Category Archives: Food Security

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.

Africa’s Great Green Wall

Here’s a spot of good news. I have seen articles about low key plant based geo-engineering, but I didn’t realize it was so advanced. There is a Great Green Wall being built in an effort to hold back the rapidly advancing Sahara.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

The numbers cited in the brochure on the project are encouraging:

  • 500,000 hectares of Acacia woodlands restored in Burkina-Faso, Senegal, and Niger
  • 5,000,000 hectares of farmland rehabilitated in Mali, Burkina-Faso, Niger, and Ethiopia
  • $1 billion invested in Sahel & West Africa Program

The last time I can recall a quoted figure in a documentary, I believe the Sahara was advancing south in the Sahel at a rate of ten miles per year. Climate change will continue to drive that advance, but if it can be slowed by wiser practices across tens of thousands of square miles, that is a good thing.

The Sahara is a major feature on a large continent and it’s also a global climate force, cooling the Iberian peninsula, fertilizing the Atlantic, and impacting air quality in the Caribbean. Best of all, from my perspective, the dust drives California snowfall.

The most interesting effect of the dust is this – when it was less, the warming of the Atlantic drove a stronger monsoon, which kept the Sahara wetter – a positive feedback loop.

I’ve covered ice cores here and the more I look the more I find mention of sediment cores, such as the one that exposed the details of the end of the African Humid Period.


Climate is complex and I would argue that it is the existential threat for our species, in conjunction with our inability to maintain our population at a sensible level. The Great Green Wall is a rear guard defense, but it’s a line of defense for South Africa, our species theoretical redoubt during the Toba Catastrophe. Keep in mind that while the Toba theory has been debunked, our species did survive a genetic bottleneck, and there are signs that the refuge was the costal caves near Cape Town.

Priced Out Of The Water Market

A phrase that used to pop up on peak oil blogs was the clever euphemism “priced out of the food market” – neoliberalspeak for something much simpler in humans terms – starved.

Water: The Dry Facts isn’t quite that blunt, but I read the same thinking behind it.

Global Water Pressure

Global Water Pressure

We’ve covered water stress here, most notably in Yemen, Lebanon, and the Tigris & Euphrates basin. One of the biggest issues is efficiency – Cold War era civil engineering projects lose half the water they handle in some places and Egypt is covering open canals to prevent high losses due to evaporation. We have to get better at protecting fresh water, since there are more of us and less of it to go around.


The key to managing water better is to price it properly, giving consumers a reason not to waste it and investors an incentive to build infrastructure to supply it. Vast sums are needed: over $26 trillion between 2010 and 2030, by one estimate. Before water can be properly priced, however, it needs to be clear who owns it (or, more precisely, who has the right to extract how much from rivers, aquifers and so on). Australia has led the way in creating such a system of tradable water rights.

And there it is – the inevitable free market fairy dust. They suggest a blockchain solution, which would more more transparent and less susceptible to fiddling, but my initial thesis holds – some people and the environments they inhabit will be priced out of the market.

One of the mistakes free market fairy dust pushers make is the failure to account for what they call ‘externalities’. If you can sell an acre foot of water today for $100 that’s great, never mind the $10,000 in economic activity downstream that won’t be happening because of this, and definitely don’t worry about entire ecosystems collapsing because we’re using all precipitation and over drafting groundwater.

Water is easily understood as a liquid resource that can be pumped, stored, and used for a variety of activities.  But here in California Mother Nature has been showing us who is in charge – years of blistering drought, a failed El Niño, and then a mixed blessing/curse in the form of a massive Pineapple Express that nearly blew out the Oroville Dam.

Writing this pulls me out of reality and into recalling a work by one of my favorite authors, Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids. I’ve only read this book twice and I did so in rapid succession, buying it in hardback when it came out in 2009. Distraction, another favorite of mine by the same author, is a book about the day after tomorrow, while Caryatids is about a world our grandchildren may experience.

I feel like I should have some sort of rousing conclusion for this, but every line of thought leads to more questions than answers. I guess this is a sort of mental milestone, a place I’ll revisit at some time in the future when some of the fog clears.

African Corn, American Pest

Fall Army Worms have been causing havoc with crops in Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Ghana while reports suggest Malawi, Mozambique and Ghana are also affected. The linked article indicates they have been found in Uganda, too.

“If nothing is done we could lose up to 15 percent of our maize production,” said senior agriculture minister official Okasai Opolot.

Roughly 10% of Uganda’s 38 million people are involved in corn production and 10 million are already underfed. I can’t make out exactly what percentage of the national diet is corn, but other crops are affected, too.

