Dec 22 2014

Canada’s Disasters Have Always Been About Ice

cdiceEach year, when spring comes, old green ice from the great polar cap, icy waste from the Arctic rivers, icebergs calved in Greenland, and rafters of ice from north of Russia and the Hebrides are nudged by the tides into a wheeling mass covering 20,000 square miles, a monstrous afterbirth of winter that drifts down the east coast of Canada past Newfoundland to pass into chill fogs off the Maritimes and the New England coast. Each spring, the hair seals keep a primal rendezvous with the ice. They have come south to whelp in February near the Strait of Belle Isle; now, before they start to migrate north with their young they seek out the ice field and travel with it for a few weeks while their young gain strength and get ready to shed their soft puppy fur. And each spring, the sealers put out from Newfoundland to find the seals and kill the babies for their pelts.

That year, 1914, the 20 ships of the sealing fleet sailed early in March. Hedley Payne, a dark, wiry lad from Wesleyville who had wangled his very first berth to the ice, walked for two days to the Gambo railway station to catch the sealers’ car into the capital in time to sign on. He had just turned 18. With him was his best friend, Job Easton, 19. In St. John’s, they bought their gear on credit at Harvey’s and then went to take a look at their ship, the Newfoundland, 568 tons. She was the largest of the 11 old wooden walls in the fleet and when Payne saw her he thought she must be the biggest ship in the world. In command was Capt. Westbury Kean, 29, a member of a Newfoundland dynasty of merchants and sealers dating from the 18th century. That year, his father, Capt. Abram, had a new steel icebreaker, the Stephano, and his brother, Capt. Joe, had Stephano’s sister ship, the Florizel. The Keans, being kin, had privately agreed to help each other out when needed. They’d look after one another’s men if a crew was separated from its home ship at nightfall. And Capt. Abram said he’d signal Capt. Wes by hoisting the Stephano’s after-derrick if he found seals first.

The Newfoundland cleared from St. John’s on March 10 and got north as fast as she could. Then, on Monday, March 30, the Stephano’s derrick was raised in the prearranged signal. The Newfoundland immediately got up steam to overtake her, but about six o’clock at night she jammed hopelessly in the ice. Capt. Wes then decided to send his men on foot to the Stephano to get in on the seal slaughter, and at dawn on Tuesday morning he turned them out on the ice. At the time, the day seemed fine. The air was soft with coming spring and many stripped off the heavy clothes that might have saved them later. The only food they took was hardtack and a bit of raw oatmeal and sugar. The big grizzled first mate, George Tuff, 50, was in charge of the 134-man party. The Stephano, visible on the horizon, was seven miles away. They quickened their pace and got to the Stephano around noon. They went below for a mug-up until the call came, “Newfoundland’s crew over the side,” and when they came up it was just starting to snow.

The Stephano manoeuvred so her weight would tighten the floes and give the men a solid jump-ground, and they tumbled out on the ice. While she steamed off, the men walked inland to the seals, a patch of some 800. They moved among them swiftly, singling out the whitecoats first and killing them with a sharp tap on the nose with a gaff. Others set to work to skin them. The men’s boots were soon slippery with blood.

Now the snow thickened — “those big blossoms that pitch on you and then melt,” recalls Payne. “We weren’t cold, but we were getting wet.” Soon, they could see only a few yards. This was when many of them learned that Capt. Abram wasn’t coming back to pick them up; instead, Tuff had agreed that they’d return over the ice to the Newfoundland. Now, they were heading into the wind’s teeth and it was suddenly a gale. It carved their wet clothing to their bodies and froze it into stiff mummy wrappings. The men began to flounder, doubled against the slice of the wind and the sting of driven snow, slithering waist-deep into slob ice or stumbling into open water. The vanguard halted uncertainly and when Tuff caught up, he said they’d better dig in for the night.

He mustered off the party into three groups of 45 men under master watches Arthur Mouland, Tom Dawson and Sidney Jones, and told them to kick up blocks of ice into shelters. Hedley Payne and Job Easton were in Mouland’s group. They decided against using their gear for fuel, but in the other shelters men with clumsy fingers struggled to set fires with gaffs and towropes. The ones who’d got wet to the skin were already horribly frostbitten. One man thrust his numbed feet right into the fire and never felt the heat till they were badly burned. Another, hacking at his hardtack with a knife, accidentally severed his finger, mitten and all, and stuffed it in his mouth without noticing.

It was now well after six o’clock. Back on the Newfoundland, Capt. Wes was to spend the night preoccupied with the safety of his ship. Jammed in the ice in a bitter southeast gale with a heavy swell, he was several times in deadly danger. As for his men, he thought they were safe aboard the Stephano, according to the family arrangement. Aboard the Stephano, Capt. Abram, who knew they’d been heading back to the Newfoundland, gave them no more thought.

Some time after dark, the wind veered and the temperature plunged to 10[inverted exclamation mark] F. Now the shelters gave no protection from the blizzard. Around 10 p.m., a man in Mouland’s shelter went mad. He shouted and shrieked and turned on the others with his sheath knife. Then he fell to the ground and rolled around, still screaming. It went on for two hours until around midnight, when he died.

It was urgent that they stay on their feet. Some of them shuffled round and round in circles. Jess Collins from Hare Bay took charge of one group and set them to act out jigging for fish. Then he made them march in single file, each pounding the back of the man in front. During the night, Mouland, patrolling the fringes of his group, found two men dead; he lugged the bodies outside the shelter where the others wouldn’t notice them.

When dawn came, the snow had stopped, but the gale continued. The Newfoundland, jammed in the ice, was less than two miles away and there were five other ships in the area, but the wind was blasting the drift in blinding, choking jets across the ice and the men could scarcely see. The master watches went swiftly among their men counting heads. Surprisingly, most had come through the night alive and their spirits had risen with first light. They’d be spotted soon, or the weather would clear and they’d locate the Newfoundland.

The day wore on. Around 5:30 p.m., when darkness began to fall, the men understood that they’d be on the ice another night. Then they began to die like flies. Before, they’d died hard, screaming in rebellion and delirium; now they died stealthily, shaking off anyone who tried to keep them on their feet.

At six o’clock, Job Easton told Hedley Payne he was going to lie down and die. Payne kept at him for a couple of hours, pulling at him, trying to keep him on his feet. Not far away, another man was fighting the same battle. Cecil Mouland of Hare Bay saw his cousin Ralph draw apart and curl up on the ice. He clawed through his nunny-bag [knapsack] till he found a bit of oatmeal, and when Ralph was too weak to eat, Mouland chewed up the cereal himself and fed it to him. Then he lugged Ralph to his feet and kept him going, saying: “Don’t give it to them at home to say you died on the ice.” In the end, Payne could do nothing for Easton. He was weak himself and he began to be afraid Easton would pull him down. So he walked away. “We were all goofy, like drunks,” he says painfully. “Whenever I was half-conscious I could hear him, until about nine or ten o’clock, when I guess he died.”

This is all Hedley Payne remembers: “Then it was dawn. The wind had died. The sky was blue. I looked at the horizon and counted seven ships. I looked around me. Here and there I began to pick out a foot or an arm or the hump of a back sticking out of the snow. The next time I came out of the trance I still felt good. The sun was like a ball of fire shining right at me and two figures were coming towards me. There was a ship about a mile away, steaming in. It was the Bellaventure.”

