February 9, 2012
Melting Point: Global warming will melt glaciers, empty the Great Lakes, force Canada to divert rivers, build dams and sell water to the United States
February 9, 2012
AN HOUR SOUTH of Lethbridge, Alberta, and twenty minutes from Montana, Milk River is one of the last Canadian towns before the border. The one-block downtown is Prairie minimalist: a Chinese restaurant near a lonely stop sign, beyond it a bank, and across the highway, yellow and green grain elevators. Just west of town, the pavement peters out to a gravel range road, and to the south the Milk River surges with flood water. From the Rockies to Medicine Hat, this usually dry country, where researchers scour barren coulees for dinosaur bones, was awash in six days of uninterrupted rain. Pincher Creek declared an emergency; High River faced its namesake. Though troubling, this spring’s wet weather provided an ironic counterpoint to my objective: to find the century-old Spite Canal, an artifact of Canadian-American history born of drought and embodying the enmeshed nature of the two countries’ relationship with water.
Looking north across treeless hills, I saw a conspicuously straight line emerge from the rain. My rental car vibrated over a Texas gate, and minutes later I scrambled up a grassy embankment. Beyond it was a ditch about two metres deep that followed the contour of the land northward. This crude trench — unmarked, largely unremembered, and now crumbling back into the prairie — is the physical fact on the ground that induced Teddy Roosevelt’s chest-beating America to sign a treaty with Canada that is still lauded today.
Its origins can be traced to the late 1800s when settlers north and south of the forty-ninth parallel relied on two rivers: the St. Mary and the Milk. Both flow from Montana into Canada before diverging; the St. Mary carrying on to Hudson Bay, the Milk turning back into Montana after looping 250 kilometres through Canada. Rising high in the mountains, the snow-fed St. Mary ran strongly all summer; the Milk, born in the foothills, often dried to a trickle. That led the Americans to launch a plan in 1901 to divert water out of the St. Mary and move it across the foothills to the Milk and their ranches in Montana.
Alarmed Canadian homesteaders turned to Ottawa, but Roosevelt ignored Canada’s plea to halt the plan, so the Albertans fought back. If the Americans were going to “steal” water and divert it to the Milk, they would take it back as it flowed north, drastically reducing water levels before it turned back into the United States. In 1903, the Albertans began digging a canal to recapture the disputed water. Washington finally paid attention, and in 1909, the two countries signed the landmark International Boundary Waters Treaty. The International Joint Commission the treaty created had as its first task settling the St. Mary-Milk River dispute, which it did by dividing the water equally.
But all that has not earned the ditch that brought a bumptious young America to heel any credit, or even a wayside historical marker. Back in the car, I rumbled over more Texas gates in search of a local to confirm my findings. Ten minutes later, I came across a house sheltered in a stand of cottonwoods where an elderly gentleman in a plaid shirt and suspenders answered the door. Named Jay Snow, he’s a retired rancher, and he told me the land for kilometres around has been in his family since his Mormon grandfather came north from Utah in the late 1800s. I asked him about the Spite Canal. “I take umbrage at the name,” Snow replied. “There was no spite involved. They were dead serious.”
CANADIANS ARE still “dead serious” about water. Coureurs de bois and the ghost of Tom Thomson haunt the misty lakes of our collective subconscious. The effect, too often, is to dissolve reasoned debate about the subject in a solution of mythic imagery infused with implied threats to our identity. A reflexive “aqua-nationalism,” clothed in environmental righteousness, is hostile to any suggestion that Canada’s water could ever become a tradable commodity. The animus is all the more implacable if the discussion involves trading water with Americans — an idea close to treason in some eyes. In this atmosphere it’s easy to ridicule visionaries who dream of replumbing the continent. Nonagenarian Newfoundlander Tom Kierans’s scheme to dike James Bay and pipe water to the US Midwest through the Great Lakes invites a check of the old man’s sanity, and it hardly surprises that right-wing American anti-Semite Lyndon LaRouche is behind a plan to reroute water from the Peace and Liard rivers from northern BC deep into the United States.
But our hostile reductionism is going to become difficult to sustain as greenhouse-gas emissions continue to heat up the planet. New patterns of wind, humidity, and ambient temperature are already dramatically altering the weather map. Some parts of the country are receiving more rain than ever before; other regions are drying up.
In particular, the cold heart of our mythic element — quelques arpents de neiges, as Voltaire called it — is melting. From winter snowbanks to mountain glaciers to northern permafrost, the “cryosphere” — the portion of the earth covered in ice and snow — is thawing. The implications go beyond winter sports and alpine sightseeing. Canada’s multi-billion-dollar investment in water infrastructure was designed to withstand the weather patterns of the past. It will not be able to either contain the massive floods or ameliorate the droughts of the future. A growing number of scientists believe Canadians must begin now to discuss the possibility that major rivers may have to be diverted to rain-starved regions and that massive dams will have to be built to contain runoff from rain in the Rocky Mountains that no longer freezes into snow and ice. “We probably have a decade in which to make a difference, to in some way preserve the economy and social benefits and prosperity that we’ve got,” says Robert Sandford, the Canadian chair of the United Nations Water for Life initiative. “The clock is ticking.”
Floods and drought do not respect borders. As radical as the idea sounds, Canadians, like the pioneers on Milk River a century ago, will have to share their water with the US, through bulk transfers and the management of river systems. Tentative steps toward integrating the North American watershed have already started, with proposals to divert water from Lake of the Woods in northwest Ontario to the Dakotas, and from Shuswap Lake in central BC to the increasingly dry Okanagan, from which it would flow to the US through the Columbia River. One of the largest proposed diversions would reroute water from the Nelson River in northern Manitoba to the US border, earning the province $7 billion annually in export royalties.
Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed believes the issues surrounding water — both how to share it within Canada and with the US — will soon turn into a weather-driven political crisis. “At some stage of the game in four or five years,” warns Lougheed, who is now a member of the Trilateral Commission, a think tank on emerging international issues, “Washington is going to read the small print, interpret the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and think they have a claim over our fresh water. It’ll be a huge issue. It’s coming.”
Certainly Canada is in no danger of running out of water. In fact, the spring rainstorms I drove through in Alberta, flooding both the Elbow and Bow Rivers in Calgary, were harbingers rather than anomalies. But the distribution of water “wealth” and “poverty” is changing: areas like northern BC will have more than they know what to do with; others, like the Great Lakes Basin, will turn dry. Despite the challenges, the implications are only starting to gain traction with policy-makers. In BC, where weather changes more pronounced than anywhere else in Canada outside the Arctic can be traced back decades, the present holder of the ninety-four-year-old office of Comptroller of Water Rights has only recently turned to the issue. “The science is ahead of the policy,” Jim Mattison concedes.
But those whose livelihoods are on the front line of the new weather fronts are becoming impatient. In the Kootenay mountains of southeastern BC, Kindy Gosal, a manager with the Columbia Basin Trust, is emphatic: “Climate change is happening,” he asserts. “It’s changing our landscapes and changing our ecosystems. We can see glacial recession. I’ve lived in this place for over thirty years and can see, from when I first hiked up to these places, that these suckers are going back. The question is, what do you do about it?”
A couple of mountain ranges away, Okanagan Valley orchardist Lorraine Bennest straightened from a shallow ditch where she was installing irrigation pipe to scan several thousand apple saplings she had just planted. Small, wiry, and fierce, Bennest scowled beneath the straw hat covering her steel-grey hair. Her new orchard cost $30,000 an acre to plant, and she hopes to turn a profit by 2012. But she’s worried: winter snow is disappearing from the hills above her orchard in Summerland ( just north of Penticton), and the valley’s growing population is putting new demands on Trout Creek, the village water source, which depends on winter snows. “If we’re going to run out of water,” Bennest says, “don’t talk to me in twenty years. Talk to me now!”
