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Aug

28
2015

Where there’s smoke

Jodde     Blog     0

Wild fires burning in Washington State and British Columbia have sent thousands of people to the emergency room – in Calgary and Lethbridge, Alberta. The smoke, which prompted a special air quality warning, has been thick for the last three days. It is dangerous for people with cardiopulmonary illnesses, like asthma, emphysema and hearts damaged from heart attacks. The smoke is even sickening healthy people, causing sore throat, cough and eye discomfort. The air quality index, usually a rating from 1-10, is 17; way off the charts. Hundreds of firefighters have been deployed to fight the fires in Washington and BC, from as far away as Australia. Australia is as far as ⅓the circumference of the Earth. For firefighters to be deployed from so far away is extraordinary. Firefighting efforts are described as one step forward, two steps back. As we’ve reported before, a controlled fire does not necessarily put a stop to the smoke. For one thing, smoke tends to hang around an area for a long time, even after the fire is gone. For another, a fire can burn long after it is contained, and with the drought and accompanying tinderbox conditions, it likely will. Containing a fire forces it to eventually consume all its fuel in a confined area, but it may take a long time for this to be accomplished. The smoke will be around for awhile to come.

To understand the scale of the smoke, consider the following: The fires have consumed more than 400 miles2 (643 km2.) That is an area the 1.3 times the size of New York City. Let’s say each tree burned is 10 feet (3m) tall. Now we have 4,000 miles3 (6,437 km3). If we assume a uniform density, and that the smoke has spread in a square bounded by Olympia, Washington as the southwest corner, and Calgary, Alberta as the northeast corner. That square would be filled with almost 40 feet (12m) high. While the assumptions made are not accurate, nor are they intended to be, this should provide a good sense of scale. While the smoke may well be 40 feet deep, a small fraction of each tree burned at a high temperature ends up as smoke. Clearly, a blanket of smoke as thick as every tree that has been burned would be fatal, so make sure the cloud is thin in your imagination. Several parts per million. You can still get a picture of just how much area is covered in smoke. The area of the square we described earlier is 800 miles2 (1,284km2.) 800 miles is roughly the width of a time zone.  The scale of these fires and the smoke that they are spitting out is staggering!

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.


Aug

21
2015

Dry Central America

Jodde     Blog     0

Panama and Puerto Rico are the latest countries to be hit with devastating drought.  Panama officials blame the drought on El Niño as does Honduras.  A drought in the Panama Canal is especially problematic, as this was built to join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans without having to go around South America.  Many of those ships are what are known as Panamax ships, ships that are the maximum size able to travel through the canal.  Now, there are restrictions on what is called draft, which refers to a ship’s depth underwater, which is inversely proportional to its mass.  Without a change in weather patterns, more restrictions on draft are forthcoming.  Ships that cannot use the Panama Canal may be forced to go more one hundred times the distance of the canal.  Brazil alone has 7,000km (4,375 mi) of coastline, compared to the 77km(46 mi) of the Panama Canal.   The other option is to go around the horn of Africa, but then they are risking attacks by pirates.

Currently, almost 20% of shipping through the canal is no longer possible, and many more ships might face restrictions in the near future, unless better weather is on the way.  About 5% of global shipping is done by way of the Panama Canal, so this 20% loss amounts to about 1% of global shipping.  This may seem relatively minor, but the shipping industry is massive.  Of all the trucks on the highway, the vast majority of them probably acquired their load from a ship.  Of course, Panama is facing the threat of wild fires and insufficient drinking water, and there are restrictions in place with respect to these too.  Panamanians are not allowed to use drinking water for watering lawns and golf courses.  There is also a fire ban.  We will watch for wild fires in Panama in the coming weeks.

Puerto Rico may be experiencing a deeper drought than California.  At least 20% of their land is in exceptional or extreme drought.  Those same areas were in moderate drought only a month ago.  Farmers are having trouble feeding cattle and have not planted crops in some areas.  Water rationing there has affected school children, who now must attend school for only four days a week instead of five, and the four days are shorter too.  Schools may also been forced to change their menus in response to severe water rationing.  The changes currently affect over 100,000 students.  Puerto Rico is also facing severe economic problems.  They are in debt $72 billion and are insolvent.  Their economy is facing a crippling recession.  It is in the face of this  that Puerto Ricans, already undergoing austerity, must adhere to a punishing water ration.  Denizens only have access to water every three days in some places.

