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Can these giant dams keep Europe from drowning?
Why a 400-mile enclosure around the North Sea is not as crazy as it sounds
- The Northern European Enclosure Dam (NEED) would cut off the North and Baltic Seas from the Atlantic Ocean.
- It would save 15 countries, and up to 55 million people, from sea level rise—but at a cost.
- The idea is a warning more than a plan: NEED will be necessary if we don't stop global warming now.
The top of a 4.5-m (15-ft) statue, some rooftops and a church spire are all that remains above water in Wieringerwerf, near Amsterdam, during the Wieringermeer flood of 1945.
Image: Nationaal Archief / Willem van de Poll / Anefo – CC0 1.0
Climate change is real, and it's bad. It's also gradual and impersonal. That's why it's both tempting and easy to stick your head in the sand. Do that long enough, though, and you're likely to drown, as sea level rise (SLR) catches up with you.
Here's something that might shock you into action: A plan for a giant dam to protect 15 European countries from those rising seas. The project's scale is unprecedented. Its cost phenomenal. But it's still cheaper than all the alternatives—including doing nothing. All the alternatives except one: Taking action now against climate change.
Here's how the situation looks today:
- Current global mean temperature is about 1°C (1.8°F) above pre-industrial levels.
- Rising temperatures cause rising sea levels, albeit with a lag. Global mean SLR is 18 cm (7 in) since 1880 and it's accelerating.
- Current policies imply a further global warming of up to 3.1 °C (5.6°F) by 2100, so it's virtually certain SLR will continue well beyond that date.
- The rule of thumb: For every extra °C, expect an SLR of 2.3 m (7.5 ft). Because of the lagging effect, SLR by 2100 would be 'only' 1 to 2 m (3.3 to 6.6 ft). But by 2500, it could be as high as 10 m (32.8 ft).
51 billion tons of sand
Total length: Almost 400 miles. Total cost: Up to $600 billion. PInk dots: Areas with high population density.
Image: Groeskamp & Kjellsson
The logistics of their proposal are dizzying:
- NEED would consist of two major sections: NEED-South, a dam connecting France's Breton coast (near Brest) with England's south-west coast. It would measure 161 km (100 mi) in length, with an average depth of 85 m (279 ft) and a maximum depth of 102 m (335 ft).
- NEED-North would consist of several parts, linking the Scottish mainland to the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and from there to Norway. Its total length would be 476 km (296 mi), with an average depth of 127 m (417 ft) and a maximum depth of 321 m (1,053 ft) in the Norwegian Trench.
- NEED would have a combined length of 637 km (396 mi).
- NEED would have a combined volume of 36.2 km3 (8.7 mi3), which would require 51 billion tons of sand. That is equal to one year's worth of global sand use.
- Total price for NEED: Somewhere between €250-€550 billion ($270-$600 bn).
- NEED would protect coastal communities in 15 countries, keeping the feet dry of 25 million to 55 million people; depending on SLR of between 2 to 15 m (6.6 to 49.2 ft), respectively.
What would happen to the Netherlands if the sea level rose by 1.8 m (6 ft): The blue area would flood.
Image: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
So, how do those alternatives pan out, exactly?
Since so much of most countries' population and economies is located at or near the coast, the cost of doing nothing is extreme: Up to 10 times as high as the main alternatives, protection and retreat. Being scientists rather than politicians, Groeskamp and Kjellsson only considered the latter two.
- Managed retreat is a feasible option and is indeed being implemented in the Netherlands, for example, on a small scale. But large-scale retreat for SLR would involve forced migration of large numbers of people, widespread psychological trauma, massive loss of cultural heritage, and political instability at an international level.
- The combined cost of protection on a per-country basis would soon dwarf the cost of NEED. Again, the Dutch example. In a scenario of 1.5 m (4.9 ft) SLR by 2100, the Netherlands would need to spend up to €140 billion ($152 bn) on sea defenses. That alone amounts to about one-third of the total cost of NEED.
- Spread out over 20 years, its cost would amount to at most 0.16% of the combined GDP of the 15 countries involved.
- Even if the cost were borne by the five local countries most likely affected by SLR (the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Germany), it would still only amount to 0.32% of their combined GDP, tops.
Some other parts of the world where solutions similar to NEED could help safeguard coastal areas from sea level rise.
Image: Groeskamp & Kjellsson
They are not presenting NEED as a panacea, however. Blocking off the North and Baltic Seas from the Atlantic Ocean will have far-reaching, and potentially serious consequences for the region's ecosystems, economies and societies.
- Rivers will continue to discharge into the enclosed seas, and this alone will lead to an annual SLR of 0.9 m (3 ft). Around 100 major pumping stations would be needed to transfer that volume to the ocean.
- The continued discharge would also lead to a freshening of the basin, with salinity projected to reduce by a factor 10 over the course of a century. This would greatly affect biodiversity and fishing.
- The damming of the North Sea would produce important changes in the tidal amplitudes, on both sides of NEED. Inside, it would be greatly reduced. Outside, it would increase by up to 0.7 m (2.3 ft) along the coasts of Wales and southwest England. This would have a major effect on the circulation of sediment, nutrients and small marine life in the area.
- NEED would lock Europe's four busiest ports—Rotterdam, Antwerp, Bremerhaven, Hamburg—behind a huge dam. New harbors would need to be built on the exterior of the dams, and/or sluices to accommodate the volume of traffic to the interior ports.
'NEED – The Northern European Enclosure Dam for if climate change mitigation fails' by Sjoerd Groeskamp and Joakim Kjellsson, was published in the January 2020 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Read it in full here. Image of Wieringermeer flood found here on Wikimedia Commons. Map of Netherlands flooding found here at Oog TV.
Strange Maps #1012
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
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So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.