Sunday, April 01, 2012

Is Climate Change a Mental Health Emergency?

It'a possibility but since we live in an era of unusual temperature stability (see above) and natural disasters are not particularly frequent, there's not much point speculating

Tornadoes and wildfires, floods and droughts have caused people mental anguish since time eternal. If climate change makes storms more powerful and disrupts weather patterns that have existed for millennia, will it fray our mental health?

That is the subject of a recent report by the National Wildlife Federation that explores how the uncertainty and upheaval caused by erratic weather might cause more Americans to become depressed, anxious and even suicidal, and what might be done to prepare for it.

We may not agree on the reason, but there’s little question that the United States has been on a streak of wild weather recently. The report took some of its observations from 2011, which included the record-breaking Texas drought and its associated wildfires, an East Coast heat wave, and floods in the East and Midwest, and a crazy tornado season.

The report, based on the conclusions of a high-powered panel of psychiatrists, psychologists, and public-health and climate experts, made some sobering assessments. Two hundred million Americans will be subject to stress because of climate change, it concluded.

Coastal storms and sea level rise will affect half of all Americans who live near the coasts, and the 70 percent who live in cities subject to heat waves. Swollen rivers will break their banks as they pass through major cities. Prolonged drought will cause farmers and their families to suffer. And some mental maladies may be chronic, because with weather you never know what’s going to happen next.

The $300 billion the nation spends each year on mental health services and associated loss of work time will probably rise.

“We may not currently be thinking about how heavy the toll on our psyche will be, but, before long, we will know only too well,” wrote the authors, Lise van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist, and Kevin Coyle, the National Wildlife Federation’s educational director. “A warming climate will cause many people, tens of millions, to hurt profoundly.”

The panel predicted a rise in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, suicide and violence. The burden will fall especially on children, the elderly and those with existing mental problems, as well as the poor and disadvantaged who are, for example, less able to pay for air conditioning during a heat wave.

Victims may also include members of the military, who will be sent abroad to assist with foreign disasters and will bring the psychological scars back home.


US Tornado Report – 2011

NOAA have just about finalised their numbers for the 2011 tornado season, although December figures still await confirmation. (It usually takes about three months to confirm the provisional reports as each tornado report has to be physically assessed by NWS personnel, in order to determine the category and, in many cases, even decide whether a tornado has actually occurred). So let’s take a look at the figures, as they stand currently.

Historical Trends

When observing long term trends, it is important to remember that considerable changes have been made to the way that tornadoes are reported. NOAA have this to say :-

"Improved tornado observation practices have led to an increase in the number of reported weaker tornadoes, and in recent years the number of EF0 and EF1 tornadoes have become more prevalent in the total number of reported tornadoes."

With increased national Doppler radar coverage [introduced between 1992 and 1997], increasing population, and greater attention to tornado reporting, there has been an increase in the number of tornado reports over the past several decades. This can create a misleading appearance of an increasing trend in tornado frequency. To better understand the true variability and trend in tornado frequency in the U.S., the total number of strong to violent tornadoes (EF3 to EF5 category on the Enhanced Fujita scale) can be analyzed. These are the tornadoes that would have likely been reported even during the decades before Doppler radar use became widespread and practices resulted in increasing tornado reports. The bar chart below indicates there has been little trend in the frequency of the strongest tornadoes over the past 55 years.

The effect of changes in observation can be clearly seen when looking at the ratio of the weakest F0 tornadoes to total numbers back to 1950, which rises from 10% to 60%.

When the weaker tornadoes are excluded, it is clear that there is very little trend since the 1980’s. It is also very apparent that tornado occurrences were much higher in all categories of F2 and above during the 1970’s, than in the decades since.

Even in 2011, the total of F2+ tornadoes, which amounted to 279, was only slightly above the average of 255 for the whole 1970-79 period.

Are Tornadoes Becoming More Extreme?

In overall terms, Figure 2 indicates that for F3+ categories, 2011 ranked only 6th worst since 1950. But is there any trend towards the most severe categories?

Figure 5 shows the number of F2+ tornadoes by category for each year since 2002 expressed as a percentage of the total of F2 to F5 occurrences. The dotted lines are the averages for the 1970’s. Although 2011 experienced a sharp increase in F3, F4 and F5’s, the pattern over the 10 years as a whole does not seem to indicate any real trend, simply going up and down around the historical averages.


Whilst nobody can predict what 2012 will bring, there fortunately seems to be no evidence to suggest that there is any trend towards an increase in numbers or severity of tornadoes in the US.

SOURCE (See the original for links and graphics)

Britain is so far missing out on the shale gas revolution

Despite having the potential

Unnoticed by the powerhouses of the British media, the economy of the United States is rebounding on the back of a manufacturing-led boom fuelled by cheap gas. The American revival is in its early stages, but already manufacturing is being repatriated from China: an astonishing development after decades of offshoring.

The factor that above all separates the US energy market from those in Europe and Asia is the enormous increase in gas production and reserves brought about by the shale gas revolution. Which prompts the question: why are British politicians and industrialists not interested in promoting shale potential at home?

In recent years the gulf between open market gas prices in North America and the rest of the world has widened dramatically. The reason — as is now generally understood — was the development in the US of massive gas reserves trapped in previously inaccessible shale rock formations. The benchmark price at Henry Hub in Texas fell from a pre-shale peak of nearly $13 per million British thermal units (BTU) in mid-2008 to as low as $2.71 in January this year. Since January 2011 the US price has averaged less than $4 while the British National Balancing Point (NBP) price has averaged more than $9.

Open market gas prices on either side of the Atlantic roughly tracked each other for 13 years from mid-1995 until mid-2008, when they abruptly separated.

Initially many observers thought the market divergence would be shortlived. Some believed the US bonanza would evaporate, that once the easy gains had been made the marginal costs would rise, new production would be harder to bring on, and prices would return to higher levels. So far this has not happened: the typical marginal costs of new shale gas production are now around $3 per million BTU. In 2011 shale gas accounted for a quarter of US natural gas production.

The impact on reserves has been equally dramatic. In 2000, US dry natural gas resources were estimated by the Energy Information Administration at 1,500 trillion cubic feet, almost entirely in conventional reservoirs. By 2012 estimated reserves had risen by 67 per cent to more than 2,500 trillion cubic feet, of which a third was accounted for by gas in shale formations.

There is a longer-term prospect that North America will begin to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the rest of the world, helping to restore a global pricing equilibrium. To do this, American LNG import terminals which were constructed a few years ago to cope with an anticipated domestic shortage of gas are being reconfigured to handle exports. However, no gas has yet been exported, and there are already rumblings within the US that the country should not allow its sudden good fortune to be dissipated by sharing it with foreigners.

Great bulwark of free enterprise it may be, but the US has a long history of energy protectionism, from oil import quotas in the 1950s, wellhead price controls in the 1970s and a refusal to allow exports of Alaskan oil in the 1980s. But even if the US refuses to licence LNG exports, Canada, whose own traditional export markets south of the border have been hammered by the shale revival, will certainly look to sell LNG to the world.

Meanwhile the US has begun to benefit from significantly lower energy costs. Industrial output looks like growing at 4-5 per cent this year and next. Power generators are switching to gas from more expensive and dirty coal, and this trend is forecast to increase dramatically over the next quarter-century. Americans' perennial sense of insecurity, most recently voiced by President Obama, about over-reliance on energy imports, looks like evaporating. The technological advances that have given the US its abundant shale gas will also provide crude oil from shale.

One simple example: cheap gas will encourage the US petrochemical industry to invest $30 billion in new plant over the next five years, according to the Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. Plastics producers will get a double boost from cheaper feedstock gas — the raw material for their product — and lower electricity costs. This will further increase the American advantage over competitors in Western Europe and Asia whose usual feedstock is oil.

Thus shale gas has changed the game and not only in terms of hydrocarbons supply: it has provided the US with a chance to launch an economic recovery based on manufacturing and exports.

Americans have largely taken all this in their stride, even though as shale exploration moves into liberal north-eastern states a degree of nimbyism becomes apparent. How very different from the reaction in Britain where the prospect of a large new source of energy and exchequer revenue has either been ignored or treated with suspicion.

A lot of nonsense is talked about the prospects for shale gas in Britain, both for and against. Advocates claim that there are gigantic reserves just waiting to be tapped, and that the North American phenomenon could easily be replicated here. Opponents — and they are in the vocal majority — say that fracking (hydraulic fracturing)poisons the water supply and causes earthquakes; they also worry that renewing Britain's search for hydrocarbons will divert investment away from renewables.

The truth as usual lies somewhere between. The geological potential is certainly large, though the recoverable element of the gas in place has not yet begun to be assessed. A fundamental difference between Britain and the US is that in Britain mineral rights belong to the Crown, while in America they belong to the freeholder, which inevitably means British developments will take longer to initiate, even without political pressure from greens and local interests.

The impact on the water supply will inevitably remain a matter for concern, because of the tiny amounts of chemicals dissolved in water injected to fracture the source rock. The techniques themselves are constantly being refined and, compared to the early days in the US, the chemicals used now appear innocuous. Hydraulic fracturing does, according to the US Geological Survey, cause small but harmless earthquakes, although the recycling of waste water into deep wells can cause perceptibly larger quakes. It should be noted that most subterranean activities, such as coal mining, can cause subsidence or earthquakes.

There are several shale gas exploration sites around Britain but the most significant is Cuadrilla Resources' initiative on the Fylde coast of Lancashire. Cuadrilla is backed by Lord Browne, lately the boss of BP. Last September Cuadrilla announced that it had identified reserves in place of 200 trillion cubic feet — roughly 20 times the proven reserves of conventional natural gas in the North Sea. Even assuming only a 10 per cent recovery rate — very conservative by North American standards — this one find potentially trebles Britain's gas reserves, and provides George Osborne and his successors at the Treasury with an enormous opportunity.

The reaction to this good news has been, at best, muted. The BBC, inevitably, reported the story as an environmental disaster in the making. The Financial Times, preoccupied with rescuing the euro, paid it scant attention. Ofgem, which in recent years has dwindled from an effective regulator of competition to an alternative delivery vehicle for government green energy policies, reissued an old report by some tame consultants insisting that shale gas held little promise for the UK. The formal reaction from a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spokesman was discouraging: "Any development must sit with our plans for a strong portfolio of energy sources as we move to a low carbon economy, including renewables, nuclear and clean coal and gas." This unenthusiastic line was repeated by the hapless Chris Huhne during his last months as Secretary of State at DECC, notably in a Guardian interview in which he repeated the demonstrable nonsense that shale drilling could lead to gas flames spurting from domestic water taps.

So, how much might this unwanted and embarrassing Fylde gas discovery be worth to the British economy? Cuadrilla is planning to bring the field up to full production by about 2020. Privately they believe they will be producing 1 trillion cubic feet, or 28 billion cubic metres a year. That is about half of current UK gas production from the declining North Sea fields.

At today's prices that amount of Fylde gas would be worth about £4.2 billion a year to the Exchequer early in the next decade. It would also improve the balance of payments by £7 billion, and go a long way to restoring Britain's energy independence. Tens of thousands of real jobs would be created in a depressed English region. What's not to like?

The problem is the Coalition's energy policy, which is really a climate change policy inherited from the previous Labour government and designed to appease environmental activists by forcing ordinary consumers to subsidise ineffectual and expensive wind energy. As I have argued previously in Standpoint, such policies will merely inflate energy costs — much of the increase ending up in the pockets of large utilities and wealthy wind farm investors — while actually increasing the reliance on natural gas to cover the gaps when the wind fails to blow.

There are some reasons for optimism. Ministers have begun to acknowledge the importance of gas: "We used to regard gas as a transition fuel. We now understand that it is in fact a destination fuel," Charles Hendry MP said recently. They have also begun to take a more active interest in where the gas comes from: David Cameron has discussed with Vladimir Putin the possibility of extending the Russo-German Nordstream pipeline across the North Sea to Britain. But they have done little so far to encourage more exploration, least of all for shale gas.

The political difficulty is obvious: even with opposition to wind power growing increasingly forceful and articulate, it will be embarrassing to row back from an ineffectual policy whose consequences the government clearly did not understand.

But there is the heart of the matter. Wind power will require larger and larger amounts of gas generation to keep the lights on when the wind doesn't blow, which is 70 per cent of the time on a good day and 90 per cent on a bad day. Once this has been accepted, the choice between buying more imports and encouraging the development of potentially huge domestic reserves becomes less difficult.

Unfortunately, by the time this happens the UK will be many years off the economic pace being set by the American shale bonanza. Just one more reason to pray — one cannot expect that British governments will one day again be prepared to leave these sorts of decisions to the market, and not to the vagaries of well-intentioned but ill-understood state interventions.


A big upset to some "settled" science

Age of oldest rocks off by millions of years

Two of the solar system's best natural timekeepers have been caught misbehaving, suggesting that the accepted ages for the oldest known rock samples are off by a million years or more.

According to two new studies, a radioactive version of the element samarium decays much more quickly than previously thought, and different versions of uranium don't always appear in the same relative quantities in earthly rocks.

Both elements are used by geologists to date rocks and chart the history of events on our planet and in the solar system.

"If you have a critical event in Earth's history, something like an extinction event or a climate change shift or a meteorite impact, you need to know the absolute age with the most confidence," says Joe Hiess of the British Geological Survey, who led one of the studies. "In Earth sciences there's a need to be able to define what happened first and what happened second."

