Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Fight Against Toxic Algae

Signs posted around the Grand Lake, Ohio read: “Danger: Avoid all contact with the water.”  When dangerously high levels of toxins from blue-green algae in Grand Lake, Ohiio were publicized in 2009, many residents and tourists stopped using the 13,000-acre lake in northwest Ohio. Hotel revenue and home values sank for several years as algae bloomed in the state’s largest inland lake.

Greenish water still laps at Grand Lake’s shores, but recent water samples show that the amount of algae-feeding nutrients entering the lake is down significantly. State, federal and private donations covered more than $10 million in projects aimed at improving water quality. More people are boating on the lake again. Grand Lake could now serve as an example for communities with algae problems across the nation, experts say.

Algal blooms are on the rise, from Lake Erie to the Florida Everglades. In August 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency listed algae-related beach closures or health advisories in 23 states, and it said other blooms may not have been reported. In 2010, the EPA found that 20% of 50,000 lakes surveyed had been affected by phosphorous and nitrogen pollution, which feeds algae.e  Cleaning up bodies of water choked with toxic algae has proved difficult. The project to repair Grand Lake, once one of the most polluted by algae in the nation, is one of the clearest successes. It shows cleanup is possible, but also expensive and time-consuming.

“It’s not restored yet, but it’s on the road to recovery,” said Stephen Jacquemin, an associate professor of biology at Wright State University-Lake Campus in Celina.  Beginning in 2012, wetlands areas were built around the lake, which was hand dug in the 1830s. The thick stands of bulrushes and other plants have reduced phosphorous and nitrogen levels in water entering the wetlands before reaching the lake by as much as 90%, Dr. Jacquemin said.  Three wetland areas, which cost a total of about $6 million to build, are constructed as a series of interconnected pools that allow particulates to settle out and plants and microbes to remove nutrients.

Areal View of Artificial Wetlands, Great Lake Ohio

 The state’s Department of Natural Resources has also dredged the lake bottom to remove nutrient-loaded sediment, and tried to clean up one of Grand Lake’s beaches near St. Marys by building a rock jetty and installing aerators and a curtain to filter water. Recent water tests there showed levels below 6 parts per billion of the toxin microcystin, under Ohio’s threshold of 20 parts per billion for avoiding contact with water.

As Green Algae Forces Beaches to Close, Ohio Lake Offers Hope, WSJ, Sept. 18, 2019

The Truth About Forest Fires

BBC has used satellite data to assess the severity of fires in Brazil, Indonesia, Siberia and Central Africa.  It has concluded that although fires in 2019 have wrought significant damage to the environment, they have been worse in the past.   More than 35,000 fires have been detected so far in 2019 in East Asia  spreading smoky haze to Malaysia, Singapore, the south of Thailand and the Philippines, causing a significant deterioration in air quality.  But this is substantially fewer than many other years including those, such as 2015, exacerbated by the El Nino effect which brought unusually dry weather.

Haze Pollution

In Indonesia, peatland is set alight by corporations and small-scale farmers to clear land for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, and can spread into protected forested areas.  The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade.  Old palm trees on plantations that no longer bear fruit are often set on fire to be replaced by younger ones.

The number of recorded fires in Brazil rose significantly in 2019, but there were more in most years in the period 2002 to 2010.  There is a similar pattern for other areas of Brazilian forestry that are not part of the Amazon basin.  For 2019, we have data up to the end of August, and the overall area burnt for those eight months is 45,000 sq km. This has already surpassed all the area burnt in 2018, but appears unlikely to reach the peaks seen in the previous decade… “Fire signals an end of the deforestation process,” says Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist on the Amazon rainforest.  “Those large giant rainforest trees that we often associate with the Amazon are chopped down, left to dry and then fire is used as a tool for clearing the land to prepare for pasture, crops or even illegal mining.”

The environmental campaign group Greenpeace has called the fires that have engulfed the Russian region of Siberia this year one of the worst outbreaks this century.  The cloud of smoke generated was reported to have been the size of all the European Union countries combined.  Forest fires in Siberia are common in the summer, but record-breaking temperatures and strong winds have made the situation particularly bad.  Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency says more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km) have been affected since the start of 2019, already exceeding the total of 8.6 million for the whole of 2018…. Drawing on data for the number of fires, it is clear that there have been other bad years, notably in 2003.

Nasa satellites have identified thousands of fires in Angola, Zambia and DR Congo.However, these have not reached record levels.  “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the fires we’re seeing in Africa are worse than we’ve seen in recent years,” Denis McClean, of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency, told the BBC.  According to data analysed by Global Forest Watch, fires in DR Congo and Zambia are just above average for the season but have been higher in past years.  In Angola, however, fires have been reported at close to record levels this year.

Some have drawn comparisons with the situation in the Amazon, but the fires in sub-Saharan Africa are different.  Take DR Congo – most fires are being recorded in settled parts of the country’s southern, drier forest and savannah areas, and so far not in tropical rainforest.  Experts say it is difficult to know what is causing these fires, which are seasonal. Many are likely to be on grassland, woodland or savannah in poor farming communities.  “Fires are very important landscape management tools and are used to clear land for planting crops,” says Lauren Williams, a specialist in Central and West African forests at the World Resources Institute.

