Uncommon knowledge, news, and opinion

Uncommon knowledge, news, and opinion

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A Century of Disasters

May 30, 2011 at 8:40 am By Roz Potter

From Slate Magazine, Link

This will be the century of disasters.

In the same way that the 20th century was the century of world wars, genocide, and grinding ideological conflict, the 21st will be the century of natural disasters and technological crises and unholy combinations of the two. It’ll be the century when the things that we count on to go right will, for whatever reason, go wrong.

Late last month, as the Mississippi River rose in what is destined to be the worst flood in decades, and as the residents of Alabama and other states rummaged through the debris of a historic tornado outbreak, physicists at a meeting in Anaheim, Calif., had a discussion about the dangers posed by the sun.

Solar flares, scientists believe, are a disaster waiting to happen. Thus one of the sessions at the American Physical Society’s annual meeting was devoted to discussing the hazard of electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) caused by solar flares or terrorist attacks. Such pulses could fry transformers and knock out the electrical grid over much of the nation. Last year the Oak Ridge National Laboratory released a study saying the damage might take years to fix and cost trillions of dollars.

But maybe even that’s not the disaster people should be worrying about. Maybe they should worry instead about the ARkStorm. That’s the name the U.S. Geological Survey’s Multihazards Demonstration Project gave to a hypothetical storm that would essentially turn much of California’s Central Valley into a bathtub. It has happened before, in 1861-62, when it rained for 45 straight days. The USGS explains: “The ARkStorm draws heat and moisture from the tropical Pacific, forming a series of Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) that approach the ferocity of hurricanes and then slam into the U.S. West Coast over several weeks.” The result, the USGS determined, could be a flood that would cost $725 billion in direct property losses and economic impact.

While pondering this, don’t forget the Cascadia subduction zone. That’s the plate boundary off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, one that could generate a tsunami much like the one that devastated Japan in March. The Cascadia subduction zone runs from Vancouver Island to northern California, and last ruptured in a major tsunami-spawning earthquake on January 26, 1700. It could break at any moment, with catastrophic consequences.

All of these things have the common feature of low probability and high consequence. They’re “black swan” events. They’re unpredictable in any practical sense. They’re also things that ordinary people probably should not worry about on a daily basis. You can’t fear the sun. You can’t worry that a rock will fall out of the sky and smash the earth, or that the ground will open up and swallow you like a vitamin. A key element of maintaining one’s sanity is knowing how to ignore risks that are highly improbable at any given point in time.

And yet in the coming century, these or other black swans will seem to occur with surprising frequency. To read on… Link

Fukushima dai-ichi reactors, containment vessels and radioactive water storage tanks all leaking radioactivity into the Pacific

May 26, 2011 at 6:41 pm By Roz Potter

From the blog of the online version of the esteemed journal Nature:  Link

Fukushima nuclear plant is leaking like a sieve - May 26, 2011

As more details leak out about the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it’s become clear that something else is leaking—radioactive water from the cores of three damaged reactors.

Leaks have been a persistent problem at the plant since it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami on 11 March. Three reactors operating at the time of the quake went into meltdown after the tsunami wiped out emergency generators designed to circulate water through the cores. TEPCO recently admitted that all three units probably suffered complete meltdowns before workers could flood them with seawater.

Since then, reactor operators have kept water flowing to the cores and several fuel storage pools above the reactors. That same water appears to be flowing out into the basements of buildings and eventually the Pacific Ocean, where environmentalists and scientists have raised concerns about possible contamination.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the plant, hoped to rectify the problem by pumping water into storage tanks until it can be reprocessed, but today Reuters reports that the storage tanks appear to be leaking.

And that’s just the start of the bad news because the reactors themselves appear to be leaking as well. TEPCO initially hoped that the leaks were largely coming from pipes that could be repaired, but they now concede that both the reactors’ pressure vessels and primary containment vessels, which are designed to contain an accident, are probably leaking water.

