to the Food & Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO), if population increases to 9 billion, food production will need to rise by 70%, and in the developing world it will need to double. The projected increases in food production will have to overcome rising energy prices, growing depletion of ground water, loss of farmland to urbanization, and increased drought and flooding due to climate change.

Other challenges include a rising middle class in China, India, and other parts of the developing world. As disposable income increases, demand for meat products goes up. Raising cows, pigs, and chickens requires multiple pounds of feed for each pound of meat produced. That means a huge increase in demand for grain, water, and land.

Agriculture is a major emitter of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, pumping more greenhouse gasses into the air than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined. With ramped-up food production, those emissions will increase even more just as the world is trying to reduce the volume of greenhouse gasses going into our atmosphere.

More efficient farming will be needed to overcome these problems. To Big Ag (companies such as DuPont, Monsanto, John Deere, and Archer Daniels Midland), efficiency means using advanced farming techniques with the latest innovations in fertilizer, equipment, and genetically modified seed to produce more food per acre or hectare. However, UN’s FAO believes the answer lies in helping small farmers in developing countries improve production locally by preserving natural resources and practicing better organic farming methods. This includes reduced tillage to save soil (wind blows tilled topsoil away), crop rotation to save soil nutrients, and improved seeds to save water. Rather than use genetically modified seeds, FAO recommends using traditional breeding methods to develop seeds that need less water, produce more, and resist pests and disease.

It seems that both approaches will be needed if the world is to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people a healthy diet, including those who now suffer from chronic malnutrition.  


Rising Seas, Sinking Land, & Flooded Cities

Oceans are warming and expanding in volume. Glaciers are melting at a rapid pace around the world. The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass at an alarming rate. The West Antarctica Ice Sheet is eroding and could eventually collapse from ocean water heated by thermal vents recently discovered underneath it. This all adds up to […]

[Continue reading…]

Is El Niño Back?

For the past few years La Niña has been the dominant weather driver, bringing cold, wet winters to the northern tier of states in the US, and drought to much of the southwest, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. In 2011, the drought in Texas and the Southwest expanded into the southern portion of the Midwest, […]

[Continue reading…]

Tornadoes — Storms of Mystery

An outbreak of 69 confirmed tornadoes during the last four days of April, 2014, took 35 lives and caused over $1 billion in property damage. Two Arkansas towns north of Little Rock – Vilonia and Mayflower — were the hardest hit. The rash of tornadoes also devastated communities in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. Tornadoes kill […]

[Continue reading…]

Are Volcanoes Slowing Global Warming?

In 2013, the world pumped 36 billion metric tons (40 billion US tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. Such emissions form a carbon dioxide blanket that allows the sun to penetrate, but prevents much of the surface heat from reflecting back into space. As a result, the oceans are […]

[Continue reading…]