Scientist Strong

Earth scientists might well take to heart the idea of Boston Strong.

Today, Monday, April 21 marks the running of the 2014 Boston Marathon, one of the world’s truly elite sporting events. Conducted annually, every year since 1897, it now draws thousands of participants from the world over, despite (or because of) stringent qualifying standards. In 2013, as virtually everyone from these parts knows, the event was the target of a malicious bombing that killed several spectators and injured some 260 people, including many runners. The tragedy has only stiffened the resolve of the organizers, the racers, the city, and indeed the nation to carry on. Along the way, it’s driven home and expanded the connotation of an (earlier, pre-existing) ideal:

Boston strong.


Google similar images and you’ll find the phrase superimposed on and affixed to signage, artwork and merchandise of every persuasion. Tee-shirts lead the procession, of course, but caps, bracelets and ribbons are just behind; just last Friday we learned that themed automobile license plates will be soon be available. Boston strong is this week’s featured story in Sports Illustrated, and the topic of conversation and media coverage everywhere. Barring some fresh catastrophic world event today, broadcast and online media will likely lead with this story tonight.

Realistically, it’s probably inaccurate to refer to Boston strong as a single concept. Ask Bostonians what the slogan means, and you’ll get a slightly different answer each time. But the magic of it – as with all successful slogans – is that it really needs no explanation; it summons up in each of us a gut response. We remind ourselves that life is itself a long-distance run, not a sprint. Even without bombings, life features challenges and brokenness, tragedy and heartache, much that needs doing and fixing, demanding sustained strength and courage from us all. As in physical strength. Emotional and social strength. Spiritual strength.

Got it? Now, as a thought exercise… try out the phrase Scientist Strong.

To 2014-vintage ears, scientist-strong doesn’t have the same bite, does it? Why doesn’t that phrase resonate? What’s the missing secret sauce? Your comments would be welcome, but here are a few thoughts to get the discussion going. For starters, let’s go back in the 1960’s, when Kennedy was president and Bostonians were everywhere to be seen in DC. Then you’d hear a different expression: Boston Brahmin[1]. A reference to Boston’s elite, it even has a Wikipedia entry (what doesn’t?). Here’s a snippet:

A Boston Brahmin is a member of Boston’s traditional upper class. Members of this class are characterized by their highly discreet and inconspicuous lifestyle. Members of Boston’s Brahmin class form an integral part of the historic core of the East Coast establishment, and are often associated with the distinctive Boston Brahmin accent, Harvard University, and traditional Anglo-American customs and clothing. Descendants of the earliest English colonists, such as those who came to America on the Mayflower or the Arbella, are often considered to be the most representative of the Boston Brahmins.

The term was coined by the physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in an 1860 article in the Atlantic Monthly.

Now… everybody ready? Let’s market-test the phrase Boston-Brahmin Strong.

Hardly compelling. Perhaps, then, part of Boston strong, and the way it’s used, is that it’s intended to connote a hint of blue-collar… of working-stiff. And it does so, brilliantly. You and I don’t think of a privileged elite as needing to be strong in quite the same way as the rest of us.

Scientists face a similar image problem. Science may be viewed by non-scientists as a retreat somehow from the difficulties of real life, rather than an strenuous, forceful engagement with those same difficulties. Many scientists of my older generation (scientists version 3.0) might even concede as much. They’d admit it’s both simpler and easier to deal with the Navier-Stokes equations (that reflect weather developments) than it is to deal with another human being. The laboratory or computer terminal is generally quiet, calm. (Ivory-tower strong? That doesn’t work either.) Somehow, the stereotype is that science rewards flashes of genius, however intermittent. People don’t see it as demanding disciplined effort, grit, determination; they don’t think of science as driving hard-working men and women to the point of exhaustion, despair. They don’t understand that in science, just as in all other aspects of life, strength of character – persistence, honesty, integrity, fairness – matters more than cleverness or ingenuity[2].

But the image lags the reality. And for scientists of every stripe and for Earth scientists in particular, the reality has been changing, since World War II and continuing to this day. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when natural science was often an avocation for those of independent means rather than a paid profession, it may perhaps have been true that a scientist’s only responsibility was to one’s fellow scientists. Time was when the conclusions and predictions of Earth science and related technologies – concerning where to look for oil and other natural resources; the weather outlook for tomorrow or the coming summer; or the effects of air and water pollution – were vague at best and misleading at worst. Back then, nations, businesses, and the public paid our craft little heed. Today, however, the insights of Earth science, and the skill of the predictions and other services are advancing even as society’s needs for answers is growing more urgent. At the same time, the investments needed to support Earth science, observations, and services are rising even as the stakes for getting the answers right are mounting. All this is occurring as society writ large is feeling zero-sum, tetchy, contentious, polarized.

This confluence of trends has put scientists and their work in a fiery crucible: a molten mix of closer scrutiny, sharper criticism, misunderstanding, and mistrust. Garnering needed funding is more of a slog. Peer review is under challenge. Conflicts of interest litter the landscape. Ethical issues also abound: plagiarism, falsification of data, claiming credit for the work of others, cronyism, and more; in short, the entire spectrum of human failings. Some scientists are vilified in the social media, targeted by hate mail – and worse. Earth scientists find themselves needing to toughen up.

It would be wrong to flinch in the face of this future and this challenge. We’re more sensible to embrace it, for at least two reasons.

First and foremost, it signals that what we do matters. It’s consequential. It’s never been more so. Our relevance is growing every day. (In the frame of today’s marathon, we should want to be racers, not bystanders.) Second, our attitude will affect our performance, and in turn, societal outcomes. Remain positive, and upbeat – become and remain strong – and we can profoundly improve the human prospect. Should we allow our progress to slow, our spirits to flag, should fear or hesitancy replace courage and fortitude, then that too has an impact, in the negative direction.

But embracing the challenge doesn’t mean more effort, more mindless flailing around. It means evolving a disciplined understanding of the new ways we’ll need to do conduct business, and then developing both institutional and individual frameworks for getting us there. Only then will the phrase scientist strong that sounds false in 2014 ring true in 2024, or 2044.

We’ll take a closer look at some of the needed actions in future posts. In the meantime, here’s some advice/encouragement for today’s marathon runners (and for scientists):

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” – Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)

[1] The term stems from Hinduism where Brahmins are members of the highest, or priestly, caste.