In other news, a crippling drought in Mexico has cut crop production by 40%.  This could lead to soaring prices of beans and corn, staples of the Mexican diet.  The Mexican government has already handed out $2.5 billion US dollars to provide drought relief and enhance infrastructure.  22 of 32 states are in drought.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.

 


Aug

12
2015

Jodde     Blog     0

Wars can exacerbate severe weather issues. In Iraq, and other war torn areas, victims of the severe heat wave gripping the region have few options as to where to go. Electricity and water are constantly cut, which makes escaping the heat difficult. One cannot simply enjoy air conditioning at home or work. Some take refuge in air conditioned shopping malls and others swim in whatever waterways are available, like irrigation channels and rivers, and they desperately need that refuge with temperatures feeling as high as 165ºF (73.8ºC). That is the internal temperature of a well-done steak! These options can be dangerous, leaving people to face the choice between heat stroke and drowning in the absolute worst case scenarios. Rivers, even calm rivers can turn dangerous with little or no notice. Add to that, casual river goers could face white water and a recipe for disaster clearly emerges.   Calm looking rivers can and do claim lives. Sometimes they have man-made structures called weirs, which can sometimes act like natural strainers. A strainer is what it sounds like. They occur when log jams in rivers occasionally cause situations where water can get through, but not much else can, such as unwary swimmers or boaters. Even tame rivers can be dangerous as conditions can change with very little warning.

In Lebanon, there is a problem with garbage collection, along with the aforementioned heat wave. Garbage is frequently full of food, which in the right conditions are highly conducive to bacterial growth, and these are the right conditions. Many of these bacteria cause spoilage or food poisoning. If there are tears in any of those bags, harmful bacteria such as salmonella could transfer to clothing or skin. Then if these people swim in untreated water, namely anywhere but a pool, people with weakened immune systems could contract food-borne illnesses. While we are not aware of any deaths related to this heat wave or denizens’ methods of keeping cool, we will watch this situation closely. We do know that the heat wave has killed tens of thousands of chickens, which will certainly have an impact on food prices, and have an obvious adverse effect on the farmers whose chickens died. The death toll could greatly exceed 1,200 people, which is the number dead after the Pakistan heat wave earlier this year.

Sadly, we are aware of 55 people who have died after an eight day heat wave in Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan, and they have regular access to water and electricity. That death toll may expand to more than 130 victims. More shockingly, nearly 12,000 people were hospitalized for heat illnesses. Every prefecture was affected; meaning the entirety of Japan was 5ºF (2.8ºC) above average for eight days. Tokyoites fared the worst with 19 confirmed heat related deaths. Japan has an aging population, with many of their residents over 65. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to heat waves because they have difficulty recognizing the signs of dehydration.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.

 

 


Aug

01
2015

Bear Necessities

Jodde     Blog     0

What happens when salmon, famous for their ability to return to their spawning grounds years after birth, go somewhere they aren’t supposed to go? They get sick and die. This is exactly what is happening this year. Due to the snow drought in BC, salmon have made a last ditch effort to escape the warm Columbia River. They prefer it colder, and have found colder waters in Washington in the Little White Salmon River. However, it is too late for them. Fish immune systems are harmed by warm water, and huge numbers of them have contracted bacterial and fungal infections. All the Pacific salmon in the Little White Salmon River are expected to die, well short of their spawning ground.

Salmon are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest. Black bears and brown bears (grizzlies) prey on spawning salmon, but they are picky eaters. Contrary to popular belief, the bears do not consume the entire fish, nor always guard their salmon kills. Both species of bears are primarily herbivorous, but eat meat when there are not a lot of berries and other edible plants available, or the meat is convenient to obtain. In the case of salmon spawning, the meat takes virtually no effort to obtain and is abundant. Bears will usually just take a big bite out of a salmon and leave it on the forest floor. There, other animals will eat what the bear has left. Bears then excrete nitrogen rich waste into the forest, which plants and fungi uptake and other animals in turn eat. There are two sizeable problems with dramatically poor spawning. One is the ecosystem problem that exists when other forest creatures do not receive their expected bounties from the bears. The other is that bears partially depend on salmon spawning to gain fat for the winter.  They must gain about 400 pounds or 181 kg in order to survive hibernation.