The leaks will probably force TEPCO to abandon its plans to set up a recirculation system that can cool the reactor cores. That’s a serious blow to efforts to bring the reactors to a safe temperature within months.

To read on,  Link

From NASA: photos, stats and descriptions of global climate change

May 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm By Roz Potter

From NASA’s award winning website, an instructive read.  Link and Link

The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling:

Republic of Maldives: Vulnerable to sea level rise

Republic of Maldives: Vulnerable to sea level rise
Sea level rise

Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century. The rate in the last decade, however, is nearly double that of the last century.4

The effects of climate change will likely include more frequent droughts in some areas and heavier precipitation in others.
Global temperature rise

All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. 5 Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years. 6 Even though the 2000s witnessed a solar output decline resulting in an unusually deep solar minimum in 2007-2009, surface temperatures continue to increase. 7

The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
Warming oceans

The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.8

Flowing meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet

Flowing meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet
Shrinking ice sheets

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost 150 to 250 cubic kilometers (36 to 60 cubic miles) of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice between 2002 and 2005.

Visualization of the 2007 Arctic sea ice minimum

Visualization of the 2007 Arctic sea ice minimum
Declining Arctic sea ice

Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades. 9

The disappearing snowcap of Mount Kilimanjaro, from space.

The disappearing snowcap of Mount Kilimanjaro, from space.
Glacial retreat

Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.10

Record high temperatures increasing.
Extreme events

The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.11

The carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s oceans has been increasing since 1750, and is currently increasing about 2 billion tons per year. This has increased ocean acidity by about 30 percent.
Ocean acidification

The carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s oceans has been increasing since 1750, and is currently increasing about 2 billion tons per year. This has increased ocean acidity by about 30 percent. 12

The potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms.

The current and future consequences of global climate change

Artic Sea Ice

September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 11.5 percent per decade, relative to the 1979 to 2000 average. Arctic sea ice reaches its minimum each September. The graph (see site) shows the average monthly Arctic sea ice extent in September from 1979 to 2010, derived from satellite observations. The September 2010 extent was the third lowest in the satellite record.

Be certain not to miss the Time Series, showing Arctic sea ice mass from 1979-2010, from satellite images.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere.

CO2 concentrations are at their highest in 650, 000 years. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important greenhouse gas released through natural processes such as respiration and volcano eruptions and through human activities such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels.

Sea Level

Sea level rise is caused by the thermal expansion of sea water due to climate warming and widespread melting of land ice. The chart (see site) shows historical sea level data derived from coastal tide gauge records (trend calculated using the linear regression method).  Satellite data shows an increase of 3.27 mm per year, from 1993 to the present

Global Surface Temperature

Increased 1.5 degrees Farenheit since 1880 worldwide. January 200-2009 was the warmest decade on record.

Land Ice

There is a loss of 100 billion tons per year in Greenland. Data from NASA’s Grace satellite show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland are losing mass. The continent of Antarctica (left chart) has been losing more than 100 cubic kilometers (24 cubic miles) of ice per year since 2002.

Is global warming (aka climate change) linked to severe weather?

May 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm By Roz Potter

Photo by Kurt Voigt. AP

From the Union of Concerned Scientists:  Link

As Earth warms, powerful storms are becoming the new normal

What is the relationship between global warming, climate, and weather?

Weather is what’s happening outside the door right now; today a thunderstorm is approaching. Climate, on the other hand, is the pattern of weather measured over a number of decades.

Over the past 30 years there has been a pattern of increasingly higher average temperatures for the whole world. In fact, the first decade of this century (2001–2010) was the hottest decade recorded since reliable records began in the late 1800s.

These rising temperatures—caused primarily by an increase of heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere created when we burn coal, oil, and gas to generate electricity, drive our cars, and fuel our businesses—are what we refer to as global warming.

One consequence of global warming is an increase in both ocean evaporation into the atmosphere, and the amount of water vapor the atmosphere can hold. High levels of water vapor in the atmosphere in turn create conditions more favorable for heavier precipitation in the form of intense rain and snow storms.