[2] Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. – Thomas Edison.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments



1. the act of rising from the dead.

2. (initial capital letter ) the rising of Christ after His death and burial.

3. (initial capital letter ) the rising of the dead on Judgment Day.

4. the state of those risen from the dead

5. a rising again, as from decay, disuse, etc.; revival.

He is risen!

Because death is in our future, resurrection matters to us at an existential level. And because he is risen, resurrection has been elevated to a wholly different status. Before, the idea smacked of little more than delusion, of idle dreams. Ever since, the idea has contained a hint of possibility, of reality, maybe even of… inevitability.

Two special aspects to that historic resurrection that might capture our imagination. First, the resurrection wasn’t just a return to the preexisting state. Christ didn’t simply reappear in his earlier, mortal form – to be subject to death again. He returned as something inexpressibly greater than before. He came back transcendent, eternal.

Second – and this might be especially significant to meteorologists – that first resurrection didn’t just happen out of the blue. It was predicted. Jesus didn’t just say he was going to die; many others have foreseen their deaths before and since. He said He would rise again. And that was hardly what meteorologists would call a persistence forecast. It’s not as if all or some percentage of us had been visibly resurrected in this way across recorded history. This was a first. It’s as if he’d said that the sun wouldn’t rise in the east tomorrow. No one saw it coming. He also made an impact-based forecast, saying His resurrection would give the whole world hope. Our history hasn’t been a controlled experiment, but you could make an argument that the world has indeed been a more positive place ever since.

Against this backdrop, we can be bold enough to make our own predictions: death is in our future, but death is not the whole of our future. There’s more. And better. Not just for our persons, but for our relationships, for our hopes and aspirations, every aspect of our world that we care about.

What resurrection do you hope for? Please share your list. For starters, here’s a sample of my own professional hopes. That there will be a resurrection of thoughtful, civil discourse on climate change science and coping options and strategies. That there will be an end to our degradation of Earth’s natural habitats, air and water quality, and ecosystems. That there will a revival in our determination to meet Millennial goals of eliminating poverty, hunger, and disease worldwide. That we will shoulder responsibility for meeting such goals locally and individually. That the 21st century will be Earth’s and earthlings’ best years yet.

The best to you this Easter and Passover season.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Geosciences and geo-scientists lawyer-up.

The news these days constantly reminds us that Earth scientists, however reluctantly, are finding themselves drawn into the legal arena. This week, Washington Post articles included stories on the following:

Va. Supreme Court rules for U-Va in global warming FOIA case. Unpublished research by university scientists is exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday, rejecting an attempt by skeptics of global warming to view the work of a prominent climate researcher during his years at the University of Virginia…

Court upholds EPA emission standards. A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s first emission standards for mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

In its ruling, the court rejected state and industry challenges to rules designed to clean up chromium, arsenic, acid gases, nickel, cadmium as well as mercury and other dangerous toxins…

The Washington Post also ran stories and published comment on political inaction on climate change, disputes over fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and lastly, on environmental justice:

Pollution is segregated tooStudies dating back to the 1970s have pointed to a consistent pattern in who lives near the kinds of hazards –  toxic waste sites, landfills, congested highways — that few of us would willingly choose as neighbors. The invariable answer: poor people and communities of color.

This pattern of “environmental injustice” suggests that minorities may contend every day with disproportionate health risks from tailpipe exhaust or coal plant emissions. But these health risks are harder to quantify than, say, the number of power plants in a city. And most of the research that has tried to do this has been limited to a single metropolitan area, or to those few places that happen to have good monitoring data on pollution.

Now, however, researchers at the University of Minnesota, writing in the journal PLOS ONE, have created a sweeping picture of unequal exposure to one key pollutant — nitrogen dioxide, produced by cars, construction equipment and industrial sources — that’s been linked to higher risks of asthma and heart attack. They’ve found, all over the country, in even the most rural states and the cleanest cities, that minorities are exposed to more of the pollution than whites…

These latter stories may not deal with the legal cases per se, but clearly, in each instance, litigation, if not criminal prosecution, is close at hand.

All this, from just one week, in one newspaper. Earth scientists, not just in the United States, but worldwide (as in the 2012 jailing of Italian seismologists) are finding that as their skills improve, as their work begins to have value and at the same time grows more costly – that they are increasingly being held legally accountable for how they obtain and use that funding, how they reach and present their conclusions, how they influence and are influenced by others, and more. As natural resource use tightens, as property loss and business disruption due to hazardous weather rise, and as environmental degradation accelerates, scientists’ legal exposure will only grow. After catastrophes ranging from floods and drought to tsunamis and landslides, oil spills and air-quality exceedances, scientists will join political and business leaders under the legal spotlight, facing questions like, “What did you know, and when did you know it? Why did you subsequently act – or fail to act – in the way that you did?”

Inevitably much of the learning of the new rules of the road that will govern this testier, more contentious, more rigorous future will come the hard, expensive, painful way. But here and there are fledgling efforts to help scientists see what’s coming, and prepare, offline – in a more thoughtful, rigorous fashion.

One good example? The Expert Witness Academy (EWTA), a 1-week training workshop held each August since 2011 at the William Mitchell College of Law, an independent law school in St. Paul, Minn. The American Geophysical Union’s publication Eos (Vol. 95, No. 15, 15 April 2014) covers the topic in an article entitled Effective communication in legal and public policy hearings. Some brief excerpts:

Scientists play a special role in legal debates and public policy decisions. The challenge for scientists who serve as expert witnesses is to communicate effectively in various legal forums, including litigation and legislative hearings. Expert witnesses must not advocate for one side or the other but must be able to convey the meaning as well as the quality and accuracy of their work.

At a basic level, expert witnesses need to explain themselves and their science to people who are not scientists and who lack understanding of complex scientific principles. They also must understand the complex scrutiny that they are under when they testify at trial or participate in public policy discussions. To be effective communicators, they need to be familiar with the legal system and the role lawyers play…

The EWTA workshops are grounded in extensive research and experience in educat- ing adults to be clear and effective communicators. Each workshop is limited to just 20–25 scientists to ensure that every participant receives one-on-one instruction and coaching.

