GCR News Summary June 2015


Solar flare image courtesy of NASA/SDO under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license (image has been cropped)

Pope Francis issued an encyclical saying the natural environment is “the patrimony of all humanity” and calling for a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet”. Pope Francis warned that we are warming the planet, depleting its reserves of clean water, and destroying its biodiversity:

Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.

“Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,” the encyclical said.

Lloyd’s of London released a report for the insurance industry on the risk of an “acute disruption of the global food supply” in the near future. The report said that because of population growth and changing consumption patterns in the developing world, food production will have to more than double by 2050 to keep pace with demand. As a result, the report said, “the global food system is under chronic pressure to meet an ever rising demand, and its vulnerability to acute disruptions is compounded by factors such as climate change, water stress, ongoing globalization and heightening political instability”.

The US is considering stationing tanks and heavy weapons in its Baltic and Eastern European members. NATO also announced it would increase the size its response force to 40,000 troops, more than triple the previous number of troops. The move would be meant to signal the US’ readiness to defend newer member nations that are close to Russia. The US has never before stationed heavy military equipment in member nations that use to be in the Soviet sphere of influence. The move would go against NATO’s pledge in the 1997 Founding Act not to permanently station “substantial combat forces” in those countries.

Russian General Yury Yakubov said Russia would respond by stationing new heavy weapons of its own in the region. Russia later announced it would deploy 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) “capable of overcoming any, even the most technically sophisticated, missile defense systems”. “The nuclear messaging of Russia is destabilizing, it’s unjustified, and it’s dangerous,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “It should scare people,” former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder added. “Now we are in a situation where it’s not inconceivable that there might be a military confrontation, and this kind of bluster contributes to the possibility of miscalculation.”

Fiona Hill and Steven Pifer wrote in The New York Times that NATO and Russia need to work together to reduce the risk of escalation from military encounters. The Russian military has been engaging recently in a greater number provocative close encounters with the militaries and civilians of other countries. Although there are Cold War agreements designed to reduce the chance of escalation, they do not cover the entire range of possible encounters between Russia and NATO countries. “Limiting the risks of miscalculation between NATO and Russian military units would seem to be a no-brainer,” Hill and Pifer wrote. “No one wants an accidental war. But, given Mr. Putin’s desire to intimidate the West, would the Kremlin permit such a dialogue to go forward?”

NASA and the NSA agreed to work together to keep comets and asteroids large enough to threaten cities or cause a global catastrophe from hitting Earth. The two agencies have studied the threat separately, but the agreement should improve their joint ability to respond to threats from extraterrestrial objects. Advocates for better planetary defense declared June 30 “Asteroid Day” to mark the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska Event, when a large meteor exploded over the Siberian taiga with about 1,000 times the energy of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

NASA Goddard research scientist Neel Savani developed a model for predicting a day in advance how coronal mass ejections will affect the Earth’s magnetosphere. When coronal mass ejections—clouds of charged particles emitted by the sun—are aligned the wrong way, they cause geomagnetic storms that can damage satellites and power lines. Right now there is no way to predict more than an hour in advance whether a coronal mass ejection will cause a serious storm. But if Savani’s model is sufficiently robust, it could be used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to warn military forces, airlines, and utility companies before major storms occur.

Although the number of new cases of Ebola have fallen slightly, the disease is not much closer to eradication in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International President Joanne Liu criticized the G7 countries for not doing more to prepare for the next serious epidemic. Liu said that while World Health Organization (WHO) should have responded to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa more decisively, WHO member states did not take enough responsibility for the slow response. Liu also said that improving disease surveillance is not enough. “Despite not having complete data,” Liu said. “We still had enough to know that we had to scale up our response.” Liu added that countries need to be rewarded rather than punished for declaring an outbreak. The low-income countries that are most vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious diseases are also the countries that are hurt the most by travel bans and trade declines. “The reality today is if Ebola were to hit on a scale it did in August and September, we would hardly do much better than we did the last time around,” Liu said.

This news summary was put together in collaboration with Anthropocene. Thanks to Tony Barrett, Seth Baum, Kaitlin Butler, and Grant Wilson for help compiling the news.

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