Archive for the ‘Civil disorder’ Category
Just over seven months ago, I posted an item about the near-term probability of a catastrophic eruption of the Katla volcano on Iceland. Today, sadly, I think I have discovered that this might not be the worst natural disaster in human history (not to have happened yet).
Scientists believe that, when it happens, the Katla eruption could ultimately be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. However, there are many uncertainties; and a great deal of scope for deaths to be prevented. The same cannot be said for a mega tsunami originating in the Canary Islands.
La Palma is one of a group of Spanish volcanic islands off the coast of North Africa. The volcano of La Cumbre Vieja on La Palma erupted in 1949 and 1971. It is not like most other volcanoes; it is more like the Laki fissure on Iceland. Previous eruptions have been associated with earth movements; and it is now estimated that another eruption could send a large part of La Palma sliding into the North Atlantic ocean. In fact, it is estimated that another eruption could cause a landslide containing 500 cubic kilometres to slide into the ocean.
Contrary to popular myth, scientists are not prone to being alarmists. However, a wide variety of scientists are actively studying and modelling the consequences of another eruption of La Cumbre Vieja on La Palma.
At the end of this post you will find the YouTube video of the BBC/Discovery Channel production “Could We Survive a Mega Tsunami?” Similar to fears over an approaching ecological catastrophe arising from human activity, this fear over a catastrophe emerging from the Canaries is founded on science: It is not just the idle speculation of a bunch of doomsayers. There is evidence of previous tsunamis in the Canaries caused by previous landslides on the islands. What marks the landslide on La Palma (that has not happened yet) is the size of the area that could be affected (and the volume of material that could be mobilised).
The programme (video below) uses Hollywood style CGI, dramatic reconstruction and footage of previous tsunamis to great effect to tell the story of what is guaranteed to happen if the landslide occurs. This has been established using a combination of physical and computer modelling (you need to watch the video to appreciate the reality of all this).
Within 10 minutes, the mega tsunami – travelling at the speed of sound – would hit Gran Canaria, within 60 minutes Morocco, within 90 minutes Portugal, within 3 hours England; within 6 hours the Caribbean. Most devastating of all, however, by virtue of the geography, within 7 hours the entire length of the Eastern seaboard of the USA would be hit almost simultaneously.
Within minutes, social media would alert the World to the disaster but, it is thought, the USA would not take notice until its network of buoys in the North Atlantic indicated a tsunami was on its way. Worse still, psychologists reckon that even after being warned, 50% of urban Americans would ignore the danger (i.e. optimism bias and denial strike again).
In the city of New York, the authorities have already spent 10 years analysing the consequences of a mega tsunami from the Canaries, which will reach several kilometres inland, and have determined that the death toll will be significant. Along the eastern seaboard of the USA, 40 million people live within 40 km of the current seashore and 30 million of those people live within 10 metres of current sea level. By the time the tsunami makes landfall, it is likely to be at least 25 metres high. However, the main problem is that there will not be one wave, there could be as many as 10 waves; and each one has a very long wavelength – measured in hundreds of metres – so it will be like a river of water flowing inland. And what goes in must come out again; and when the water flows back out to sea again it is loaded with debris… Then you have the interruption to basic services, the breakdown of law and order; and the spread of disease… This will make what happened to Japan very modest by comparison.
One member of the US authorities estimates that there could be over 4 million casualties (I am not sure what he means by this). It seems clear, then, that this tsunami would make the death toll of the Indonesian tsunami (250 thousand) seem modest by comparison. Authorities in New York City reckon they could not cope with more than 600 thousand displaced people.
The collateral damage will also be extensive. The tsunami would knock out every single east coast port, which will trigger food shortages everywhere east of the Mississippi…
But enough from me. Watch the video. It will blow your mind…
…but this isn’t one of them.
Or is it?
The trouble is, of course, that removing all the subsidies and tax breaks given to the fossil fuel industry (which are delaying the creation of a free market in power generation) will make fossil fuels even more expensive.
In the USA, the fiscal cliff was narrowly avoided by last-minute agreement on budget cuts (hence the above choice). However, the fiscal cliff arose out of over-spending and economic stagnation; and both of these can be blamed – at least in part – on rising fuel prices.
In the UK, fossil fuels are already more than twice as expensive as they are in the USA (as they have been for decades). However, as a result of a weakening currency, they are now expected to reach an all-time record next month.
Even if we ignore the impossibility of perpetual growth in resource consumption and waste generation on a finite planet — and the consequential reality that we cannot rely on perpetual economic growth to pay-off the massive debts denying it has caused — we all need power to heat and light our homes; and get us to and from work.