The workshop methodology applies two core assumptions: scientists learn best by doing rather than just listening and observing and scientists more fully understand the role and responsibilities of expert witnesses by also learning about and playing the role of lawyers…

Each participant plays various roles in an elaborate simulation, which is loosely based on the 1972 Rapid City flood, where record rainfall occurred just after controversial cloud-seeding experiments were conducted by defendants in a subsequent lawsuit. The simulation forces participants to answer questions about cloud seeding, massive rainfall, and who is responsible for the disaster.

Through this exercise, participants assume the role of experts in various mock legal proceedings that stem from the flood , including a legislative hearing, depositions, arbitration, and a full-fledged trial complete with a jury played by local community members. Along the way, participants receive feedback from the faculty and watch video of their individual performances…

In EWTA workshops, participants not only practice and play the role of expert wit- nesses but also practice and play the role of attorneys. By taking on these roles, partici- pants see the logic and perspective of the lawyers, judges, and jurors in various forums and develop a deeper understanding of effective communication in different legal processes[1].

The EWTA workshops break new ground, but expect them to be widely emulated, as professional societies and universities turn to the task of equipping scientists to cope effectively in an increasing litigious world. Of course, growing more responsible about the legalities of our work is just one challenge facing Earth scientists as our discipline matures and grows more useful to society.

More on this topic Monday.

[1] The program is funded by the Paleoclimate Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which covers all participant costs.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Quanta of thought, attention span, ants… and meteorologists

This past week, Michael Rosenwald wrote a thoughtful piece for the Washington Post entitled Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say. Unsurprisingly, the piece itself is worth “serious reading,” as in:

in its entirety…in one sitting… and taking time for reflection about extended, complex sets of interrelated ideas and images as we go along.


But the article’s point is that in the 21st-century, you and I may not be so adept at that[1].  Here are some excerpts:

Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

“I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,” says Handscombe, a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.

But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

Mr. Rosenwald goes on to hint at the science behind this 21st-century reality:

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia…

Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading — comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper — and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel but for understanding difficult material at work and school. There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills…

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision. But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue…

Get the idea? Our brains come hardwired for certain essential functions like controlling breathing, heartbeat, etc. But much of the brain function that makes us human is more like software that the brain builds up in response to what it’s asked to do. How we read… whether deeply or distractedly… is initially a choice, and then as our brain wires itself up to suit our preferences, becomes a habit and then a constraint. So, for example, should we choose to put in 10,000 hours surfing and engaging on the internet[2] (as most readers of this blog do every few years), we start to think in internet-friendly quanta of thought versus the big topics tackled by, say, Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Darwin’s Origin of Species. Instead of tracking big ideas developed by others, we’re synthesizing entirely different themes by concatenating quanta or bits of information from a diverse array of sources. We’re doing this not just at work, but also in our recreation. We’re doing this in our relationships, even with those closest to us[3].

Neuroscientists see this on a much broader canvas than reading per se – over the whole of human learning, and especially, as Mr. Rosenwald noted, in children. (Google how to make your kids smarter and explore the offerings there if you want to see more.)

Just decades ago, the nature of so-called knowledge work was that it demanded both kinds of thinking – that stemming from deep reading and from the ability to draw together diverse threads of thought and practice from a range of disciplines. Today, however, the nature of society’s problems are so complex and demanding that even the most highly-developed and smartest professionals can do little more than struggle with disconnected bits and pieces of larger problems. This is true of environmental problems such as climate change. It’s also true of immigration policy; healthcare; job creation; education; farming; and much, much more. To develop societal solutions, we’re increasingly forced to operate more like ants or bees, relying on swarm intelligence, than as we once did, with long solo performances of creative imagination and thought. In LOTRW-the-blog, this is a recurrent theme. And in the LOTRW-the-book, there’s the suggestion that meteorologists, in their approach to weather prediction and its dissemination, come closer than many professional communities to harnessing the fullest power of this approach for meeting big societal problems: earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat.

Such approaches to our pressing societal challenges offer big opportunities. But they also pose substantial risks. Here are two – both hinted at in LOTRW-the-book:

First, swarm intelligence relies on community trust, cooperation, individual responsibility and other virtues that are hardwired into our antlike or apian friends thanks to tens of millions of years of evolution and natural selection, but sometimes appear lacking in our species. We evolved a different way. Second, swarm intelligence is incapable of seeing its way clear over the long haul except insomuch as that “long-term vision” has been incorporated into the emergent consequences of the swarm decisions by the same evolutionary process. In either case, we don’t have the luxury of such time spans to re-jigger things. We’ll have to use our intelligence and some kind of moral compass to reach the same end.

As we work out these larger, more existential problems, it behooves us to make the most of both deep reading and thought on the one hand, and internet surfing  and social networking on the other. As Mr. Rosenwald observes:

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain.

[2] Which works out to about 5 years at office in front of the computer. [This is the figure much discussed by Malcolm Gladwell (in his 2008 best-seller, Outliers: the story of success) as the amount of practice needed to master successfully a specific task – and, truth be told, much criticized by some]

[3]Though we might be separated geographically from those closest to us emotionally, we’re in intermittent, momentary contact with them through texting, tweeting, and other messaging. Ironically, when we’re actually in the same room with them we often find ourselves tugged apart by texts, e-mails and more from others who are physically remote.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Did AMS Washington Forum participants make history last week?

Okay, Bill, you said in last week’s post that I had a choice between another three routine days in the office and helping make history at the AMS Washington Forum. I chose the office. What did I miss? Did you all make that history? In what way(s)?

Fair question.

You might check with other attendees for their perspective; in the meantime, here’s one view.

History reported. If you didn’t get a chance to sit in, one thing you missed was history not made so much as reported. Here are some examples: House passage of H.R. 2413, the weather forecasting improvement act of 2014 received considerable attention. Sharon Parrott, Vice President for Budget Policy and Economic Opportunity, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, gave a particularly nice overview of the federal budget outlook, with emphasis on the historic trends in non-defense discretionary spending, which is the source of much of the funding for our community, whether public-, private-, or academic sector. The great shift underway in the climate of the Arctic, and its geopolitical implications, consumed another session.