The vessel set out for St. John’s with the dead and the most seriously crippled. On the way, Payne was taken on deck to see if he could identify Job Easton. He couldn’t make him out in the jumble. Later in St. John’s, however, the bodies were taken to the King George V Seamen’s Institute and put in the swimming pool. After hot water was run in to thaw them, Payne was able to pick out his friend by his clothing.

As for Hedley Payne, a friend asked him afterward how it had happened that he hadn’t been scared and had never once thought he might be going to die. “It was my first trip to the seals,” said Payne. “I thought that’s what a seal hunt was like.”

Dec 14 2014

Earthquakes Have Hit India Hard

ehhihAt about 8:30 a.m. on January 26, 15-year-old Kunal Doshi was preparing to take a bath when a rumbling began. In minutes, his house crashed down around him. Rubble trapped the naked Kunal up to his neck, with a concrete pillar crushing his right leg. A heavy door teetered inches above the boy’s head. A massive earthquake had leveled Kunal’s city and much of the state of Gujarat.

Kunal’s 18-year-old sister, Rachana, who was rescued from the ruins several hours after the quake, found her trapped brother four days later. “Hold on,” she called to him. “Help is coming.” Kunal, a Hindu, prayed.

But when rescuers arrived on the scene, they faced a dilemma. If they removed the pillar that was crushing Kunal’s leg, tons of broken concrete would fall and kill him. They decided his leg would have to be amputated on the spot. But if the doctors didn’t cut off the leg quickly, the boy would bleed to death.

To ease Kunal’s pain, a doctor gave him a painkiller. An Indian army surgeon, Lt. Col. Prem Singh Bhandari, crawled into the work space that rescuers had dug around the boy. The doctor later described the space as “a cave about 2 feet by 2 1/2 feet.” Bhandari asked for a large knife, “and in one go,” the surgeon said, “I just cut the skin and all the soft tissues.” Bhandari’s only problem, he said, was cutting through the bone, since he didn’t have enough room to move his hands freely. The surgeon used a hammer and chisel to cut through about 70 percent of the bone and had rescuers pull the boy up. Then Bhandari used a carpenter’s saw to finish the job. Rescuers raced Kunal to a makeshift hospital set up by the Red Cross, as the quake had destroyed most local hospitals.

Kunal is thankful to be alive. “I thought of God only. I kept my faith in God,” said Kunal, while recovering in the hospital.

Many Miseries

Although there were several miraculous rescues like Kunal’s, the quake claimed a staggering number of lives. The quake’s official death toll, as of February 1, was 14,240, but many people fear the number will climb much higher by the time all the rubble and debris is cleared. At least 61,638 people were reported injured.

The quake, which according to the U.S. Geological Survey measured 7.7 in magnitude, was felt throughout much of Pakistan and as far away as Nepal and Bangladesh. Magnitude indicates the overall power released in an earthquake. Each number on a magnitude scale indicates a power ten times stronger than the preceding number. Scientists consider earthquakes above magnitude 7.0 to be major earthquakes, capable of widespread damage.

Those who survived the quake face many hardships. “It is devastating,” said Martin Kelsey, director of India’s Save the Children. “It’s as if villages had been hit by an atomic bomb. Village after village has been razed to the ground.” In Bhuj, a city near the quake’s epicenter, or focus, Kelsey said mountains of rubble stretch as far as the eye can see.

For weeks after the quake, the stench of rotting bodies filled the air. Funeral pyres, on which Hindus cremate the dead, burned night and day.

Homeless people are still everywhere. Indian officials estimate that the quake left as many as 600,000 people without shelter. “We face a grievous housing situation,” said M.H. Gadhvi, a Bhuj official. “The damage is so bad, people are living under the sky.”

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates the financial damage of the quake at $5.5 billion dollars. It will take months, even years, for western India to rebuild.

Hope Amid the Rubble

Aid poured quickly into India from around the world. More than 20 countries, including the United States, and dozens of international aid groups, such as the International Red Cross and World Relief, delivered food, blankets, and emergency supplies.

Even neighboring Pakistan, which has fought three wars with India since 1947, sent relief planes loaded with blankets, tents, and food. “The desperate situation transcends political differences,” said Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar.

Despite their hardships, many survivors remained hopeful. Mukta Ben H. Thakker, who lost her home and business in the quake and who was camped out on a street in Bhuj, said, “Somehow we will survive.”

BACKGROUND

India is no stranger to earthquakes, as it lies near the region where the greatest continental collision on Earth takes place.

The Earth’s surface is divided into about seven major moving tectonic plates. About 60 million years ago, the Indo Australian plate collided with the Eurasian plate–and neither plate yielded. The interface between the two plates formed the Himalayas, the greatest mountain range in the world. The impact between the two plates continues to this day and, as a result, the Himalayas are still rising. Satellite measurements put their growth at about 5 millimeters per year.

The U.S. Geological Society categorizes earthquakes by their magnitude as follows:

Great earthquakes, with a magnitude of 8 or higher, occur about once a year, and completely destroy communities near the epicenter.

Major earthquakes, with a magnitude from 7.0 to 7.9, occur about 18 times per year, and inflict widespread, heavy damage near their epicenters.

Strong earthquakes, which occur about 120 times per year, have a magnitude between 6.0 and 6.9. They are capable of serious damage if their epicenters are near heavily populated areas.

Moderate quakes have a magnitude between 5.0 to 5.9 and occur about 800 times per year. Damage is negligible in buildings of good design and construction.

Light quakes, with a magnitude between 4.0 and 4.9, occur about 6,200 times per year. Damage is minimal, but shocks and rumblings can be felt by all near a light quake’s focus.

Minor quakes occur about 49,000 times a year and have a magnitude between 3.0 to 3.9. Their damage is slight, but minor quakes can be felt by nearly everyone near their epicenters.

Very minor quakes, with a magnitude between 1.0 and 3.0 occur about 9,000 per day. They are generally not felt, but can be detected by a seismograph.

Major Earthquakes in India

* April 23, 1999: More than 110 people are killed in a 6.8 magnitude quake in Chamoli in the Himalayas in India’s Utter Pradesh state.

* May 22, 1997: An earthquake kills 43 and injures 1,000 in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh state in central India.

* Sept. 30, 1993: As many as 10,000 are killed and thousands more are injured after a 6.0 quake strikes Latur in India’s Maharashta state.

* Oct. 19, 1991: About 2,000 are killed after a 7.0 quake strikes northern India.

* Aug. 20, 1998: A magnitude 6.6 quake strikes the state of Bihar, killing more than 1,450.

* Aug. 15, 1950: A magnitude 8.5 quake killed about 1,538 people in the state of Assam, in northeastern India.

CONSIDER THIS … What if a major earthquake struck your town? Write a short description about how it might affect your life.

Red Cross. The Red Cross is an organization dedicated to relieving human suffering around the world. More than 135 nations have Red Cross societies. Each society is run by local leaders, but all Red Cross organizations are united in their goals to help people in need. Red Cross services are staffed by volunteers and a few career staff members.

