Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Take hope: This Fukushima disaster map is a fake
The greatest danger to our planet is not pollution or climate change, but our own despair.
- The pace and scale of environmental degradation can induce despair and inaction.
- This map of radioactive pollution of the Pacific after Fukushima adds to the damning evidence.
- Fortunately, it's a fake. Which means there's room for hope—and action.
We have about 12 years left to save the world. The IPCC report making that dire prediction was published earlier this month. Immediately, normal life around the world ground to a halt, while literally everybody everywhere tried to figure out how to help prevent the apocalypse.Just kidding. The report caused precious little alarm and precipitated none of the large-scale actions that are needed to alter the course of events.
Hurricane Florence seen from space.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
As the latest installment in climatological apocalyptica—a genre so dystopian that some still insist it should be classified as fiction rather than fact—the report merely added to the long list of dismal dispatches from the front line of our losing war with the future. A sample of previous, similar bad tidings:
- Hurricane Florence, which struck the East Coast in September, was 50 miles wider and produced 50% more rain than it would have without climate change. Increasingly violent storms will accelerate coastal erosion, increase the damage inflicted on coastal cities, and speed up the need to permanently evacuate coastal populations further inland.
- 2018 is on course to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The only years hotter were the three previous ones. In fact, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. As average temperature rises continue to exceed predictions, harvests will suffer, electricity grids will fail and the number of climate refugees will explode. Increasingly deadly heat waves and wildfires look set to become the 'new normal'.
- The equivalent of the farts of 6,000 dairy cows—that's how much methane is released every day by Esieh Lake in northern Alaska. That's enough to set the air above it on fire if you light a match. Scientists fear methane released by melting permafrost could create a feedback loop that will dramatically accelerate the rising of global average temperatures.
- The natural world seems no longer able to absorb the onslaught of humanity, whether through pollution, climate change or outright killing. Over the last 40 years, the global population of wild animals was reduced by nearly 60%. Germany lost more than three quarters of its insects in less than three decades. One adult elephant is killed by poachers every 15 minutes.
The frog in the pot
The so-called Holy Fire at Elsinore Lake in California, September 2018.
Humanity is the proverbial frog in the pot. Had the water been this hot to start with, we'd have jumped out straightaway. But since it's heating up gradually, we'll boil to death before we save ourselves.
"I just keep asking myself: Why don't I care about this? I mean, don't get me wrong, I 100% believe in climate change. Yet I'm willing to do absolutely nothing about it."
"We're all going to lose the planet. We should be sad, right? This whole episode should be like a telethon or something. But it's not. I think it's because they keep telling us we're going to lose everything. And nobody cares about everything."
"People only care about some things. Like, if Fox News reported that in 2030 climate change is going to take away all the flags and Confederate statues, there'd be recycling bins outside of every Cracker Barrel and Dick's Sporting Goods."
A flippant point, but the grain of truth is that because of its size and pace, the process of environmental degradation seems hopelessly irreversible. How much easier and more comfortable to turn away from incurable despair and ignore the impending end of the world.
Earthquake, tsunami... and worse?
The NOAA map as it appears on some alarmist websites. Note the absence of a map legend.
That's what this map reminded me of. The Fukushima nuclear accident was a thoroughly depressing coda to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March 2011. So much so that we don't like to be reminded of it.
Even if, or precisely because, leakage of radioactive material has polluted the Pacific Ocean, all the way down to Antarctica. As this map suggests, we've lost the greatest body of water to radioactive pollution—a loss too great to contemplate.
The map surfaced in 2013, when Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) warned that highly radioactive water from the destroyed nuclear plant at Fukushima was seeping into the Pacific Ocean, creating an emergency that operator Tepco seemed unable to contain.
Color-coded to reflect various levels of radiation, the map shows radioactivity from Fukushima leaking into the ocean, contaminating the furthest corners of the Pacific; a poisonous purple flame projects eastward from Japan's Pacific coast, fanning out into radiant red, ohmygod orange and worrisome shades of yellow and green.
Australia's Barrier Reef seems to be doing a good job of keeping the worst contamination away from that country's shores. The Sea of Cortez, between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland, is still blue. But the contaminated water has touched all other shores lapped by the Pacific, from Alaska all the way down to Chile and the Antarctic.
A certified hoax
Full map, with legend specifying the nature of the data: wave amplitudes from the tsunami.
The map suggests that the world's largest ocean has been lost to radiation and should now be approached with as much suspicion as the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.