Particularly worrisome, for anyone focused on hazards, was the discussion by the space weather panel about the growing vulnerability of our society to a Carrington-like event… or even the disruption that could be occasioned by a much weaker (and commensurately more-likely) solar flare/storm. Two aspects were especially troubling. First is the lack of prior experience. The 1859 Carrington solar storm was noted largely through displays of northern lights and through the impacts on the then-nascent telegraphy. Today such an event would affect electrical power grids, GPS systems, and through these, virtually all other inter-connected critical infrastructure. Past experience (usually a cornerstone of disaster preparedness; we best know how to get ready for a repeat of the catastrophe we just had) is therefore of limited use in this arena. Second is the unique vulnerability of major transformers that are the backbone of the power grid. Spares are in short supply. If many were put out of service by the power surges expected with inclement space weather, their replacement could take many weeks or months, not days or hours. Some estimates of potential losses, including business disruption, reach the trillion-dollar range.

One last example of an historic trend? The transformation of vehicular traffic from simple, independently driver-controlled cars, trucks, and buses to the much more automated and interconnected traffic of the future. The transition is rich with opportunity for saving energy, minimizing congestion, improving safety, and incidentally gathering meteorological data from millions of mobile platforms.

These five concerns will all figure prominently in tomorrow’s history books.

History made. (Again, viewed from one perspective) the history-making parts of the meeting centered on the changing collaboration among the public-, private-, and academic sectors of the weather, climate, and water enterprise. As noted in the 2012 NAS/NRC report Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None, the historic, legacy collaborations that marked the last half of the 20th century are being fundamentally reworked. Technological advances in Earth observations and Earth science as well as new means of distributing critical weather information to those in the general public and to those in specialized weather-sensitive economic sectors (agriculture, energy, transportation, and more) are increasing the market value of weather, climate, and water data, creating new market space for intermediaries, and blurring traditional distinctions between suppliers and users of information. You could see and hear this in every session, but especially so in the opening plenary session on the meeting’s theme, leveraging the enterprise: strengthening our value to society; the panel discussion on commercialization of weather and climate data; and the sessions on public health and surface transportation. The technical challenges, though difficult, pale beside the policy challenges of re-engineering the public-private interface. Lots to discuss and work out.

The AMS Washington Forum was held under a version of the Chatham House rule[1]: in that spirit, details of the discussions can’t be extensively provided here. However, a number of the speakers did choose to make powerpoints of their presentations publicly available. You can find them in the Forum agenda, by clicking on the respective “handout” icons.

Even more history may have been made under the meeting’s radar. The meeting was facilitated by three contingents of students, from Howard University; from Millersville University; and from the University of Maryland. In rump sessions this early-career group expressed interest and enthusiasm for generating community projects to highlight NOAA’s Weather Ready Nation initiative at local levels. The idea would be to carry out events and activities that would build community awareness and at the same time lend themselves to video and other materials that could be posted online. Some blend of judges and/or online polling (likes, etc.) might provide a spirit of friendly competition, generate some public buzz, and help the effort spread virally to other campuses. I haven’t done justice to the idea, but stay tuned. If the students succeed, they could help America make a quantum leap in community resilience to hazards.

So, Bill, would you like to hear how I made history at the office last week when I wasn’t coming to the AMS meeting? I didn’t just goof off, you know.  

Matter of fact, I was figuring (even hoping) that the seven billion of you otherwise occupied could say that!

Yes I would.

[1] To quote from the AMS 2014 Washington Forum website, the meeting was “held under a modification of the Chatham House Rule, which will be strictly enforced:

Participants are free to use the information received at the Forum, but public attribution of remarks from panelists, speaker(s) and participants is not permitted. The only exception to this rule is information contained in charts posted to the AMS website after the event, for which the owner of the charts must provide explicit approval to the AMS.

The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid
to free discussion. Meetings do not have to take place at Chatham House, or be organized by Chatham House, to be held under the Rule.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Three more days of office routine? Or… help make history?

The choice is yours.

Working in the DC area… on Earth observations, sciences, and services, or at the intersection between Earth sciences and policy? Short notice, but it’s not too late for you to lift your next three working days out of the ordinary, by participating in this year’s AMS Washington Forum, which runs Tuesday—Thursday April 1-3. All you have to do is tweak your morning commute, and set as your destination the auditorium of the AAAS building at 1200 New York Avenue, NW. Picture yourself hearing in person from Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Department of Commerce Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, other Federal Agency Leads, and Congressional and Executive Staffers. Weigh in on a range of topics, spanning:

Over the three days, you can make a difference on scientific advance and application of that science for societal benefit in any or all of these areas. By actively engaging in the discussions, you’ll influence the thinking of others. By actively listening in turn, you’ll allow them to enrich your perspective on your own work and its relevance to the human condition. You’ll leave a better-informed, more effective player, reinvigorated. Your increased effectiveness upon your return to your desk will quickly recover the opportunity cost of being away for those three days.

Lest you think this overstatement, reflect for a moment on the parallel between these annual AMS Washington sessions and those first formative meetings of the AAAS itself, held back during the 1850’s. Imagine a world with no AAAS[1]. As you read this material, look for similarities and the differences between the challenges facing scientists of that era and those confronting us today:

…Meanwhile, the profession as a whole was reaching a level of maturity that allowed it to organize itself. As early as 1840, ten geologists, mostly connected with the state surveys, met in Philadelphia to form the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists. In 1848, this organization, with a widened and open membership, adopted a new constitution based on that of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On the drafting committee were the geologist Henry Darwin Rogers, Benjamin Peirce, and Louis Agassiz. This American Association for the Advancement of Science immediately became the main meeting place of the scientists of the United States. In 1848, it had 461 members, and by 1854, the number had risen to 1004.

Although the new organization had no direct ties to the government, it was a means by which the scientists could express their views on public policy. As early as 1849, the Association induced the State Department to make representations in behalf of a Professor Schumacher, whose work was impeded by unsettled conditions in Schleswig-Holstein. By 1851, of nineteen special committees, eight aimed directly at the federal government. The subjects included Johnson’s experiments on coal, Maury’s wind and current charts, the prime meridian, the Coast Survey, uniform standards of weights and measures, the use of public lands to aid Missouri in a geological survey, scientific exploration, and the corps of observers on the Mexican Boundary Survey. Scientists in the government service seemed to dominate the organization. Henry appeared on five committees, Baird on three, C. H. Davis on two, and Bache on six. Of the officers in 1851, Bache was president, Baird corresponding secretary, Henry and Wilkes members of the standing committee. Even the most prominent college scientist, Benjamin Peirce of Harvard, was a consultant on the Coast Survey and the Nautical Almanac.

