The decision by PG&E to mothball the last operating nuclear reactors in California has some people cheering—and other pounding their fists. On Significant Figures, Peter Gleick writes that the closure of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant “rankles those who see all non-carbon energy sources as critical in the fight against the real threat of climate change.” Yet Gleick argues that with the pitfalls of nuclear energy and the high costs of retrofitting the plant, it is appropriate to shut it down and focus on developing wind and solar capacity. Meanwhile, Greg Laden considers the risk a major earthquake poses to the plant, which was built in the vicinity of four fault lines including the San Andreas. Diablo Canyon was upgraded to withstand a 7.5 magnitude quake, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that during a given year there is a 1 in 23,810 chance of an earthquake causing core damage to the reactors. They will continue operating until their licenses expire, in 2024 and 2025.
Arctic sea ice appears likely to reach a record minimum extent this year; as Greg Laden says, “It is almost like the Earth is warming up or something.” The lowest extent of Arctic sea ice on record (since observations began in 1979) occurred in 2012, the second-lowest in 2007, and the third-lowest in 2015. On Stoat, William M. Connolley says it’s currently at an “all-time low for the time of year, but only just, which is better than its been for the last few months.” While the fate of the entire human race may hinge on the effects of global warming, Connolley also has $10,000 on the line. Will the extent of sea ice drop below 3.1 million square kilometers this September? And will we experience ice-free Arctic summers in the near future?
The first observation of a bacterial gene called MCR-1 in the United States has scientists worried, if not surprised. The gene provides resistance to colistin, an antibiotic with nasty side effects used to combat multidrug-resistant bacteria. On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith writes “colistin has seen a new life in the last decade or so as a last line of defense against some of these almost-untreatable infections.” But now, bacteria wielding MCR-1 threaten to leave humans defenseless. On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski explains “MCR-1 is of particular concern because it’s carried on a plasmid, a small piece of DNA that can easily transfer from one strain of bacteria to another.” This raises the specter of future pathogens resistant to all known antibiotics. As Smith writes, “I’m not an advocate of panic myself, but I do think this is yet another concern and another hit on our antibiotic arsenal.”
“And yet many people today believe that weather modification is a hoax: the early overselling of rainmaking somehow caused it, down the line, to be grouped in the public mind with conspiracy theories about mind-altering ‘chemtrails,’ shock-jock speculation that the government manufactures tornadoes, and paranoid fantasies about the ‘weather wars’ involving earthquakes broadcast via the stratosphere. The reality is far less dramatic.” -Ginger Strand, The Brothers Vonnegut
In 1945, after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was much hand-wringing in the scientific community about the ethical implications of their physical research—research which had been turned toward purely destructive purposes; technology which threatened then (as now) to dehumanize the entire planet. Within this social and intellectual milieu two brothers soon found themselves part of a new corporate culture at General Electric: Kurt Vonnegut, freshly returned from his experiences as a POW in Germany, and his more empirically-oriented brother Bernard, who spent the war de-icing planes for the Air Force.
While the brothers daydreamed about nuclear disarmament and world government in the few years before the Soviet Union detonated its own nukes and the world spiraled into Cold War, a new technology captured the interest of GE, and the military: seeding clouds with dry ice and silver iodide, making it rain in the desert, busting hurricanes at sea, filling reservoirs on demand, and perhaps even wreaking environmental devastation upon the enemies of the United States.
The Brothers Vonnegut covers the years they spent at GE, as Bernard Vonnegut, along with Irving Langmuir, pursued research in weather modification, while Kurt wrote spiffy articles for the GE press office and dreamed of self-reliance as a writer of fiction. Ginger Strand’s book is meticulously true to life, “reconstructing the day-to-day activities of historical figures through published works, interviews, and archival sources.”
While Langmuir fixated on dry ice as a way to nucleate supercooled water vapor, Bernard Vonnegut pored through chemical tables and discovered something he thought would work just as well: silver iodide. A strange series of coincidences led Langmuir and Vonnegut to believe cloud-seeding was more efficacious than it really was. A mischievous font of synchronicity confounded their scientific conclusions. Today, according to Wikipedia,
“New technology and research has produced reliable results that make cloud seeding a dependable and affordable water-supply practice for many regions. While practiced widely around the world, the effectiveness of cloud seeding is still a matter of academic debate.”