The end of the era of cheap energy is therefore cited by many as the reason for the end of growth. This is a reality the World urgently needs to take on board. This will require radical thinking; and radical changes in policy in all areas of government policy. Thus, Richard Heinberg has been proven right:
Is it time to go “cold turkey”?
Sadly, electric cars are not going to be the answer; unless the electricity is generated from renewable or nuclear energy. Therefore, since the latter will take decades to become a reality – and our governments are still not doing as much as they could to invest in renewable energy – power generation capacity is clearly developing into a serious problem.
Here in the UK, we are facing a double-whammy: Record-breaking high fuel prices and the EU-enforced early-retirement of 10% of our oldest (and most-polluting) coal-fired power stations. Therefore, unless we, as individual consumers, invest in renewable energy, we will soon be paying more than ever for something whose supply will be more uncertain than ever. Believe me, if I could install solar PV panels on my roof I would. Sadly, without a job, I cannot.
Sadly, too, opposition to the radical solutions needed for us to resolve our problems is unwelcome irrespective of its origin: Denying that we have a problem is just as much an impediment to implementing solutions as is disregarding potential solutions for ideological reasons. For example, if our governments had not given up on fast breed reactor programmes in the 1980s (as a consequence of the campaign for nuclear disarmament mutating into ideological opposition to civil nuclear power generation) we would probably by now have solved the technical problems and be extracting uranium from sea water (wherein there is more of it than there is beneath our feet).
Must we embrace nuclear power?
In the long-run, yes, I think we must. The only thing that will make this unnecessary is the increasing possibility that Nature will soon intervene – and reduce the global human population to pre-Industrial levels (i.e. 1 billion). However, in the meantime, an awful lot of poor people need low-tech solutions. The good news is that such solutions definitely exist and, as Stephen Leahy pointed out over the weekend (reposting an item from over 3 years ago): “Bringing clean energy to billions costs far less than fossil fuel subsidies”.
Will we choose to fail or choose to succeed?
Just how long, I wonder, until expensive energy (and therefore expensive food) causes social instability?
What will our governments do then? Admit they were wrong and make radical changes, or send the Army on to the streets to maintain order? Sadly, I think we know the answer to that one – Jared Diamond gave it to us several years ago:
Following on from yesterday’s post of an R.E.M. classic (It’s The End Of The World As We Know It), here is more of my choice of music inspired by the fact that the World is NOT going to end today…
Incidentally, this makes me inclined, as I did back on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, to quote Carl Jung:
The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift; that is why we call it ‘the present’.
…So then, here’s my choice of music for this day in history (from U2)…
Walk On (All That You Can’t Leave Behind)
Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World
No it is not; but thanks to R.E.M. for the inspiration!
Yesterday, on Paul Handover’s Learning from Dogs, Paul Handover posted the 4th and penultimate part of his serialisation of the recent work of Dr Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute under the title ‘Down is the new up‘. As Alexander himself says, it “…is a challenging mixture of utopian and dystopian speculation”. However, whatever else it may be, it is an amazingly thorough analysis of our predicament. Here are my main take-aways:
4.1 Water – it’s the reason I first got into hydrogeology – and the statistics presented here are very sobering “…we could live with dignity without showering or bathing in the accustomed fashion… high water consumption is really a product of wastefulness…”
4.2 Food – Air transportation is one activity where fossil fuel use is not substitutable. However, what I had not considered before was the fact that localism is essential in food production because the current globalised system “will not be economically sustainable as oil continues to get more expensive.”
4.3 Clothing – At last I have found someone who shares my distaste for the fashion and advertising industries that sell only discontent. However, an organised boycott would simply put a lot of people out of work… But, of course, they will be needed to cultivate the land… Oh boy, is this going to be a hard sell…
4.4 Housing – Sadly, much of the UK’s Victorian housing has been demolished in the misguided belief that new is better. It might be if the new stuff was being built to the highest-possible energy efficiency standards but often it is not – and it is unlikely to be as long-lasting as that which it replaced. Refurbishment is the much better option; it is a form of recycling.
4.5 Energy – “energy consumption per capita in a sufficiency economy may be in the vicinity of half that of Western European economies today” – now there’s a challenge! Here again, Dr Alexander appears to endorse Schalk Cloete’s arguments (see yesterday’s post on this blog) regarding the implications of the end of the era of cheap, abundant and dense forms of energy (i.e. fossil fuels) – “The major obstacle in the way of completely decarbonising the economy is the fact that, currently, fossil fuels are required to make renewable energy systems, such as the solar panels and wind turbines.”
4.6 Transport – Again, yet more unemployment seems an inevitable consequence of the end of globalisation. Freight transport by air appears doomed but Tourism is not even mentioned. However, its demise seems to be assumed – this too will be a hard sell. Electric cars are expensive; and making them requires the use of fossil fuels.