The significance of the connection of the government to the new AAAS was not lost upon Bache, the superintendent of the largest and strongest segment of the federal scientific establishment. When he delivered his address as retiring president at the Albany meeting in 1851, he showed that he recognized the problem in its broadest dimensions. He saw that of the older societies only the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had “struck very deep roots,” and that neither was well endowed. He saw that American science had labored under the evils of “the prevalence of general lecturing on various branches, the cultivation of the literature of science rather than of science itself.” Pointing out that the Institute of France paid its members “a moderate support, that the country may have the benefit of their labors,” he insisted that researches such as those of the Franklin Institute on steam boilers fell short because “the laborers were without hire, though neither they nor their works were deemed unworthy of it.” Indeed, he reckoned as one of the largest “obstacles to the progress of science with us” the want of “direct support for its cultivators as such.” He saw too that the Smithsonian, “had it fivefold its present endowment . . . would not be able to meet the actual demands upon its funds for purposes in its ‘active operations.’ ” He saw that the organization of a scientific association had to wait on the development of professional standards, with the geologists leading the way because the state surveys gave the basis for testing competence by “positive work.” He saw that the AAAS, now that it had come into existence, had its role to play in advising the government, which was “called upon often to decide questions which belong rather to scientific than to political tribunals. A timely recommendation by a scientific congress would frequently be a relief from serious embarrassment.” However, both lack of money and of “that working spirit . . . which alone could bring experi- ments to a working conclusion” severely limited its committees.

Beyond this general pattern of the institutions of the country in 1851, Bache saw that the government could be a positive force in the advancement of science. For instance, he attributed the relatively advanced state of astronomy to its being “chiefly at first from its connection with navigation . . . the science which all governments, our own inclusive, have selected to encourage.” The same thing could happen to meteorology if it had the patronage. “The results of even the partial effort made in behalf of magnetism and meteorology” were hopeful, with materials “gathered, or gathering, from which impor- tant conclusions are daily derived, and which await the master mind to weave into [a] new Trincipia,’ a new ‘Mecanique/ or a new Theoria.’ ”

Bache then declared that “an institution of science, supplementary to existing ones, is much needed in our country, to guide public action in scientific matters.” …The heart of his proposal was appropriations from the “public treasury,” which “would be saved many times the support of such a council, by the sound advice which it would give in regard to the various projects which are con- stantly forced upon” the notice of government officials, “and in regard to which they are now compelled to decide without the knowledge which alone can ensure a wise conclusion.” The spheres of activity were already quite clear. “Without specification, it is easy to see that there are few applications of science which do not bear on the interests of commerce and navigation, naval or military concerns, the customs, the lighthouses, the public lands, post-offices and post-roads, either directly or remotely.” This new institution of science would step into an area otherwise “left to influence, or to imperfect knowledge.”

Two assumptions underlay all that Bache said that day in Albany. One was that only through the professionalization of scientists and the “minute subdivision” of their efforts in specialties could real research go forward. The other was that “science” meant to him essentially those branches which the surveying and exploring enterprises of the government had stimulated. Because of his own specialties he put great emphasis on mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Admitting a good deal of prominence to geology, he gave a little grudging recognition to descriptive natural history. But chemistry, laboratory biology, and the application of these fields to agriculture do not enter into his scheme at all. An institution that sprang from his ideas might be expected to be a group of professional specialists whose interests heavily favored the physical sciences.

Although Bache’s institution got no overt support in the 1850′$, the idea never died. It could live a kind of subterranean existence in high places because of the extraordinary importance of a small group of men. Scientific organization had reached a new state not only in the AAAS, but in small self-conscious gatherings of professionals who recognized their common goals and their differences from the older generation. The body of scientific men was now numerous enough for comradeship and still small enough not to be impersonal. As early as 1847, one scientist discovered that the “fewness of men well-grounded in science, and the disparity that exists between those claiming to be adepts” made especially likely in America “the formation of predominant cliques.”

As Bache himself stood before the AAAS in Albany to give his ad- dress as retiring president, he had another title also, the “Chief” of the Scientific Lazzaroni[2]. The membership of this group, whose stated purpose was to “eat an outrageously good dinner together,” centered in Bache, Henry, Peirce, Louis Agassiz, James D. Dana, C. C. Felton of Harvard, John F. Frazer of Philadelphia, the astronomer Benjamin Apthorp Gould, and the chemist Wolcott Gibbs. At that very meeting, the Lazzaroni were pushing for the establishment of a private national university in Albany. Later they tried something of the same thing in New York, and for a time backed the Dudley Observatory in Albany. Their enemies, including some eminent scientists, conceived of them as a clique either connected with the Coast Survey, because of Bache, or located in Cambridge, because of the towering eminence of Peirce, Agassiz, Felton, and Gould. Although all these men had important friends outside the group, the fact that they knew each other, saw each other regularly, and often cooperated was a condition of some importance on the scientific scene of the 1850′s. The Lazzaroni took Bache’s ideas of an institution of science seriously, and the time would come when they would do something about it[3].

A closing note. The scientists of that era were largely Earth scientists. The pure disciplines of physics and chemistry were far from their minds. By contrast, the link between their science and public benefit loomed large. Support for research was an issue, as was the need for an organized voice. The community lacked unanimity. They possessed no clear vision of the future; rather their view was murky, fragmented. They were feeling their way along.

Many of these comments would apply to today’s Earth observations, science, and services community.  Here’s a “forecast by analogy.” There’s a very good chance that 50-100 years from now, Earth scientists of the future will recognize that this period of years we’re now in was a similar transitional time during which the Earth sciences came of age. That same future audience, looking back, will appreciate that the discussions over one or two decades of the AMS Washington Forum played a pivotal role in incubating what became the shape of science policy in the 2050’s… two hundred years after the era of Alexander Dallas Bache and his contemporaries.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? See you tomorrow.


[1] The italicized material quoted here is excerpted from A. Hunter Dupree’s classic book, Science in the Federal Government: a history of policies and activities to 1940 (online version). (You may encounter a few glitches in the text resulting from the format of the on-line material.) The text is from Chapter VI: “Bache and the quest for a central scientific organization.” This is the same Alexander Dallas Bache who was the second head of the Survey of the Coast (now NOAA’s National Ocean Survey) after Hassler, and one of the foremost science policy leaders of his day.

[2] The earliest glimmerings of what would later become the National Academy of Sciences.

