Monthly Archives: October 2021

Repairing Damaged Coral Reefs

Rather than blocking waves, as a sea wall does, a reef slows them, dissipating their energy before they reach land. One estimate, from the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Centre, suggests natural reefs prevent $1.8bn a year of flood damage in America alone.

While natural reefs take centuries to grow, hybrid versions can be conjured up in months. The idea began with Wolf Hilbertz, an architect with an interest in marine biology. In the 1970s Hilbertz developed a technique that uses submerged electrodes to run electrical currents through seawater. This precipitates calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide out of the seawater, forming limestone similar to that of natural reefs. The artificial reef can become the substrate upon which a natural coral ecosystem develops…Later work with Thomas Goreau, a marine biologist, produced both a catchy name—“Biorock”—and the idea of using the stuff as the basis of coral reefs, and, in particular, for repairing damaged reefs.

In 1996 the Global Coral Reef Alliance, a charity, began using Biorock for reef repairs by growing a six-metre structure in the Maldives. Other repairs have followed in Indonesia, Jamaica and Mexico. The Pemuteran Coral Reef Restoration Project, in Bali, is more than 300 metres long and includes dozens of “nurseries” in which Biorock acts as nuclei for the natural extension of the reef….DARPA a research agency run by America’s Department of Defense, also sees hybrid reefs as a means of coastal defence—in this case protecting the country’s seaside military installations. Lori Adornato, head of DARPA’s “Reefense” project, says the goal is a hybrid reef-type system which will be maintenance-free and self-repairing. Reefense therefore involves not only creating reefs and measuring their effectiveness, but also attracting and fostering appropriate organisms to sustain the reefs’ health, ensuring they can survive even when natural reefs are suffering.

Excerpts from Ocean Reefs: Hybrid Vigor, Economist, Sept. 11, 2021

How to Relocate a Whole Nation

Small island states will not, most likely, be swallowed by the sea… In research published in 2010, Paul Kench measured the size of 27 atolls over a period of decades and found that while 14% had shrunk and a couple had disappeared, 43% stayed the same size and another 43% became bigger. Many of the ring-shaped coral reefs have been able to adapt to sea-level rise, changing shape as sediment is eroded and pushed around. Tuvalu’s land surface, for instance, increased by 3% between 1971 and 2014 despite a rise in the local sea level of 4mm a year, twice the global average for that period…

But there are other, more immediate effects of climate change that threaten the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of these countries. They are less arresting, harder to explain and, as in the changing shape and size of islands, sometimes counterintuitive. But the upshot is the same: the countries may soon become uninhabitable.

One is “king tides”, high tides that briefly but entirely inundate the narrow strips of low-lying land that comprise most atoll, are becoming more frequent. The saltwater can kill crops such as banana and papaya and seeps into groundwater, making it unfit to drink

There are also ways to keep islands habitable: Kiribati plans to dredge its lagoons and use the sand to raise the surrounding islands higher above the sea. Tuvalu has embarked on a land-reclamation project. But the spectre of climate change makes it harder to drum up investment for such schemes. “I am trying to change the minds of the many people who say, ‘We cannot invest in your country, you’re finished’,” says Kiribati’s Mr Tito.

The depressing long-term solution may be to move. The Marshall Islands hopes to renegotiate its post-colonial “Compact of Free Association” with America, which expires in 2023, to ensure a permanent right of residence in the United States for all Marshallese. Tuvalu has no such option. Maina Talia, a climate activist, thinks that the government should take Fiji up on its offer of a home where Tuvaluans could practice the same culture rather than “be dumped somewhere in Sydney’‘.

Earlier this year, the government of Tuvalu, which until recently insisted that there would be no Plan B, established a new un initiative. Its aim is to work with “like-minded countries” to figure out how and where such countries could be relocated, how they could continue to function ex-situ, and whether they could still lay claim to vast exclusive economic zones if their land disappeared under water.

Relocating a country would raise other big questions, too, for both the international system and the way in which people think about statehood. “How to prepare to move a nation in dignity, that has never been done before,” says Kamal Amakrane, a migration expert whose ideas helped spark the UN initiative. 

