Monthly Archives: June 2018

Seas are Rising Faster

Predictions about global warming by the experts come in three flavors. First, the warnings we are being given are overblown and we need do nothing. Option two is that the warnings are real and we need to act to mitigate climate change. Option three is that scientists are being conservative about their predictions and things are actually worse than predicted. By worse, I mean all the negative outcomes are getting worse faster than anticipated.

By one measure, sea level rise, it appears that option three is in the works. The previous predictions as to the rate of sea level rise seem to have underestimated the actual rate. Scientific studies conducted around the world show that sea level rise over the past century amounted to about a 19 centimeter (7.5 inches.) Recent studies show however that the rate of rise is quickening.

The rate of rise for the 20th century was 1.7 millimeters (mm) per year. Since 1993, however, the observed rate is 3.2 mm per year. At this rate sea levels will rise over a foot this century. People alive today will oversee hundreds of thousands of people driven from their island homes in the South Pacific. Possibly millions more in low lying coastal areas such as Bangladesh will become displaced, exacerbating the problems of human migrations.

The above is predicated on sea level rise being constant throughout the 21st century. There is no indication that that is true. Sea level rise is accelerating. Rates observed today will increase in the future. That foot of rise will be happening much sooner than the end of this century. This is a real existential threat to people everywhere, not only those displaced but also to those who have to deal with the displaced migrants.

The threat is not just from submerged land, higher tides and storm surges can cause salt infiltration which threatens fresh water supplies and cropland. The rest of the world recognizes this and has begun to act. The governments of every nation on earth came to an agreement as to the actions needed, essentially the decarbonization of economies. We here in the United States, however, decided not to participate. Even though we represent only five percent of the world’s population, we produce almost a quarter of the world’s pollution.

Rather than lead the world with our science and technology in finding sustainable energy solutions, we go blithely on our way dragging the rest of the world down.

The issue is real, the science is sound, and settled. Science is not infallible but it is self-correcting. There is not a global cabal of scientists lying to us. Science just doesn’t work that way. Yes, there are occasional errors and even outright fraud. We know this because of, you guessed it – science. Let me explain with a personal anecdote.

As a young graduate student studying the shapes of certain molecules, I noticed a significant error in the data of a senior scientist at another institution based on work I had done with related materials. I contacted him and to make a long story short, he wrote back thanking me for finding his error. How cool is that? A grad student gets to correct a senior scientist. That is the way science works, if you’re right you’re right.

Keep the Families Together

Yep, he went there. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the difference between the United States and the Nazis was that the Nazis were trying to keep the (Jewish) migrants in while his office is trying to keep (mainly Central American) migrants out. That’s a difference? Really? Keeping those fleeing persecution and violence IN or OUT is cruel in the extreme. It goes beyond inhumane, we treat our pets better. Who takes children from their parents as a threat, as a bargaining chip in negotiations over legislation?

President Trump has made numerous false and inflammatory claims in order to rally support for the construction of his border wall and the cruel treatment of migrants here already. He has claimed that we are being flooded with illegal migrants. The reality is that immigration has been down dramatically over the past couple of decades.

Trump has claimed that the immigrants are violent “murderers and rapists.” The reality is that immigrant populations are less violent not more than documented citizens. Yes, there are violent gangs such as MS-13, but they are the exception, not the rule. In science we have a saying, anecdotes are not a substitute for data.

Trump has disingenuously claimed that he hates separating children from their parents but must under the law. As several senior Republican Senators have pointed out, he could end his policy with a phone call. Separating children from their parents as a matter of enforcement is a policy, his, which could be ended in the blink of an eye.

Even though he claimed while campaigning in 2016 “I alone can fix the problem,” he continues to blame the Democrats for the law and even asks that they, the minority party, fix it.

He claims that the immigrants are here taking our jobs, yet unemployment is at a near all time low. His lies even cross oceans. He recently tweeted that due to Angela Merle’s immigration policy that crime in Germany is up, when in fact the crime rate is down.

Evangelical Christians are at the core of Trump’s support, all the while faith leaders are calling for an end to his inhumane policy of separating children from their parents. Leadership in the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United States Catholic Bishops all recently said no to the policy.