The Red Cross began after Henry Dunant, a Swiss banker, encountered the Battle of Solferino during the Austro-Sardinian War (1859). Dunant was traveling on business when he came upon a battlefield the day after 40,000 people had been killed or wounded. Dunant organized a group of volunteers to help relieve the suffering of the wounded. Afterward, he began to write pamphlets calling for a a permanent group of volunteers who could help others in times of war. In 1863, a group of delegates at a conference accepted Dunant’s idea and formed a relief organization. They adopted the red cross as their symbol, in honor of Dunant’s home country of Switzerland (the Swiss flag is a white cross on a red background).

Dec 4 2014

Seattle’s Quake Was A Killer For Insurance Companies

stqkeInsured losses from the earthquake that shook the Pacific Northwest in 1998 could reach $1 billion or more, which would make it one of the most costly U.S. quakes for insurers.

Property damage from the Feb. 28 quake, a 6.8-magnitude temblor that was centered 35 miles southwest of Seattle, is widespread. But property damage is expected to be largely superficial, and major structural losses are not likely, according to preliminary reports.

Risk managers in the region credit advance planning and preparedness for helping keep casualties and insured losses from being far greater.

Initial estimates of insured losses from the quake ranged from hundreds of millions of dollars to as much as $1 billion as of late last week, though estimates are expected to grow as more loss data becomes available. The quake also caused injuries to about 320 people and resulted in one death from a heart attack, according to media reports.

State and federal officials late last week estimated total economic losses from the earthquake at $3.6 billion, including damage to roads, bridges and government buildings.

One day after the quake, Swiss Reinsurance Co. estimated that insured property losses would reach at least several hundred million dollars, based on an estimated $1 billion in total economic damage, said Luzi Hitz, head of Swiss Re’s earthquake group in Zurich.

But that preliminary assessment-which does not include damage to insured public property or business interruption losses-could change, he said, as more data and insurance company reports become available and provide a better picture of the event.

Catastrophe modeling company Applied Insurance Research Inc. estimated that insured losses could reach up to $1 billion, including claims for damaged contents and business interruption, said Uday Virkud, senior vp for the Boston-based company.

Other companies with catastrophe modeling software estimated insured damages would fall in a similar range, between $500 million and $1 billion.

Even within that range, the quake would rank as one of the five largest U.S. quake losses. Still, it would fall far behind California’s 1994 Northridge quake-the most costly quake, with an estimated $12.5 billion in losses-and the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which caused an estimated $7 billion in insured losses, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

One reason for the lower loss estimate is that only about 30% of insured structures in the Seattle-area have earthquake coverage, said Mr. Virkud and other insurance industry sources. Statewide, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler estimated that only about 12% of policyholders have earthquake coverage.

Mr. Virkud said that he expects that many of the claims from last week’s quake will involve residences, rather than commercial buildings.

According to preliminary reports on commercial properties, older, masonry buildings bore the brunt of structural damage, while modern office buildings and other newer commercial buildings likely suffered limited structural damage, according to Mr. Virkud.

Much of the damage to newer buildings likely was limited to cracked facades, broken glass and fallen ceiling tiles, Mr. Virkud said.

There are probably thousands of small property losses, far outnumbering severe losses from the quake, said Swiss Re’s Mr. Hitz. As of Thursday, he had received no reports of claims for severe damage to commercial buildings.

As of Friday, Factory Mutual Insurance Co. had received loss reports from about 25 policyholders, of which 10 to 15 were claims for sprinkler leaks, said Jeff Tenn, operations vp-engineering for FM Global Earthquake Services in Woodland Hills, Calif.

One of the highly protected risk insurer’s immediate priorities in response to the earthquake was contacting its policyholders in the area to make sure their sprinklers were operational and prepared for the secondary risk of fire, Mr. Tenn said. None of the insurer’s commercial policyholders reported fires, he noted.

Water damage from broken sprinklers accounted for damage to some retail operations and a few office buildings, said Ed Rhone, branch manager in Seattle for GAB Robins North America Inc.

“We are not seeing a whole lot of it, because most of the systems have been changed to dry systems, but there are some continuing exposures from wet systems that are out there,” he said.

Additionally, water gushing in from broken water mains caused damage to three or four retail businesses, Mr. Rhone said.

Retail stores also may experience business interruption losses because damage to streets is keeping shoppers and workers away, he added.

Initial inspections by loss adjusters with McLarens Toplis North America Inc. revealed a high volume of claims is likely from the quake, but claims will be limited mostly to cracked walls, floors and building facades, said Robert J. Barnett, property operations leader for McLarens Toplis in Los Angeles.

One reason that properties appear to have avoided more significant losses is the depth of the quake’s epicenter.

Last week’s quake had roughly the same magnitude as the Northridge earthquake, which killed 57 people and caused an estimated $12.5 billion in insured damage against $40 billion in total economic damage. But the Washington temblor was centered more than 30 miles below the earth’s surface, while the Northridge quake was only about 10 miles below ground.

While the earth’s crust absorbed a large portion of the quake’s energy, to risk managers, it still felt plenty strong.

“It felt like I was on the deck of a boat. It was really rolling,” said John W. Lambdin, insurance manager for Weyerhaeuser Co., a Tacoma-based forest products company. But damage was relatively light and, based on initial estimates, is expected to fall within Weyerhaeuser’s self-insured retention, he said.

“We have some damage here and there, but nothing catastrophic,” Mr. Lambdin said. Weyerhaeuser’s business interruption losses also are limited. One company pulp and paper mill in Longview, Wash., south of the epicenter, shut down for a damage appraisal. But operations were expected to resume quickly, he said.

“As a whole, the region did very well,” Mr. Lambdin said.

Other risk managers agreed.

“It was as realistic and friendly a drill as the Pacific Northwest could hope for,” said Lewis Leigh, executive director of the Renton-based Washington Cities Insurance Authority, which provides property/casualty coverage for about 100 pool members. “It was a good test of our emergency communication plan.”

Still, the WCIA had to evacuate its headquarters for a few hours during a precautionary inspection. Total damage incurred by its members will easily exceed a $100,000 self-insured retention the WCIA holds for earthquake risks, Mr. Leigh said.

In some cases, damages at a single member will probably exceed that deductible, he said. But, he added, it is still too early to determine the precise extent of damage. Members likely suffered losses to older buildings, infrastructure and other property such as golf courses. In addition to insurance coverage, cities also are likely to receive disaster assistance funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Prior to the quake, federal funds had already helped WCIA members to reinforce buildings, bridges and other public infrastructure, which helped limit damage, Mr. Leigh said. City emergency plans also helped minimize damage.

“Everybody knew their jobs, and they worked through the night to do their jobs,” Mr. Leigh said.

At GES Exposition Services Inc.’s two Seattle-area locations, the quake broke some fire sprinkler connections, causing widespread water damage, and upset racks of stored goods and crates, according to Lance Ewing, the company’s senior director of insurance and loss prevention.

“We were fortunate we had no injuries” among the 140 people working at the two offices, which are located just south of Seattle, he said.