Excerpt from Moving story: Pacific countries face more complex problems than sinking, Economist, August 7, 2021

Surveillance by the Masses for the Masses

New sensors, from dashboard cameras to satellites that can see across the electromagnetic spectrum, are examining the planet and its people as never before. The information they collect is becoming cheaper. Satellite images cost several thousand dollars 20 years ago, today they are often provided free and are of incomparably higher quality….

Human Rights Watch has analysed satellite imagery to document ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Nanosatellites tag the automatic identification system of vessels that are fishing illegally. Amateur sleuths have helped Europol, the European Union’s policing agency, investigate child sexual exploitation by identifying geographical clues in the background of photographs. Even hedge funds routinely track the movements of company executives in private jets, monitored by a web of amateurs around the world, to predict mergers and acquisitions. OSINT (open-source intelligence) thus bolsters civil society, strengthens law enforcement and makes markets more efficient. It can also humble some of the world’s most powerful countries.

In the face of vehement denials from the Kremlin, Bellingcat, an investigative group, meticulously demonstrated Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight mh17 over Ukraine in 2014, using little more than a handful of photographs, satellite images and elementary geometry. It went on to identify the Russian agents who attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in England in 2018. Amateur analysts and journalists used OSINT to piece together the full extent of Uyghur internment camps in Xinjiang. In recent weeks researchers poring over satellite imagery have spotted China constructing hundreds of nuclear-missile silos in the desert.

Such an emancipation of information promises to have profound effects. The decentralised and egalitarian nature of OSINT erodes the power of traditional arbiters of truth and falsehood, in particular governments and their spies and soldiers. The likelihood that the truth will be uncovered raises the cost of wrongdoing for governments. Although osint might not prevent Russia from invading Ukraine or China from building its gulag, it exposes the flimsiness of their lies

Liberal democracies will also be kept more honest. Citizens will no longer have to take their governments on trust. News outlets will have new ways of holding them to account. Today’s open sources and methods would have shone a brighter light on the Bush administration’s accusation in 2003 that Iraq was developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. That would have subjected America’s invasion of the country to greater scrutiny. It might even have prevented it.,,

The greatest worry is that the explosion of data behind open-source investigations also threatens individual privacy. The data generated by phones and sold by brokers let Bellingcat identify the Russian spies who last year poisoned Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader. Similar data were exploited to pick out a senior Catholic priest in America, who resigned last month after his location was linked to his use of Grindr, a gay dating app.

Excerpts from The people’s panopticon: The promise of open-source intelligence, Economist, Aug. 7, 2021

The Northern Frontier: Who’s Taking Advantage of Climate Change?

Owing to climate change…the share of boreal land that can support farming could increase from 8% to 41% in Sweden. It could increase from 51% to 83% in Finland. Efforts to farm these areas will alarm people who value boreal forests for their own sake. And cutting down such forests and ploughing up the soils that lie beneath them will release carbon. But the climatic effects are not as simple as they might seem. Northern forests absorb more heat from the sun than open farmland does, because snow-covered farmland reflects light back into space…

The fact that felling boreal forests may not worsen climate change, though, says nothing about the degree to which it could affect biodiversity, ecosystem services or the lives of forest dwellers, particularly indigenous ones.

Some governments are already keen to capitalize on climate change. Russia’s has long talked of higher temperatures as a boon. President Vladimir Putin once boasted that they would enable Russians to spend less money on fur coats and grow more grain. In 2020 a “national action plan” on climate change outlined ways in which the country could “use the advantages” of it, including expanding farming. Since 2015 Russia has become the world’s largest producer of wheat, chiefly because of higher temperatures.

Russia’s government has started leasing thousands of square kilometers of land in the country’s far east to Chinese, South Korean and Japanese investors. Much of the land, which was once unproductive, is now used to grow soybeans. Most are imported by China, helping the country reduce its reliance on imports from America. Sergey Levin, Russia’s deputy minister of agriculture, has predicted that soya exports from its far-eastern farmlands may reach $600m by 2024. That would be nearly five times what they were in 2017. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador, a province on the north-eastern tip of Canada, is also trying to promote the expansion of agriculture into lands covered by forests…

All told, the northern expansion of farmland will only go some way towards mitigating the damage climate change may do to agriculture. The societies that will benefit from it are mostly already wealthy. Poor places, which rely much more heavily on income from exporting agricultural produce, will suffer.

Excerpts from Farming’s New Frontiers: Agriculture, Economist, August 28, 2021

When the Cat’s Away the Mice Pollute

Police don’t share schedules of planned raids. Yet America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not seem convinced of the value of surprise in deterring bad behavior. Every year it publishes a list of dates, spaced at six-day intervals, on which it will require state and local agencies to provide data on concentrations of harmful fine particulate matter (pm2.5), such as soot or cement dust…

A new paper by Eric Zou of the University of Oregon makes use of satellite images to spy on polluters at times when they think no one is watching. NASA, America’s space agency, publishes data on the concentration of aerosol particles—ranging from natural dust to man-made toxins—all around the world, as seen from space. For every day in 2001-13, Mr Zou compiled these readings in the vicinity of each of America’s 1,200 air-monitoring sites.

Although some stations provided data continuously, 30-50% of them sent reports only once every six days. For these sites, Mr Zou studied how aerosol levels varied based on whether data would be reported. Sure enough, the air was consistently cleaner in these areas on monitoring days than it was the rest of the time, by a margin of 1.6%. Reporting schedules were almost certainly the cause….The size of this “pollution gap” differed by region. It was biggest in parts of Appalachia and the Midwest with lots of mining, and in the northern Mountain West, where paper and lumber mills are common.

The magnitude of the gap also depended on the cost of being caught. Every year, the EPA produces a list of counties whose average air quality falls below minimum standards. The punishments for inclusion are costly: factories become subject to burdensome clean-technology requirements, and local governments can be fined. When firms risked facing sanctions, they seemed to game the system more aggressively. In counties that exceeded the pm2.5 limit in a given month, the pollution gap in the following month swelled to 7%. In all other cases, it was just 1.2%….

Excerpts from Poorly devised regulation lets firms pollute with abandon: We Were Expecting you, Economist, Sept. 4, 2021

Eradicating Old Cities and their Populations

The fighters of Islamic State…raided the tombs of Assyrian kings in Nineveh, blew up Roman colonnades in Palmyra and sold priceless relics to smugglers. But their vandalism was on a modest scale compared with some of the megaprojects that are habitually undertaken by many Middle Eastern government… Iraq’s government began to build the Makhoul dam. Once complete, it is likely to flood Ashur—and another 200 historical sites.

Similar archaeological tragedies have occurred across the region, mainly thanks to the appetite of governments for gigantism in the name of modernization…The re-landscaping displaces people as well as erasing their heritage, sometimes as a kind of social engineering….

Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has bulldozed swathes of Cairo, the old capital, to make way for motorways, flyovers and shiny skyscrapers that line the road to the new administrative capital he is building. To ease congestion he has scythed a thoroughfare named Paradise through the City of the Dead, a 1,000-year-old necropolis that is a un-designated world heritage site. Hundreds of tombs were destroyed. He has turfed out tens of thousands of people from their homes in Boulaq, along the Nile, calling it slum clearance. This was where Cairo’s old port prospered in Ottoman times. Instead of rehabilitating it, Mr Sisi is letting property magnates carpet the area with high-rise apartment buildings. Mr Sisi has allowed investors from the United Arab Emirates to build a mini-Dubai on Cairo’s largest green space, a nature reserve on al-Warraq island. Its 90,000 residents will be shunted off, mainly to estates on the city’s edge. Protesters have been condemned as Islamist terrorists and sent to prison, many for 15 years…

Some rulers have security in mind when they bulldoze history. Mr Sisi can send in the tanks faster on wider roads. Removing Egypt’s poor from city centres may curb the risk of revolution. “They know that poor areas revolted in 2011,” says Abdelrahman Hegazy, a Cairene city planner. “They’re afraid of population density.” During Syria’s current civil war, President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patrons ruined parts of the old cities of Homs and Aleppo, treasure troves of antiquity that were also rebel strongholds, with relentless barrel-bombing….

Excerpts from Bulldozing history: Arab states are wrecking old treasures, Economist, Sept. 4, 2021

How to Exclude China from the Global Technology Base: the Role of IMEC

The Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) located in Leuven, Belgium, does not design chips (like America’s Intel), manufacture them (like TSMC of Taiwan) or make any of the complicated gear (like ASML, a Dutch firm). Instead, it creates knowledge used by everyone in the $550bn chip business. Given chips’ centrality to the modern economy and increasingly to modern geopolitics, too, that makes it one of the most essential industrial research-and-development (R&D) center on the planet. Luc Van den hove, IMEC’s boss, calls it the “Switzerland of semiconductors”.

IMEC was founded in 1984 by a group of electronics engineers from the Catholic University of Leuven who wanted to focus on microprocessor research. In the early days it was bankrolled by the local Flemish government. Today IMEC maintains its neutrality thanks to a financial model in which no single firm or state controls a big share of its budget. The largest chunk comes from the Belgian government, which chips in some 16%. The top corporate contributors provide no more than 4% each. Keeping revenue sources diverse (partners span the length and breadth of the chip industry) and finite (its standard research contracts last three to five years) gives IMEC the incentive to focus on ideas that help advance chipmaking as a whole rather than any firm in particular.

A case in point is the development of extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV)…It took 20 years of R&D to turn the idea into manufacturing reality. IMEC acted as a conduit in that process… Advanced toolmakers want a way to circulate their intellectual property (IP) without the large companies gaining sway over it. The large companies, meanwhile, do not want to place all their bets on any one experimental idea that is expensive (as chipmaking processes are) and could become obsolete.

IMEC’s neutrality allows both sides to get around this problem. It collects all the necessary gear in one place, allowing producers to develop their technology in tandem with others. And everyone gets rights to the IP the institute generates. Mr Van den hove says that progress in the chip industry has been driven by the free exchange of knowledge, with IMEC acting as a “funnel” for ideas from all over the world…IMEC’s revenues, which come from the research contracts and from prototyping and design services, doubled between 2010 and 2020, to €678m ($773m).

The deepening rift between America, home to some of the industry’s biggest firms, and China, which imported $378bn-worth of chips last year, threatens IMEC’s spirit of global comity. China’s chip industry is increasingly shielded by an overbearing Communist Party striving for self-sufficiency, and ever more ostracized by outsiders as a result of American and European export controls. All this limits the extent to which IMEC can work with Chinese semiconductor companies…IMEC would not comment on individual partnerships but says it has “a few engagements with Chinese companies, however not on the most sensitive technologies, and always fully compliant with current European and US export regulations and directives”.

Excerpts from Neutral but not idle: IMEC offers neutral ground amid chip rivalries, Economist, Sept. 25, 2021

Tracking and Removing Polluting Space Junk

At orbital speeds a tennis-ball-sized piece of space junk packs enough energy to obliterate a satellite…Even tiny bits of debris can do damage. In May 2021 the Canadian Space Agency said an untracked piece of junk had punched a hole 5mm across in Canadarm2, a robotic limb attached to the International Space Station (ISS).

As orbiting objects multiply, the danger grows. Roughly a dozen sizeable pieces of space debris break up every year as a result of collisions, exploding rocket fuel, or the rupturing of pressurized tanks or old batteries. Solar radiation chips off bits of paint and metal…Today there 4,500 active satellites orbiting Earth and this does not include defunct satellites…There could be 100,000 active satellites in orbit by the end of the decade…

Radars operated by the US Department of Defense have improved ‘space situational awareness’…One big advance has been “Space Fence”. This is a system built in the Marshall Islands for America’s air force. It is billed as the world’s most advanced radar…In April 2021, LeoLabs, a firm in Silicon Valley, switched on its fourth debris-tracking radar station. ..LeoLabs sells data to satellite operators, space agencies, America’s armed forces and insurers keen to calculate better actuarial tables for spacecraft….

Besides using radar, debris can also be tracked optically. In collaboration with Curtin University, in Perth, Lockheed Martin runs FireOpal, a system of 20 cheap cameras aimed at the sky from various parts of Australia. For several hours at dawn and dusk, when these cameras are in the dark but sunlight still illuminates debris orbiting above, the cameras take pictures every ten seconds. The closer an object, the more it appears to move relative to the stars, allowing triangulation of its position…fire

Lasers are another option….For finding stuff in high orbits, though, neither lasers nor radars are much help. But telescopes work. ExoAnalytic Solutions, a Californian firm, tracks junk up to 170,000km away—nearly halfway to the Moon—using instruments “just laying on the shelves” at astronomy shops...Northstar Earth & Space, a new firm in Montreal, is to raise money to build, at $25m a pop, three 100kg satellites that will use telescopic cameras to track junk from orbit..

Naturally, this orbital-tracking technology has military value as well. Knowing objects’ orbits can reveal much about an adversary’s capabilities—including, perhaps, orbital combat. Movements that represent any deviation from normal patterns are most telling…To illustrate why, he points to an object that had been considered to be just a piece of debris from a Russian military launch. In May 2014 the “debris” sprang to life. Its movements since then have fuelled fears that it could be an anti-satellite weapon. Whether other such “sleepers” are hidden in plain sight among the clouds of rubbish orbiting Earth remains to be seen. 

Excerpts from Orbital housekeeping: Tracking space debris is a growing business, Economist, Sept. 18, 2021

How to Suck Carbon and Convert it to Rocks

The Orca carbon-capture plant, just outside Reykjavik in Iceland, has switched on its fans and began sucking carbon dioxide from the air since September 2021. The sound was subtle—a bit like a gurgling stream. But the plant’s creators hope it will mark a big shift in humanity’s interaction with the climate. Orca is, for now, the largest installation in the infant “direct air capture” industry, which aims to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. When sealed underground such CO2 counts as “negative emissions”—an essential but underdeveloped method for tackling global warming.

Thus, the full operation extracts CO2 from air and turns it to rock. Trials have shown that Icelandic basalts can sequester CO2 in solid rock within two years. Power comes from a nearby geothermal power station….One catch is volume. Orca will capture 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, out of around 35bn tonnes produced by burning fossil fuels. Another is cost. It costs Orca somewhere between $600-800 to sequester one tonne of carbon dioxide, and the firm sells offset packages online for around $1,200 per tonne. The company thinks it can cut costs ten-fold through economies of scale. But there appears to be no shortage of customers willing to pay the current, elevated price. Even as Orca’s fans revved up, roughly two-thirds of its lifetime offering of carbon removals had already been sold. Clients include corporations seeking to offset a portion of their emissions, such as Microsoft, Swiss Re as well as over 8,000 private individuals.

Climeworks is not alone in having spotted the opportunity. Using different chemistry, Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, is gearing up to switch on its own carbon-scrubbing facilities. It will take more than these pioneer engineers and financiers to build a gigatonne-sized industry. But the fans are turning. 

Excerpts from Removing carbon dioxide from the air: The world’s biggest carbon-removal plant switches on, Economist, Sept. 18, 2021

The Transparency of Oceans and Nuclear Submarines

There are warnings that different technologies will render the ocean “transparent”, so even the stealthiest submarines could be spotted by an enemy force… China has already developed submarine-spotting lasers. CSIRO is working with a Chinese marine science institute that has separately developed satellite technology that can find submarines at depths of up to 500 meters.   But others say submarines are just a base platform for a range of new and evolving technologies. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s outgoing head, Peter Jennings, said the nuclear-propelled submarines that Australia will get as part of the Aukus alliance have more space and energy for being “motherships” than conventional submarines.

“They’re significantly bigger and the reactors give you the energy not just for the propulsion but for everything else inside the boat,” he said. “You then have a huge amount of space for weapons, for vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles and for autonomous systems that can be stored on board. Not only is it a fighting unit but you might have half a dozen remote systems fanned out at quite a distance. They’ll be operating a long distance away from potential targets, potentially hundreds of kilometers. According to the taskforce set up under Aukus, the new submarines will have “superior characteristics of stealth, speed, manoeuvrability, survivability, and almost limitless endurance”, with better weapons, the ability to deploy drones and “a lower risk of detection”.

Excerpts from Tory Shepherd, Will all submarines, even nuclear ones, be obsolete and ‘visible’ by 2040?, Oct. 4, 2021