With all the outcry from both left and right support for Trump’s policies remain strong even in the face of the knowledge that mistreating children is abhorrent. There seems to remain a level of racism in this country sensitive to claims that the immigrants aren’t people, they’re animals. Asylum seekers aren’t families, they’re murderers and rapists.

We should be working in Central America to to change the conditions which are driving refugees out of their homes to seek asylum within our borders. We should be working to assist asylum seekers, not tearing their families apart.

Have we forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants? We are over 325 million strong. We are ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse. We are arguably the most economically and militarily powerful nation on earth. Morally and ethically we can do better.

Bezoar Stones

Bezoar Stones also called mad stones, have a considerable history in American folklore. They were thought to have the power to treat or neutralize poisons or venoms in wounds. Those wounds may be from insect stings, poisonous plants, snake bites, and even the bites of rabid animals. Treatment consisted of simply holding the stone up against the wound.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac published a story about mad stones in a 2010 edition. The story referred to a number of instances dating to the 19th and into the 20th century where the stones were used for snake bites and especially bites from rabid dogs.

Also clear from these stories is that the stone only worked if obtained directly from an animal or was received as a gift. Buying and/or selling destroyed the power of the stone, and if stolen would actually cause harm to the thief.

Bezoars are usually golf ball sized concretions of hair and calcium salts taken from the gastrointestinal tract of ruminants. Farm animals such as goats and sheep and wild deer are often a source. Hair is difficult to digest, especially by ruminants. The material can persist in the gut of these animals for months to years. Gradually calcium salts bind to a wad of hair. Peristaltic action, the muscular churning in the GI tract, forces these masses in to the shape of a ball.

The name bezoar is taken from Persian, Padzahr. This word and the concept date to the classical period of Persia, around 500 BCE (Before the Current Era), or over 2000 years ago. The Persian word means “protective against poison” A Persian pharmacopeia of the time listed bezoars as effective in the treatment of not only insect stings and snake bites, they were also considered an antidote to various mineral and vegetable poisons.

By the 16th/17th century their purported efficacy had extended to treating diseases or conditions from epilepsy to smallpox and bubonic plague. Bezoars came to be prized possessions in Europe at the time. For one special use, the stones were encased in ornate gold cage-like containers complete with a several inch long chain attached. These could then be dipped into a goblet of wine for instance, to remove any and all added poisons.

Certain Europeans, Catherine de Medici, and Lucrezia Borgia to name just two were thought to be heartless poisoners who gained and held power by poisoning their political enemies. Poisoning at the time was somewhat of an art. Arsenic was often the poison of choice, and the better poisoners knew how to disguise the poison to make it less detectable.

Interestingly there is a good reason to think that in this particular case of poisoning by Arsenic, the bezoars may have worked to prevent poisoning. Nerd alert – chemistry digression. The physical composition of a bezoar includes hair, and hair is loaded with a class of chemical compounds known as sulfides. The presence of sulfides makes for the foul odor when hair is burned. More importantly however, the sulfides are known to chemically bind to many heavy metals including Arsenic.

For a goblet of wine with Arsenic, adding the bezoar stone could adsorb the poison. Remove the stone and remove the poison.

Wrong Way President

Republicans have long been known as the party of business, both big and small. The party that believes in the free market. The party that doesn’t want government picking winners and losers. The GOP platform statement is unambiguous. “Government should not play favorites among energy producers.“

Recently Trump has floated a plan to order the electrical grid operators to buy power from coal and nuclear powered electrical generators. Even though power from natural gas-fired plants is cheaper and cleaner. Even though power from wind turbines and utility-scale photovoltaic systems(solar) is far cleaner and now cheaper than coal-fired plants.

His argument which will drive up the cost of electricity is a somewhat poorly disguised attempt to prop up industries whose time has past. Twenty-five coal plants have closed since he began as president. The two largest coal plants here in Arkansas are in negotiations for closure within a decade. There hasn’t been a new order for a nuclear plant in several decades.

Meanwhile, wind and solar power are rapidly expanding. Clarksville just added its own solar array and Entergy is building two major solar plants.