And according to Ginger Strand,
“Today’s changing climate has renewed interest in weather modification. In the West and the Great Plains, severe drought and diminishing aquifiers have led water utilities, hydropower producers, agriculture groups, and ski resorts to fund cloud-seeding programs. In Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Claifornia, Utah, and Nevada, rainmakers are hired to augment the snowpack.”
The book covers the work of other scientists in the post-war period, including Norbert Wiener and his landmark book Cybernetics, John von Neumann and his computational approach to meteorology, and the emergence of chaos theory as a counterpoint to all efforts to predict and control atmospheric forces.
Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, satirized the corporate clannishness of GE and depicted a future in which all labor is done by machines, rendering the working class useless. It would be seventeen more years before he attained lasting literary success with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, a phantasmagorical account of his experience in Dresden as Allied fire-bombing killed 250,000 civilians and layed the jewel of a city to waste. As for GE,
“They continued to move right throughout the 1950’s, blacklisting employees who wouldn’t fully cooperate with HUAC and gradually reining in its unions through tough negotiation tactics that came to be known as Boulwarism. Two years after Bernie left, GE hired an under-employed actor to serve as its public relations spokesman and to host the company television show GE Theater.”
That man was Ronald Reagan.
There is also the story of Harry Wexler, who in 1962 noted “we are releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide and other gases and particles to the lower atmosphere which may have serious effects on the radiation or heat balance which determine our present pattern of climate and weather.” He died months later, of a heart attack, at the age of 51.
The European Union has announced that all scientific papers published there and based on publicly funded research will be freely available beginning in 2020. On Stoat, William M. Connolley compares the new rules with the copyright system utilized in the United States, writing “the mystery is why the UK, France, Germany, and hence the rest of the EU haven’t done this years back.” On Confessions of a Science Librarian, John Dupuis considers the future of Elsevier, an academic publishing company based in Amsterdam that annually publishes hundreds of thousands of articles to the tune of $2,000,000,000 in revenue. As the scientific zeitgeist turns toward open access, Elsevier is positioning itself to maintain its profits by offering “research services.” Dupuis writes, “They have no intention of surrendering their dominance. In a new, more open environment, they want to maintain that hegemony.”
Four weeks after a wildfire began in the Canadian province of Alberta, thousands of structures in Fort McMurray have been destroyed, over 100,000 people have been evacuated, and 2200 square miles have gone up in smoke. The fire has also shut down commercial extraction of tar sands, a source of fossil fuel and the reason for Fort McMurray’s prosperity. Greg Laden points out the perverse cause and effect of it all: tar sands contribute to global warming, global warming contributes to weather variation and drought, drought makes regions extra-vulnerable to wildfire, and wildfire shuts down tar sands extraction. While it’s tempting to think residents of Fort McMurray are ‘getting what they deserve’ for their involvement with fossil fuels, Greg Laden writes “the people of Fort McMurray did not decide to cause climate change.” As John DuPuis says on Confessions of a Science Librarian, “The issues around fossil fuel development that have gotten us into the trouble we’re in are systemic and historic, not in any way directly the fault of the actual people who are caught in this situation.” Thus, the short-term need for disaster relief is independent of the long-term need to stop using fossil fuels.
On Significant Figures, Peter Gleick explains that growing populations worldwide have exerted peak pressures on water supplies, leaving entire regions more vulnerable to natural variations in rainfall. In turn, global warming has made these natural variations more extreme. One such variation is El Niño, when “droughts are typically more widespread and severe.” Dr. Gleick reports on the challenges faced around the world in 2016, as several historic droughts grow worse. Meanwhile, in honor of Earth Day, Ethan Siegel suggests we count our blessings: “there’s still no planet as friendly to life or hospitable to humans as Earth. It’s the fact that we went beyond the Earth and discovered the Universe that’s allowed us to appreciate just how rare, precious and special our home world is.”