Three (simultaneous) real-world challenges

… that we face locally, everywhere… and globally.

In a nutshell, here’s the unending task of living on the real world. We must simultaneously, everywhere, at every moment, and for extended periods, master the threefold job of (1) sipping from Earth’s resources, while (2) protecting Earth’s habitat, diversity, and environment, and (3) building resilience to Earth’s extremes. How are we faring? Three stories, in this week’s news:

Britain struggles with a fierce cold-season storm.

The Daily Mail reported that

-The worst tidal surge for more than 60 years battered coastal towns along the east coast of Britain last night.

-Sea walls were breached more than two hours before high tide last night after thousands of people had been evacuated from their homes.

-The North Sea surge hit the north Norfolk coast early yesterday evening and headed south throughout the night. Chaotic scenes in the seaside town of Scarborough offered a glimpse into the floods which were set to swamp the east coast of Britain just a few hours later.

-The fierce Atlantic storm – which has already claimed two lives – caused widespread disruption yesterday, but some agencies this morning said that the expected flooding overnight was less severe than expected.

-Seaside towns across the region were braced for the worst floods in 60 years as 140mph winds battered the nation in a hurricane-force storm.

-More than 15,000 homes in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex were evacuated, while residents were also rescued in Rhyl, North Wales, and Merseyside.

-A lorry driver died in Scotland and a man riding a mobility scooter in King’s Park in Retford, Nottinghamshire, was also killed when hit by a falling tree.

-More than 120,000 homes were left without power as the most serious tidal surge for 60 years was predicted to hit the east coast last night. As they were taken away from their homes in dinghies, forecasters feared the worst was yet to come during last night’s high tide at around 10pm.

In London, the Thames Barrier was closed twice in two consecutive days to protect the city from the surge.

In Shanghai, smog hit extremely hazardous levels.

Many news outlets covered this story. Here’s part of what The Weather Channel had to say: Shanghai authorities ordered school children indoors and halted all construction Friday as China’s financial hub suffered one of its worst bouts of air pollution, bringing visibility down to a few dozen meters, delaying flights and obscuring the city’s spectacular skyline.

The financial district was shrouded in a yellow haze, and noticeably fewer people walked the city’s streets. Vehicle traffic also was thinner, as authorities pulled 30 percent of government vehicles from the roads. They also banned fireworks and public sporting events.

“I feel like I’m living in clouds of smog,” said Zheng Qiaoyun, a local resident who kept her 6-month-old son at home. “I have a headache, I’m coughing, and it’s hard to breathe on my way to my office.”

Shanghai’s concentration of tiny, harmful PM 2.5 particles reached 602.5 micrograms per cubic meter Friday afternoon, an extremely hazardous level that was the highest since the city began recording such data last December. That compares with the World Health Organization’s safety guideline of 25 micrograms.

The dirty air that has gripped Shanghai and its neighboring provinces for days is attributed to coal burning, car exhaust, factory pollution and weather patterns, and is a stark reminder that pollution is a serious challenge in China. Beijing, the capital, has seen extremely heavy smog several times over the past year. In the far northeastern city of Harbin, some monitoring sites reported PM 2.5 rates up to 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in October, when the winter heating season kicked off.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, water shortages loom.

This according to a paper published in Environmental Research Letters by scientists at CIRES (the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences; run jointly by NOAA and the University of Colorado) and another study published by researchers at Columbia University. The Huffington Post provides its own synthesis:

For decades scientists have been saying that the United States’ lakes, rivers and aquifers are going to have a hard time quenching the thirst of a growing population in a warming world.

A recent report from NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences does not alleviate those fears. It showed that nearly one in 10 watersheds in the U.S. is “stressed,” with demand for water exceeding natural supply — a trend that, researchers say, appears likely to become the new normal.

“By midcentury, we expect to see less reliable surface water supplies in several regions of the United States,” said Kristen Averyt, associate director for science at CIRES and one of the authors of the study. “This is likely to create growing challenges for agriculture, electrical suppliers and municipalities, as there may be more demand for water and less to go around.”

And a recent Columbia University Water Center study on water scarcity in the U.S. showed that it’s not just climate change that is putting stress on water supply, it’s also a surging population. Since 1950 there has been a 99 percent increase in population in the U.S. combined with a 127 percent increase in water usage.

“All cities and all businesses require water, yet in many regions, they need more water than is actually available — and that demand is growing,” said Upmanu Lall, director, Columbia Water Center said to Business Insider. “The new study reveals that certain areas face exposure to drought, which will magnify existing problems of water supply and demand.”

The Huffington Post goes on to offer a notional list of 11 major U.S. cities that might experience future water shortages.

Some observations:

These stories aren’t exhaustive or necessarily the most telling of events underway as of this writing. They’re just three of thousands of active news stories, from three locations: Britain, China, and the U.S. Pick any other three nations, and it would be easy to find dozens of similar stories. Pick the same three nations tomorrow, and the action will have shifted to other issues.

Pervasive. Unrelenting. Constantly evolving. That’s the challenge facing seven billion people living on the real world.

There’s no reason or room for despair. Instead we should be motivated to up our game. We need to get better at seeing these events coming and predicting their impacts. We need policies that help us forestall the Earth’s more serious threats. We need to harness social networking to the task of sharing and learning from experience. And we need leadership and a public that shoulders responsibility for outcomes at a local level rather than depending on top-down, command-and-control response from a distance.

Here’s a thought exercise you might want to try: identify three (or so) of the real-world challenges closest to you geographically and professionally and most salient at the moment. Picture the next step you plan to take to meet in part one or more of those challenges… or how your ongoing work is already making a contribution. Then say to the world:

Bring it on.

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One Response to Three (simultaneous) real-world challenges

  1. Bill:-

    It is not at all clear that climate change will reduce the availability of surface water (e.g., greater rainfall…). What is clear is that increasing population and increasing electrification have and will continue to increase the stress on our water supplies. There are relatively simple fixes – better water management at power plants (employing closed loop rather than once-through systems, for example); reuse of water; and a host of others. When the “stress” causes the price of the resource to get high enough, the market will respond.

    The bigger question to me, however, is why must we always drag in the hypothetical when the actual is already here (and offers plenty of opportunities to fix both the actual and the hypothetical problems)? This applies – in spades – to natural disasters: we have professional alarmists bloviating about the hypotheticals of increased frequency and/or intensity of storms (neither of which seems to be factual), while we have actually increased our vulnerability as individuals and a society by our migrations to the coasts.

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