Chronometer shortage

Geochemists age rocks by measuring the ratio of radioactive isotopes – versions of the same element with different atomic masses – in them. Because the elements decay from one isotope, or element, to another at a constant rate, knowing the ratio in a particular rock gives its age.

Different elements and isotopes decay at vastly different rates. Scientists pick one that suits the timescale of interest. One of the favourites for tracing events in the early solar system, such as when the Earth's crust differentiated from its mantle or when the lava oceans on the moon solidified, is samarium-146, a hard shiny metal found in many minerals in the Earth's crust.

"In this time window, there are not many other chronometers," says Michael Paul of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Scientists have measured samarium-146's half-life – the time taken for exactly half of a sample of atoms to decay radioactively - four times over the past 60 years, and got different answers each time. The two most recent measurements seemed to converge on a half-life of 103 million years, plus or minus 5 million years. But Paul and colleagues suspected that that number wasn't quite right. So they used a technique called accelerator mass spectrometry, which Paul says is less likely to be skewed by experimental errors.

Youthful meteorites

They found that the half-life is just 68 million years, 30 per cent shorter than thought. That means that every rock dated by samarium-146 decay – which include some of the oldest on Earth and the moon, and even some Martian meteorites – formed 20 million to 80 million years earlier than thought.

In a solar system that's 4.5 billion years old, tens of millions of years "is a lot", Paul says. "It means everything was forming more quickly."

There was a second, separate hiccup. Earth's oldest rocks are also aged using isotopes of uranium, which decay into isotopes of lead. Until a few years ago, geochemists assumed that the ratio of uranium-238 to uranium-235 was constant – 137.88 – in all rocks, and therefore the ratio of lead isotopes was the only measurement needed to date the rocks. But high-precision measurements of early materials found in meteorites or rocks formed in oceans showed differences.

Hiess and colleagues made the most wide-ranging study of uranium isotope ratios yet, using 45 samples of zircon from all over the world. Zircon was one of the first minerals to solidify on Earth, it resists weathering and melting, and it holds on to uranium well, so it's a good candidate for dating old rocks.

Mass extinction

The team found that, while most of their samples had similar uranium ratios, some were wildly different.

"It's no longer safe to assume that it doesn't vary. It clearly does," says Gregory Brennecka of Arizona State University, who was not involved in either study. "Nobody thought that was the case five years ago."

The team produced a new, average figure for the uranium ratios. It shifts the ages of Earth's oldest rocks slightly, by just under a million years, Hiess says. The oldest rocks will have the biggest corrections: sediments that are 4.4 billion years old are now younger by 700,000 years. "To put it into a human perspective, if the Earth was only 18 years old, we have taken 1 day off the life of its oldest materials," Hiess says.

Now that scientists know they need to measure the ratio of uranium isotopes in all of their samples - as well as the ratio of lead isotopes - they'll be able to date rocks more accurately.

That's important for putting events in order. If a mass extinction occurred just before a meteorite struck, say, that paints a different picture than if the meteorite hit first.

"These are two big steps in improving the way we do geochronology, both in the solar system and terrestrial rocks," Brennecka says.


Australia: "Smart" electricity meters toxic for some

They're part of a Greenie idea to cut down electricity usage

A MELBOURNE couple who have slept in their car for almost six months say they have been forced from their home because of debilitating health problems suffered since the installation of their new electricity meter.

But, as the State Government stands by the controversial electricity monitoring devices, reports continue to emerge linking smart meters with new health scares including heart palpitations, chest pains, dizziness and lethargy.

Rosemary and Vic Trudeau said they had abandoned their Mt Eliza home of 22 years since the device was installed in October, causing them nausea, chest pains, tinnitus and insomnia.

"Scientists are saying we have to reduce our exposure to radio frequencies and now they're putting them on our houses," Ms Trudeau said.

"I've had two people from (energy company) Jemena admit to me that about 5-6 per cent of the population are very sensitive to radio frequency, but if you are it's just bad luck."

After five months of fighting, Jemena last week agreed to replace the device.

Meanwhile, Melbourne GP Federica Lamech is moving her family to South Australia after experiencing chest pain, heart palpitations and lethargy since meters were installed in her street in February.

Although Dr Lamech's home does not yet have a device, she said her existing sensitivity to electro-radiation had been exacerbated by the roll-out.

"I felt like I was going crazy," she said. "I was perfectly healthy the day before with just a mild sensitivity to Wi-Fi and cordless phones, which I could manage. Suddenly I'm disabled."

