Harvey Floods Houston, Irma Makes History

Hurricane Harvey visited a near-biblical deluge upon Houston, dropping over 40 inches of rain on parts of the city. The situation resulted from warmer ocean waters, more moisture in the atmosphere, and Houston’s geography along with its preparedness for the disaster. Greg Laden shows hotter sea surface temperatures in the Tropics and the Gulf of Mexico allowed Harvey to gain extra strength as it formed and re-formed on its way to the United States. In another post, Greg asks if Houston’s infrastructure could have been better-prepared for this type of rainfall, suggesting that “Houston is proud of its Libertarian zoning laws” even though, as Ethan Siegel writes on Starts With a Bang, a stalled hurricane pouring down water “should be exactly what you’d expect for a city located where Houston is.”

On the other hand, while the city was swamped to the tune of perhaps $50 billion in property damage, very few people died from the catastrophe. William M. Connolley points out that global warming “made the storm stronger and pushed the rainfall up to ‘unprecedented’; but the CO2 used to make the infrastructure makes the deaths fewer.” Dozens of people are confirmed dead by Harvey’s hand, but a similar cyclone killed over 200 people in Sri Lanka and India in May.

On the heels of Harvey, Hurricane Irma swept up the Caribbean islands and on to Florida, causing more tens of billions of dollars in damage but failing to precipitate the doomsday scenario that many in the media foresaw. On Stoat, William M. Connolley asks if there’s any way to prove a relationship between global warming and these hurricanes, and offers up a wager for 2018. Meanwhile, Ethan Siegel notes that Harvey and Irma mark an historical milestone, as “two Category 4 (or stronger) hurricanes made landfall in the USA in the same year for the first time.” Ethan’s stance is unequivocal: “This is not simply a bad year or an unlucky coincidence, but is an effect of a planet that has been artificially warmed by human activity.”

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Cloud Seeding and The Brothers Vonnegut

“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.

9780374117016While 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.

Last Week on ResearchBlogging.org

Solar cells made with bismuth vanadate achieve a surface area of 32 square meters per gram.  This compound can be paired with cheap oxides to split water molecules (and make hydrogen) with record efficiency.

Short-term geoengineering could postpone global warming, only to have it happen more quickly in the future.

Carotenoids tinge blackbird bills a deep orange, signalling fitness; birds with oranger bills are “are heavier and larger, have less blood parasites and pair with females in better condition than males with yellow bills.”

Fibroblasts can extrude a tidy biological scaffold for stem-cell growth at a nanometer scale, while provoking a lower immune response than synthetic or animal-derived materials.

Higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the blood correlate with stronger white matter in the brain.

By first reverting skin cells to endodermal cells instead of stem cells, researchers were able to transform them into better liver cells with true regenerative potential.

Headband cam reveals that babies spend 25% of their waking lives looking at other people’s faces, 96% of which belonged to members of their own race.  By the age of 6 months, the faces of another race begin to all look the same.

Here: everything you ever wanted to know about star spiders.

Rodents are similar enough to humans to be used as laboratory models, so does a cat parasite that manipulates the behavior of rats also alter the behavior of humans (30-40% of whom are infected worldwide)?

Researchers have come within 99.8% of the theoretical limit of light absorption enhancement in solar cells, paving the way for “the next generation of high-efficiency, cost-effective and ultra-thin crystalline silicon solar cells.”

European utilities, under pressure from a law requiring 20% of all energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, are importing millions of metric tons of wood pellets from the southern United States.  Burning these pellets produces less than half the emissions of fossil fuel, not counting the energy needed to ship them across the Atlantic.

Newly discovered chimpanzee populations in the Congo are thriving, outnumbering their cousins in West Africa, but bushmeat hunters, like researchers, are beginning to encroach.

Another study shows a correlation between use of acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol) during pregnancy and the development of ADHD in children.

New process turns algae into biogas compatible with our natural gas infrastructure. “While it takes nature millions of years to transform biomass into biogas, it takes the SunCHem process less than an hour.”

Among single-celled organisms like algae, programmed suicide can benefit relatives while suppressing the growth of non-relatives.

Off-shore wind turbines could significantly slow hurricane winds and decrease storm surges, all while generating electricity.

Novel aerogel made from wood and polymer could be thrown on an oil spill, absorbing nearly 100 times its own weight before being wrung out and used again.

Five-year-olds spanked by their mothers showed increased behavioral problems at age 9.  Those spanked by their fathers showed reduced vocabulary.

During a musical “conversation,” a jazz musician scanned by fMRI showed activation of language and rhythmic centers in the brain, hemispheric mirrors that “perform syntactic processing for both music and speech.”  At the same time, there was a marked deactivation of the angular gyrus, which is involved in interpreting the meaning of words if not their syntactic structure.

And finally if you want to be considered a great artist, it might be worth cultivating an eccentric persona in the most sincere manner possible.

For more visit researchblogging.org.

Haiyan and a Superstormy Future

Typhoon Haiyan, which made landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 7, is another sobering reminder of the severe weather we are provoking through climate change. It is unofficially the strongest recorded cyclone to ever make landfall, with wind speeds up to 195 mph, 70% stronger than Hurricane Sandy. Villages are flattened, and more than 5,000 people are confirmed dead (as of 11/22). Greg Laden says that tropical cyclones feed on heat energy from the sea’s surface, from seas we know are getting warmer. Haiyan was a storm that blew past the most dire classification, Category 5, which tops out at a sustained wind speed of about 155 mph. But Greg says the Saffir-Simpson scale is not really about wind speed, it’s about destructiveness, and sustained 155 mph winds are all you need for total destruction. So would it be a good idea to extend the scale to Category 6 or 7 for storms like Haiyan, or will this lead the public to feel that a Category 5 storm is less of a threat? Greg says we should focus less on the numbers and more on educating people on the dangers of cyclones, whose destructiveness will vary not only with wind speed but also with regional topology, the quality of infrastructure, and other local variables. Coby Beck on A Few Things Ill-Considered says “In addition to destructive winds, hurricanes bring storm surges and tremendous rainfall, both of which can pack a worse destructive punch than the direct effects of wind.” Coby suggests modifying the Saffir-Simpson scale with categories like 5B and 5C, which would reflect the increasing strength of storms like Haiyan without “diluting the ‘run for your life’ message category 5 is supposed to deliver.”

Posted to the homepage on November 11, 2013.