Earthquake preparedness drills helped workers cope, as did the company’s crisis management plan, which Mr. Ewing directed from the company’s Las Vegas headquarters.

In the wake of such an event, a company must remember that there is “a human side” that must be addressed, Mr. Ewing said. GES employees were told to take care of their home needs first, he said.

One big difference between this and earlier catastrophes, Mr. Ewing noted, was the rapid communication capabilities provided by e-mail and digital photography. “Within two hours, we already had digitized photos of the damage,” he said. As a result, he was able to contact his insurer and promptly arrange for sprinkler system repairs.

A few school districts and some individual schools shut down because of the earthquake, said David Hayasaka, executive director of Puget Sound Schools Risk Management Pool in Burien, Wash. Some closed only temporarily for precautionary inspections.

“But I fear some of it is to assess real damage,” Mr. Hayasaka said. He credited school drills with helping avoid student injuries.

The quake caused a significant crack in the state’s Capitol dome in Olympia, which is not insured for the damage, said Betty Reed, risk management administrator for the state of Washington. As of Friday, about 10,000 state workers in Olympia began returning to work, as the capitol complex began reopening.

Additional damage could result to policyholders’ pocketbooks when they attempt to renew earthquake coverage.

“I suspect it will tighten up capacity and terms and conditions,” said Don Chapman, chief operating officer for SAFECO Insurance Co.’s commercial enterprise unit in Seattle.

It is probably too early to determine the impact on pricing and availability, because the losses are not yet all known, said Anne Anderson, a senior vp for Marsh Inc. in San Francisco. Many losses will not be determined for weeks to come, she said.

“We really do not have a sense of what the commercial insurable loss will be,” she said. “As that develops, we will see carriers decide where they will be.”

Nov 23 2014

Talking Spirituality

tkstyFor more than three weeks, we sat with Yesenia’s family on the side of the road at kilometer 53, waiting and wailing. It was not until twenty-four days after the quake that they finally found parts of Yesenia’s brothers’ and family members’ bodies and clothing. Each brother, cousin, and uncle was properly re-buried at the family’s home in San Vicente.

I feel called to be in El Salvador. I work with a community development agency that has helped to provide a way out of poverty for thousands of Salvadoran people by setting up credit programs, agricultural assistance programs, and health alternatives. The very reason I live and work in El Salvador is because I believe in a God of love and justice.

A vision of the reign of God, full of health and peace, is what spurs me on toward living a life of Christ-centered activism. But the anguish that our dear friends experienced, along with the mourning of a country already so beaten down by ruling-class economics and oppression, made me question my role in it all. Why am I here if I cannot truly help? How can I be of use when God renders me powerless?

As we trekked up to the highway every day, waiting to find out if the bulldozers would be able to dig out Rodrigo, Edwin, and the others, my activist efforts became irrelevant. A credit program would not help them, and neither would a clinic. All I could do was sit with them. I did not dare speak, lest my anger toward God affect them.

As we waited there at the foot of that mountain, I wondered if my faith could last through this journey. Sitting with my friends, this family so broken and torn, I began to question every bit of what I believed. I did not wonder if God existed, I simply wanted to know “Is God good?”

On one of the last days that we headed up to kilometer 53, I remember saying to my husband, “If prayer works at all, if God actually listens and answers, my prayer is that Yesenia and her mother Leonor will experience joy again.” At that moment I had a vision in which God appeared and said to me: “I am with you. I was with them when they died, and I am here with you now.” No other explanations were offered. But I was held, transfixed, and God’s gaze melted my anger.

My activism in El Salvador, working on the side of the poor, offering concrete hope, enables me to help people in need. But these are complicated situations and there is no cookie-cutter alternative that answers all of the needs.

At the root of every endeavor is a commitment to another human being. How far will I go to love this person and to live their story with them? How committed am I to her or his well-being? My activism involves a willingness to see life through others’ eyes and give credence to their experiences by helping bring about changes. My belief in a spiritual reality allows me to work from the assumption that all of us are called to love our neighbor.

My profound commitment to many causes flows out of the personal relationships I have formed. When my friend is denied the ability to earn a living for herself and her family, I commit myself to challenge broader policies by supporting fair-trade networks, micro-business initiatives built on local needs and production, equal opportunities in education, work, and domestic responsibility.

These relationships are also an occasion for doubt and suffering. It is a spiritual gift to have the conviction that God is somehow working even when we are apparently rendered powerless to make change.

As we sat on the side of the road with this family, bracing ourselves daily for the news of a shirt, a limb, or part of the truck, I realized that being there was all that God asked me to do. It was all I could do. I had to commit myself to this family by praying for them, sitting with them, and bringing them tarps and snacks.

I have also discovered through deep personal struggle another facet of the spirituality of activism. I am constantly challenged to allow God to inform and change me as I interact with a person and with a cause. Yes, I live in El Salvador because I see God’s vision for the poor. I hear the call to help those in need. But if I am not malleable, not willing to be transformed–rather than just taking on the role of transformer–then I am missing out on God’s great gifts.

That is, we are never simply a means to an end. Each of us, each activist and each human being, is endowed with the image of our Creator, and we are works in progress. We can approach every day with fear and trembling knowing that our existence is of cosmic significance and knowing that through God’s grace we can do all things.

Nov 5 2014

Bush Fires: A Grave Danger

bfagdSydney’s 1994 bushfire did, in fact, kill a young woman. But the death of strangers does not press on people for long. A killer fire will probably hit Sydney in due course, but not yet. The fires cause millions of dollars worth of damage, but if it was not your house that went up in smoke you hardly notice the personal cost of small increases in insurance premiums and the artful ploys of the state government to raise more revenue.

For most Sydney people I think there is a sensuous thrill in living under a red-black sky for a week or two, experiencing near-darkness at noon, breathing in lightly smoked air and seeing ashes accumulate in the pool. It’s a toss-up who gets the greater thrill when hostesses call guests to cancel Sunday lunch invitations because “it’s getting a bit hairy out our way”.

The telling of post-fire war stories approaches Sydney ceremonial. To stand on the verandah, tracing with extended arm the path of the circle of fire that almost engulfed you, is richly satisfying. If you are lucky enough to live along the myriad inlets and bays of the Hawkesbury estuary, with the Kuringai or Brisbane Waters National Parks at your back, you can keep discussion going into the fourth bottle of chenin blanc about how you sent the women and children to safety in the boat, then joined your neighbours in battling rampaging nature through the night and beyond.

The coming of CNN and the internet means that even those of us who cower in the very bosom of civilisation, kilometres from rampaging nature, get a look in as resistance fighters. Overseas friends, seeing Sydney engulfed, call and ask anxiously how you are. As well as can be expected, you gruffly imply. You would be dangerously out of synch with the zeitgeist by following Galbraith and conceding that you were pretty much enjoying it.

Its bushfires are, in their way, helping to define Sydney. This is a big city that has actual bushfires. Where else sets itself alight at frequent intervals? Los Angeles, of course. But would LA really appreciate its bushfires, as Sydney does, without the additional frisson of movie stars fleeing the flames in their nighties, and celebs watching mega-multimillion dollars of their possessions going up in smoke?