Hungry bears search for food far and wide and often find themselves in human territory, and these bears can become habituated.  Predatory attacks are not unheard of for one thing, but for another, bears are intelligent, agile, and have been known to invade cars, homes and tents. A bear surprising a sleeping person is particularly dangerous. When confronted with a bear, one might be tempted to scream, but this will cause the victim to show their teeth, which enrages bears and often leads to mauling. They take exploratory bites randomly and in so doing obliterate what they break into. This also puts bears at risk, as wildlife officers may euthanize bears that get too close to humans. If you encounter a bear, there are a few things to do that can save your life. These tips, published by the Government of Canada, can be found here.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.

 


Jul

23
2015

Floods and thunderstorms

Jodde     Blog     0

Sometimes, albeit rarely, rain can trigger water shortages. Exactly this situation happened in Kenya this week, when a rain-triggered landslide caused water to be shut off downstream. The water was too contaminated with silt to be flow through the pumps. Engineers are working to fix the problem. Most of the time, flooding is neither catastrophic nor unpredictable. Our early human ancestors used flooding along the banks of the Nile to grow crops at the dawn of civilization. Some farmers today water their crops in a similar manner. The problem with regularly occurring floods happens when they do not arrive on time, or stay later than expected. In Mississippi, farmers are asking for aid because the Mississippi River has been flooded for too long. According to Marty Graham, a farmer in Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana, he knows about the risk of the Morganza spillway (the problem area of the Mississippi) flooding. He mitigates this by planting in May so that if flooding occurs, there is not too much invested. When the flooding failed to come as expected, Graham along with several other farmers had thought they were safe. They were not, and worse, they were all in. In Graham’s case, insurance will pay about $500,000, but will not reimburse overhead costs. The unusual flooding, a remnant of heavy rains in Ohio earlier, is expected to remain for a substantial amount of time; possibly up to 8 months. The soybean crop that Graham grows there, he expects to be fully underwater by the weekend.

 

In other news, there are unconfirmed reports of a tornado touching down in Calgary. There were certainly sizable funnel clouds over the southwestern parts of the city yesterday. A confirmed touchdown happened southwest of Calgary, near a town called Priddis. This comes on the heels of golf ball sized hail just north of the city Tuesday. There is no meteorological reason tornados virtually never happen in cities, only a statistical reason. If you were to make a grid of 1’2, (33cm2) representing every place a tornado could possibly touch down, by far the vast majority of those squares would fall in rural or wilderness areas. Cities tend to be geographically small and condensed, where as rural areas tend to be expansive. There is just more country than city to hit. When tornados do hit cities though, the results are expectedly devastating.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.

 


Jul

05
2015

The Heat Felt Round The World

Jodde     Blog     0

In Europe and northern Africa, a severe heat wave, with temperatures exceeding 40ºC (104ºF) is raging on.   The heat may make its way as far north as Scandinavia.  We have described how heat can be dangerous before.  It can cause heat stroke and heat exhaustion, and can cause sudden cardiac death subsequent to shock.  If one’s body temperature rises to 41ºC (105.8ºF), whether it be due to fever or ambient temperatures, the victim is in critical danger.  Basal metabolism raises body temperature by 1.1ºF (.6ºC) if dehydration has already occurred, or sweating is ineffective such as in very humid environments..  Those who have skin diseases are at particularly high risk, as the skin is the primary heat regulation organ.  Those with other diseases, such as COPD or asthma are also at greater risk, because the lungs function to dissipate heat in temperatures below body temperature.  Extreme heat, in excess of 40ºC(104ºF) can even denature proteins.  They are also that for which DNA codes.  Denaturing proteins means unfolding them.  Proteins are long chains of amino acids that fold in such a way as to perform a specific function.  When you cook a piece of steak, as you maybe did on Canada Day or the 4th of July, it turns brown and gets harder the more done it is.  What is actually happening is that the steak’s proteins are slowly denaturing and reacting with sugars.   It is not surprising then, that heat waves can be very deadly indeed.   In 2010, a severe heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 50,000 people, and 70,000 were killed in 2003, according to a new study that suggests they are on the rise.

Not only do heat waves have a devastating effect on the human body, but they also raise the risk of wild fires.  In fact, there are wildfires currently burning in Spain and Portugal.  Over 1,300 people have been forced from their homes, and about 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) have burned at the time of writing.  Several cars have been gutted, although fortunately, we have no reports of death or injuries at this time.  Currently, there are severe heat waves on four continents.  You will recall in our last report, that there is no habitable continent without drought.  With such severe drought and heat waves, both linked to wildfire outbreaks, 2015 could become known as the year the world reignited.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.


