Category Archives: Anthropocene

And Yet There Are Faster Ways To Die

Yesterday’s Twitter hissy fit over our use of a GBU-43/B MOAB in Afghanistan combined with the friction with North Korea, as reported in the amazingly well connected @KGSNightWatch, set me to thinking about quicker means for us to end ourselves than the slow roast we’ve already set in motion.

We had already detonated 2,053 nuclear weapons by 1998 but since the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty all tests have been underground, including the five North Korean tests that happened after this video ends.

We got plain scared by the results of the 1954 Castle Bravo test, a six megaton test that yielded fifteen, because we didn’t understand there was a fusion path for lithium 7, and only nine short years later the world decided air/space testing was a Really Bad Idea™.

 

Since then, we’ve shifted to constraining ourselves to developing stuff that inhibits others delivering weapons. Basically we have about three dozen Ground Based Interceptors on the west coast and the trend seems to be counting on Aegis Combat Systems and the RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 to knock down uninvited ballistic missiles.

Missile Defense Systems

Missile Defense Systems

This missile defense stuff is all still really theoretical. Tests are few, expensive, and results have been mixed. We don’t really have a plan for submarine launched cruise missiles but the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated whole classes of weapons.

But North Korea is not a signatory to any of these treaties and they are slowly standing up a nuclear capability. This happened while we were naming them part of the Axis of Evil and blundering into Bush’s adventure in Iraq. Like a Cape buffalo surrounded by lions, we focused on one and the others got up to things we didn’t see coming.

 

North Korea can’t nuke San Francisco. They can’t nuke Honolulu. They can maybe hit 7th Fleet HQ at the mouth of Tokyo Bay. Their current best has a yield equal to the weapons the U.S. produced in 1945.

Yokosuka 20 Kiloton Strike

Yokosuka 20 Kiloton Strike (NUKEMAP)

I have zero confidence that Little Fingers has the right moves given that the DPRK is surely going to test another nuclear weapon tomorrow. China has moved six divisions of troops to its border with North Korea with the announced intent of ensuring that there are not a flood of refugees crossing their border. They also have a credible plan to put an end to North Korea’s test facilities, which is something the U.S. and South Korea lack.

Another grandstanding effort, like the theatrical strike against a forewarned Syrian airfield, or the drop of a MOAB in Afghanistan, seems likely. The most foolish step would be treating this as a chance to employ a B-61 Dial-A-Yield nuke, specifically the B-61 Mod 11 bunker buster.

 

The assessment of the premier geopolitical threat monitor is simple and clear:

NightWatch concurs with the judgment that the North Koreans are not bluffing about retaliating for any kind of attack against them.

The scariest part of all of this? America’s recto-cranial inversion, which predates Little Fingers, keeps us strutting like the only superpower, but ignoring stuff where we don’t have a direct interface. The relationship between India (110 nukes) and Pakistan (130 nukes) is always some flavor of tense, but in recent months there have been reports in Night Watch that indicate they went right up to the red line of a rapidly evolving ground war and strong potential for an exchange.

Now take a look at this China-centric population cartogram.They have four neighbors with nuclear weapons, two are at each other’s throats, the U.S. is showing strong signs of moving against North Korea, and doing so because we have a leader as isolated and strange as Kim thanks to meddling from nuclear armed neighbor number four.

China-centric Population Cartogram

China-centric Population Cartogram

 

There is no such thing as a limited nuclear exchange where India and Pakistan are concerned. If they each show some restraint and only use half of their arsenals we lose half of our ozone layer, a couple years of Canadian and Russia wheat production, and the initial ten million killed directly would be joined by another billion famine victims.

These projections stop where the effects of smoke in the atmosphere end. A billion dead of starvation are the unlucky one seventh when all of us are facing that possibility. We are already precariously balanced when it comes to food, we lose all of the Mideast and North Africa in this scenario, those places teeter on the edge of ungovernability now when there are relatively minor disturbances in wheat supplies.

 

The area south of Africa’s Great Green Wall would be the best place to ride out such a catastrophe, far away from fallout of all sorts, from economic to political to radioactive.

Sobering, isn’t it? We already have the means to create an extinction level event for our species and we are stumbling that direction, led by a man with a psychopath’s regard for cause and effect.

The Anthropocene Extinction

This four minute video is amazingly well done. If what I’ve been writing about concerns you and you have trouble communicating the particulars to friends, just share this with them.

Wrangel Island Video

A short, narration free video of current Wrangel Island wildlife. I’ll never see this place in person, but I have twenty year old memories of an Alaska trip that give me a sense of what it’s like to go so far north.