Sydney takes its bushfires straight, and giving the finger to nature at its most wrathful is widely seen as enhancing the New World raffishness Sydneysiders like to detect in themselves.

Also to be considered is the intrinsic attractiveness of near-wilderness in the city. This is not a subject that comes easily to my consideration. My favourite city parks are Central, Hyde and Meiji, groomed, non-representational renditions of nature under the tight control of civilisation at its most polished in New York, London and Tokyo. I also like patios. The patio is an affront to nature. Freud surely enjoyed them.

But I have to concede that, several years ago, I took some enjoyment from a ravine at the end of an urban street where I then lived. It was seven or eight metres deep, pretty narrow and contained a stream, a small waterfall and other chunks of, well, nature, much of it deviantly alien–great thickets of lantana, for instance. My children loved the ravine, and I was not immune to the thrill of slithering down its side into an environment radically different from the mowed-lawn one I had just left.

The difficulty of extending this analogy is that access to most of Sydney’s 38,000 hectares of national park is much more difficult than it was to my neighbourhood ravine. The National Parks and Wildlife Service provides in two volumes a detailed guide to 168 bush walks inside the parks of “the Sydney area” but admits that “most walks are intended for walkers of some experience”.

Dodderers and blunderers–and the merely short-winded–keep out? Probably so. It is impossible to determine the number of people who make use of New South Wales’s national parks because the NPWS counts as users anybody who drives through those parks that contain major arterial roads. The road through the Royal National Park, most of which is within the Sydney metropolis, is virtually a commuter route from the coast to the city–that is, when the park is not on fire. It was almost totally burnt out in both 1994 and 2002.

THE MOTTO of the NPWS twenty or so years ago was “Parks for the people”. Today this would be considered heresy. The present motto is “Our environment, a living thing”. The policy is one of exclusion of people, presumably out of fear that civilians might brutalise this living thing. It is as if the armies of the NPWS have invaded and occupied 5.3 million hectares of New South Wales, driving out hostiles. When nature reserves (“small areas of special scientific interest”) were brought into being in 1999, the NPWS lobbied vehemently, but unsuccessfully, for the removal of the word enjoy from the legislation–this being thought by a majority of the lawmakers to be a good thing for the public to do in respect of nature reserves.

I had my own somewhat unnerving experience of the NPWS’s exclusion policy a couple of years ago when, with time to spare, I decided to drive from Melbourne to Sydney over the mountains. Progress along the good roads of Victoria’s Alpine Way was a pleasure. But when we crossed into New South Wales, whose Snowy Mountains are on a grander scale, and more picturesque, paving to drive on soon ended and deep ruts and protruding boulders took over. Worse, we came often to Y-junctions–not recorded on our small-scale map–that bore no signposts. Which way to go was entirely our call. The sense of being unwelcome to the Kosciusko National Park was strong. We might now be skeletons in a mouldering Ford had it not been for my wife’s country girl instinct for compass direction.

The NPWS’s sense of ownership has made it negligent–out of reluctance to damage “habitats”–about controlled burning-off of eucalypt undergrowth–the traditional and, in fact, virtually only way of guarding against bushfires running out of control. For all the Service’s protestations and scattering around of irrelevant statistics, this is incontrovertible. It burnt off 19,000 hectares in 2000-01, less than half as much as it did in 1994-95, despite having brought thousands of additional hectares under its control. An anecdote will linger: three years in a row, scheduled burn-offs in the north-western corner of Sydney were called off because they threatened the habitats of purportedly rare frogs and the breeding grounds of relatively commonplace cockatoos. In the event, runaway fire wiped out these areas anyway, damage to human habitation being prevented by prodigious firefighting effort.

Malcolm Jones, robustly representing the tiny Outdoor Recreation Party in the New South Wales Upper House and the most consistent opponent of the NPWS’s exclusionism and imperialist grasp for territory, blames premier Bob Carr for the assault by fire on civilisation. “Carr wants to be immortal,” Jones says. “He wants to be remembered as the father of the Green State.”

We of the Premier State need no reminder of this. Carr has established his own Kyoto Protocol and ordered electricity suppliers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 14 per cent on 2000-01 levels by the middle of this decade. My electricity bills now state the quantity of fossil fuels consumed in order to feed my habits, and invite me to consider installing solar-powered devices. No argument is offered as to why I should care or act. I share George W. Bush’s uncertainty about the causes and effects of slight global warming.

Carr seemed uncharacteristically rattled when he returned hurriedly to Sydney from an overseas jaunt and found his state on fire for the second time in less than eight years. He blamed it all on firebugs and said heavier jail sentences were needed for arsonists. Possibly jail alone was too good for them. They should also be made to confront people whose property had been destroyed (and, implicitly, bereaved relatives, if any, of fire victims).

In response to this, the Daily Telegraph committed the grave error for a tabloid of excessive ingenuity. It ran a front page of blacked-out heads of twenty-one accused arsonists under the headline “21 LUCIFERS”. Close scrutiny revealed that twelve of these devils were fifteen or younger, the youngest only nine. Many if not most of the arsonists appeared to have started big fires inadvertently with small fires. The father of one took strong offence to Carr’s threat of doom for his son. The Director of Public Prosecutions came out with an unequivocal declaration that existing penalties for arson were adequate. Carr’s fighting words about arsonists suffered quick public identification as a smokescreen, so to speak.

Carr’s environment minister Bob Debus fared no better when he asserted that greater use of burn-offs would have made no difference to the state’s bushfire assault. As he spoke, fire brigades were frantically burning off in an effort to halt advancing walls of out-of-control flame.

Also lacking sincerity, in my view, was the Carr government’s abrupt decision to place authority for all decisions about hazard reduction (that is, burning off) in the hands of Rural Fire Services Commissioner Phil Koperberg. Effective and noticeable in the field every few years, Koperberg is a public servant who has shown no capacity or desire, between fires, to override Greens, local councils, the NPWS or anybody–certainly not the Premier or any of his closer associates. A more complex man than Koperberg would surely be reflecting on the role of the scapegoat in public life.

As a Sydney dweller, I have no confidence in his ability to protect my city from the fires–nor me personally, should I be so reckless as to move to an outer suburb. Who would support Koperberg if he chose controversially to burn off part of the Lane Cove River Park that was home to a distinctive family of bogong moths? Hardly anybody. The meekness of the public in accepting media and official statements about suburbia encroaching on the bush is astonishing. Surely the bush is encroaching on suburbia. Nature is menacingly intruding on civilisation.

There’s no sense to the NPWS’s administering its holdings in Sydney the same way it does its Snowy Mountains parks. For tiny instance, it is against the law to play ball games in Kosciusko. I suppose you might fall on a valuable toad in diving for a slips catch. But it is effrontery to run the same regulation across the Sydney area, where a million or so people want to play ball games in their parks.

If Carr wishes to pursue his green dream, he would be wise to have the NPWS relinquish its claims on the Sydney area–where there are too many scrutinising eyes for his comfort–and put the national parks (and nature reserves) there in the hands of an entirely separate, relatively Greens-free, metropolitan authority whose brief would be to defend civilisation. Nature would receive a fair go, because it is popular, but not a free ride. If bulldozers were needed for defence against nature’s rapacity–a hundred-metre gap between bush and house is, for example, considered a minimum safety barrier to fire–the bush would have to go, not the house.