[3] I apologize for this lengthy quote, but not too much. It gives you a taste for Mr. Dupree’s mastery of his subject matter and his exquisite writing style. If you’re a reader of this blog you should want to study the book in its entirety. It sheds much light on how the science and science policy in this country we know today got to be that way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Landslide-ready Nation

The tragic landslide from last Saturday, March 22, and its frustrating and grief-stricken aftermath has focused minds. The U.S. Geological Survey has provided a preliminary summary of the event, which resulted from rains and saturated soils on unstable slopes. The official death toll remains below 20, but some 90 more people are missing and unaccounted for. Some 30 houses were covered with debris; a mile of road was wiped out. Rains over the past week have hampered rescue (and now recovery) efforts, and raised fears of further risks to rescue workers (and residents) in the area.

DSC_2347Landslide risk is widespread across the entire length of the Pacific coast. But landslides, their causes, and the hazards they pose come in more than one flavor. For example, most of the death toll resulting from the 1964 Alaska earthquake resulted from liquefaction and a massive underwater landslide in and around Port Valdez, which triggered a major tsunami. (The death toll from that event, which took 139 lives in the context of violent geophysical upheaval over thousands of square miles, may prove not that much greater from this smaller-scale rain-caused slide.)

Human decisions, particularly with regard to land use, account for much of today’s vulnerability. Some of that risk stems from a natural desire to enjoy the breathtaking vistas that hillside homes often enjoy. But some stems from poverty. Worldwide, urban slums don’t just fail to provide their occupants with adequate sanitation or protection from the elements on fair-weather days; because they’re often consigned to less-desirable real estate – dangerous, unstable slopes in particular – they become death traps when the earth starts to shake (as in Haiti), or the heavy rains come (as in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas). From PreventionWeb (one report of many):

enchente0012One of these neighbourhoods is Roupa Suja, the top of which is located right below a vertical wall of rock and considered a Zona de Risco – or risk area – by the Rio de Janeiro city government. Technically, residents are prohibited from building and living in this area; but many are so poor that they have no alternative place to build. The majority of the residents living in this area immigrated to Rio attempting to escape even greater poverty in the rural drought-stricken northeast. Others immigrated from different favelas in Rio after urban renewal campaigns razed their homes. Some also came from poorer favelas on the city’s periphery.

Several people die every year in mudslides caused by heavy rains in Rio’s favelas. Deforestation at the edge of Rochina, as it expands into the national forest of Tijuca, has worsened this risk. Rio’s municipal government, as well as residents themselves, have built aqueducts to channel the water away from homes; but these do not protect all areas of the favela. The danger of falling rocks is perhaps greater than that of rain. Since the homes at the top of the favela are directly beneath a vertical overhang, rocks break off due to erosion and fall on the homes below.

Faced each day with multiple types of risk – from natural hazards, violence and disease – the residents of Roupa Suja’s Zona de Risco lead a precarious and difficult life. Most stay because they have nowhere else to go.

Sometimes we create landslide risk as much as we simply choose to live in it. We often do this in our quest for natural resources. For example, on the evening of April 10, 2013, the Bingham Canyon strip mine experienced the largest non-volcanic landslide ever recorded in North America. Here’s the abstract from the linked article:

On the evening of 10 April 2013 (MDT) a massive landslide occurred at the Bingham Canyon copper mine near Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. The northeastern wall of the 970-m-deep pit collapsed in two distinct episodes that were each sudden, lasting ~90 seconds, but separated in time by ~1.5 hours. In total, ~65 million cubic meters of material was deposited, making the cumulative event likely the largest non-volcanic landslide to have occurred in North America in modern times. Fortunately, there were no fatalities or injuries. Because of extensive geotechnical surveillance, mine operators were aware of the instability and had previously evacuated the area. [emphasis added] The Bingham Canyon mine is located within a dense regional network of seismometers and infrasound sensors, making the 10 April landslide one of the best recorded in history. Seismograms show a complex mixture of short- and long-period energy that is visible throughout the network (6–400 km). Local magnitudes (ML) for the two slides, which are based on the amplitudes of short-period waves, were estimated at 2.5 and 2.4, while magnitudes based on the duration of seismic energy (md) were much larger (>3.5). This magnitude discrepancy, and in particular the relative enhancement of long-period energy, is characteristic of landslide seismic sources. Interestingly, in the six days following the landslide, 16 additional seismic events were detected and located in the mine area. Seismograms for these events have impulsive arrivals characteristic of tectonic earthquakes. Hence, it appears that in this case the common geological sequence of events was inverted: Instead of a large earthquake triggering landslides, it was a landslide that triggered several small earthquakes.

bcynslideNormally, some 2000 workers might have been on this site. However, as emphasized, the event caused no casualties because geologists and mining engineers had been keenly aware of the risks, seen slippage starting, and had evacuated the operation 24 hours before the slumping occurred.

Did you happen to notice the qualifier describing this event? The largest non-volcanic landslide ever recorded? Greater risks are out there. Here’s one, also threatening the Pacific Northwest: mudslides (lahars) off the slopes of Mount Rainier:

Mount Rainier, an active volcano currently at rest between eruptions, is the highest peak in the Cascade Range. Its edifice, capped by snow and 25 glaciers, has been built up by untold eruptions over the past 500,000 years. It last erupted in 1894-95, when small summit explosions were reported by observers in Seattle and Tacoma. Mount Rainier’s next eruption might be of similar or larger size and could produce volcanic ash, lava flows, and avalanches of intensely hot rock and volcanic gases, called “pyroclastic flows.”

