The economics of climate change

Norfolk - Hurricane storm surge risks

A map showing downtown Norfolk and the surrounding areas, and likely storm surge inundation areas under different categories of Hurricanes. Should a category 4 ever strike the area, most of the region will be flooded. However, coastal flood risks in the area go well beyond the risk of hurricane-related storm surges. Coastal flooding events are becoming increasingly common as sea levels rise, with huge economic impacts on the region. Map Source: Source: Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Commonwealth of Virginia Storm Surge Inundation Maps.

This is the the week the Trump administration may announce their intentions to stay or abandon the Paris climate agreement. There’s some indication that Trump may actually be getting cold feet about abandoning the agreement. However, given the other moves the administration has already made, stating they’re sticking with the agreement may just be window dressing, as reversing Obama’s Clean Power Plan likely makes it impossible that the U.S. could actually meet the agreed upon levels of greenhouse gas reductions. With an administration full of climate-change deniers, it may not seem like there’s a lot of long-term hope that the U.S. will be a meaningful player in trying to mitigate the worst potential climate-change scenarios. However, there is hope…

The New York Times had a great piece yesterday about the Norfolk, Virginia area, and the potential impacts of climate change. What makes the piece wonderful is that it localizes the impacts of climate change and shows how it’s already changing people’s lives. Norfolk, like most coastal cities, is likely to be heavily impacted by climate change and the resultant sea-level rise in coming decades. In the case of Norfolk, however, those impacts have already arrived. Sea-level rises, coupled with sinking coastal land overall in the area, means that the relative sea-level is now 18 inches higher than it was at the start of the 20th century. As the story notes, locals have become accustomed to learning the “dry” spots for parking their cars, avoiding parking in areas where wind-blown tides may bring water inland. The impacts go far beyond the minor inconvenience of finding a dry parking spot, however.

As stated in the New York Times piece, Elisa Staton bought a house in the Larchmont-Edgewater area of Norfolk in 2005.  There were never any records that it had been flooded. Her flood insurance was reasonable, and although the house was within the 100-year flood zone, she wasn’t worried. In the last 10 years, her house has twice flooded. Her flood insurance rates skyrocketed, and the house she purchased for $320,000 was worth perhaps half of that original value. The story notes that flood insurance premiums are rising by as much as 25% a year, and that for every $500 annual increase in flood insurance cost, the value of a house goes down by about $10,000. Short-term remedies include “re-purposing” lower-level rooms to “low value storage space”…in effect reducing the habitability of lower-level rooms in order to get breaks on insurance premiums. Longer-term remedies typically involving raising the house and allowing for increasingly frequent coastal flood waters to flow under the habitable space of a home.  However, even those measures are likely doomed to fail, as relative sea levels in the area may rise by an astounding 6 feet by 2100.

So why did I say there’s some hope regarding climate change, after pointing out the damage Trumps administration has done to U.S. efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases? The current administration may be completely inept on climate change issues, but eventually, basic economics is going to force the hand of government.  The Norfolk story quantifies economic impacts for just one small coastal area in the U.S. In 2008, Norfolk hired a Dutch team (a country well-versed in dealing with coastal flooding and inundation) to develop a climate-change adaptation plan for the city. The price tag? At least $1 billion. That “100-year flood plain” that Elisa Staton’s house was found, where 2 coastal inundation events have occurred in just the last 10 years?  There is over $1 trillion in property in 100-year coastal flood plains along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.  The story does a great job talking about insurance and other economic impacts as well.

Economics.  That’s why there’s hope. Politicians are too short-sighted. As politics has become more partisan in the United States, governing for the long-term welfare of the people has been replaced by governing for the next election cycle.  Climate change impacts? When the next election is a year or two away, climate change is the last thing D.C. politicians worry about.  At a local level however?  With coastal home prices plummeting in areas like Norfolk, you can certainly imagine that local politicians have to address climate change and the resultant economic impacts in their area.  Local residents who feel their livelihoods and homes threatened by climate change will demand it.

That’s where there’s some hope, in the local-level, aggregate response to the economic impacts of climate change. As stories like Norfolk’s become more and more common, the sheer economic impacts of climate change will have to be addressed at the larger state and national scales. Business interests increasingly recognize the devastating impacts climate change may have on their bottom dollar, and realize they can’t ignore the issue.  Our own Defense Department recognizes the threat of climate change to disrupting populations across the globe and introducing instability. At some point, D.C. politicians are going to have to follow suit.

 

Hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson — Science in today’s world

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Sioux Falls, SD

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at the Boe Forum at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. All science related of course, getting sidetracked on some amusing other issues at times, but a great speech. My biggest takeaway…the need to restore humanity’s sense of wonder about the universe (and our own world).

We had the GREAT pleasure last night to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the “Boe Forum” at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.The Boe Forum on Public Affairs was founded in 1995, with a goal “to provide access to individuals who can address events, issues or problems of worldwide or national concern and of broad public interest.”  They’ve certainly had some wonderful speakers (and some less wonderful speakers…think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani) over the years. They’ve managed to draw some very big names, including Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Sandra Day O’Connor, Pervez Musharraf, and Madeline Albright. Augustana University has just opened their new “Froiland Science Complex”, and said they wanted a “moonshot” science speaker to coincide with opening of that science center.  They certainly succeeded by managing to draw Neil deGrasse Tyson to Sioux Falls.