There are 1.2 billion people in Africa and two thirds of them are in the south. Subsistence agriculture is the rule, a 15% decrease in crops wouldn’t mean the death of 120 million, but I do think that’s a number of appropriate magnitude.

Africa Climate Zones

Africa Climate Zones

Africa Population Distribution

Africa Population Distribution

120 million dead sounds awful, but recall that we are approaching an inevitable round of Functional Triage.  Instead of that, lets consider the future of the 680 million survivors.


Africa is rich in resources, not well developed, and the south has already dealt with a massive long term plague – AIDS. Much of Africa can still be self sufficient, not just growing the food they need, but locally manufacturing what other goods they require. If the U.S. loses 15% of its population, things here come undone. If our national supply chain is interrupted even briefly, in just a matter of days machines and people all begin to break down.

There IS a correlation between level of development and societal preservation, but I think the relationship is inverse. Most people in Africa grow their own food, or they know the people who do. That hasn’t been at all true in this country since the Silent Generation were young adults.

Look at that climate map. Look at the population distribution map. There are six high density population centers and four of them are in the south. The Nile’s Annual Flood is already under climate driven threat, North Africa exploded into Arab Spring in 2011, and I paid some attention to The Simmering Maghreb. Nigeria is being slowly torn apart by Boko Haram. Ethiopia had massive famine in the 1980s, the African Great Lakes suffered horrendous ethnic cleansing during the 1990s.

South Africa has had its troubles, the South African Border War from the 1960s through the end of the Cold War, their own internal struggle with Apartheid. But among the BRICS countries it is they and the Brazilians who are geographically and culturally isolated from the conflicts that entangle and plague the other three. Like Wrangel Island for the mammoths, South Africa was a redoubt for our species during the Toba Eruption, some 70,000 years ago.


If there is any place on this planet where some portion of industrialized western capability can be preserved, it is South Africa, even ahead of climate advantaged and preparation minded Scandinavia, which is too close to Europe and Russia to avoid being dragged in to their conflicts.


Pakistan’s Greatest Peril

The news from Pakistan’a Gilgit-Balistan province is grim:

  • 30% of normal snowfall
  • November to March snow was observed before 1994
  • Snows came only January & February 2014
  • March melt is four to six weeks early
  • Water is already gone by May planting time

This province is in the far north of Pakistan, part of the small area that gets snow.

Pakistan Snowfall Areas

Pakistan Snowfall Areas

The country is subject to monsoon rains between June and September, but centered on six weeks in July and August. The cooler, higher altitude areas get the bulk of the precipitation.

Indian Ocean Normal Monsoon

Indian Ocean Normal Monsoon

Pakistan 2012 Monsoon

Pakistan 2012 Monsoon

But on just one night in 2010 this happened, leaving 20% of Pakistan under water.

Pakistan 2010 Flood Rainfall

Pakistan 2010 Flood Rainfall

Various stories can be found indicating the per capita water availability in Pakistan is 20% of what it was when they achieved independence in 1947. These stories neglect to mention population – which has more than quintupled in that time.

Pakistan Population

Pakistan Population

Pakistan’s elected government has been taken over by the army three times starting in 1958 and these takeovers last an average of eleven years. The recent assassination of Hamid Mir, a GeoTV journalist, and the TV network’s immediate blaming of Inter-Services Intelligence are seen as signs that 2014 may see another coup.

A military government can quash dissent and push through unpopular but necessary adaptive infrastructure, like a dam that will flood part of one valley for the sake of stabilizing a region. The problem is that Pakistan already has a couple of domestic insurgencies and countering violence today will take precedence over civil engineering projects that will not contribute immediately to stability.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and couple of the former Soviet stans, along with Iran itself are part of a geographic region the Persian empire called Parthia, but which we now call Greater Iran. Click through that link and you’ll find a similar story about Iran, which stands to have 45 million of their population of 75 million become climate refugees(!)

Greater Iran

Greater Iran

Scythia & Parthia 100BC

Scythia & Parthia 100BC

The Soviet Union blundered into a war of attrition with Afghan tribes in 1979 and this was a big factor in their collapse in 1991. Just eleven years after Afghanistan’s most recent imperial kill, the United States, as sure of democracy as the Russians were of communism, marched right into the same trap. The United States has not collapsed outright just yet, but the economic malaise at home and our shaky grasp on foreign affairs are clear signs of what is to come.

This entire region is over carrying capacity. This should be both the first and last thought when considering any long term plans. India, Russia, and Turkey will bear the brunt of this and they are the ones who are in a position to do something. The days of unilateral U.S. action are over. If you want to make predictions for the region look at precipitation and the price of staple foods such as wheat, because they matter in ways that ideology and rhetoric can never match.