The United States is already experiencing more intense rain and snow storms.

As the Earth warms, the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest one percent of storms has risen nearly 20 percent on average in the United States—almost three times the rate of increase in total precipitation between 1958 and 2007.

In other words, the heaviest storms have very recently become even heavier.

The Northeast has seen a 67 percent increase in the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest storms.

As storms increase in intensity, flooding becomes a larger concern.

Flash floods, which pose the most immediate risks for people, bridges and roads, and buildings on floodplains, result in part from this shift toward more extreme precipitation in a warming world.

In 2008 two scientists, Sharon Ashley and Walker Ashley, of Northern Illinois University, analyzed flood fatalities between 1959 and 2005 in the mainland United States, excluding those from Hurricane Katrina.

Their research found that Texas had the largest number of fatalities from flash floods and river floods over the study period. When standardized for population, South Dakota, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Montana had the highest numbers of fatalities from flooding per 100,000 people. Those between the ages of 10 and 29 and those over 60 years old were disproportionately at risk.

Does global warming create more frequent and more intense tornadoes?

Tornadoes are relatively small, short-lived phenomena and scientists don’t have robust enough data to determine whether and how climate change may be affecting tornado frequency, intensity, or the geographic range where tornadoes are most likely to form.

Tornadoes often form when warm, moist air near the Earth’s surface rises and interacts with cooler and drier air higher in the atmosphere. This creates unstable conditions that are favorable for thunderstorms and sometimes tornadoes.

Unlike thunderstorms, tornadoes need a rotational source such as when warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico wafts over the southeast and strong Jetstream air aloft arrives from a westerly direction, as during the tragic string of tornadoes in April 2011.

While one study found that the number of tornadoes reported in the United States has increased by around 14 per year over the past 50 years, the trend may have more to do with how tornadoes are tracked and reported rather than how many are actually forming.

Similarly, the study found that severity ratings for tornadoes are usually based on the damage they cause to structures and may not have been consistently applied over the past fifty years.

What can be done to deal with severe weather?

This pattern of intense rain and snow storms and periods of drought is becoming the new normal in our everyday weather as levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere continue to rise.

If the emissions that cause global warming continue unabated, scientists expect the amount of rainfall during the heaviest precipitation events across country to increase more than 40 percent by the end of the century. Even if we dramatically curbed emissions, these downpours are still likely to increase, but by only a little more than 20 percent.

Regardless of what actions we take to cut emissions, we must adapt to the likelihood that severe storms are becoming ever more commonplace.

Efforts such as modifying local infrastructure to withstand floods, adjusting agricultural patterns to account for droughts, as well as establishing emergency planning in our homes, would be far less costly to implement when compared to the costs of responding to washed out bridges, deluged homes, or loss of life.

Clearly, the time has come to develop smart planning and engineering solutions to cope with storms of the future.

Editor’s note: Clearly, the time has come to prepare our families, homes, businesses, organizations and communities for multiple hazards.

Meltdowns at Fukushima Units 1,2 & 3 add significantly to total radiation released

May 24, 2011 at 10:48 am By Roz Potter

From the Union of Concerned Scientists, Link


The melting fuel was released into the primary containment vessel. The molten fuel reacts with the concrete floor of the containment, creating additional radioactive gases. These are released into the atmosphere through a leak in the containments (editor: leaks have been admitted by TEPCO, the plant owners). This adds significantly to the total radiation released by the accident. (emphasis added)

Nuclear meltdown confirmed at Fukushima reactor #1 – also now presumed at #2 and #3

May 17, 2011 at 8:31 pm By Roz Potter

Fukushima reactor #1 meltdown, Excerpt from a UK Telegraph article:

Engineers from the Tokyo Electric Power company (Tepco) entered the No.1 reactor at the end of last week for the first time and saw the top five feet or so of the core’s 13ft-long fuel rods had been exposed to the air and melted down.