Desalination’s Grim End: The Persian Gulf

Kuwait is a Connecticut sized piece of land with 4.3 million citizens at the far north end of the Persian Gulf. They pump not quite three million barrels of oil per day and hold roughly 10% of the world’s oil reserves. Which they are going to need, because they are 100% dependent on desalination for water and the Persian Gulf is becoming too saline to use.

Kuwait & Persian Gulf

Kuwait & Persian Gulf

Three million barrels a day times forty two gallons per barrel is 126,000,000 gallons. Divide by 4.3 million and that’s twenty nine gallons of oil per person produced daily. Let’s turn those into some water numbers. 126 million gallons is 387 acre feet or 477,272 cubic meters. Tankers used to top out at  two million barrels but now the largest VLCCs in operation are half that size.

Per this report, Kuwait is producing 1.65M cubic meters of water per day by desalination. A cubic meter is 6.29 barrels, so that’s around ten million barrels of water a day. Importing that much fresh water seems a daunting task, given that there really isn’t anywhere on the coast of the Indian ocean that has large amounts of fresh water. Maybe they could build a fleet of OTEC vessels, they’ve got access to pretty good temperature differential right outside the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea.

OTEC Potential

OTEC Potential

But that is an enormous conceptual step for a monarchy whose entire resource base is the oil beneath their feet, supplemented by a financial sector that grew in parallel with that wealth.

 

Since we’re applying Functional Triage to areas of human habitation the water challenge alone puts Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the U.A.E. on the death spiral list. Add the expected months of 50C+ temperatures expected in two or three generations and you’ve got an area that is about as hospitable as the Dead Sea region is today. The populations of North Africa and the Mideast are going to be direct climate refugees, or under pressure from those who are, and when the water runs out they’ll start moving.

Yemen already has a food and water crisis. The Levant isn’t going to get better until Syria’s water problems are solved. Those desalination dependent Persian Gulf states have a population of about twenty two million. Their breakdown is a problem similar in scope to Yemen, with twenty million, and Syria, with twenty six million. Add the concerns of Iran, where 60% of the population live in places that are becoming uninhabitable, and you’ve got a party.

 

If the Persian Gulf were like Somalia we’d ignore the situation as best we could. But 20% of the world’s oil transits the Strait of Hormuz and the U.S. 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain. Long before we admit the situation is untenable we’re going to put ‘boots on the ground’ trying to control that which is long past control of personalities.

The combined populace of North Africa and the Mideast is roughly equal to the of Europe – both are just below 750 million. The 508 million member European union is starting to fray and immigration pressure is a key component of that. Regions don’t break down in isolation, the Syrian conflict has nearly bowled over both Jordan and Lebanon. Things are going to get progressively more prickly between Europe and MENA, and the Trump administration is an excellent tool for fanning those flames.

If this leaves you feeling creeped out, go read the Eight Principles of Uncivilization again …

Great Barrier Reef Two Thirds Destroyed

The Great Barrier Reef stretches 1,400 miles starting at the northern tip of Australia and it covers an area the size of the state of Montana. There was serious bleaching due to the 1997 and 2002 El Niño events and now back to back bleaching in 2016 and 2017 has destroyed the northern two thirds.

Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

I cribbed that map from a dive site. Their offered locations are all in the destroyed areas and this highly public obituary for the reef is an obituary for their business. Tourism will crash immediately and fishing shortly thereafter, as fish species adjust to the massive disruption.

It’s not just the sea that has warmed; Australia’s heat got so bad a couple years ago they had to add a new color to their heat index.

Australia Drought

Australia Heat Index

There’s no relief in sight as the east has experienced record setting heat over the last quarter.

Australia Extreme Heat

Australia Extreme Heat

The reef based tourism is gone, but that is a domestic issue. How is all this heat going to affect the wheat crop? It would appear that things are going to go badly in the area that produces the bulk of the crop, and this can be a component of Global Wheat Threats. The last time we had one of those we got Arab Spring in response.

Australia Wheat

Australia Wheat

 

Part of the reason we got Arab Spring in 2011 was due to not just stress on global wheat supplies due to the year’s Russian fires and attendant wheat embargo. The catastrophic floods in Pakistan ruined summer grain crops.

Pakistan 2010 Flood Rainfall

 

The overheated oceans that killed the Great Barrier Reef in 2016/2017 are also responsible for the record breaking monsoon in 2010 that led to revolution all over North Africa and the Mideast the following year. Visualize the 11,000 miles between Morocco and the Great Barrier Reef on a map. The loss of a reef that most of the world considered an exotic remote destination is a proxy for stuff that can cause trouble on a global scale.