Methamphetamines Funding The Syrian Insurgency

Six months ago in Funding The Syrian Insurgency I noted the conflict in northeast Syria regarding control of the oil fields. Those wishing to understand the importance of the connection between insurgency and the illicit networks that fund them should look at Paul Collier & Anke Hoeffler’s Greed & Grievance in Civil Wars (pdf).

Today I noticed Insight: War turns Syria into major amphetamines producer, consumer, which reveals an interesting set of interlocking issues. The trade itself is apparently producing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, providing income for both the government and rebel forces, as well as fueling the duration and intensity of street battles.

I have more digging to do before I can make any sort of sensible characterization of what is happening. This post is going to be an inventory of what I believe to be relevant, and it will likely be rather disjoint.

Five months ago I wrote Yemen’s Food & Water Crisis. Residents of the Horn of Africa and the Saudi Peninsula use khat, a mild stimulant that is consumed by chewing the fresh green leaves of the plant. Khat is a thirsty but profitable crop, being grown at the expense of food production in Yemen.

Khat’s active ingredient, cathionone, breaks down within about 48 hours after harvest, so the leaves must be chewed when fresh. The methylated form of this naturally occurring compound has similar effects to methamphetamine and it is a small but dangerous component of the overall stimulant abuse problem in the rural U.S. The Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula have a cultural norm of consuming a stimulant somewhat stronger than coffee, an entry point for more dangerous substances, such as methamphetamine dressed up to look like the milder Captagon, or phenethylline, a popular drug in the region.

Bulk methamphetamine production requires the availability of ammonia, the world’s most common industrial chemical. We make around 140 million tons a year globally, 30% with hydrogen from natural gas, mostly in the west, and 70% using hydrogen from coal. This is a value added product produced using stranded gas pools, notably in Trinidad in this hemisphere, formerly in Punta Arenas, and U.S. ammonia plants have been shut down, packed up, and reassembled in natural gas rich Qatar. Ammonia is easier to transport than compressed or liquified natural gas.

Syria has two large nitrogen production facilities located at the same geographic location, near Homs. Although the link providing the coordinates is about sulphuric acid production, other sources indicate this is also an ammonia production facility. Ammonia is a precursor for ammonium sulfate and a plant that first extracted sulfur from petroleum coke, then gasified it to make hydrogen would be a normal setup near an oil refinery. The nearby water source is also consistent – ammonia plants produce large volumes of low grade heat that is discarded via water fed cooling towers.

General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria

The United States banned ammonium nitrate sales after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This chemical is still our most common fertilizer, but it’s delivered as a solution known as UAN, urea/ammonium nitrate, which is not usable as a component of explosives. The other delivery methods are as anhydrous ammonia, a cryogenic liquid and as urea alone, a water activated solid. Lesser amounts of ammonium phosphate and ammonium sulfate are used when soils need these elements as well as nitrogen.

The link between ammonium nitrate, agriculture, and insurgency produced explosives is a fairly intractable problem. Smallholders in developing countries don’t have the infrastructure to handle liquid UAN, let alone a cryogenic gas. They need nitrogen fertilizer in a bagged form. Urea is a solid, but it has to be applied just before or during rain in order for it to work. This doesn’t work in relatively arid places, so ammonium nitrate is still the solid fertilizer of choice. Producers have attempted to address this issue by making calcium ammonium nitrate, but recovering ammonium nitrate from it is a fairly simple chemical reaction.

That is what I think I know, here are some “known unknowns” that would help sharpen the overall analysis if they can be resolved.

  • Is Homs indeed the site of Syria’s in-country nitrogen production?
  • Who controls the plant? The Homs area? Who is in a position to divert ammonia?
  • Based on the Reuters article, global Captagon consumption is 21 tons. A tiny ammonia plant will produce a hundred tons a day.
  • How much, if any, of the plant’s output is ammonium nitrate?

The last point is important. There are many reports of Syrian regime helicopters dropping ‘barrel bombs’. These are 55 gallon drums, old water heaters, or lengths of iron pipe. The first video shows a string of devices employing parachutes to retard their fall. This is sometimes employed to permit a low flying aircraft to escape a large blast, but I believe this might be a strategy to reduce the failure rate of these hastily constructed IEDs, which use improvised impact fuses.

The second video shows a large blast that begins with a rolling cloud of flame and smoke. Hollywood dramatizes action sequences by using incendiary charges in place of actual high explosives, which often look like this, but high explosives don’t cause effects like this unless they hit something that has a liquid fuel supply. If the regime is making ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bombs and they’re adjusting the mixture for incendiary as well as blast effects, the use of incendiaries against civilian populations is a war crime.

Syria’s civil war has been understood in the west as conflict between the following:

  • Alawite/Shiite versus Sunni
  • Assad regime versus the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
  • Former Soviet client state versus western friendly nations

While those three are all somewhat true, the missing component is the haves versus the have nots. People who are treated unfairly protest, if they’re starved as well they will engage in open revolt against the administration that is failing to meet their minimum needs.

Syrian Wheat Outlook on 12/8/2012 was my first inspection of agriculture in the country. Seven months later the New York Times provided information that led to Syrian Wheat Becomes Strategic. Food security in the country is a complex issue, but if you can only watch a single metric, wheat availability, price, and quality are a good proxy.

Attempting to stop thousands of foreign fighters by direct attack is the most destructive strategy of all for Syria. Stopping the flow of arms and explosives into the country, as well as interdicting the repurposing of domestic fertilizer into explosives attacks the problem at a lower level.

If the region’s entire Captagon habit were supplanted by methamphetamine it would only require one tenth of the daily production from a tiny ammonia plant to fill the requirement. If the diversion of ammonia is happening and it can be pinched off at the source this defunds a portion of the conflict.

The most likely entity that could protect an ammonia production source and divert a portion of it to drug production is … the Assad regime. If it were a rebel facility and pair of helicopters dropping a string of those parachute bombs would easily disable it.

It is functionally impossible to separate the production of food and the making of IEDs in arid regions where production depends on smallholders using bagged fertilizer. Ponder that concept while I go off and dig deeper into Syrian agriculture.

Volcanos & Climate

Volcanos are ranked via the Volcanic Explosivity Index. This chart shows some well known ancient eruptions and four that have happened within living memory. I wish the 7,600 year old Crater Lake VEI7 was instead the 1815 Tambora event, which was about two thirds of its size. I am most interested in the eight large events which have shaped our climate during the time when we’ve been busy exhuming coal, oil, and natural gas.

Comparing Volcanic Eruptions

Comparing Volcanic Eruptions

The last 230 years have been fairly busy on the volcanic activity front, with eight eruptions that have a VEI of 5 or larger.

Fossil Fuel Era Volcanos

Fossil Fuel Era Volcanos

Grímsvötn and Laki 1783 – 1785 killed one quarter of the population of Iceland … and one sixth of the population of Egypt.

The 1815 eruption of Tambora canceled the Summer of 1816. Karkatoa was the next volcano to make a noticeable change, resulting in five years of subnormal temperatures.

Thanks to improved agricultural methods the three events around the turn of the last century were not credited with any famine inducing disruptions. It should be noted that the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing water use was made on the heels of three closely spaced eruptions. Mt. Saint Helens produced spectacular sunsets for a couple of years in the early 1980s when I was a kid but is not credited with any major climate effects.

That all changed with Pinatubo. Overall sunlight reaching the Earth was cut by 10% and precipitation patterns changed. I first wrote about this in Galt, Joad & Pinatubo four years ago. The effects were a benefit for our dryland plains farmers, who experienced several years of regular rains, before naturally dry conditions returned.

We are due for another massive eruption and Katla is a name that is often invoked. Follow that link and you’ll find @EruptionsBlog sticking pins in the idea that this is imminent. He is right to do so, but imminent in my mind is anything that will hit in the next generation.

We should do a serious “what if” on another Icelandic eruption. Here are a few things that come to mind:

Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 zapped European air travel for a week. This was a nice proxy for some predicted peak oil effects – ground and sea travel was fine, but no airplanes. This revealed some interesting weaknesses in supply chains. Some planning has been done but some sort of modeling for a 90 to 180 day shutdown might be good.

The fires in Russia during 2010 which resulted in a wheat embargo coupled with the lesser effect of massive floods in Pakistan triggered Arab Spring in 2011. This is similar to what happened in the 1780s, when both Europe and the Mideast took a direct hit from eruptions. If the same effect holds as with Pinatubo – more regular rainfall in wheat producing regions in the northern hemisphere, will we produce enough to offset production losses in North Africa and the Mideast?

If we do have supplies, how does this look in terms of oil usage? Keep in mind things get just so bad in that region, then countries flip to revolution, and we can’t just flip them back to stability. Libya went from 1.6 million barrels a day, roughly 2% of the global total, down to basically nothing during their regime change. If a major oil producer pulls out due to follow on effects of an eruption that’s quite serious, and if this happens at a time when the global economy is running full steam losing any producer is a serious problem.