To read on, Link

Fukushima reactors #2 and #3 meltdowns, Excerpts from Asahi in Japan:

Data shows meltdowns occurred at the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, creating huge problems for the plant operator that had presented a more optimistic scenario.

And like the No. 1 reactor, the melted fuel appears to have created holes in the pressure vessel of the No. 3 reactor, according to the data of Tokyo Electric Power Co. released May 16.

Goshi Hosono, special adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, acknowledged the likelihood of meltdowns at the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors.

“We have to assume that meltdowns have taken place,” Hosono said at a news conference May 16.

To read on, Link

From a Bloomberg article:

Holes have been found in the base of the pressure vessel, and most of the fuel has likely melted, Kyodo News reported yesterday, citing the utility. It’s possible the fuel has leaked into the containment vessel, which was damaged in the explosion, according to the report.

To read on, Link

NRC: Serious disaster plan problems at US Nuclear plants

May 17, 2011 at 6:47 pm By Roz Potter

From the NYT. Excerpt:

Despite repeated assurances that American nuclear plants are better equipped to deal with natural disasters than their counterparts in Japan, regulators said Thursday that recent inspections had found serious problems with some emergency equipment that would have made it unusable in an accident.

…inspectors checked a sample of equipment at all 104 reactors and found problems at less than a third of them. The problems included pumps that would not start or, if they did, did not put out the required amount of water; equipment that was supposed to be set aside for emergencies but was being used in other parts of the plants; emergency equipment that would be needed in case of flood stored in places that could be flooded; and insufficient diesel on hand to run backup systems.

Editor’s note:  Serious problems were found at “less than a third of the inspected plants”?  Thirty three percent is a very high proportion of deficiencies that in an emergency, could  lead to a meltdown of nuclear fuel with serious exposure to high levels of radiation to those in the fallout’s path.

Read on,  Link

There is no safe exposure to radiation: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

May 2, 2011 at 7:11 pm By Roz Potter

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was established in 1945 by scientists, engineers, and other experts who had created the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. They knew about the horrible effects of these new weapons and devoted themselves to warning the public about the consequences of using them.

An article written 4/26/11 by Dr. Jeffrey Patterson provides a novel viewpoint from which to evaluate the ongoing debate about the effects of Fukushima.  That “radiation released by the mining and processing of nuclear fuel, the testing and use of nuclear weapons, and the “controlled and catastrophic releases of long-lived radionuclides by the nuclear power industry”"  is quite a different issue than exposures from background sources from the universe, the sun, the earth, and radio, television, small appliances and other background sources.

This is “because the effects of these releases will continue for many years but will likely remain hidden or unknown”.

Meanwhile, “an unsuspecting and unknowing public is being randomly exposed to radiation without any opportunity for informed consent. People can choose whether or not to have x-rays, to reduce the radon exposure in their homes, or to fly. However, the public has no choice, and certainly inadequate knowledge, about radiation exposure from nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

The real issue is that the use of nuclear power and nuclear weapons is forcing humankind, and indeed the whole ecosystem, to participate in a particularly cruel and totally uncontrolled experiment. Given the scientific evidence that there is no safe dose of radiation, this is an experiment that has already gone awry. Indeed, if this were a true scientific experiment, it would have been halted a long time ago.”

Link. More excerpts follow:

There are some basic principles to consider when the impacts of radiation exposure are evaluated. First, there is no “safe” or non–harmful level of radiation.

Second, we are all exposed to radiation: background radiation emitted by natural sources, with which we evolved; and medical radiation, which may be necessary and life-saving as decided and controlled by the patient and physician.

Finally, there is another form of exposure that has been thrust upon the world since the advent of the nuclear age: radiation released by the mining and processing of nuclear fuel, the testing and use of nuclear weapons, and the “controlled” and catastrophic releases of long-lived radionuclides by the nuclear power industry.

This is quite a different issue, because the effects of these releases will continue for many years but will likely remain hidden or unknown.

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