from the world's big
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 email@example.com.
(1) Obviously written before news of the casualty mentioned above was publicized.
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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>
What are the implications of all this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="ceXv4XLv" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b407f5aa043eeb84f2b7ff82f97dc35"> <div id="botr_ceXv4XLv_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/ceXv4XLv-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.</p><p>It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.</p><p>Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents. </p><p>The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare. </p><p>It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing. </p><p>As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs. </p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.