DIFFERENTIALS OF temperature, humidity, and salinity drive primeval currents in a meandering global courtship of ocean and air that, broadly speaking, transports heat from the tropics to the frozen poles. In this Gaia dance, rain and snow are accidental by-products of thermodynamics — “precipitates” shed when stateless air masses cross invisible boundaries of dew- and frostpoint. Now, rising temperatures are heating up the tempo of this global dance. As melting ice dilutes salty oceans, clouds vanish over disappearing forests. Greenhouse gases and industrial smog are also reformulating the atmosphere, and, perhaps, as the planet tilts on its axis, or flares of charged particles lick out toward us from the sun, the differentials that drive the dance are changing places.
Scores of researchers have been recording visible changes in local climates, from the number of floods in Newfoundland to the annual evaporation of water from Great Slave Lake. Three substantial efforts have surveyed this growing body of science. Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation: A Canadian Perspective, prepared by Natural Resources Canada, and Environment Canada’s Threats to Water Availability are thorough analyses of climate change. Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change, jointly published by Global Change Strategies International Inc. and the Meteorological Service of Canada, drills most deeply into the underlying research.
All three documents maintain that as temperatures rise, there is actually more water, not less, coursing through the global heat pump — a result of the thawing of glaciers and ice sheets. More water plus more energy, traversing the same geography over the same period of time, means storm fronts pack a heavier, wetter, hotter punch. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to more water in lakes and rivers, because warmer temperatures are also inducing dramatic increases in evapotranspiration (ET) — science’s word for water breathed out by plants and vaporized from lakes and streams. In the central areas of the country, evaporation is taking place faster than precipitation, not only sucking any extra rainfall back into the air, but also drying out lakes, reservoirs, and fields. The extreme humidity caused by evaporation that plagued much of central Canada this summer may be a dramatic example of what is to come. “We’re in for an accelerating set of trends beyond what we’ve seen since 1970,” says Ottawa hydrologist James Bruce, lead author of the Meteorological Service of Canada study. “They’re scary.”
How weather patterns will finally settle down is not entirely in focus. But the outlines are unmistakable: more rain and snow in the northern Rocky Mountains, while the Prairie and Great Lakes regions dry out. In almost every region of the country, global warming is leaving behind less snow and piling more rain into fewer late winter and spring storms, which are followed by longer, warmer, drier summers. The effects are least pronounced in Newfoundland and Labrador, where temperatures have actually cooled by 0.7°C in the last fifty years. Precipitation, on the other hand, has been increasing, but almost entirely due to greater winter, spring, and autumn snowfalls. Despite this, many rivers in the region experience lower flows in late summer….
The New Censorship: Editors are no longer frightened of politicians but of Islamist violence, oligarchs, and CEO’s
February 9, 2012
The grand posture of writers in liberal democracies is that they are the moral equivalents of dissidents in repressive regimes. Loud-mouthed newspaper columnists claim to ‘speak truth to power’. Novelists, artists, playwrights and comedians announce their willingness to transgress boundaries. Their publishers look for controversy like boozers look for brawls because they know that few marketing strategies beat the claim that a courageous iconoclast is challenging establishments and shattering taboos.
To maintain the illusion that they are part of some kind of radical underground, intellectuals must practise a deceit. They can never admit to their audience that fear of violent reprisals, ostracism or crippling financial penalties keeps them away from subjects that ought to concern them – and their fellow citizens.
Although it is impossible to count the books authors have abandoned, radical Islam is probably the greatest cause of self-censorship in the West today. When Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, censorship took the form of outright bans. Frightened publishers would not touch David Caute’s novel satirising the Islamist reaction to The Satanic Verses, for instance. They ran away from histories and plays about the crisis as well because they did not want a repeat of the terror Rushdie and his publishers at Penguin had experienced.
Such overt censorship continues. In 2008, Random House in New York pulled The Jewel of Medina - a slightly syrupy and wholly inoffensive historical romance about Muhammad’s child bride Aisha – after a neurotic professor claimed that it was ‘explosive stuff … a national security issue’. Most of the censorship religious violence inspires, however, is self-censorship. Writers put down their pens and turn to other subjects rather than risk a confrontation. So thoroughgoing is the evasion that when Grayson Perry, who produced what Catholics would consider to be blasphemous images of the Virgin Mary, said what everyone knew to be true in 2007, the media treated his candour as news. ‘The reason I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art,’ said Perry, ‘is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat.’
We flatter ourselves into believing that we are more liberated than our stuffy ancestors. A sobering corrective to modern self-satisfaction is to realise that an ex-Muslim novelist would never now dare do what Salman Rushdie did with The Satanic Verses and write a book that said the life of Muhammad was less than exemplary. Even if he or she did, no one would dare publish it.
Challenging writing about economic crises is as rare. Diligent readers have every right to ask why so few financial writers warned them that the greatest crash since 1929 was on the way. As no less a personage than Her Majesty the Queen said to the academics at the London School of Economics, ‘Did nobody notice?’
In Britain’s case, any writer who had tried to research a book on the rapacious and authoritarian managers at the Royal Bank of Scotland or HBOS, for instance, or on the insanely reckless derivative swap and insurance markets in the London-based subsidiaries of Wall Street banks, would have run into the libel law. It is some barrier to overcome. The cost of a libel action in England and Wales is 140 times the European average. Contrary to common law and natural justice, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Even the few remaining wealthy newspapers, which have business models that have not yet been destroyed by the Internet, find it hard to afford a court case. For the publisher of a serious book, which would do well if it sold 50,000 copies, the idea of risking £1 million or more in a legal fight to defend it is close to unthinkable.
In 2006, the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet investigated the links between the Icelandic bank Kaupthing and tax havens. Kaupthing’s managers did not like what they read, but failed to persuade the Danish press council that the paper had done anything wrong. The bank sued for libel in London instead. The newspaper pulled the articles and apologised because English lawyers ran up costs that were beyond its editor’s worst nightmares – £1 million, and that was before a case had gone to court.
Kaupthing went for the paper in England not just because it wanted to kill the original story, but because it also wanted to deter others from spreading the idea that Iceland was not a safe place for investors. The English legal profession obliged. Newspapers’ lawyers thought once, twice, one hundred times before authorising critical stories. A few months later Kaupthing collapsed – along with the other entrepreneurial, go-ahead Icelandic banks – and British depositors lost £3.5 billion. By allowing libel tourists to fly to London and use our repressive laws, the English legal profession had also stopped the British investors from learning of the danger in investing in the country’s ban…
Meet Lucy Jones, “the Earthquake Lady”: To prepare Americans for the next “big one,” the seismologist tackles the dangerous phenomenon of denial
February 9, 2012
One of Lucy Jones’ first memories is of an earthquake. It struck north of Los Angeles, not far from her family home in Ventura, and as the ground lurched, her mother guided 2-year-old Lucy and her older brother and sister into a hallway and shielded them with her body. Add that her great-great-grandparents are buried literally in the San Andreas fault and it’s hard not to think that her fate was preordained.
Today Jones is among the world’s most influential seismologists—and perhaps the most recognizable. Her file cabinets bulge with fan letters, among them at least one marriage proposal. “The Earthquake Lady,” she’s called. A science adviser for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Jones, 57, is an expert on foreshocks, having authored or co-authored 90 research papers, including the first to use statistical analysis to predict the likelihood that any given temblor will be followed by a bigger one.That research has been the basis for 11 earthquake advisories issued by the state of California since 1985.
Charged with improving the nation’s response to natural disaster, Jones’ specialty, increasingly, is another complex natural phenomenon: denial, that dangerous unwillingness to acknowledge the inevitable. What good is scientific knowledge, in other words, if people don’t respond to it?
You might have caught her on TV trying to help people understand earthquake risks after the Eastern Seaboard felt the 5.8 quake epicentered in Virginia this past August or after Tohoku, Japan, kept rocking and rolling after the 9.0 quake there last March. “She has the bearing of your terrific next-door neighbor who takes superb care of her window boxes. And yet she is as learned as anyone in the field,” says “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, who has interviewed Jones numerous times on television.
“I’m everybody’s mother,” she likes to joke, aware that her gender—while not an asset when she was at MIT in the ’70s—is now a plus. “Women are more reassuring after an event,” she says, recalling how moved people were years back when she conducted post-quake TV interviews holding Niels, her 1-year-old son, in her arms (he’s 21 now). That mother-and-child tableau cemented her position as the informed voice of calm in truly unsettling times.
“Lucy brings magnetism to what is normally a dull subject: preparedness,” says Paul Schulz, CEO of the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles, whom Jones recently accompanied to Chile to study the impact of its 8.8 magnitude quake in 2010. On that trip, thousands of miles from home, a woman approached Jones and asked for her autograph.
Earthquakes may be classified as foreshocks, mainshocks and aftershocks. All occur when energy in the earth’s crust is released suddenly, forcing tectonic plates to shift. What differentiates them is their relation to each other in space and time. A foreshock is only a foreshock if it happens to occur before a bigger quake on the same fault system. An aftershock occurs after a bigger quake.
A lot of people had pondered foreshocks before Jones did, but she asked a critical question: After an earthquake, is there a statistical method to predict the chances that it was a precursor to a larger jolt? The answer was yes, as Jones demonstrated in a 1985 paper and subsequent studies analyzing every quake in the region’s recorded history. She found that the probability that an earthquake will trigger a bigger one does not depend on the magnitude of the first earthquake but instead is related to its location and interaction with fault systems.
The southern San Andreas ruptures and releases energy on average every 150 years. The last time was more than 300 years ago, which means that Los Angeles and environs may be overdue for a major quake. There’s no way to predict precisely when California’s next “big one” will come, Jones says (or even that it will occur on the San Andreas), but people need to get ready, as was made painfully clear in a massive 2008 study Jones led.
More than 300 scientists and other experts took part in drafting the 308-page ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario. Geologists determined which section of the San Andreas was most likely to blow, and conceived of a 7.8 magnitude tremor. They posited 55 seconds of strong shaking in downtown L.A.—more than seven times the duration of the last big L.A.-area temblor, the 1994 Northridge quake, a magnitude 6.7 generated along a previously unknown fault. There would be landslides and liquefaction and massive damage to roads, rail lines, water conveyance tunnels and aqueducts, electrical and natural gas lines, and telecommunications cables.
If no additional actions are taken to mitigate damage before such a quake hits the nation’s second-largest city, about 2,000 people will die, 50,000 people will be injured, and property and infrastructure disruption will cost about $200 billion to repair, the report said. Perhaps five high-rise buildings will collapse. Some 8,000 buildings and houses of unreinforced concrete will collapse, though retrofitting has already helped reduce the likely loss of life. Households will be without water and power for months.
It all sounds pretty bleak. And yet parts of the report indicate something hopeful, Jones says while sitting on a couch in her office on the California Institute of Technology campus: Better science can save lives (and money). For example, the ShakeOut Scenario estimated that on the day of the quake, 1,600 fires will be large enough to warrant a 911 call. But some will start small, meaning that if residents keep fire extinguishers at the ready and know how to use them, much damage can be avoided. Similarly, 95 percent of those rescued will be aided not by emergency response teams but by friends and neighbors. So if people can be persuaded now to make their homes and offices safe (retrofit unreinforced masonry, attach heavy bookshelves to the wall to keep them from toppling), they’ll be in a better position to aid others. “The earthquake is inevitable and disruption is inevitable,” Jones says, her shoes off and her bare feet tucked underneath her, “but the damage doesn’t have to be.”…