Except that that's not what this map shows. It's a Snopes-certified hoax. And therein lies this map's redeeming power. Rather than having been unspeakably catastrophic, Fukushima is not the omerta-inducing disaster you might think it is.
The map, developed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), does relate to the devastation of March 2011. But it plots tsunami wave height, not radiation leakage levels. Check the date on the map: 2011, the year of the tsunami itself. Not 2013, when Japan's NRA launched its warning about the leakage.
Fukushima is not 'over'. But the problem is on a different scale than the one suggested by this map, and other alarmist misrepresentations that we're sometimes too eager to believe.
Nuclear plant at Grafenrheinfeld in Germany.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
As dark clouds go, Fukushima is fairly manageable. It even has a sliver lining or two.
Fukushima is the only other nuclear disaster next to Chernobyl to get a Level 7 classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Yet estimates of radioactivity released at Fukushima range from just 10-40% compared to Chernobyl. The highly contaminated zone was 10-12% the size of the zone in Chernobyl.
- Only one death has been linked to short-term radiation overexposure. The WHO found that radiation levels of evacuees were so low that health effects were likely to be non-detectable. Worst-case scenario for newborns in the worst-affected area was a 1% increase in lifetime cancer risk. Estimates for long-term cancer mortality due to the accident range from a few hundred up to 1,800—about the same number killed directly by the earthquake and tsunami, spread out over many decades.
- The accident has boosted the research into and development of sustainable, low-carbon and nuclear-free alternative energy generation. Immediately following the disaster, the IAEA halved its estimate of additional nuclear energy capacity scheduled for 2035. Germany decided to accelerate its phase-out of nuclear power to 2022. Other countries, however, are going ahead with their nuclear plans, including the UK, Russia, India and China. The Chinese want to triple their nuclear power output by 2020, and again by 2030. By 2050, China aims to have up to 500 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, 100 times more than it has now.
- But Fukushima has also led to safer nuclear energy. New technology installed in nuclear power stations around the world would have prevented the hydrogen explosions which occurred at Fukushima. Improved filter systems allow for emergency depressurization of the core with a minimal release of radioactivity. Disaster-secure power backups and building layouts have become standard across the industry.
- By April 2014, radioactive tuna was found swimming off the U.S. West Coast. But the difference was less than the level of radioactivity found naturally in a banana. None of the fish caught on the American shore of the Pacific has had radiation levels outside of food safety limits. For fish caught off Japan, that hasn't been the case since April 2015. Even though radioactive leakage still occurs, the Pacific Ocean is vast enough to dilute the radiation to harmless, non-detectable levels. In February of this year, Japan resumed the export of fish caught just off Fukushima.
A nuclear convert
George Monbiot, environmentalist and nuclear convert.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Few have gone quite so far as George Monbiot, the environmental activist and writer, who wrote in 2011: "As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology."
"A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation (1)."
"I'm not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective. Like most greens, I favor a major expansion of renewables. But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel."
"Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power."
Controversial? Certainly. Enlightened or misguided? That remains to be seen. But Monbiot shows—as does this map—that even world-class disasters can inspire optimism rather than despair.
Strange Maps #943
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Obviously written before news of the casualty mentioned above was publicized.
- True facts about Ocean Radiation and the Fukushima Disaster ... ›
- What was the fallout from Fukushima? | Environment | The Guardian ›
- FACT CHECK: Fukushima Nuclear Fallout Map ›
- After Alarmingly High Radiation Levels Detected, What Are the Facts ... ›
- Worried about Fukushima radiation in seafood? Turns out bananas ... ›
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
The next era in American history can look entirely different. It's up to us to choose.
- The timeline of America post-WWII can be divided into two eras, according to author and law professor Ganesh Sitaraman: the liberal era which ran through the 1970s, and the current neoliberal era which began in the early 1980s. The latter promised a "more free society," but what we got instead was more inequality, less opportunity, and greater market consolidation.
- "We've lived through a neoliberal era for the last 40 years, and that era is coming to an end," Sitaraman says, adding that the ideas and policies that defined the period are being challenged on various levels.
- What comes next depends on if we take a proactive and democratic approach to shaping the economy, or if we simply react to and "deal with" market outcomes.
A new MIT report proposes how humans should prepare for the age of automation and artificial intelligence.
- A new report by MIT experts proposes what humans should do to prepare for the age of automation.
- The rise of intelligent machines is coming but it's important to resolve human issues first.
- Improving economic inequality, skills training, and investment in innovation are necessary steps.