Oct 24 2014

Tornado Time: What To Do?

tornadotimeYour safe room should be in a basement. If a basement is unavailable, use a windowless interior room, the closer to the center of the building, the better. If you live in a mobile home, go to a place that will afford better protection. Mobile homes are not built to withstand the force generated by a small tornado.

Once you have established a safe place to take shelter, stock it with some basic, but very necessary, supplies. If these items cannot be stored in the safe room, keep them in a small backpack that can travel with you when an emergency arises. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that you gather the following items:

* a flashlight with extra batteries;

* a battery-operated radio that receives the National Weather Service broadcast;

* a first aid kit;

* food and water to last at least a couple of days (food that does not require heating or water to prepare is best);

* a non-electric can opener;

* medicines you or other members of your family take on a regular basis;

* cash and credit cards; and

* heavy-duty shoes or boots.

When conditions are ripe for tornado development, the weather service will issue a “tornado watch.” A watch does not mean that a tornado has been spotted, but rather that a tornado can develop. If a watch is issued for your area, be aware of certain conditions that may signal tornado development, such as a darkening sky with a greenish tint, or hail. Tornadoes can form rapidly, so if you notice any of these events, seek shelter at once.

“Tornado warnings” are issued when a tornado has been spotted or indicated by radar. When a warning is issued for your area, make your way to your predetermined location immediately. Since a warning means that a tornado has already been sighted, you may not have much time.

You will not always be near your safe room when severe weather strikes, and some places do not provide the necessary level of protection from a tornado. Places that do not provide adequate protection include not only mobile homes but structures with wide roofs, such as shopping malls, auditoriums, cafeterias, and warehouses.

If you happen to work in or are visiting a structure with a wide roof when severe weather strikes, go to a stronger structure, such as a stairway in a parking garage. Should there not be a stronger structure close by, then look for a drainage culvert, or get under a heavy piece of furniture, such as a desk or a workbench.

A car is not a safe place in which to ride out a tornado. With its high winds, a tornado can pick up and toss vehicles. Should you find yourself in a car or another vehicle when a tornado strikes, seek shelter in a building or a strong structure. As a last resort, lie in a ditch away from vehicles, making sure to cover your head and neck with your arms.

Wait until the tornado has passed to help injured or trapped persons. If people are severely injured, move them only if they are in immediate danger, to avoid causing further injury.

Use your telephone only for emergency calls. Telephone lines and cell phone towers may be down, causing the remaining circuits to become jammed. Lots of people call after an emergency. The fewer people tying up the circuits the better.

If the structure you are in is damaged, then get out. Be careful not to touch any electrical wires: They may still have currents running through them. Check to make sure the gas line coming into the house is connected and not leaking. If you smell gas, alert other people and get away. If possible, and if you know how, turn off the gas at the main valve.

Remember, it may take some time for emergency workers to reach you. While your area may not look too damaged, downed trees and power lines may be blocking the roads leading to you.

Oct 8 2014

A Flood Essay

afeyAs the water continued to spread, we hefted furniture up on stacks of bricks our freezer atop coolers. We carried dripping boxes of Christmas decorations and childhood treasures to drier areas of the basement. Within three. and a half hours, the flood water, some of which was sewage backup, would rise to a height of more than a metre.

When our kids woke, I left Todd to the moving and hoisting and escaped with the kids to McDonald’s for breakfast. The sun was coming up now and I could see that the flood was everywhere. Stalled cars, some up to their axles in water, littered the roadway. After breakfast, I drove to the day care before heading home again. Leaving my children in the raging wind and rain – and in the too recent aftermath of Sept. 11 – was intensely unsettling. But how could I keep them at home?

Back in the basement, Todd continued. “It’s coming in everywhere, every opening, every drain,” he said. We heard frequent gurglings and then splashes as bottles and boxes and jars first floated, then capsized and sank. We watched in despair as the spilled contents of our freezer bobbed around the oil furnace. I helped Todd tie our floating freezer to a bracket on the wall to prevent it from ramming the furnace and causing even more damage.

The phone lines were down. At 10:30 a.m., the power failed. I was standing in water high enough to flow over the top of my knee-high rubber boots. I waded across what used to be our basement and tried to remove the most valuable items from the sea of possessions. Feeling like a traitor, I watched my children’s toys float past while I struggled with books, computer diskettes and office supplies.

When the water crested at the hem of my shorts, I gave up. I retreated upstairs and used my cellphone to call my mother, two provinces away. For the first time, I cried. I cried for all the irreplaceable items we’d lost and because I was scared. But mostly, I cried because I felt overwhelmed. (I didn’t even know at that point that we had no insurance coverage. “Flooding,” the company man would tell me later that afternoon, “is not a standard insurable risk.”)

At about 6 p.m., the water stopped rising. Our basement was a swamp and our home – the one in which we’d hosted so many fine dinner parties and renovated so painstakingly over the past two years – smelled like a sewer. What were we supposed to do next?

It took three days and two nights before we could actually start measuring our losses. The children were safe at my mother-in-law’s house and we tried to move everything from the basement upstairs and then, when the sun reappeared, we toted the sopping boxes outside to dry in the sunshine.

That day, as I stood in the backyard, sifting through photo albums and family heirlooms, the depth of my sadness dismayed me. I cried at the shots of my best friend who died of cancer when we were 13 and at me wearing blue eyeshadow as McDonald’s “crew person of the month.” The dolls I had saved for my children could never be properly cleaned and decontaminated. I drew the line, though, at the travel diaries from our carefree backpacking adventures. I refused to throw those out. I hung them on the line beside the sour-smelling hockey equipment that was too expensive to discard hut hadn’t yet been washed. Todd and I consoled each other. “We’re all alive and safe,” we said. And “this is only stuff”

So, why, two days after the water receded, when I opened my childhood tickle trunk and found all 52 of my prized-but-forgotten Nancy Drew books soaked and beginning to smell, did I burst into tears? Even as I opened the covers to reveal an eight-year-old’s signature, I tried to comfort myself, thinking, “I don’t even have daughters. Ben and Andrew wouldn’t want to read these anyway,” but it didn’t help. At the time, despite the game-faced words, “it could have been worse,” I felt cheated, angry and sad.

So soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a little bit of flood water should only have served as a reminder of how good we’ve really got it, right? But sometimes stuff means more than just material wealth. Sometimes that stuff is the physical incarnation of our spiritual wealth, our memories, our past. And the keepsakes that you’ve cherished and preserved are intended not only to commemorate your past, but to illuminate your future, when you or your children or your grandchildren can hold them and be transported back to another time. Having these things violated feels not only like an affront to your memories, but like a blow to your future too.

As my husband said, “You really don’t know what you’ve got until you see it float.”

Eventually, the events of Sept. 19 would find a more comfortable resting place in my memory, one that would put our losses into some perspective. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this began during the flooding when a neighbour asked to borrow my cellphone. His wife needed to call to find out if her doctor’s appointment had been cancelled.