Tyson ended up talking for two hours, and while my son was getting a wee bit antsy towards the end, I must say that it was a very engaging, surprisingly funny, and interesting talk that kept me very engaged the entire time. There were a few things that surprised me a bit, things I disagreed with.  Given today’s political climate and how it’s affecting science, I was hoping for more content on the intersection of the two, but overall it was a terrific talk.  Some of the takeaways for me:

1968 – 1972 – Birth of the Environmental Movement — The highlight of the talk to me was a section where he specifically talked about the period of 1968 to 1972 and the profound effect it had on humanity and our country.  Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. As they rounded the moon, astronaut William Anders took the iconic “EarthRise” photo (bottom of this post), looking across the moon’s surface back at Earth.  The next year we landed on the moon. As Tyson noted, these events totally changed humanity and how we view our own planet.  Some very simple observations noted how little we understood our earth up to that point.  He showed a photo from Star Trek, of the Enterprise orbiting the Earth. Their depiction of Earth had the continents, the oceans…but no clouds!  Tyson gave other examples of artwork and even scientific renderings of Earth up to that point, and none of them portrayed the clouds that are always present! The sense of wonder during the space race, the first looks at our planet from space…it changed how we viewed our planet.  In the period from 1968 to 1972, you thus ended up with the establishment of the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded.  We started cleaning up our air, our water.  We noticed the massive decline in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, and banned DDT to save the species (a resounding success!).  The Endangered Species Act was founded in 1973.  This period STARTED the environmental movement.

Reinvigorating interest in science — The take-home point from the examination of the 1968-1972 period?  All that sense of wonder…that feeling that our Earth is a special place…that’s GONE, or at least incredibly diminished right now. Many people today simply can’t see past their own short-term guilty pleasures to even THINK about the future.  At the end of Tyson’s talk, he had a question-and-answer period. One of the questions was related to these points, and how we can get back to those days of the 1960s and 1970s where environmental conservation, where caring about our planet, really was part of the American consciousness. The answer from Tyson wasn’t related to politics, it wasn’t related to things like the March for Science coming up on April 22nd, it wasn’t related to need for better PR.  No, the answer was much more basic, and was rooted in k-12 education. We just don’t value science as much as we should in those formative years. As Tyson stated, what’s going to end up giving us a kick in the butt isn’t just a change in k-12 education, but a realization that we’re losing our economic competitiveness.  With education driven not by national-scale policy but local and state policy, the States that embrace science and technological innovation, starting in k-12, are the ones that will be competitive for industries that drive our economy. Given how much of a focus their is in this country right now on economics, money, and growth, the cynical side of me believes that it will be economic competitiveness that will end up re-igniting the interest and science and innovation, rather than any pure desire to invest in science for science’s sake.

Star Trek depiction of Earth

Prior to the famed “EarthRise” photo from 1968 and our landing on the moon a year later, humanity had little awareness of how to even portray our Earth. As Tyson noted, up until the late 1960s and the space race, this was a typical depiction of Earth (from the original Star Trek) series. Continents…check! Water…check!! Atmosphere, clouds, and weather…something’s missing! The space race had a profound impact on the way humanity viewed our own planet

Intersection of Science, Culture, and Politics — Speaking of the March on Science on April 22nd, one of the questions he received was about scientists and their role in activities such as this. Overall for the night, he really avoided politics, although there were a few timely, light jabs thrown in.  When the audience member asked this question, I thought we might finally hear his thoughts on the impact of politics on science right now. He did touch on that intersection, but it was different than I was expecting. He’s an educator, some may view him as an entertainer, but at his heart, he’s a scientist through-and-through.  His answer began by saying he was on the fence, that in his own mind, he’s still trying to decide how scientists should react in this kind of political environment.  But for the March itself, he said what he really hoped was that such an event wouldn’t be necessary.  As he hammered home all night long, science isn’t political.  Science provides its own truths, as as he stated, it doesn’t really give a damn what you think about it, what your personal, cultural, or political beliefs are.  In short, you can tell that what he’d like to have happen is that the science would speak for itself, that the knowledge and understanding we produce would stand on its own, and that humanity would return to a time where we’d base our decisions on that knowledge.  You can tell he’s struggling a bit with the issue, and is likely as bewildered as many of the rest of us as to how truth, how fact, are being ignored in the face of cultural, political, and ideological attacks. He definitely didn’t seem to have a clear answer on how scientists respond.

Human ego and science — Tyson ended his talk with a theme similar to his discussion of the 1968-1972 period, and its effect on humanity.  He talked about the “Pale Blue Dot” images, the first from Voyager One in 1990, where the instrument looked backed towards Earth and took an image representing our planet as tiny, pale blue dot in a sea of stars and emptiness.  The Cassini satellite studying Saturn provided a similar view more recently, with a 2013 image that shows Earth as a tiny blue dot hiding in the shadows below the foreground image of Saturn and its rings. The end of the talk itself was a reading of material from Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot”.  The following summarizes that material (a bit revised, from a talk Sagan gave that year):

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

"Pale Blue Dot", Cassini

‘Version 2″ of the Pale Blue Dot photo, if you will. This is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, looking back at Earth (the small dot in the bottom right).