4.7 Work and Production – Dr Alexander’s vision of the future looks like a return to medieval feudalism. If so, there are an awful lot of young people wasting racking up ludicrous levels of debt to get themselves a Tertiary education that will be totally useless.
4.8 Money, Markets and Exchange – An interesting conflict appears inevitable between the hitherto relentless advance of technology towards a paperless economy (i.e. electronic funds transfer) and a return to much older forms of trade (i.e. bartering). What is certain is that Alexander conceives globalised Capitalism as destined to become the economic equivalent of a cosmological Black Hole – “It may be that as economies are suffocated by expensive oil in coming years, and find themselves at the ‘end of growth,’ debt-based systems which require growth will collapse under the weight of their own debts and the alternative system will arise in a very unplanned, ad hoc, and possibility decentralised way.”
4.9 Miscellaneous – Both Marxism and Anarchism are critiqued. However, Alexander fails to note the fact, which many other authors have pointed out, that Marxism is merely growthmania without the Capitalism: It is focussed on production rather than consumption; but it still pre-supposes quantitative economic growth as the only way to measure progress (and has thus always failed). Alexander seems to see localism and grassroots revolution as the most likely way in which a post-carbon era will emerge. To me, this seems to pre-suppose the institutional failure of globalised Capitalism but, I guess we shall soon find out…
Therefore we are already in breach of Article 2 (i.e. the objective) of the UNFCCC:
“…to achieve… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that… prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system…”
When I was an adolescent, I used to enjoy watching horror movies – The Exorcist, Hallowe’en, Texas Chainsaw Massacre – you name it; I probably watched it. However, like many other adults (I suspect), I could not watch them now… Irrespective of whether it is a sign of emotional maturity or mental fragility, I generally have no desire to watch unpleasant things happen to people anymore; life is unpleasant enough. However, despite this, I decided to watch Contagion on DVD recently. (N.B. Do not read more than the first paragraph of the Plot section of the Wikipedia page if you have not seen the movie).
I suspect that most people who have seen the movie The Day After Tomorrow will have been amazed by the special effects; but completely unconvinced regarding the plausibility of the scenario. There were grains of truth in it (such as networks of buoys monitoring our oceans to detect any evidence of changes to thermohaline circulation patterns). However, most people seem to agree that the movie was ruined by the implausibly sudden climate change. Indeed, the implausibility was relentless; with the storyline getting more and more improbable as the movie went on – I really do not know what the Director was thinking…
Contagion – on the other hand – is completely plausible; it dramatises a contagious disease pandemic disaster scenario that has, in fact, already happened: Forget Swine Flu, Bird Flu, or SARS; the Spanish Flu pandemic (in 1918-20) killed 50 million people – a full 3% of the global population at the time – without the aid of globalised air travel to help spread the infection. The main reason that most people have not heard about it (or don’t talk about it); is that it happened at the same time as the First World War. However, more than twice as many people expired after catching Spanish Flu than were killed during the 1914-18 war. In fact, Spanish Flu killed almost as many people as died as a result of WW2.
Contagion is particularly scary because it includes all these historic facts; but it is also scary because of the way it has been crafted. There is nothing implausible about it; it could happen tomorrow and – despite the fact our governments know this – they cannot prepare for it any more than they have already done. So, are we ready for it? No, we are not; and we will never be ready. It is a global threat with consequences at least an order of magnitude greater than a major volcanic eruption on Iceland and, worse still, we have no early warning system for a flu pandemic.
Spanish Flu killed 3% of the global population – equivalent to over 200 million people today. However, today, it is considered that improvements in worldwide health care and access to medical facilities could offset the massively increased risk of rapid transmission of infection due to air travel. Based on all of this, in 2008, the World Bank estimated that a global flu pandemic could kill as many as 70 million people (i.e. 1% of the World’s population). The World Health Organization is more optimistic: Citing a figure of only 7 million, they say it is almost impossible to say how many would die because there are so many critical variables (including incubation period, ease of transmission, rates of infection and/or recovery, etc).
Experts reckon that we would be much quicker at isolating and replicating a vaccine for any new global pandemic; but that success in bringing it under control would largely be down to the general public being sensible.
Sadly, our inability as a species to work together to mitigate anthropogenic climate disruption reminds me of jokes about being unable to extricate oneself from a paper bag and/or organise a decent party in a brewery… So, when told that the consequences of a flu pandemic will largely be determined by the extent to which the general public exercises common sense, I am inclined to respond by uttering four simple words: “Beam me up, Scottie!”