The plan to help the coal and nuclear industries is couched as a national defense emergency, and if this order were to be enacted would employ a regulation normally used to respond to national crises such as weather-related disasters.

Coal and nuclear plants are referred to as baseload plants. They’re designed to be turned on and stay on, at full power. It is Trump’s position that replacing these baseload plants with renewables will somehow make the electrical grid less resilient.

Nope. Numerous studies show that a broad mix of renewable energy supplies on the grid leads to greater stability. Two countries, Germany and Denmark, have far larger percentages of their electrical energy generated by wind and solar and have an order of magnitude fewer outages than the United States. This may be in part due to better investments in the grid infrastructure, but it certainly shows that renewables don’t hurt.

The people who really know what’s best are the grid operators themselves. They view today’s grid in better shape than ever in terms of reliability. Trade groups for the oil and gas industry joined with environmental groups to issue a joint statement claiming that the plan was legally indefensible and guaranteed to raise the cost of electricity to consumers.

A similar but more subtle plan was pursued last year by Rick Perry, administrator of the Energy Department. Perry requested the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to guarantee a financial return for any power plant that could store on site ninety days worth of fuel. This would, of course, mean coal and nuclear plants. The FERC earlier this year unanimously denied the request.

Trump, the purported deal maker, would be in this case increasing the cost of electricity for consumers. He would be reversing the trend towards cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, the plan would only make worse the problem with high-level radioactive waste, an issue we haven’t been able to resolve after sixty years of commercial nuclear power production.

Amphibian Pandemic

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of the human condition is our purposeful or incidental reduction of biodiversity everywhere we go. Most obvious was the elimination of large herbivores from woolly mammoths to giant ground sloths. This makes a certain sense as they were prey species which fed our rapid expansion across the planet.

Global warming, by forcing changes to the climate, impacts all life on the planet. Fauna are indirectly threatened by simple reduction of suitable habitat. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified habitat loss as a main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN’s “Red List” (those species officially classified as “Threatened” and “Endangered”).

A common example is when forested areas are cleared and converted to agricultural use. The destruction of diverse forests in southeast Asia for use as palm oil plantations threatens everything from Orangutans to Tigers.

An incidental apocalypse is now occurring with amphibians worldwide. The class Amphibia has existed for over 300 million years. Today frogs, toads, salamanders, and the lesser known caecilians are dispersed worldwide and exist in a number in niches from rain forests to deserts. A northern most amphibian is the wood frog of Alaska which literally freezes up during the winter. When the weather warms it thaws and goes about its business.

Compounding threats to amphibians from habitat loss and climate change is a rapidly expanding pandemic of a Chytrid fungus, specifically Batrachorchytrium dendrobatidis (BD.) The fungus has been know for over a century in parts of east Asia and Africa but only in the past few decades has it spread worldwide.

There are several hypotheses for the mechanism of dispersion. In the 1930s a British researcher by the name of Lancelot Hogben, hence the eponymous Hogben test, found that injecting urine from a pregnant woman into the the African Clawed Frog induce the frog to lay eggs. The test was faster and didn’t require the sacrifice of the animal as was the case in the rabbit test. It was used on several continents from the 1940s to 1960s.

Recent study of the DNA of numerous samples suggests the origin of the BD dispersion began on the Korean peninsula in the early 1950’s. The Korean war, with the massive movement of men and materiel in and out of the area could have dispersed the fungus. The fungus can easily be transported on any kind of moist material, in addition to the amphibians themselves.

The global trade in amphibians for foods and pets is probably responsible for the dispersion of new strains which may be even more toxic. BD grows on the skin of amphibians. Amphibian skin is responsible for much metabolic activity such gas exchange. Essential electrolytes, Sodium and Potassium are also exchanged across the skin and it is a disruption of electrolyte balance that kills them.

Of the roughly 7000 amphibian species, 200 have recently been extirpated, and another 2000 are threatened. Nearly half of all amphibian species are in decline. Defenders of Wildlife here in the United States has called for the Fish and Wildlife service to ban the import of amphibians.

The moral of this story is that we ought to leave the critters be. Transporting them from hither to you could very well accelerate the amphibian pandemic.