A spokeswoman for Energy Minister Michael O'Brien said a government-commissioned review had found the meters were safe.


Australia: Experts give red mark to green home ratings

The Federal Government wants all homes for sale or rent to have an energy efficient rating, but experts say the system used to attain that rating is flawed and will result in unhappy homebuyers.

The rating system is supposed to reveal the energy performance of a building - to inform people whether they could face big power bills to heat or cool a home.

Scores are awarded according to the home's energy efficiency. A score of zero means the building does virtually nothing to protect occupants from hot or cold weather. A score of 10 means occupants may not need a heater or cooler at all.

The scheme would be based on an existing rating system, which has been used in the ACT for more than a decade.

New homes in Australia already have to meet a minimum energy efficiency rating, which is now six stars across most states and territories.

But the Government's plan would require homes for sale and rent to also have a rating.

Some states have made it clear they do not want to see the energy rating scheme expanded to older homes. Victoria's Planning Minister Matthew Guy has publicly denounced the idea, calling it "yet another hair-brained tax idea from the Federal Government".

The rating costs about $150 per home in the ACT - the only state or territory that rates older homes.

The ACT has had mandatory disclosure of energy ratings on all homes for more than a decade.

That is because Canberra has Australia's biggest temperature range for a metropolitan centre - reaching 40 degrees Celsius in summer, and falling to -8 degrees last winter.

Winter heating costs are particularly large and make up the bulk of residential power bills.

ACT-based energy ratings assessor Jenny Edwards supports the idea of rating older homes. She says it enables the public to make more informed choices when choosing a home, and it can put pressure on property owners to make homes more energy efficient.

But Ms Edwards says there are often differences between the rating, and how the house actually performs.

When she bought her own home in Canberra's inner-south, it was rated at three stars. On living in it, and with further investigation, Ms Edwards found out it was closer to a one star. "The first winter was freezing and the first summer was sweltering. (It is an) incredibly uncomfortable house to live in," she said.

There are many reasons why a home fails to perform as well as it is rated, including air leaks and patchy insulation.

But the ratings assessment is only a visual check of the obvious features that would affect heating and cooling bills - like orientation, window size and insulation.

Canberra assessors do not use equipment to test for air leakage, or thermal cameras to check for gaps in insulation. "We have to assume," Ms Edwards said. People are certainly finding that they can move into a house and find that it doesn't perform as a star rating might suggest it would.

"We can't take all the lining off the house and check the insulation has been thoroughly and evenly installed or that there are R2 batts and not R1 batts; that there aren't big gaps in the house and assessing for air leakage is not something you can do quickly and superficially."

Ms Edwards says the ratings software used for Canberra's older homes is basic, introduced 12 years ago. And she says there is another problem with the quality of assessment. "The level of training has been questionable. The ease with which you can manipulate the outcome, again whether it has been intentional, accidental - due to lack of training no-one can be sure," she said.

"People are certainly finding that they can move into a house and find that it doesn't perform as a star rating might suggest it would."

Ms Edwards says a national rollout of energy ratings to older homes is not straightforward. "There is a lot of potential for issues. And how we resolve that is complicated," she said.

Public interest in the Canberra system is also lacklustre, according to a leading real estate firm.

Peta Swarbrick from LJ Hooker's city office says energy ratings are not a key concern for her clients.

"The idea is fabulous. It is absolutely a must with the whole notion of energy starting to cost more but ... it is probably the least referred to part of the contract," she said.

"And if you look at it, it looks unimpressive. It's a bunch of numbers and it's got these very sort of black and white quasi-scientific looking table and it doesn't really tell me about my house."

Tone Wheeler, an architect who teaches at the University of New South Wales, says the rating system is imperfect because it is based on science that was never designed to calculate the energy efficiency of houses or star ratings.

Mr Wheeler worked with the CSIRO in the 70s, using the precursor to the computer engine now used to run the software at the heart of the energy ratings system.

He says the computer engine was designed for architectural scientists. "It was designed to measure thermal comfort... the idea of a comfortable temperature in a room," he said.

Mr Wheeler says in the mid-1990s, the NSW government approached CSIRO scientists to expand the scope of their computer engine. The government wanted a way of comparing the energy use of different houses.

So the CSIRO scientists adapted the engine to also calculate the amount of energy it would take to air condition a room to a comfortable temperature.

"Then the scientists were asked to give star ratings for various levels of performance, but based on some very arbitrary criteria," Mr Wheeler said. "I think our politicians assumed that this thing works. I am convinced that we don't have the data to say one way or the other at this stage."



For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here


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