Jun

24
2015

Drought And Floods

Jodde     Blog     0

Last week brought us disturbing, deadly weather. Several countries around the world are experiencing at least some degree of drought. While the drought in California is so bad that its farmers have to fight for their alleged right to water in The Supreme Court of The United States, North Korea claims to have been hit with its worst drought in more than a century. North Korea is experiencing drought, but the severity of it must be taken with a grain of salt, as its news agency has allegedly been less than completely honest over the years.   According to the Korean Central News Agency, more than a quarter of rice paddies are parched.  That means drought stressed plants and little to no yield. They certainly are in drought though, and food and electricity are declining resources. Toronto, Ontario, and Alberta, Canada are in drought, which is relatively rare. Toronto’s drought, while not as severe as California’s, is a severe threat to the city’s homeless. More homeless people die from dehydration in the summer months than freeze to death in the winter. The drought makes it especially hard to deliver water to the most vulnerable. Columbia is also facing a water shortage, and Puerto Rico is suffering a severe drought on par with California’s.  The drought in Eastern Australia seems endless. Drought in India was so severe that it led farmers to suicide in the month of May. The truly alarming thing is that we are seeing drought on every habitable continent.

 

Meanwhile, there is also the opposite extreme. In Tbilisi, Georgia, a massive deluge killed at least five people. Further to this tragedy, a number of zoo animals escaped due to high water levels. Some animals are still missing. It is not clear that none of those missing animals are predators. If any of them are and have survived, they are displaced, almost certainly scared predators, making them especially dangerous.  Recent flooding in Texas has had devastating results, due to tropical storm Bill. Wanganui, New Zealand faced severe flooding last week, the effects of it visible from space. We know of no loss of life, but several people lost everything they had in their homes. When a flood hits, it is not clean water that inundates people’s homes. It is muddy contaminated water.   Contaminants and disease causing agents like mold can quickly take hold, so once it is safe to clean a flooded home, one must wear a gas mask and avoid contact with the water. It usually takes a few days before it is safe to reenter a home, as there may be compromised utilities like gas and electrical lines, which need to be inspected before clearance is given. During that time, one’s treasured possessions, like photos, books, furniture or electronics can be soaked through with this muddy water. It goes without saying that such a state of affairs can result in a total loss, and unfortunately, this has happened to a number of people in New Zealand recently.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.

 


Jun

14
2015

Devastating drought and beetle blitz

Jodde     Blog     0

The massive drought in California is still expected to continue at least until this winter. The state has been forced to adopt unprecedented water restrictions, and that’s only part of the story. While California’s drought is extraordinary, and extraordinarily dry, the majority of western North America received incredibly little snow. As a result, the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington are worried about where their water is coming from. The drought has already netted billions of dollars of damage to California’s agriculture, and that loss will inevitably be passed onto consumers. Many experts are warning of a surge in beef prices.

Drought may even be affecting Canada, with Alberta’s grain prices rising due to the prediction of drought and record low snowpack this year. California and the western Canadian provinces share another issue as well, namely Western pine beetle infestations.   There are a few factors that may make this year’s pine beetle infestation worse than usual. Firstly, the winter was relatively warm. Cold weather often controls pine beetle populations. It takes several days of temperatures around -40ºF/C to adversely affect beetle population. Therefore, there are more beetles, and they regularly coordinate attacks on individual trees. These coordinated attacks can overwhelm even healthy trees.   Sometimes trees are able to fight off a pine beetle attack if they are invaded by relatively few beetles and are healthy. Think of it like the human immune system. If you come in contact with one bacterium, you probably won’t get sick. If you come in contact with several million of them, you probably will. Trees are suffering from water stress in California, leaving them especially vulnerable. The pine beetles attacks what’s called the phloem, living bark under the mostly dead external layers. The phloem can be though of as a tree’s vascular system.  It transfers sugars and other metabolites from the leaves to other organs. Resin is one such metabolite, and trees use it as a defence against insects and even small herbivores.  Drought stressed trees have a harder time making resin to trap invading beetles and can be overwhelmed by a single beetle attacking.