Some of these events swiftly melt snow and ice and could produce torrents of meltwater that pick up loose rock and become rapidly flowing slurries of mud and boulders known as “lahars.” In contrast to lava flows and pyroclastic flows that are unlikely to extend farther than 10 miles from the volcano’s summit and remain within Mount Rainier National Park, the largest lahars can travel for tens of miles and reach Puget Sound…

…At Mount Rainier, the risk from lahars is greater than from lava flows, volcanic ash fall, or other volcanic phenomena because some pathways for future lahars are densely populated and contain important infrastructure such as highways, bridges, ports, and pipelines. Lahars look and behave like flowing concrete, and they destroy or bury most manmade structures in their paths. Past lahars probably traveled 45 to 50 miles per hour and were as much as 100 feet or more thick where confined in valleys near the volcano. They thinned and spread out in the wide valleys downstream, slowing to 15 to 25 miles per hour. Deposits of past lahars are found in all of the valleys that start on Mount Rainier’s flanks…

…Mount Rainier has erupted less often and less explosively in recent millennia than its well-known neighbor, Mount St. Helens. However, the proximity of large population centers in valleys susceptible to lahars from Mount Rainier makes it a far greater threat to life and property than Mount St. Helens for the following reasons:

Population and development at risk: About 80,000 people and their homes are at risk in Mount Rainier’s lahar-hazard zones. Key infrastructure such as major highways and utilities cross through these zones, which also contain economically important businesses, hydroelectric dams, and major seaports…

…During the past several thousand years large lahars have reached the Puget Sound lowland on average at least once every 500 to 1,000 years. Smaller flows not extending as far as the lowland occurred more frequently. If future large lahars happen at rates similar to those of the past, there is roughly a 1-in-10 chance of a lahar reaching the Puget Sound lowland during an average human lifespan.

There may be little or no advance warning: Studies by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists show that at least one of Mount Rainier’s recent large landslide-generated lahars may have occurred when the volcano was quiet and not providing the warning signs typical of a restless and erupting volcano. In such a rare case, the only warning could be a report that a lahar is already underway… 

…Mount Rainier can generate two types of lahars that can threaten surrounding valleys:

Meltwater-generated lahars: Mount Rainier supports more than one cubic mile of glacial ice-as much as all other Cascade Range volcanoes combined. During past eruptive episodes, swift melting of snow and ice by pyroclastic flows and other events caused numerous lahars. Such lahars would be preceded by events that warn of an impending eruption.

Landslide-generated lahars: Landslides can be triggered when molten rock (magma) intrudes into a volcano and destabilizes it, as happened at Mount St. Helens in 1980, or they may be triggered by large earthquakes. They may also be the result of the eventual failure of rocks that were weakened by the action of acidic fluids. Magma releases gases and heat creating hot, acidic ground water that, over time, can convert hard volcanic rock into weak, clay-rich rock by a process called hydrothermal alteration. When masses of water-saturated clay-rich rock slide away, they transform rapidly into a lahar. Although most large landslides at Mount Rainier occurred during eruptive periods and were probably triggered by magma intrusion or by explosive eruptions rocking the volcano, the origin of at least one, the 500-year-old Electron lahar, may not be related to eruptions. This lahar left deposits as much as 20 feet thick, and buried an old-growth forest in the vicinity of modern-day Orting.

rainier_mudflowsIn summary, much landslide risk is self-inflicted: arising from land use preferences, or the quest for mineral resources, or imperfections in social justice. The question also arises: if it was possible to see the Bingham Canyon slide coming, and to evacuate the site, might it be possible to provide more warning systems for residential areas, say, for the highways and homes in the shadow of Mount Rainier and similar sites? Perhaps in times past the cost was prohibitive, but with advances in technology it needn’t remain so. If we’re in the business of building a weather-ready nation, surely the landslide risk should be factored in.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 turns 50.

AlaskaQuake-FourthAveMarch 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America. It had a moment magnitude of 9.2 and affected some 200,000 miles of Alaska real estate, permanently raising some areas by as much as 30 feet and lowering other regions by as much as 8 feet. The earthquake took 139 lives in sparsely populated Alaska. Most died from the associated tsunamis.  The United States Geological Survey has marked the occasion with an informative short video, which deserves your attention:

The event itself occasioned well-earned shock and awe… and some learning from the experience. For example, Port Valdez, in Prince William Sound, suffered liquefaction, a major underwater landslide, and loss of 30 lives from the resulting tsunami. In post-disaster surveys, geologists learned that something like nine similar events had occurred over the previous 5000 years, and that future earthquakes could be expected. Port Valdez was deemed vulnerable to similar liquefaction and flood damage in coming years. With that thought firmly in hand, the entire town was rebuilt at a higher elevation.

But there are signs that we’re failing to take the experience sufficiently to heart. Some points worth noting:

The risk is global. Similar threats exist elsewhere around the world. Events of this magnitude occur somewhere on the Earth on average perhaps once a decade. Recall the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2004 and the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that crushed Fukushima in 2011. Here in the United States, a similar event in the Cascadia subduction zone off the Pacific Northwest draws one day nearer every day. There’s little sign in the land use and development  along our Pacific coast that we are adequately factoring this risk into our planning and thinking.

Magnitude 9.2 doesn’t represent the limit.  The 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile attained a moment magnitude of 9.5. Earthquake scenarios – perhaps corresponding to magnitudes approaching 10? – affecting larger areas appear possible. It’s likely we have no records of these solely because we’ve maintained records over a short geological span. Because the scale is logarithmic, a magnitude-10 event would represent some 30 times the energy release of a magnitude 9 event.

Loss of life and business disruption would be far greater at other sites. The suffering and damage in rural, small-town Alaska was bad enough. But an event hitting the corridor between Vancouver, Canada and San Francisco, California would be catastrophic. Picture casualties in the thousands, and losses in the $1T range.

This 50th-anniversary? Perhaps a good day to reflect on what it means to do life on a planet conducting its business through extreme events. Is your family ready? Your workplace? Your community?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The 2015 federal budget: rite of spring Washington-DC style

In case you needed any reminding, yesterday was the first day of spring. The poet Tennyson nicely articulated spring’s iconic signs:

…In the spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast

In the spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest

In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love…   

 – Alfred Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall

It’s clear Tennyson had no experience of spring inside the Beltway of Washington, DC. Had he lived here, in this present day, he’d surely have replaced the foot soldier of his poem with a lobbyist, and he’d have said something along the lines of “an advocate’s fancy lightly turns to lines of budget.”  With the most recent snowstorm just days behind us, and at least one more snow likely standing between us and this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, the spring rites of the federal budget process seem the only dependable indicators of where we are on the calendar.

The President’s State of the Union message and the release of the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2015 have kicked off this year’s annual rite/ritual. One key point to note is that at $4T, the budget is of a scale and size so vast as to defy individual comprehension and preclude any simple characterization. There’s summary material to be sure, but the budget is complex and multi-faceted. The material has a nature of a fractal. The individual Cabinet-level pieces look similar to the whole. In fact, they can themselves be subdivided multiple times with little apparent sign of any emerging simplicity.