Morocco, Pakistan & Great Barrier Reef

Morocco, Pakistan & Great Barrier Reef

Now consider what the USDA Wheat Outlook has to say:

The Winter Wheat and Canola Seedings report revealed 2017 winter wheat seedings to be the second-lowest on record and the lowest since 1909.

That sounds really bad, but maybe this sounds better to you …

Most notably, 2016/17 ending stocks are raised slightly more than 43 million bushels to 1143.4 million, the highest level since 1987/88, when ending stocks reached 1260.8 million.

 

But what does it mean in geopolitical terms? Stocks are up, global planting is down 9% from last year? Global stocks are up but there are 108 million people facing Food Insecurity in North Africa and the Mideast. There are about 400 million people in North Africa and around 325 million in the Mideast countries highlighted in the linked post. When 15% of the population are short of food that’s a recipe for big changes.

Global Wheat Status January 2017

Global Wheat Status January 2017

 

You guys are going to get tired of the phrase Functional Triage, but I’m going to keep coming back to it. Yemen’s Food & Water Crisis was noted as an issue clear back in 2013 and now it’s boiling over, with half the populace set to starve. Consult the Fragile States Index for 2016 and it looks like the beginnings of another perfect storm.

Eating, Thinking, Diverging

A few days ago I noticed an article about TimeTree, and I promptly did the all important comparison of our two most common companion species. The 56 million year old split lets the system show significant changes in solar luminosity, carbon dioxide, and oxygen levels. The line of red dots are asteroid crater diameters in kilometers, the large one near the bottom is Chicxulub.

Dogs & Cats Divergence

Dogs & Cats Divergence

Humans are a bit trickier, I tried our temporal cousins and our immediate ancestor, which caused the system to balk:

  • homo sapiens

  • homo sapiens altai (41kya – 400kya)

  • homo floresiensis (12kya – unsure)

  • homo neanderthalensis (24kya – 600kya)

  • homo rhodesiensis (125kya – 300kya)

  • homo heidelbergensis (200kya – 700kya)

I dialed back a step and tried Hominidae, which was slightly less frustrating. Pan are chimps and bonobos, Pongo are orangutans.

Hominidae Timeline

Hominidae Timeline

Our species has never had much of an issue due to asteroid impact, the volcanic timeline is much more important, but TimeTree doesn’t provide that information yet. I happened to come up with a nice map from the Quarternary Volcanic Eruptions page.

Quarternary Volcanic Activity

Quarternary Volcanic Activity

 

I wouldn’t have written this, but for Food For Thought, Diet Helps Explain Unique Human Brainpower. The study suggests that humans think hard about what they eat, and this is a self-reinforcing spiral that drives our intelligence. We’re now at a point where we can think ahead for our entire species in a global fashion, which I covered in Good News In Small Doses. We may survive Atlantification & Other Horrors, but that will involve some Functional Triage.

This whole situation is made more interesting by the advent of AI. Workplace diversity will soon include Artificial Intelligence isn’t a Popular Science title, that’s a legit Phys.org story. What will we do in terms of Functional Triage when decision making is AI enabled? If we don’t humanize it … eugenics is the first word that comes to mind, but that’s not quite right, as survival will be more location based that any notional racial attributes.

Dark Mountain‘s Eight Principles of Uncivilization doesn’t seem to anticipate an Age of Ultron style battle between human and AI. I think they’re right; when societies break down their supply chains break down. We may have AI for a while, maybe even long enough to assist the evolution of what comes next.

Maybe …

Good News In Small Doses

I’ve made it clear that I don’t expect any ‘saving throw’ for our species, but there are exciting developments in the form of things that may continue to work after some sort of reckoning. Previously we learned:

I found a couple more bits of promising news:

I did research on renewable ammonia about a decade ago and the net result was that it makes sense … in a world where natural gas prices aren’t a rollercoaster. Now it seems that a small scale catalytic solution might be possible. If we can make ammonia with those perovskite solar cells, that’s a big win.

I am less excited about bioengineered sugarcane oil. Ethanol makes sense in Brazil, but only at a terrible human cost. Their EROI is 5:1 which is tolerable, if they can pump that up to 6:1 or 7:1 just by planting a different crop, and if it nets diesel for heavy equipment? OK, that’s moderately exciting.

 

I don’t think we’re going to carpet the earth with solar cells so we can over-drive our soil in order to produce biofuels for cars. This whole single 200 pound human in 2,000 pounds of steel was a dumb idea that can’t pass soon enough. Tractors, loaders, graders, dump trucks? Those are all useful, but we’d be in a lot better shape if we traded our cars for bikes, buses with bike racks, and a restored rail system.

The Future

The Future