Excerpts from Jack Goodman & Olga RobinsonIndonesia haze: Are forest fires as bad as they seem?, BBC, Sept. 19, 2019. For more details and data see BBC

Dodging the Camera: How to Beat the Surveillance State in its Own Game

Powered by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), face-recognition systems are spreading like knotweed. Facebook, a social network, uses the technology to label people in uploaded photographs. Modern smartphones can be unlocked with it… America’s Department of Homeland Security reckons face recognition will scrutinise 97% of outbound airline passengers by 2023. Networks of face-recognition cameras are part of the police state China has built in Xinjiang, in the country’s far west. And a number of British police forces have tested the technology as a tool of mass surveillance in trials designed to spot criminals on the street.  A backlash, though, is brewing.

Refuseniks can also take matters into their own hands by trying to hide their faces from the cameras or, as has happened recently during protests in Hong Kong, by pointing hand-held lasers at cctv cameras. to dazzle them. Meanwhile, a small but growing group of privacy campaigners and academics are looking at ways to subvert the underlying technology directly…

Laser Pointers Used to Blind CCTV cameras during the Hong Kong Protests 2019

In 2010… an American researcher and artist named Adam Harvey created “cv [computer vision] Dazzle”, a style of make-up designed to fool face recognisers. It uses bright colours, high contrast, graded shading and asymmetric stylings to confound an algorithm’s assumptions about what a face looks like. To a human being, the result is still clearly a face. But a computer—or, at least, the specific algorithm Mr Harvey was aiming at—is baffled….

Modern Make-Up to Hide from CCTV cameras

HyperFace is a newer project of Mr Harvey’s. Where cv Dazzle aims to alter faces, HyperFace aims to hide them among dozens of fakes. It uses blocky, semi-abstract and comparatively innocent-looking patterns that are designed to appeal as strongly as possible to face classifiers. The idea is to disguise the real thing among a sea of false positives. Clothes with the pattern, which features lines and sets of dark spots vaguely reminiscent of mouths and pairs of eyes are available…

Hyperface Clothing for Camouflage

 Even in China, says Mr Harvey, only a fraction of cctv cameras collect pictures sharp enough for face recognition to work. Low-tech approaches can help, too. “Even small things like wearing turtlenecks, wearing sunglasses, looking at your phone [and therefore not at the cameras]—together these have some protective effect”. 

Excerpts from As face-recognition technology spreads, so do ideas for subverting it: Fooling Big Brother,  Economist, Aug. 17, 2019

What You Can Do with $1 Million: Saving the New Zealand Parrot

Scientists in New Zealand have genetically sequenced every adult kakapo.  The kakapo, a cuddly bird that lives in New Zealand, is not designed for survival. Weighing up to 4kg, it is the world’s fattest and least flighty parrot. It mates only when the rimu tree is in fruit, which happens every few years.  It evolved in the absence of land-based predators, so instead of soaring above the trees it waddles haplessly across the dry forest floor below. When it stumbles across something that might kill it, it has the lamentable habit of standing still….Such oddities turned the kakapo into fast food for human settlers—and for the cats, rats and possums they brought with them. It seemed extinct by the 1970s, until scientists stumbled on two undiscovered populations in the country’s south. These survivors were eventually moved to small predator-free islands, where the Department of Conservation has spent decades trying to get them to breed…Its patience may finally be rewarded. The rimu was in fruit this year, and more than 80 chicks hatched after a bumper crop, making this the best breeding season on record. Many have survived into adolescence, increasing the number of adult kakapos by a third, to 200 birds.

But another threat to the kakapo is a lack of genetic diversity, because of low numbers and inbreeding. This is one reason why fewer than half of kakapo eggs hatch. By sequencing the genome of every living bird, scientists can identify closely related individuals and prevent more inbreeding by putting them on different islands. Well-matched birds cannot be forced to mate, but artificial insemination is also proving effective. Every bird is fitted with a transmitter to track its slightest movement. If a female mates with an “unsuitable” male, the process can be “overridden” with another bird’s semen. Time is of the essence, so drones are being used to whizz kakapo sperm to the right place.

All these efforts cost almost nz$2m ($1.3m) this breeding season. Yet the kakapo’s future still looks precarious. Earlier this year a fungal disease tore through the population. And tiny as the number of kakapos is, space is running out on the two islands where most of them live. New predator-free havens must soon be found. 

Excerpts from How eugenics is saving a pudgy parrot, Economist, Aug. 31, 2019

Zero Radioactive Leakage: China Experiments with Nuclear Waste Disposal

China has chosen a site for an underground laboratory to research the disposal of highly radioactive waste, the country’s nuclear safety watchdog said in September 2019.
Officials said work would soon begin on building the Beishan Underground Research Laboratory 400 metres (1,312 feet) underground in the northwestern province of Gansu, in the middle of the Gobi desert.