Then there was a woman who lived across the street and a few doors down. While the rain poured and water collected in our basements, most neighbours scurried about their houses and yards feverishly; she watched helplessly from behind her closed door. Confined to a wheelchair, this single mother of a five-year-old daughter sat patiently and frightened as her finished basement was submerged. I only learned about her a few days later, but when I did, I couldn’t help but feel humbled by her courage and grace. “I know that whatever happened was for a reason,” she told me.

The water wasn’t our only obstacle. Until an information package from the provincial government arrived on our doorsteps a week later, we had no information on proper cleanup and nobody told us that almost everything the flood water touched was contaminated and would have to be thrown out. Nobody told us that without proper disinfection, our homes would breed toxic moulds that cause a litany of air-quality and health problems. We knew the world’s gaze was locked on the rubble of the twin towers, but surely to God, our local authorities would pay attention. Yet, the civic officials and politicians at all levels seemed stuck in an unfathomable state of denial.

Tired of waiting for assistance, tired of hearing, “Someone should organize a meeting,” I took it on. I gathered a small committee of residents interested in putting pressure on the government. We booked St. Mark’s Anglican Church hall and invited any flood victims who had no insurance. The night of the meeting — nine days after the flood — we set out 100 chairs. Nearly 500 people showed up.

Notably absent were representatives from the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) — the department supposedly co-ordinating the relief effort with the federal government. Despite my pleas that they attend our meeting to provide critical information, the EMO stayed away. Prime Minister Jean Chretien did not comment on the situation when he attended a $500-a-plate Liberal party fund-raiser in St. John’s. Industry Minister Brian Tobin – who had very recently been Newfoundland’s pre-mier – ignored our invitation. Only the mayor, Andy Wells, tried to answer questions, but all he could offer was reassurance and a promise that the municipality would – gratis – cart away our drywall, carpets and millions of dollars’ worth of personal belongings.

Where, we wondered, was the government assistance? Where were the aid agencies that so promptly and commendably cared for the thousands of American airline passengers stranded in St. John’s only a week earlier?

We were going to have to do it ourselves. Thus began my role as unofficial flood lobbyist. What followed was a barrage of phone calls, e-mails and faxes to all levels of government. I told our story to anyone who would listen, sending out news releases and doing media interviews. More than anything else, though, I fielded calls from affected residents. Some were offering to help with the campaign for flood relief. Most just needed a sympathetic ear. We drew strength from sharing our stories.

I came to learn that our family was among the more fortunate. Not only was our house repairable, six weeks after the flood, our insurance company agreed to cover $10,000 of our $36,ooo loss. Many of our neighbours still haven’t collected a cent.

Two months after the flood, we got a call from the EMO. The federal government was coming through with the promised funding, but the program was bureaucratic, slow and sorely inadequate. Only the essentials were paid for and receipts had to be provided up front. You had to spend the money to get anything back. If you couldn’t, you’d have to settle for 70 per cent of the claim. Families with access to a large line of credit could live with the restrictions. Most got the 70 per cent.

Six months after the flood, our trauma has dwindled to the inconvenience of plaster dust, hardware-store bills and an overcrowded upper floor. Even as my husband and I nattered at each other, betraying the stress we still felt, we always knew our family would be fine. Our house would be restored and we’d move on. We would even mature a bit in the process. I came to realize that my self-perception as a harried mother of two young children is no excuse for not taking responsibility within my community. I will always be a harried something-or-other, but I will still feel a sense of responsibility toward the place where I live and the people who share it with me.

Perhaps more surprising, I’ve faced the fact that my material possessions are important to me. I’m not embarrassed to say that I value the things I’ve worked to own. This doesn’t mean I’m materialistic. Indeed, since the events of Sept. 19, I’ve never been more aware of my good fortune. I simply think that now, I’m just honest about it and I’ll never again try to comfort someone who’s experienced a loss with “Don’t worry, it’s only stuff.”

Sep 7 2014

Asteroids: Probable Disaster, Or Unlikely Hoax

apdA lump of space detritus a mile across, hitting Earth at around 15 miles per second, would release energy equivalent to a million megatons of TNT, or a hundred million Hiroshima bombs. Computations of the effect of such a blast suggest global catastrophe. No matter where ground zero was located, we’d all be in deep trouble.

You may think this is just theory, but astronomers have seen such a cataclysm, on another planet. Inmid-1994, the 20-odd pieces of a broken-up comet called Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter. The black eyes that the planet received had areas ranging up to four times the surface area of Earth. And the largest of the comet fragments responsible were only a third of a mile in size.

We know also that such things have occurred on our deceptively docile planet. Geologists have so far identified more than 250 impact craters spread over the continents. On Earth, unlike on the dead, pock-marked moon, active geology and atmospheric weathering erode craters relatively quickly. In any case, 70 per cent of the globe is ocean.

But geologists have estimated how often Earth suffers a cataclysmic impact energetic enough to disrupt the climate globally. Astronomers like myself have made similar estimates from studying asteroids and comets in space.

Our answers agree. Once every 100,000 to 500,000 years, we can expect a major impact, sufficiently powerful to cause the deaths of perhaps half of humankind. That may seem like a comforting answer, but it implies, say, 2.5 billion deaths every 250,000 years, or ten thousand deaths per year, taken as a global long-term average.

Smaller events occur more often. The last really significant one was in 1908, when an asteroid 50 or 60 yards across blew up in the atmosphere above Siberia. This is what usually happens, deceiving us in several ways. For one, it leaves no crater. For another, by exploding at an altitude of a few miles (when the shock of its hypervelocity plummet into the atmosphere causes the rock to shatter into pieces) the object actually causes maximum damage across a wide area. In the Siberian case, it was over a largely uninhabited region. But the flash from the 15 megaton explosion ignited the forest instantaneously, and the following blast (taking 20 to 30 seconds to reach the ground) then blew out the fire and blasted flat the trees over an area of a thousand square miles. We expect such events about once a century; on average. If the next one were to occur over Marble Arch, the whole of London out to the M25 would be razed to the ground.

It is true that you are more likely to die in a car accident than in an asteroid impact. But you are less likely to die in an air crash, where the chances are one in 30,000 against one in 10,000 for an asteroid.

These are averages: a commercial pilot is obviously more at risk from an air crash and an inhabitant of Sydney, San Francisco, Lisbon or any other coastal region facing a large ocean is more at risk from an asteroid because of the phenomenal tsunamis that oceanic impacts produce.

At present, there is not much we can do about the smaller asteroids that hit Earth. Less than about 100 yards in size, these are too difficult to spot, without spending high sums of money. In any case, the annualised death rate they cause is low (around a hundred people per year, globally).

The very large objects (bigger than three miles in size) induce the most damage, but their rate of impact is so low that, again, the annualised death rate is low. You are unlikely to die in a mass extinction event of the sort that hit the dinosaurs.

The most dangerous asteroids are those close to the threshold for causing a global catastrophe, which we define as being an event that would kill at least a quarter to a half of humanity. The size of object that would cause such a calamity is uncertain, because it depends on the impact speed, density and where it hits. But a diameter of about a mile is in the right ballpark. If there is one of that dimension lurking around with our number on it, then we’d better find it soon.