Spring in Washington is thus a cascade of budget presentations. It starts with an OMB overview. That’s followed with Secretarial-level expositions on budgets for the respective Cabinet-level Departments. Agency budget briefings come next. It’s then the turn of agency line offices. Even at this level, the budget amounts often represent or exceed $1B. And so on down. The full rollout takes weeks. (Even before it ends, the participants take the same festivities up to Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, where the conversation continues for months…)

The budget presentations at these levels have themselves become highly stylized over the years. At each level, senior leadership gathers on stage at some appropriate venue. One or more give a prepared overview, indicating highlights – new thrusts and major changes from the previous year. The fuller leadership then responds to questions from the audience, usually a blend of invited stakeholders and interested news media from outside government. In recent years, technology has made it possible for people to participate by internet and phone, and call in questions remotely. Questions tend to come from groups affected by any proposed budget cuts.

NOAA (one agency of many) presented its 2015 proposed budget at just such an occasion on Tuesday of this week. If interested, you can find links to an audio recording of the briefing, a news release, and the NOAA budget blue book here. Veteran budget observers might see a certain sameness in these events year-on-year, but for me, they’re always fascinating. Before the invention of on-line banking, people used to say, “If you want to learn someone’s real priorities in life, take a look at his/her checkbook.” This is no less true for the federal government.The particulars of the budget speak for themselves, and each stakeholder/participant should certainly form his/her own conclusion. But please indulge a few personal impressions:

It was great to hear from Dr. Kathryn Sullivan as a duly confirmed Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator versus the acting role she’d shouldered for what seemed like an eternity (dating back, in different ways, longer than last year’s budget rollout). As last year, she demonstrated a command of the budget and programs in both their comprehensive aspects and their details; the line office leadership also seemed comfortable with the Q&A. The budget and programs showed signs of benefiting from the cessation of sequestrations, continuing resolutions, and government shutdowns that had characterized the recent past. This calm, and a firmer budget foundation, allow NOAA leadership to address a range of staffing and programmatic issues that have festered for many months. It’s natural to wish for more resources in virtually every aspect of NOAA’s work. But the budget request contains substantial increases for critical NOAA infrastructure, science and innovation, and on-the-ground emphasis on building community-level resilience.

Hmm. Not bad! These increases suggest that despite the occasional kerfluffle over fracking, the Keystone pipeline, hazard supplementals, fisheries management, etc., both political parties see the Earth observations, science, and services agenda of NOAA and other agencies as non-partisan and deserving of greater attention and emphasis. They augur well for growing budgets and resources continuing in future budget years.

So, even if we do have more snow in the DC forecast, a kind of budget spring thaw is coming. Something to celebrate. You might take the occasion to listen to Stravinsky’s classic The Rite of Spring.

Even if you’re not from DC.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

LOTRW in a nutshell: a Nigerian microcosm

The previous LOTRW post took a look at work of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority to modernize DC’s wastewater treatment infrastructure.  Half a world away, a micro-business is addressing a waste-management/recycling challenge in Nigeria. Here’s an article on the subject from The Economist (originally from the February 22, 2014 print edition).  It’s short, and reprinted here in its entirety:

THE roughly 170m Nigerians who inhabit Africa’s most populous country are producing far more waste than their creaking infrastructure can manage. Aminu Omar is one of thousands of unofficial waste-pickers who see this as an opportunity to make some cash. Half-immersed in a large bin outside a smart housing compound in the capital, Abuja, he pulls out beer cans, water bottles and empty jam jars, and stuffs them into his patchwork plastic sack. He then sells his haul for 700 naira ($4). “I take the rubbish, give it to a middleman and he sells it for much more,” he says, leafing through a discarded women’s magazine.

Nigeria’s sprawling megacity, Lagos, with a population of 21m or so, disgorges 10,000 metric tonnes of waste a day. Overburdened municipal governments are reckoned to collect barely 40% of this rubbish. Only 13% of recyclable materials is salvaged from the city’s landfills, according to Wecyclers, a young company keen to promote recycling and reduce waste.

Wecyclers uses a fleet of bicycles to collect recyclables from over 5,000 households in densely populated, poor areas of Lagos neglected by waste-disposal lorries. The company awards points to registered households for the amount of recyclable material they provide, which can then be redeemed in cash or kind—a household item such as an iron, or a telephone credit—at the end of each quarter. Wecyclers makes money by selling the recyclables to bigger companies that melt or process and then sell them on, usually to Asia. “It reduces the number of people on dangerous landfills searching for waste at the mercy of a broker,” says Bilikiss Adebiyi of Wecyclers, who says her company is the first of its kind in Africa. “Some [people] have given us tonnes of waste.”

The Lagos State Waste Management Authority is trying to turn rubbish into energy by harnessing methane gas emitted from rotting waste at Olushosun, the largest landfill in Lagos. When completed in five years’ time, the project is supposed to produce 25MW of electricity. That is a help for a country that produces only 3-4GW per year, a tenth of South Africa’s output for a population triple the size.

In the metropolis of Kaduna, 200km (124 miles) north of Abuja, waste collection is currently free for the 1.5m inhabitants. But the state government is trying to get people to pay a monthly levy to reduce the burden on the authorities and to tempt in the private sector. It wants to award contracts to companies to collect waste from paying customers. Persuading people to pay for rubbish collection will depend on the quality of the service—or on the penalty for not co-operating. As with most Nigerian government contracts, politics and palm-greasing will probably play a part. Still, if more rubbish is collected, people may not complain.

You can learn more about Wecyclers here. As with the DC example, the Nigerian microcosm combines environmental protection with economic growth. It too is scalable, suitable for adaption in any developing country. The link to resilience to hazards is more subtle (and perhaps a bit forced), but from looking at the infrastructure (in this case, nothing more than the cargo bicycles), it’s clearly resilient to both natural hazards and the threat of Boko Haram terrorism savaging Nigeria, especially the northern part of the country.

The point here is a humble one: even in the shadow of the dysfunction that prevails across so many aspects of Nigerian life, bright spots like this one – place-based, grassroots efforts drawing on local leadership and social networking – are sprouting up. And there are hundreds of thousands of such efforts underway worldwide – individually improving local living conditions and in aggregate advancing the outlook for all of us. Most will prove sustaining only on the short term, but that’s because through the power of social networking and learning from experience they’ll be replaced by something even better.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment