We're in an era of 'megafires'.
A headline that reads 'The Worst Year in History for Wildfires' should be a shocking and dramatic statement. Instead, it's in danger of becoming a cliché, a well-worn phrase, an annual event.
The year 2020 will be defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, but wildfires in Australia, Brazil and the US have reached new levels of destruction.
"We're not only seeing ever-increasing fires year after year. We're also seeing more fires over a larger geographical spread. And we're also seeing a longer period. Our fire season used to be just two months of the year 15 years ago and now it's nine months of the year." said Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, speaking at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2020.
"It's increasingly clear that, as we have launched this effort around a trillion trees, we're also in an era of megafires," said Justin Adams, Executive Director, Tropical Forest Alliance, at the World Economic Forum.
For Jennifer Morris, the Chief Executive Officer of the Nature Conservancy, the California wildfires are a microcosm of a global crisis affecting forests.
Morris said decision-makers must address a range of challenges to save the forests and the communities that rely on them.
"How do we fund prevention rather than always deal with the next worst year?" she asked. "How do we make sure that forests are able to realize their total benefits through reforestation?
"How do we get farmers and forest owners from the US to Brazil and Australia to actually receive income for protecting the forests?"
A World in Flames
For Jad Daley, President and Executive Director of American Forests, there are three main causes of wildfires - and he's in no doubt about the biggest one of all.
"Make no mistake, climate change is driving this dramatic increase in wildfires and future wildfire risk ... so, we can't solve our wildfire crisis without addressing climate change," he said.
Secondly, Daley called for more active forestry management to address issues such as a lack of water and drier weather which create the conditions for fires to break out and then burn out of control.
Thirdly, instead of restoring forests, he talked about the need to "pre-store" our forests for a changing climate, using science like a crystal ball to understand how conditions will develop in the future.
Hilary Franz also called for more funding to help her teams fight wildfires more effectively, saying hot air alone had never put out a fire. At present, her airborne firefighting crews are flying helicopters that saw active service in the Viet Nam war.
"I focus on three things," she said. "The first is wildfire protection resources ... At the federal level we borrow a number of resources from other states and federal governments. But when we have California, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming all on fire at the same time, we don't have any more resources to borrow. The second prong is forest health ... and the third is community resilience."
The barriers to protecting the world's forests are entrenched and significant. It will need political will, commitment from forest communities and the right resources in the right places to make progress.
The World Economic Forum's
1t.org aims to conserve, restore and grow a trillion trees before the end of this decade, partly to reforest areas of woodland destroyed by wildfires.
The one trillion trees initiative aims to enable the kind of partnerships that will lead to a reduction in wildfires and more sustainable forests.
Despite the hype, these technologies aren't relevant right now. But they could be in the future.
- The hype around blockchain technology has been sufficiently steady since its arrival. But UCLA professor Ramesh Srinivasan reveals the real potential in this relatively new technology is far from its connection to cryptocurrency.
- To tap this potential, it's necessary to move away from the individualistic intentions to which blockchain so often applies. For example, taking root in areas that have fallen victim to disaster capitalism like Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
- To overcome these hurdles, we must scrutinize the sources of these types of technology as well as those that benefit from its implementation.
Suicide rates in Puerto Rico have risen by a third since Hurricane Maria.
When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, it didn't just flatten houses and flood hospitals – it plunged the island into a darkness that many islanders have yet to emerge from, both literally and metaphorically.
The catastrophe sent the island into the longest blackout in US history. Six months after the disaster, many residents are still without access to power. “Such prolonged darkness is insidious to community mental health," says Oxiris Barbot, First Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Barbot visited the island as a relief worker two months after the disaster and found nearly everyone she met knew someone in their immediate circle or one degree removed who had contemplated or died by suicide. Preliminary data from Puerto Rico's health department suggests that suicides were up nearly a third in September and October compared to the same period for 2016.
Physicians know that extreme events can have negative impacts on mental health, causing symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But in a recent paper, researchers admitted that much is still unknown about the consequences of disasters on long-term behavioural health.
In Puerto Rico, most of the islanders were unable to evacuate and so weathered the full trauma of the storm. Some were isolated and without assistance for days or weeks afterwards. In the following months, many faced hardships such as bereavements, loss of income and limited access to fresh water and food.
Carmen Correa uses a candle for light in her dark apartment as she deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 30, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
It's an experience that could leave a lasting imprint. "Exposure to trauma not only affects you in the moment, it affects you for the rest of your life if you don't have access to support services that will help you develop effective coping skills," Barbot says.
But little is known about how survivors of extreme events respond relative to the help they receive, according to Sandro Galea, Dean at the Boston University School of Public Health. He says scientists need to investigate the most effective post-disaster responses to both physical and mental health challenges: "The stigma that you can just 'get over' mental illness remains. In truth, one can get over mental illness roughly the same way one can get over a broken bone by oneself – with difficulty, and likely in a way that will not result in proper healing."
Public health researchers need to invest in research that prepares health systems for the next extreme event, Galea says. The first step would be to identify at-risk populations from both a physical and mental health perspective. Then health workers could act to create resilience and mitigate the consequences in vulnerable communities.
Doing such research now, before the next hurricane hits, could reap significant financial savings in disaster response efforts. "The payoff is enormous," Galea says. "And if we ask the right questions, we can mitigate mental health consequences that cost people's lives."
Beefless meat enters the mainstream.
- Burger King is testing its first major foray into the field of beefless patties.
- On top of plant-based meats, cellular agriculture — or "cell-ag" — can also yield animal-free patties.
- A new report lists 90 reasons that cell-ag holds a lot of promise.
Burger King has just announced they're testing a new version of their Whopper that's completely free of actual beef, in 59 locations around St. Louis. Not that even Whopper devotees can tell the difference, according to reports. It's called the "Impossible Whopper." (Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat burgers are already available in grocery stores.)
The food chain isn't the first to offer a lab-grown, plant-based patty option, but Burger King's announcement is a very big deal. While the new Whopper's currently in testing, if it becomes available at its 7,200 restaurants, it means millions of consumers will be introduced to an animal cruelty-free meat option that's every bit as satisfying as traditional fare.
For those concerned about their health, climate change, and animal rights, there might be no turning back.
The Impossible Taste Test | Impossible Whopper
Burger King conducted an experiment to evaluate how well Whopper fans know their beloved Whopper.
Welcome to cellular agriculture
While the Impossible Whopper and other alternative "meats" are a beginning, researchers are also looking further down the road to animal-product alternatives constructed at the cellular level that don't even require plant matter as current options do.
Enter "Cellular Agriculture," or "Cell-ag," a new form of food and clothing production that results in food and clothing products indistinguishable from traditional offerings without the necessity of raising — and killing — a live animal, or even a plant. A report explaining what this could mean has just been released. It's called 90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture.
As author Kristopher Gasteratos notes in the report's introduction, modern animal husbandry is no longer the industry we've known for thousands of years: "While animal products have been incredibly positive for society over multiple generations, today they are proving more destructive than beneficial with the rise of factory farming." Gasteratos is a researcher at Harvard and founder of the Cellular Agriculture Society.
The report's cumulative effect is overwhelming: 90 good reasons is a lot of good reasons. They're arranged in categories: Health, Environment, Human & Animal Rights, and Business and Economics. Here's a brief summary of each.
Image source: Cellular Agriculture Society
The health case
This section contains, among other things, a list of the things we won't get from lab-grown cell-ag foods, including:
- pathogens such as Salmonella and E. Coli
- fecal contamination
- meat and seafood growth hormones
- mad-cow disease prions
- swine and avian flu, and other illnesses
- plastic particles in "seafood"
- mercury in "seafood"
- animal-production antibiotics that accelerate the development of resistant superbugs
Cell-ag also looks to promote greater food production stability and predictability, and can scale to help feed the planet's growing population. Their contaminant-free growing environment gives cell-ag foods a longer shelf life. Critical shortages can be more efficiently addresses after disasters, and famines can be avoided, and geographically independent production solves current supply issues in areas that struggle to import food.
Image source: Brooke Becker / Shutterstock
The environment case
We know that the extensive land-use requirements of animal-based products are among the main drivers of climate change. For some animals, it's an issue of grazing land. For others, such as seafood, it's processing.
Here's how much less land Gasteratos estimates we'll use after switching to cell-ag:
- cattle — 99%
- dairy — 97%
- poultry — 66%
- pigs — 82%
- seafood — 55%
- land overall — 80%
It's much the same story with water use:
- cattle — 98%
- dairy — 99.6%
- poultry — 92%
- pigs — -95%
- seafood — 86%
- water overall — 94%
Here's the reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) an industrial switch to cell-ag may produce:
- cattle — 96%
- dairy — 65%
- poultry — 74%
- pigs — 85%
- seafood — 59%
- GHG overall — 76%
General environmental benefits
Production and food and clothing animals is dirty work, and there's a long list of pollutants it generates, all of which may be avoided by cell-ag: land and ocean animal waste, production chemicals that create dead zones, and plastic pollution from the fishing industry among them.
In addition to resulting in less deforestation, cell-ag promises less ocean habitat destruction from bottom-trawling, and an overall reduced need for energy in food production.
Cattle farming is a key driver of deforestation in Brazil. Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Image source: CIFOR
The animal and human rights case
Well, obviously, cell-ag could bring about the end of killing countless cows, pigs, chickens, and seafood and so on. Not to mention the elimination of the often inhumane conditions, particularly in factory farming, in which production animals spend their short lives.
You might not think at first there's much of a human-rights issue in food production, but there are several, and they're serious. Factory farming and food processing operations can be brutal places to work. Factory farm workers, says the report, are at higher risk for amputations, tannery workers are regularly exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, and the seafood industry exploits cheap and slave labor for catching fish.
In the U.S., there's also environmental racism that cell-ag could end, with food-production facilities exposing poorer — often black — neighborhoods to dangerous runoff and sprayed chemicals.
Pig farm fecal waste being sent airborne on the edge of a residential community
Pig farm fecal waste being sent airborne on the edge of a residential community
The business and economics case
In addition to the dawning of a new industry with lots of new jobs, the rise of cell-ag has other positive economic benefits as well.
A food supply that's independent of weather conditions cannot only be a boon in the climate-change era, but the same foods — being grown indoors — can become available in any area, regardless of local climate.
Because cell-ag is more predictable and controllable than traditional agriculture, it affords not only greater quality consistency, but also greater financial predictability. Cell-ag can reduce the uncertainties faced today by today's growers, and help avoid the need for the many subsidies and bailouts currently required for both over- and under-production, saving taxpayers money. Even growers' neighbors benefit once farming stops lowering the value of their own homes.
Cruelty-free products may also become valued premium products for which premium prices may be asked.
Image source: Aaron Weiss / Shutterstock
Would you like a better life with that Whopper?
Gasteratos is undoubtedly personally invested in cell-ag, and so the report paints a decidedly rosy picture of its benefits. Even so, you wouldn't think a new burger lunch option could make such a drastic difference in the world. 90 Reasons to Consider Cellular Agriculture may convince you it can.
Update Tuesday, April 16, 2019: The original headline for this post referred to the Impossible Whopper as being "lab-grown," which is technically true. The plant-based burger was developed in a lab. However, a number of our readers felt the headline suggested the burger was the product of cell-ag, which it is not. To avoid any further confusion, we've changed the headline.
You won't notice much of a difference unless you're north of the 55th parallel, though.
- Magnetic north has recently been moving north from Canada to Russia in a cold hurry.
- It's moving about 33 miles a year instead of the usual 7 miles.
- World navigation models had to updated ahead of schedule to catch up with it.
If you're reading this as you travel the arctic, odds are you're probably already a bit confused. Your compass has been, well, strange, lately. That's because magnetic north has been moving. Quickly. It's never been stationary, but recently it's been moving around 485 feet northward toward Siberia every day. That's about 33 miles per year, as opposed to the average 7 miles a year between 1831 and the 1990s, when its pace quickened.
Fortunately, experts say that if you're south of the 55th parallel, you won't notice much of a difference. However, for national defense agencies, commercial airlines, and others that rely on knowing what their compasses are pointing at, it's a much bigger deal. That's why the World Magnetic Model — a set of online reference calculators, software, and technical details — had to be updated recently ahead of schedule instead of waiting for the next planned revision in 2020.
North, north, and north
Image source: Pyty / Shutterstock
There are actually three flavors of north, and they're all in different places.
- Magnetic north — is defined as the location on the Earth's surface where all of its magnetic lines point straight downward. If you look at a compass while you're there, the needle attempts to dip down; that's why it's also called the "dip pole." Magnetic north is always on the move in response to the constant motion of electrical charges in the Earth's liquid outer mantle, which produces Earth's magnetic field.
- Geomagnetic north — is the northern focus of the Earth's magnetosphere, up in the stratosphere. It moves, too, but not nearly as much, since shifts in the Earth's magnetic field are more smoothed-out up there than on the ground. Its location is pretty stable, located above and off the northwest coast of Greenland.
- True north, or geographic north — is the northern terminus of our lines of longitude. It's located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.
What’s the hurry?
Image source: Johan Swanepoel / Shutterstock
The suddenly accelerating movement of magnetic north has scientists wondering what's up — not because there's any danger we're aware of — because its behavior is one of the few opportunities they have to catch a glimpse of the dynamics inside the earth's molten outer core.
The most prominent theory is that the speed-up is being driven by, as Nature puts it, "liquid iron sloshing within the planet's core." Giant streams of molten iron and nickel continually twist and swirl in the outer core, a pressure cooker that can reach 9,000° F in temperature. The iron is the source of the magnetic fields that comprise the Earth's magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is the barrier that keeps us protected from destructive ultraviolet solar radiation — its existence keeps Earth habitable. Planets with no magnetic barrier are unable to hold onto their atmosphere. Mars lost its magnetosphere 4.2 billion years ago.
Geophysicist Phil Livermore made the case at an American Geophysical Union meeting in Fall 2018 that what we're seeing is the latest action in an ongoing tug of war between two magnetic fields down in the swirling outer core. One is under Siberia, and one is under Canada. Historically, the Canadian field has been winning, keeping magnetic north in Canada. However, there's been a shift, he tells National Geographic, "The Siberian patch looks like it's winning the battle. It's sort of pulling the magnetic field all the way across to its side of the geographic pole."
Some scientists think that the acceleration may be an early sign that Earth's magnetic poles are about to flip, something that happens every every 200,000 to 300,000 years. Others see no evidence of that. Plus, flips occur over thousands of years, so there'd be no cause for alarm anyway.
Keeping an eye on magnetic north
The position of magnetic north is tracked by the European Space Agency's three Swarm satellites orbiting the Earth about 15 times a day — the satellites' readings are continually checked against ground readings to assess the pole's movements. Every five years, until now, at least, scientists have updated the math in the World Magnetic Model, whose goal is to "ensure safe navigation for military applications, commercial airlines, search and rescue operations, and others operating around the North Pole."
Given how things like this tend to play out over geologic time, it would surprise no one if more frequent model updates will be needed going forward.