Religion and Science — Tyson touched on topics related to the Sagan reference all night long. In the overall scheme of the universe, we’re insignificant. We’re not “special”.  At one point he listed the 5 most common elements in the Universe.  He then listed the most common elements in a human body. The list is identical, with the exception of helium (given it’s pretty much non-reactive, it doesn’t form elements found in the human body).  The point he makes…we’re just “stardust”, made up of the same common elements found throughout the universe.  On a night when he would occasionally brush up against the edge of talking in depth about the intersection of culture, politics, and science, but never really dive into the deep end of that pool, this may have been the most “controversial” part of the talk (particularly given that the talk was at a University associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and was speaking in very “red” South Dakota). When touching on politics or culture, you can tell he tries very hard to avoid offending anyone, and he barely mentioned religion.  But as I listened to this part of the discussion, I did wonder what some of the more religious people in the room were thinking.  We’re not “special“.  We’re almost certainly not alone in the Universe, given that we’re made up of the same material as is found throughout the rest of the Universe. We live in a country, however, where a huge swath of the population is unable to separate the science, even the empirical world staring them in the face, from their religion.  In the end its a personal ideology that ends up driving the behavior and interactions of so many Americans, science (and reality!) be damned.  Overall for the night, in what would be interpreted to be a tough cultural and political setting for a science purist like Tyson, he did a great job walking the fine line of informing, without offending.

If you ever get a chance to see Tyson speak, it’s well worth your time.  He’s a wonderful speaker, with a rare ability for a scientist…he knows how to connect with people.

Apollo 8, William Anders' "Earthrise"

The iconic “Earthrise” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Please, if you get a chance, contact your representative in D.C.

If you get a chance, please…send a note to your representatives in Congress regarding the new GOP proposed “replacement” for Obamacare. Specific contact info is below.

Children with Type-1 diabetes, like our Alex, LITERALLY have a life expectancy that correlates with the level of care and blood sugar control. This new bill? It includes $600 billion in tax cuts, giving the richest 0.1% an average of $195,000 a year. It CUTS coverage for the poor, and eliminates many of the protections for those with chronic illness that Obamacare provides. It cuts health care access for kids like our Alex, kids whose very LIVES depend upon quality care.  As this story from several weeks ago notes, the very LIVES of these children are at stake.

Don’t let a person’s ability to pay be the prime determinant of your access to health care. Don’t let them get away with cutting health care access, JUST TO FUND TAX CUTS FOR THE RICHEST OF AMERICANS. Here are the places to go to contact your Congressional reps (for my Nebraska and South Dakota friends)…for others, please look up contact info for your state’s representatives.

Senator Ben Sasse (Neb) –https://www.sasse.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-ben

Senator Deb Fischer (Neb) – http://www.fischer.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

Senator John Thune (S.Dakota) – https://www.thune.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

Senator Mike Rounds (S.Dakota) – https://www.rounds.senate.gov/contact/email-mike

Representative Kristi Noem (S.Dakota) – http://noem.house.gov/index.cfm/email-kristi

Representative Jeff Fortenberry (Nebraska) – https://fortenberry.house.gov/contact

Visiting a Muslim country, facing your “fear”

Terry - United Arab Emirates

A much younger version of myself, still hanging on to my old heavy-metal days and the long flowing hair. I couldn’t have looked, or acted, more differently than the local population when I spent a month in the United Arab Emirates. It didn’t matter. I was always treated with respect and warmth. People are people. We all want the same things in life.

20 years ago today I landed in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to do a month’s worth of work in a cooperative exchange with the UAE government. I was young(er), had long flowing hair about a foot long in the back, and had never been overseas before. I was probably the definition of a hippie, obnoxious, clueless American overseas.

During my trip I also visited Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, all countries that are overwhelmingly Muslim. Despite looking and acting MUCH different than the locals, I was treated with kindness, respect, and warmth throughout my trip. The people I dealt with were wonderful, warm, funny…in other words, they were normal human beings trying to live out their lives the best way they knew how. Not once did I feel threatened. Not once did I feel scared. At every opportunity, when I needed help making my way through a day in a strange land, a helping hand was offered.

These are the same people being targeted over the last month. These are the people so many Americans are scared of. They’re not criminals. They’re not terrorists. They’re people who may look a little different than you, may believe in different things than you. They want the same things you want in life…family…health…and happiness.

Put a human face on those you may be suspicious of. Put yourself in THEIR shoes. You may find you have a hell of a lot more in common than you realize.

Abu Dhabi - 7 EmiratesRub Al Khali Desert - United Arab EmiratesUnited Arab Emirates - CamelRub Al Khali Desert - United Arab Emirates

How much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Ssshhhhh….it’s classified

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrialization until today. We’ve gone from a baseline of 280 ppm to 404 ppm today, a level of atmospheric CO2 not seen in over 600,000 years. It’s irrefutable evidence of the impact man has had on the atmosphere and our climate. And now…evidently under the Trump administration, the level of atmospheric CO2 is classified information.