(a) Enttrance Beishan Underground Research Laboratory
(b) Ramp Beishan Underground Research Laboratory

Liu Hua, head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, said work would be carried out to determine whether it was possible to build a repository for high-level nuclear waste deep underground….Once the laboratory is built, scientists and engineers will start experiments to confirm whether it will make a viable underground storage facility…

Gobi desert

Lei Yian, an associate professor at Peking University’s school of physics, said there was no absolute guarantee that the repositories would be safe when they came into operation.
Leakage has happened in [repositories] in the US and the former Soviet Union … It’s a difficult problem worldwide,” he said. “If China can solve it, then it will have solved a global problem.”
China is also building more facilities to dispose of low and intermediate-level waste. Officials said new plants were being built in Zhejiang, Fujian and Shandong, three coastal provinces that lack disposal facilities.

Excerpts from Echo Xie , China earmarks site to store nuclear waste deep underground,  South China Morning Post, Sept 5, 2019

How to Manage Water Like Money and Fail: Australia

Australia’s Darling River…provided fresh water to farmers seeking to tame Australia’s rugged interior.  No longer. The Darling River hasn’t flowed for eight months, with long stretches completely dried up. A million fish died there in January 2019.  Kangaroos, lizards and birds became sick or died after drinking from toxic pools of stagnant water.  Australia’s water-trading market is drawing blame. The problems with the system, created more than a decade ago, have arisen as similar programs are being considered in the U.S.

Water crises are unfolding across the world as surging populations, industrial-scale farming and hotter temperatures deplete supplies.  Australia thought it had the answer: a cap-and-trade system that would create incentives to use water efficiently and effectively in the world’s driest inhabited continent. But the architects of water trading didn’t anticipate that treating water as a commodity would encourage theft and hoarding.   A report produced for a state resources regulator found the current situation on the Darling was caused by too much water being extracted from the river by a handful of big farmers. Just four license holders control 75% of the water extracted from the Barwon-Darling river system.

The national government, concerned that its water-trading experiment hasn’t turned out as intended, in August 2019 requested an inquiry by the country’s antitrust regulator into water trading.  Anticorruption authorities are investigating instances of possible fraud, water theft and deal making for water licenses. In one case, known as Watergate, a former agriculture minister allegedly oversaw the purchase of a water license at a record price from a Cayman Islands company co-founded by the current energy minister. The former agriculture minister said he was following departmental advice and had no role in determining the price or the vendor. The energy minister said he is no longer involved with the company and received no financial benefit from the deal.

Since 2007, Australia has allowed not only farmers but also investors who want to profit from trading to buy and sell water shares. The water market is now valued at some $20 billion.    But making water valuable had unintended consequences in some places. “Once you create something of real value, you should expect people to attempt to steal it and search for ways to cheat,” says Mike Young, a University of Adelaide professor. “It’s not rocket science. Manage water like money, and you are there.”  Big water users have stolen billions of liters of water from rivers and lakes, according to local media investigations and Australian officials, often by pumping it secretly and at night from remote locations that aren’t metered. A new water regulator set up in New South Wales investigated more than 300 tips of alleged water thefts in its first six months of operation.  In 2018, authorities charged a group of cotton farmers with stealing water, including one that pleaded guilty to pumping enough illegally to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools.  Another problem is that water trading gives farmers an incentive to capture more rain and floodwater, and then hoard it, typically by building storage tanks or lining dirt ditches with concrete. That enables them to collect rain before it seeps into the earth or rivers.

The subsequent water shortages, combined with trading by dedicated water funds and corporate farmers, have driven up prices. Water in Australia’s main agricultural region, the Murray-Darling river basin, now trades at about $420 per megaliter, or one million liters, compared with as low as $7 in previous years.  David Littleproud, Australia’s water-resources minister, says 14% of water licenses are now owned by investors. “Is that really the intent of what we want this market to be?” he asks. “Water is a precious commodity.”

Excerpts from Rachel Pannett , The U.S. Wants to Adopt a Cap-and-Trade Plan for Water That Isn’t Working, WSJ, Sept. 4, 2019

Free Markets? No! Subsidies for Nuclear Industry

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced on Aug. 15, 2019 the launch of the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC). The new initiative will assist with the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies by harnessing the world-class capabilities of the DOE national laboratory system.  Authorized by the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, NRIC will provide private sector technology developers the necessary support to test and demonstrate their reactor concepts and assess their performance. This will help accelerate the licensing and commercialization of these new nuclear energy systems.

“NRIC will enable the demonstration and deployment of advanced reactors that will define the future of nuclear energy,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. “By bringing industry together with our national labs and university partners, we can enhance our energy independence and position the U.S. as a global leader in advanced nuclear innovation.”  NRIC will be led by Idaho National Laboratory and builds upon the successes of DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative… 

The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act was signed into law in 2018 by President Donald J. Trump and eliminates some of the financial and technological barriers standing in the way of nuclear innovation. It directs DOE to facilitate the siting of advanced reactor research demonstration facilities through partnerships between DOE and private industry. The House Energy and Water Development committee has allocated $5 million in the FY2020 budget for NRIC, which plans to demonstrate small modular reactor and micro-reactor concepts within the next five years.

Excerpts from DOE,  Energy Department Launches New Demonstration Center for Advanced Nuclear Technologies, Press Release, Aug. 15, 2019