To be conservative, we might take our size limit to be half a mile. (Later, we might set our sights on still smaller objects — the ones that could obliterate a country but not a continent.) Such half-mile asteroids strike Earth only once per 100,000 years, on average. Thus the chance of one being due within the next century is only one in a thousand. And that is the only period of interest to us: we’ll let our great-great-grandchildren look after themselves.

What we need to do, then, is to carry out a surveillance programme aimed at finding all these moderate-sized and larger asteroids, and map their orbits so as to answer one vital question: is there an impact due soon?

If there is, then the odds are that we will have years of warning time, and so we should be able to knock it off course. As they say in the movies, we have the technology — but we hope we won’t have to use it.

A parallel here is with cancer screening. It costs relatively little, and most likely you will not contract the disease in question. But if you do, then your survival depends upon an early diagnosis. None of the solutions to a cancer diagnosis is pleasant: chemotherapy, operative intervention, radiotherapy. The same is true for asteroids. Nuclear weapons provide the only known way of giving the offending object a shove (although in a quite different way from what you will see in the movies).

There is also a parallel in terms of cost. Develop cancer and the expense of tackling it is of no consequence: it’s either your bank balance and mortgage or your life. Similarly, if we found an asteroid likely to hit us in, say, 23 years’ time, then the entire global product would not be too much to spend. We would be staring down the barrel of a gun.

So the essential thing is to give ourselves enough warning time. I first wrote to the British government on this subject more than 11 years ago, when I was operating the only southern hemisphere asteroid search project, at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in New South Wales. The only thing to have changed since then is that the Australian government has closed down that programme, to the dismay of researchers around the world.

The result is that about a third of the sky is being ignored — and it would be more if the Americans could not see some way south with their telescopes in Hawaii.

Here in the UK, despite much posturing, the government has done nothing. The UK government’s task force on potentially hazardous near-Earth objects filed its report two years ago: it had a set of 14 recommendations, leading off with the need for a dedicated southern hemisphere search telescope to complement America’s efforts.

None of those recommendations has yet been implemented. Not a single Earth-approaching asteroid has been spotted by any British search team. Nor have we contributed anything to the mathematical effort to track the routes of potentially hazardous asteroids.

By comparison, the five search projects in the US are finding near-Earth asteroids at a combined rate of about one per night. Japan also has a search project up and running. Italy is a world leader in the dynamical studies.

I know this all sounds like science fiction. I know you think we have more important concerns. Indeed, most likely we have. But if, to our considerable misfortune, there is a mile-wide lump of celestial rock that the clockwork of the heavens has designated to slam into our planet any time soon, then there is no greater problem that humanity faces: not war, not famine, not disease.

To tackle that rock, if it exists, it is vital we find it soon. We have all our eggs in this one little basket we call Earth. We must safeguard it for future generations.

Aug 5 2014

Taiga Research Lessens Forest Fire Impacts In Russia

trlfrTHE boreal forests of Siberia, known as the taiga, account for about 30% of the world’s forests. Their role as a carbon dioxide sink is vital to the prevention of global warming. The taiga is the earth’s lungs. In recent years, however, frequent forest fires have been lowering the taiga’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Figure 1 shows how much forested land has been lost worldwide between 1964 and 1994. Although much is heard about deforestation in the Amazon region of South America, because forest regrowth is swift there, the cumulative loss of forests in the Amazon is no more than 10% of the loss in Russia (mainly Siberia). In the 30 years represented in Figure 1, forests covering an area 2.5 times that of Japan’s territory were destroyed in the northern regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and Siberia was the main site of forest loss. The main cause of deforestation was forest fires (Figure 2).

Forest fires in the Siberian taiga cause a whole range of environmental and ecological changes and the effects the fires will have on global warming are a great source of concern. Since 1998, a team of Japanese and Russian scientists including the author has been conducting research on the effects of Siberian forest fires on global warming.

Forest Fires and Carbon Dioxide

Because of the sheer vastness of the Siberian taiga, it is difficult to pinpoint the location of forest fires. Thus, we have developed a method of locating forest fires and measuring their expansion in real time using NOAA satellite image resolution technology. The AVHRR (Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer) sensor detects unusual increases in the temperature of the earth’s surface and discriminates between clouds and forest fire smoke to detect and locate the outbreak of forest fires. Figure 3 shows the distribution of forest fires in far eastern Siberia in 1998 as identified by the NOAA AVHRR system.

Because the fires often break out simultaneously and many occur along roads and rivers, it is assumed that they are caused by human error or activity. According to Russian statistics, around 80% of forest fires are caused by man. The number of fires and the area burned varies year to year due to weather conditions, but it is estimated that the average annual loss over the past 20 years is around 3 million hectares.

Not only do forest fires release carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere, but they also cause the functional loss of forest’s photosynthesis when the forests burn. Thus, forest fires decrease the amount of carbon dioxide that the taiga can absorb by both direct and indirect means. In order to quantify the decline in carbon dioxide absorption, our research team built an observation tower in the eastern Siberian taiga from which to record long-term changes in the carbon dioxide flux and the energy-mass flux (Figure 4).

We compared the carbon dioxide flux for forests before and after burning or cutting (Columns A and B in Figure 5) with undisturbed forests (Column C). Figure 5 shows quantitatively how disturbance of the forest ecosystem converts forests from net carbon dioxide sinks to net carbon dioxide releasers.

The upper layer of Siberia’s permafrost contains high concentrations of methane gas that was generated earlier in the earth’s history and locked in the frozen soil. Figure 6 shows the concentration of methane gas and carbon dioxide in air bubbles trapped in the upper part of the permafrost. While the concentration of methane gas in the atmosphere today is 1.8 ppm, methane concentration in air bubbles in the permafrost is several thousand times higher. Where this methane gas originated is not yet clearly understood, but scientists have recently discovered that methane-generating bacteria live in the 40,000-year-old permafrost and that the bacteria are capable of producing methane under the low temperature conditions found there.

It is possible that global warming will further activate these methane-producing bacteria and accelerate the rate at which methane is added to the atmosphere.

In the aftermath of a forest fire, the heat-balance at the ground surface is thrown into disarray, and large-scale thawing of the permafrost occurs. This releases large amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane has a much more powerful greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

The effects on global warming caused by forest fires in the taiga are cumulative and they continue long after the fires are extinguished.

Controlling Global Warming

The effects of Siberia’s frequent forest fires on global warming are revealed by changes in the carbon dioxide and methane gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Our team will try to predict the effects of forest fires on global warning in the future. We are also trying to develop technologies to prevent the outbreak of forest fires. Considering that humans are the main instigators of forest fires, the following methods can help to prevent and control forest tires, and restore burn sites.

1) To prevent forest fire outbreak: Development of a forest fire danger alert system based on weather conditions conducive to fire outbreak.

2) To control the spread of fires: An early detection system using NOAA satellites and GIS (Geographic Information System) analysis to forecast fire spreading. This information will be used to forecast the frontline of the spreading fire so that firebreaks can be erected.

3) Restoration of burn sites: Reseeding to promote reforestation.

Joint research continues between Japan and Russia to control and prevent forest fires in Siberia through this set of responses and measures so that someday the taiga’s original role as the “earth’s lungs” can be restored.