Science is in the news again!  Front page of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other major media outlets!! No, we haven’t discovered extraterrestrial life.  No, we haven’t found a cure for cancer.  In fact, there haven’t really been any earth-shaking research results published  No, the science-related stories that are capturing the front pages of major newspapers are those related to the muzzling of scientists in the federal government under the Trump Administration, after only 5 days.

It started on the 2nd day of the Trump administration.  Information on climate change was deleted from all White House website pages on Saturday, along with other issues that evidently aren’t important any more, such as civil rights.  Who needs to worry about civil rights, when we’re headed back to how it “should” be, with hairy old white men in charge of everything?  It’s all good!  In place of the climate change and LGBT information?  Melania Trump’s jewelry line. Yes, that’s right, a sales pitch for Melania’s jewelry literally is more important to the new administration than climate change or civil rights, and occupies space on the White House website.

Science and environmental research and reporting in the federal government was immediately under attack on other fronts as well.  This week Trump issued an executive order freezing all research grants and contracts at the EPA. All contract and grant awards, as well as all “task orders and work assignments”, are to be “temporarily suspended, effective immediately”.  It’s clearly the first step in dismantling regulatory activity at the EPA, with the Trump administration believing that regulation hinders business activity.  “Regulation”…you know…making sure you and your family don’t DIE or get sick just by breathing, drinking, and eating.  Minor little things like that get in the way of rich people making even more money, and we simply can’t have that.

Other federal agencies were instructed to halt “external communication”.  The Department of Health and Human Services has been instructed not to communicate “with any public officials”.  EPA was told to halt all press releases, blogs, or social media posts.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture was told to stop releasing any “public-facing documents”.  In other words, federal agencies have been instructed by the Trump administration to stop communicating with the public, to stop releasing results of the work that is done with taxpayer dollars.

Social media posts and press releases are a primary means by which federal agencies communicate with the public, and some bold renegade Feds today pushed the envelope on what’s now “allowed” in the Trump administration.  I say “push the envelope”, when in fact, all they did was do what they’ve done since social media became popular…they DARED to report scientific fact, without any inherent political message.  Badlands National Park in South Dakota sent out a series of tweets earlier today, simply providing the facts on what’s happening with our atmosphere and climate change.  Here’s a sampling of their tweets from the day:

National Park Service - Badlands Tweets

Pretty innocuous stuff, and pretty much the same kind of science information that’s tossed out on social media by many federal science agencies.  The response to DARING to state how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? After a few hours, all climate-related tweets on the Badlands site were deleted, without explanation. Was there some violation of federal policy with the release of this mundane, extremely well-known, and well-verified data? As this story from Salon.com notes,the following rule of thumb generally applies to the disclosure of information by federal employees:

A public employee is allowed to speak publicly or share information with the media, if that information is not considered a government secret or classified information.

Evidently stating how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere is now a “government secret” or “classified information”.

The public clearly has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.  There were several reported cases of the Bush administration editing climate-related research results, changing phrasing or eliminating certain results to downplay the expected impact of climate change. While the Bush administration was openly criticized for their attempts to downplay climate-change impacts, those interventions were in fact relatively infrequent.  Science research in the federal government, including climate-change research, has generally been considered public domain information, and attempts to muzzle or modify research results have been few and far between.

The actions of the Trump administration in just the first 5 days are a warning shot across the bow for scientists in general, a warning that science is now subject to the same vagaries of politics as is the rest of the federal government.

Killer Grizzlies, Ice Twisters, and more – Science, Nature, and other news

Killer Grizzlies, “Ice Twisters”, and more…Science, nature, and other news of the week. Click on each headline for the story itself.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos

Taken this morning, A Grizzly Bear, lurking JUST outside the Brandon Valley Middle School attended by my son. STAY BRAVE, MY SON!! We finally have a leader…nay…a HERO…who will stand up for you and your fellow children.  No longer will you cower in fear each day at school, wondering if…wondering WHEN...the next child will be taken by a Grizzly Bear. Prepare for firearm training, my son! Soon you will be able to defend yourself!

Grizzly Bear Scourge Killing Thousands of American Children — With all the testimony this week of potential Trump Cabinet members, the most insightful, meaningful words of wisdom came from Betsy Devos, the woman who (shockingly) is about to lead the Department of Education.  When asked about her stance on guns in schools, Devos first deflected, stating that it should be a local choice.  When pushed, Devos spoke of the one issue that wasn’t discussed NEARLY enough during the fall campaign…the deadly scourge of Grizzly Bear attacks on our children at school.  Yes, that’s right folks, FINALLY we have a Trump Cabinet member who “gets it”, who understands the daily struggles of everyday Americans. Who hasn’t worried about Grizzly Bear attacks when dropping off their child at school in the morning? Betsy, we love you.  You’ve proven you are one of US, everyday Americans struggling with everyday, life-or-death problems.  Hopefully under your watch, teachers, or…better yet…children THEMSELVES will be allowed to carry semi-automatic weapons to combat the Grizzly Bear scourge.  God bless you, Betsy Devos!