Not only is California experiencing deep drought, and tree death, but also intense heat. The heat is dangerous for humans and other animals, vis à vis heat stroke and exhaustion. Sadly, warmer water, which is a problem in California too, is very dangerous for sea lion pups as well. Tragically, warmer water forces adult sea lions to swim farther from the shore to find fish, as fish like cooler water. Their abandoned pups have been getting stranded this year in unprecedented levels. In fact, five times more sea lions were taken into a rescue facility than are typically rescued in any given year.   What can be dangerous about sea lion strandings is that they can become aggressive when they interact with humans. Thousands of tuna crabs have also been stranded in California, and while that is clearly a bad thing for the crabs, it possibly heralds an end to California’s drought. California is hoping that the winter will bring with it much needed rain, but these hopes did not materialize last year.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.

 


Jun

05
2015

Horrific tragedies in Asia and Africa

Jodde     Blog     0

May 30 - June 5, 2015

 

Flooding in Dunedin, New Zealand’s second largest city has shut down schools and submerged power stations, keeping 150 properties in the dark. The late fall flood, caused by severe rainfall left residents stranded in the face of road closures. A number of schools and businesses evacuated their students and customers. A combined human and natural disaster, meanwhile, is wreaking havoc in Accra, Ghana. A deluge there carried a factory’s fuel to a nearby fire. That triggered a tremendous explosion at a gas station that cut short the lives of 73 people. Tragically, they were there because the flooding had already forced them to abandon their homes. Fortunately this horrific event had survivors, but they were trapped in a shed behind a gas station.

In other news, a Chinese ferry carrying about 450 passengers sank in the Yangtze River this week. As far as investigators currently know, the cause of the disaster was inclement weather. There were very few survivors, with more than 300 missing and presumed dead. 103 bodies have been recovered at the time of writing. Some bodies were recovered, and the recovery effort continues with the ship having been recently salvaged. At the tail end of last year, 162 people died in the Java Sea, when a combination of terrible weather and (likely) human error brought down Air Asia flight 8501. Bad weather makes transportation infrastructure deadly.

Unfortunately, the tragic events we reported on are in no way a full reflection of what has been going on in the world.  If you would like to see all of our headlines from the past week, please click here.

 


May

29
2015

Heat, drought, and early fire

Jodde     Blog     0

India, victims of severe flooding last September, is now straining under outrageous heat.  Temperatures so far have been upward 47ºC (116.6ºF).  The heat, more reminiscent of Death Valley, 42ºC or 110ºF at the time of writing.  The number of most concern, unfortunately, is how many people have died.  Currently the death toll from the latest heat wave exceeds 1,400.  The government has set up ‘water camps” as a solution.  It is giving away free water and buttermilk, and encouraging people to drink.  The heatwave is expected to last into next week.  At least the monsoon is expected to come on time this year.  However, it can take a long time for the monsoons to reach all of India, so the monsoons might not be help many Indians need.

_MG_5292

A vineyard in Lake Country, BC, near Kelowna ©Jodde Mason 2015

Heat, drought, and fire tend to go together, and BC is experiencing dramatic heat and an early   start to the fire season.  Kelowna, a small town in mainland BC known for wine and tourism is at great risk because of the fire season.  We talked before about how smoke can ruin a crop of grapes.  The smoke flavour can get into immature grapes and there is no way of purging it, and it is not a nice smoky taste, which is usually due to smoking a fragrant wood like cherry after the wine is bottled (although even this is not known to make good tasting wine.)  Wine picks up its most subjective flavours of what is around it.  When people talk about tasting say strawberry or lemon in a wine, they are talking about trace quantities of chemicals that resemble these flavours closely enough.  Super tasters will detect these flavours readily, while those with average or poor tasting abilities will usually miss them.  The precursors to these chemicals are found in soil and created during fermentation.  As a side note, the taste of oak, very mild smoke, or vanilla, it is usually from the cask.  If it is undrinkable and tastes like a forest fire, it is probably from smoke compounds that have infiltrated the grape.  Suffice to say that fire is bad news for grapes, and with an impending drought and its attendant higher than usual fire risk, vineyards like this one seen on the left could be in trouble this year.  Of course, drought in and of itself is also a problem for grapes.  All in all this year will probably bering as sparse harvest.  Kelowna and nearby towns are situated on a gigantic lake called Okanagan Lake.  For this reason, coupled with its wine growing, it is a popular tourist destination for western Canadians.  However, the lake is not treated and its water is not potable.  Lake Country, as it is called, is certainly vulnerable to drought.  It would take a wet sprint to avert drought at this point, but according to forecasters, this is not likely.  At the time of writing, there has only been one wild fire in the region, but the full effects of drought there have yet to be felt.

 


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