However, I cannot end on such a note of desolation… I think we must all try to find a positive way to look at things… and indeed earlier this week I found myself feeling very glad to be here at all… It is 50 years ago this week that four Russian Nuclear Submarines left their base in the Arctic carrying torpedoes with nuclear warheads. When eventually located by US Forces, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the Subs (B-59) came perilously close to firing its “special weapon” and, had it done so, the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which kept the peace throughout the Cold War would almost certainly have become a reality. The fact that the Russian Subs had nuclear torpedoes was not known until 2002, when it emerged that the Commander of the Russian Fleet, Vasili Arkhipov, on board submarine B-59, over-ruled the vessel’s Captain and Second Officer – who had wanted to use them.
As it happens, having unknowingly avoided nuclear annihilation, my parents went on to conceive me a few years later… So, if humans can have the sense to step back from the brink of WW3, we can but hope they will step back from the brink of ecological catastrophe: We can do nothing to prevent an Icelandic volcano eruption; and we cannot eliminate the possibility of a global flu pandemic. However, we most certainly can, if we so choose, stop the unabated burning of fossil fuels from devastating the Earth’s current capacity to support life. Therefore, I will end with the words of a famous prayer accredited to the German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Climate change represents a clear and present danger to human civilisation (which we could have prevented). However, the volcanoes of Iceland actually represent a much greater – or at least a much more imminent – danger (which we cannot prevent). Here is how Jeremy Irons describes the threat in the opening sequence to the episode of the excellent Life on Fire television documentary series dedicated to looking at them:
Like many other islands, Iceland is a product of volcanic activity. However, Iceland is the most volcanically-active island on Earth; and many geologists consider it to be home to some of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet. Indeed, Iceland has at least 30 active volcanoes but concern is now focussed on about half a dozen of these, which are located beneath or in close proximity to ice. Of these, Grimsvotn, Hekla, and Katla appear to be the most dangerous.
Grimsvotn is the most active, erupting almost every year. Fortunately(?), it is buried beneath part of the largest permanent Ice Cap in Europe – Vatnajokull… Incidentally, we tend to describe these things as permanent but, I feel compelled to point out that bare rock of peaks in the Austrian Alps and the Rocky Mountains in the USA – previously considered “permanently” covered in snow or ice – are now being exposed as a result of global warming…
Anyway, to get back to Iceland, Grimsvotn is buried beneath several thousand feet of ice but it is remote; and the outpourings of glacial melt-water the eruptions cause do not seem to do too much damage. By contrast, Hekla is not so remote and is not buried beneath an ice cap (just a small glacier). However, although known to have a history of violent eruptions, Hekla is not thought to be ready to erupt (like all Icelandic volcanoes it is being routinely monitored for signs of activity). The really big concern is Katla, which is known have a history of violent eruptions and its underlying magma chamber is known to be full (rather than empty). Therefore, although it could erupt within weeks or not erupt for 10 years, it is considered – due to the regularity of its historic eruptions – to be ready to erupt and likely to do so in the near future (at least as one measures time in the context of the lifecycle of active volcanoes).
When Katla erupts it will make the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 (which it normally follows; and which caused so much disruption to aviation) seem insignificant by comparison: The scientists estimate that Katla (with a 10km-wide Caldera buried beneath 750 metres of ice) will be 50 times more powerful eruption than
Eyjaf… that of its close neighbour in 2010. In December 2011, the BBC News website picked up on the increasing levels of seismicity around the summit of Katla, reporting that New Icelandic volcano eruption could have global impact. One thing seems certain, an eruption at Katla will send much larger quantities of ash much higher into the atmosphere – such that they will stay there for years and disprupt weather patterns on a global scale.
The last time anything remotely similar happened – the Laki fissure eruption of a dozen or more separate volcanoes – in 1783, it is estimated that 300,000 people died in Europe from the short-term effects (i.e. much of Europe was blanketed in a noxious mixture of poisonous and acidic gases). Furthermore, it has been estimated that 1 million people died as a result of longer term effects (i.e. the failure of harvests and colder-than-normal winters in each of the three years following the eruption), which are thought to have been partly responsible for causing the French Revolution.
Given that the global population at the time was less than 1 billion, it does not take a mathematical genius to work out that, notwithstanding the fact that this will not be a surprise when it happens (thanks to all monitoring being done), the effects of an eruption of this magnitude today will be somewhat greater than interrupting a few people’s business or holiday plans. Basically, our modern industrial globalised civilisation has not witnessed anything like it and it will affect the whole of the northern hemisphere if not the entire planet. Here’s how the British, normally-unflappable, Daily Telegraph newspaper reported the news to its readers on the second anniversary of the 2010 eruption (earlier this year):
So all I can do now is echo the famous words of Edward R Murrow, and say, “Good night and good luck!”
Or maybe, if I can be permitted a little gallows humour:
Armageddon out of here!
(i.e. I think it really is time I made good use of my Dual Nationality and emigrated to Australia!)