Cat toll on wildlife tallied – We had a neighbor with a cat that started showing up on their front step.  They adopted it, although for the much of the time, they kept it as an outdoor cat. Every night it would be out on its own, and often during the day as well.  It was a sweet cat! It was also an evil, bird-killing machine that was seemingly always in our yard. There would be many, many times I’d look out our sun room at the bird feeders, only to see the cat crouched and hiding by a nearby bush. Over the years, the visits to our yard became less frequent, either because 1) it was scared to death of me chasing it out of the yard again, or 2) it progressively got fatter and less agile.  He took a toll on birds in my yard.  I often witnessed him killing a bird, and other times, I’d just find the aftermath, with a pile of feathers or a dead mangled body. One cat, one yard, and likely many dozens upon dozens of kills.  So what is the toll of cats on wildlife?  As this story notes, a wildlife rehab group in Virginia tallied cat-related animal injuries over the years, and found they treated over 80 species that had been attacked by cats, including over 60 different bird species.  This past summer, the neighbor cat disappeared one day, as it didn’t return home after (yet another) night left outside on its own.  I love what pets bring into a home, but admit I was NOT fond of the way the neighbor cat was treated, and what it was allowed to do. Leaving it outside all the time ended up costing it its life, but it also ended up costing the lives of countless small critters over the years.

Tornado - 1884

What’s thought to be the world’s oldest photo of a tornado, taken in 1884. This photo always terrified me, ever since I saw it as a kid. It just looks…evil. And hey, GREAT! THANKS SCIENCE! In addition to every other way a tornado can kill you, now we also know that the inside of a funnel is quite cold! “Ice Twisters”, the SyFy movie, may have actually been a documentary!

Ice Twisters!! — Several weeks ago, my son and I were flipping through the channels, and as we passed the SyFy channel, we saw a movie called “Ice Twisters!” was on.  Typical SyFy movie…government research gone wrong, with drone-related atmospheric research somehow resulting in deadly “Ice Twisters” that were ravaging the landscape. In the movie, the cause of death for those impacted by an Ice Twister wasn’t necessarily wind…no…they froze to death!  Yes, twisters that were THAT cold!  Well, it turns out there’s a hint (the slightest hint) of truth in the show.  The story goes back to 1955, when three employees from a radio station in Nebraska were taking cover from a tornado in the basement of an old stone house. The vortex passed directly overhead, and as it did so, the structure above was blown away.  The three people in the basement noted the difficulty in breathing as the tornado passed overhead, but also felt the temperature dropping very sharply.  Researchers studying the case found that the temperature likely dropped from around 27° Celsius to 12° as the funnel went overhead.  The drop in temperature and the difficulty they had in breathing were related. The density of the air in the funnel would have been equivalent to being at nearly 30,000 feet in elevation, and as warmer, denser air is sucked into low pressure of the funnel, the expansion causes the large drop in temperature.  Touche’, SyFy, Touche’.  Never again will I make fun of your (admittedly sometimes entertaining) movies.  Ice Twisters was simply a movie ahead of its time, ahead of the science behind it.

Move over “Polar Vortex”! Now we have “Atmospheric Rivers” — I just love when the mainstream media gets excited and jumps all over a “new” scientific phenomenon. A few years ago, somebody put a label of “Polar Vortex” on the same kinds of cold snaps the U.S. has always experienced, evidently deciding that just calling it “winter” as we always have wasn’t exciting enough.  Today, I see we have a new entry in the journalistic annals of creating new and exciting ways to describe phenomena that have been around forever. A very significant precipitation event did just recently occur in California, but the same kind of event has occurred countless times throughout history.  The term “Atmospheric Rivers” itself is evidently old, mentioned by a couple of researchers back in the 1990s. Other terms for it in California have been the “Pineapple Express” or “Hawaiian Express”.  Reading this story, however, and you’d think it was the first time such a phenomenon had been discovered or discussed.

February 2016 Temperature Anomalies

An image that shows global temperature anomalies in February of 2016. February was the most “anomalous” month in history up to that point, with the greatest departure from the “normal” for any month that had ever been measured. 2016 as a whole ended up setting yet another global temperature record. Leading the way…much of the Arctic. This graphic shows a temperature anomaly of nearly 12° for much of Arctic, but even greater departures from normal were found this fall and early winter.

3rd straight year of record global temperatures — For the first time ever, we’ve now had three straight years where all-time global temperature records have been broken. As stated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, ““What’s going on in the Arctic is really very impressive; this year was ridiculously off the chart”. Parts of the Arctic were 20 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal for much of the fall and early winter, including days with temperatures hovering at or above freezing even at the North Pole. Globally, levels of sea ice have never been lower.  Irrefutable evidence of the continued onslaught of climate change…not that more evidence is needed at this stage, but it comes at a time when a new incoming President and his Party are about to take power in Washington D.C.  Which leads into…

Mixed bag for Trump’s Cabinet on Climate Change — Not a single story, but a collection of stories related to confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet members this week. First the good…incoming Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, openly disagreed with Trump’s statements on climate change.  He stated “The climate is changing, and man is an influence”, certainly welcome words from a man tasked to manage the Department that oversees Federal lands and natural resources.  Responses related to the issue of climate change were more reserved and mixed from other Trump nominees.  Scott Pruitt, tasked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency said “I do not believe climate change is a hoax”, but he stopped short of saying man was the major cause, or that we need regulation and change to mitigate the effects. Given that EPA is the Federal Agency that can potentially regulate greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not comforting to see a lack of conviction about regulatory action.  The aforementioned Betsy Devos, who could very well be in charge of the Department of Education (GOD I hope not), didn’t specifically comment on climate change in her confirmation hearing, but did offer a simple statement of “I support the teaching of great science“.  Note the word “simple”, a statement that could be attributed to MUCH of her testimony this week.  It’s not encouraging when the Secretary of Education is clearly not even aware of the many programs her agency is responsible for.  Rex Tillerson, an oilman slated to become Secretary of State, did state that the climate is changing and that greenhouse gases are a cause. However, he also stated that the science was murky, saying “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”  Tillerson’s comments were perhaps the most representative of what’s likely to happen in a Trump administration.  In the face of overwhelming evidence that’s slowly convincing even a scientifically illiterate American public, the stance of many Cabinet members was to recognize climate change as “real”, yet simultaneously state the science is very uncertain. In short, they’re setting the stage to potentially monitor the situation, but not do a damn thing about it.

Sit on your butt and watch your life drain away — That’s the basic message of new research that assessed the biologic “age” of cells, related to the level of physical activity.  Telomeres, little caps on the ends of DNA strands within a cell, gradually shorten as a person ages. Telomeres protect your chromosomes, and a shortening of telomeres is associated with cell “aging”, and increased likelihood of diseases including diabetes and cancer. Interesting study, and one of the first to take this form of measurement and connect it with activity levels.  That’s the price of blogging, I guess…sitting here for hours trying to come up with interesting and clever stories, all while my damned telomeres shorten by the second.

Eating and Sitting

A family sitting AND eating at the same time. As science has proven this week, this could be one of the most dangerous aspects of American life. This, or rampaging Grizzly Bears around our children’s schools.

Don’t eat, live longer — To riff off of Charlton Heston…Damn you, science.  DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!  FIRST you have the story above about deadly Ice Twisters, amplifying my already well-ingrained fear of tornadoes.  Then you have the story of your DNA rotting away while you sit still.  And now, this story, noting that restricting calories is one way to ensure a longer life. Survival and health of rhesus monkeys was found to be significantly higher as caloric consumption was reduced.  Great.  What.  The.  Hell.  My favorite pastime is lounging on the couch in the basement, hiding from tornadoes, eating a bowl of ice cream.  Little did I know how much I was putting my life in danger. As a scientist, and as an avowed atheist, I do find it incredibly fascinating that so many things that human beings crave in life, are inherently bad for you.  Eating fatty and sugary foods, relaxing and taking it easy.  From an evolutionary and biologic standpoint, does that make sense?  Does it make sense that the very things we crave can kill us? How does simple biology explain that?  It’s times like this where my belief in a “god” may not be reinforced, but it does reinforce my belief in a “devil”.

10,000-km long “wave” on Venus — The Akatsuki spacecraft captured a spectacular image of Venus in December, marked by a massive, vertical “smile” that stretched nearly pole-to-pole.  The 10,000-km long feature is thought to be a “gravity wave”, which would make it the largest gravity wave observed in the solar system.  It’s thought to have developed from air movement over mountain ranges on the surface of Venus, with the feature then propagating higher into the thick Venetian atmosphere. However, such a feature isn’t easily explained by the current understanding of the surface of Venus and near-surface atmospheric conditions. Either some other explanation is in order, or our understanding of the surface/atmospheric interactions on Venus needs to be reevaluated.

 

Why “Alex” > “Olivia” > “Nate” — Health care in America

Three Happy Children

Three happy children, “Alex’, “Olivia”, and “Nate”, living in a world where Alex will receive better health care than Olivia, and Nate will receive the worst health care of all 3, all because of their socioeconomic status.

We’re two weeks into a new Congress that smells blood in the water.  Other than a flurry of legislation designed to limit transparency and ethics oversight (always a great sign when that’s their first thought when they arrive in Washington), the major focus has been the dismantlement of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act, ACA).  What is abundantly clear is that those voting to “repeal and replace” the ACA, without having ANY idea of what they might eventually replace it with, are oblivious to the impacts of the law on real Americans.  What follows is a NOT so hypothetical story of three children, “Alex”, “Olivia”, and “Nate”, and what health care policy in the United States means to them.

Alex, Olivia, and Nate are all young teenagers or pre-teens.  Each has Type-1 diabetes, the auto-immune version where their own misguided immune system has attacked and destroyed the islet cells in their pancreas’ that make insulin.  For the rest of their lives, they will be dependent upon insulin injections.  It’s a life fraught with risk. If you don’t control your blood sugars well, you’ll have frequent hyperglycemia events (high blood sugar). Over time, that will contribute to kidney disease, eye disease, cardio-pulmonary disease, and peripheral nerve damage. If you’re extremely vigilant and try to control your blood sugars very tightly, you’re more likely to have hypoglycemic events (low blood sugar), a dangerous condition that can cause seizure, coma, and even death.  Long-term blood sugar control is measured with a patient’s “A1C”, a hemoglobin-based measure from your blood.  A “normal” A1C is less than 6.5. The higher a diabetic’s A1C is, the worse their long-term blood sugar control, and the higher their risk for complications.

There’s little doubt the ACA is a god-send to Type-1 diabetics like these Alex, Olivia, and Nate.  No longer can they be refused insurance coverage for their pre-existing condition.  Diabetes is an expensive, life-long disease, but thanks to the ACA, they will no longer be subject to lifetime maximum payouts from insurance companies.  For parents helping them transition to an adult life and the responsibility for their own health insurance, the ACA allows parents to cover children on their insurance until they turn 26.  Things are much better with the ACA, but even with the ACA, we’ve got a long way to go in providing equitable health care in the United States.  With that as background, here is the not-so-hypothetical story of Alex, Olivia, and Nate and their battle with Type-1 diabetes…and the American health care system.

“Alex”

Alex is a young teenager who was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at a very young age.  His family would be considered  upper-middle class. Alex’s family has a very good, comprehensive health care plan, with insurance provided through one of Alex’s parents. Alex has had access to some of the best care a young diabetic can have. For over 10 years, Alex has had an insulin pump, a small device that holds a reservoir of insulin.  His pump automatically provides a steady stream of insulin all day long (the “basal” insulin), just as the body normally does, to try to keep blood sugars stable. His pump also makes it easy to administer insulin at meals.  He simply estimates how many carbs he’s eating, enters that number in the pump, and the pump provides the proper amount of insulin required to process the sugars in that meal. Alex checks his blood sugar very often (8-10 times a day), but was still occasionally experiencing both hyperglycemic and hypoglycemic events.  In addition to his pump, his family pursued a “continuous glucose sensor” (CGM), another medical device that automatically checks his blood sugars every 5 minutes.  The CGM even has a cell phone app, where his parents are alerted on their cell phones if his blood sugars need attention. He no longer faces the dangerous “nighttime lows”, a hypoglycemic event that may occur at night when a patient is asleep and less able to respond. If Alex’s blood sugars start to drop anywhere close to dangerous levels, an alarm will alert both him and his parents that action is needed.  Alex’s A1C levels have typically been right around 7.0, just a bit above that of a “normal” person.  With the new CGM, it’s likely that will go down even further.  Alex’s care is expensive.  The insulin pump and the CGM both costs thousands of dollars, as do the yearly supplies that support those devices.  Along with the costs of insulin, doctor visits each month, and other supplies, Alex’s health care costs without insurance would be in the 10s of thousands of dollars per year.  Even with what’s considered quite good insurance, his parents pay a lot out of pocket each year for the pump, CGM, and supplies. They can afford it, however, and Alex’s long-term prognosis and risk of complications is much lower than Olivia’s or Nate’s.

“Olivia”

Olivia is a pre-teen who has had diabetes for about 5 years.  Her family would be considered middle-class, perhaps lower middle class. Olivia’s family has a health care option through a parent’s employer, with coverage that isn’t nearly as good as what is provided by Alex’s insurance. Olivia’s family would like a better insurance plan, but their income is high enough that they’re not eligible for subsidies under the ACA that might enable them to “shop around” and find better insurance.  Olivia’s insurer covers only part of the costs of an insulin pump, and does not cover costs for a CGM.  Olivia’s family cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs that would be required to get an insulin pump, so Olivia does not have an insulin pump, or a CGM.  Her insulin control relies on frequent injections, with a daily “long-acting” insulin that is meant to mimic the basal insulin (the steady, day-long drip) provided by Alex’s pump, and “short-acting” insulin that is given with every meal.  Olivia doesn’t like needles, but as a young diabetic, she’s learned to tolerate them. Olivia knows Alex, and marvels at his pump, which frees Alex from the 4-6 daily injections that Olivia gets.  Olivia checks her blood sugar as frequently as Alex, 8-10 times per day, which helps keep her blood sugars under control.  She can respond when blood sugars are low or high, but it means another injection (for high blood sugars).  Without a CGM, she’s more subject to unnoticed hypoglycemic or hyperglycemic events.  Unlike Alex, who “feels” when his blood sugar is low, Olivia has no such physical feelings or warning signs when her blood sugars go low.  She recently was hospitalized after a severe, nighttime hypoglycemic event, when extremely low blood sugar results in seizure and a short period of unconciousness.  With her diligence in checking blood sugars, however, those events are minimized. Her A1C is significantly higher than Alex’s, usually around 8.0 to 8.5.  Compared to Alex, she’s thus not only at risk of unnoticed high or low blood sugar events, she’s also more likely to develop longer-term complications such as heart disease, kidney failure, or eye disease.

“Nate”

Nate is a teenager who was diagnosed with diabetes about 10 years ago.  He lives in a single-family home, a good home with a very loving mother, but paying the bills is a struggle.  The only health insurance available to Nate’s family prior to the ACA was a “catastrophic care” policy with very high deductibles and much poorer coverage than either Alex or Olivia receive.   After Nate was diagnosed, the economic struggles meant pinching pennies on health care. It even meant pinching pennies on the administration of insulin. At difficult times, Nate’s family would avoid carbohydrate-laden meals, in order to save money on the amount of insulin needed to treat Nate. Visits to the endocrinologist were few and far between, as Nate’s mother couldn’t afford them.  Nate’s blood sugar control was very poor prior to the ACA, with A1C’s typically over 10.  Under the ACA, subsidies are available, including both tax credits and cost sharing subsidies, that ensure a plan on the ACA marketplace can’t cost more than 9.5% of a family’s income. After the ACA, Nate’s mother enrolled in a marketplace plan and obtained a health care plan that was much better than the poor health care option provided through her employer.  However, Nate’s insurance is similar to Olivia’s, in that only partial costs of an insulin pump would be covered, and a CGM is not covered.  Nate’s mother cannot come close to paying the out-of-pocket costs that would be required for an insulin pump. Nate relies on shots much like Olivia does.  Nate’s mother is extremely thankful for the availability of ACA coverage, as without it, even the cost of insulin would have been very difficult for her to pay under her employer’s poor, catastrophic coverage insurance.  However, the family still struggles with everyday costs, including costs of health care. With the only available, affordable ACA plan, coverage is worse than either Olivia’s or Alex’s.  Nate’s situation has improved, but his family is still forced to make extremely difficult healthcare decisions, regarding both health care and other, every-day expenses.  With another sibling with asthma and other problems, covering health expenses is difficult even with the ACA and tax credits.  Visits to the doctor are fewer for Nate’s family than for Olivia’s and Alex’s. Blood sugar control has improved for Nate with the better insurance from the ACA, particularly as the family doesn’t feel the need to “scrimp” on insulin, yet Nate still has A1C levels that approach 10 at times.  Nate is at substantially higher risk of long-term complications than either Alex or Olivia.

Comparing Alex, Olivia, and Nate

Alex > Olivia > Nate.  That’s the situation in today’s health care system, where your level of care is directly related to your ability to pay.  With Type-1 diabetes, blood sugar control is LIFE.  There are tools available that assist a Type-1 diabetic in maintaining blood sugar control, but those tools are of no use if a family can’t afford them.

In all likelihood…Alex will outlive Olivia.  Olivia will outlive Nate.  It’s as simple as that, when blood sugar control is the key to a long, happy life for a diabetic.  Particularly a type-1.  It has NOTHING to do with the love of a family, or the desire to keep blood sugars under control.  The parents of Alex, Olivia, and Nate all love their children very much, and would do anything to keep them as healthy as possible.  It simply boils down to economics. Even if insurance provides some access to advanced treatment options, that’s useless if the family can’t afford co-payments or other fees required to get those advanced options.

The ACA is far from perfect, but also a much, much better situation than we had prior to the ACA. The ACA is a step in the right direction, but more is needed. Instead, we’re heading backwards.  The split between the “haves” and the “have nots” has never been more evident in the United States, and as the not-so-hypothetical case of Alex, Olivia, and Nate shows, that divide is also still clearly evident in how we dispense our health care.

Well we are “South” Dakota…

Confederate Flag

A new flag at a house on my way home! My guess is it’s been a month since I’ve been by, so this is something that’s popped up since the election. THIS is the kind of behavior that I guess is now normalized, thanks to our election of an openly bigoted pig of a man as President.

I work at a facility that’s outside of Sioux Falls in the middle of nowhere, which gives me the somewhat unique opportunity to drive gravel roads to and from work if I so wish.  I have several different roads I can take, but today took a gravel road I haven’t taken for probably a month.  I found a new feature on the road!  Joe White Trash Redneck decided to add a second flag to his flag pole…a Confederate Flag.

We ARE “South” Dakota I guess, and unlike those liberal heathens up in North Dakota, there are clearly many of South Dakotans that still harbor old-time convictions.  Who am I kidding…there are white trash rednecks like this all over the country, and lily-white South Dakota is no exception.  The difference is that unlike the South, here we wrap our bigotry and racism in good ol’ fashioned Midwestern “niceness”.

I’ve lived in Nebraska or South Dakota nearly all my life, save for a couple of years spent in Washington D.C. just after college.  I know what people are like, and I’ve always known the “nice Midwesterner” label was a farce.  People are people, and I certainly didn’t notice any difference in “niceness” in D.C. vs. here.  People certainly drive like assholes EVERYWHERE, whether you’re on the jam-packed freeways around D.C. or on the roads around Sioux Falls!  Any pride South Dakotans or other Midwesterners may take in their civility melts away quickly when you peek just under the surface.  Conservative values that dominate here are remarkably similar to conservative values in the deep South, where people may wrap themselves in a cloak of piety and religious belief, but that cloak is simply a cover for some very deep-rooted bigotry and racism.

Is it good or bad that the Trump election normalizes this kind of behavior?  What does it say that a house I’ve passed countless times in the past 23 years never had a Confederate flag flying, yet within a month of Trump being elected, it proudly flies next to the American flag?

Insecure white (trash/redneck/losers) have certainly gotten payback after 8 years of a (gasp!) black president, and with the choice of Trump, people are seemingly becoming much less shy about showing their true colors.

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