Friday, April 14, 2017

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Big Sur usually can’t keep people away. Right now, it’s practically deserted.

[Washington Post] The first thing you notice is the silence, punctured by birdcalls and the far-off roar of water moving through canyons.
You usually can’t hear these sounds, drowned out as they are by the 2 million tourists who flock here annually just to drive Highway 1, the route that cuts through Big Sur on California’s scenic Central Coast. But today the tourists are gone and Highway 1 is car-free, home instead to pickup basketball games, mothers pushing strollers, and skateboarders whizzing by at speeds approaching the 45 mph limit.
The “island” of Big Sur — for that’s what this iconic stretch of coastline has become — is entering its ninth week of nearly total isolation, thanks to punishing winter storms, landslides and a failed bridge. The rain ended California’s five-year drought, but it left 45 miles of Highway 1 cut off from the rest of California, with few services for the 450 men, women and children who live here. That means no mail delivery, a limited supply of gasoline, and a single deli where you can buy eggs. Even the resident monks have been forced to pass around the modern-day collection plate known as GoFundMe to help repair the road leading to their monastery.
“To have your habits cut off so suddenly. . . . There’s a nightmarish aspect to it,” says Peter Marshall, a gardener who has lived here 33 years.
Legendary restaurants and businesses have been temporarily shuttered and the majority of their staffs laid off. Workers are dipping into 401(k) accounts just to pay their rent. Esalen Institute, that crucible of personal transformation, is raising emergency relief funds to “help weather the storm.” For the time being, the only way in and out is a grueling hike, a pricey helicopter ride or an otherwise closed road to the south that is accessible briefly in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Yet it’s springtime and the California sun has re-emerged. The mountains are at their most verdant in recent memory, their slopes splashed with yellow poppies. Wild turkeys strut across the highway, and casual neighbors embrace at chance meetings, eager to recount their sightings of foxes, owls or a bald eagle on a turnout.
“It’s so stunningly beautiful and peaceful, like a real Shangri-La,” marvels Erin Lee Gafill, an artist and teacher who was born and raised here. “Every day there’s nowhere else I want to be. But then I’m constantly checking to see when the road is going to open.” Read More

Developers and politicians failing to protect against climate-related flood risk

[The Fifth Estate] European homes are at risk from flooding from two directions: on the coast from sea-level rise and storm surges; and in floodplains and valleys from run-off during periods of extreme rainfall.
New analysis detailed in journal Earth’s Future shows that the five million Europeans currently under threat from once in a century floods (like those experienced in May last like) could face the same risk once a decade by mid-century and every year by the end of the century, as the climate continues to change.
The research is the first to take into account not only sea level rise due to warming temperatures, but also the impacts of climate change on tides, storm surge and waves when estimating future flood risk.
The authors used observations of the different factors plus climate models to estimate how each factor might change along the coastlines of Europe under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.
They found existing coastal protection structures were not up sufficient for protecting the five million homes most vulnerable under high-end warming scenarios.
Governments and building owners in these areas therefore face a stark choice: increase defences or move. Developers need to wake up to the risk of continuing to build in these areas and planners need to question whether approvals should be granted for development. Insurers will need help if they are to continue to provide cover. And property owners are likely to see the value of their properties drop.
Seas are rising worldwide by about 3.2 millimetres a year, though rates vary from region to region because of local land rise and subsidence. If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed, global seas could rise on average by 0.52 metres up to 0.98 metres by the end of the century, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
In Europe, the North Sea region is projected to face the highest sea level rise – nearly one metre under a high emission scenario by 2100 – followed by the Baltic Sea and Atlantic coasts of the UK and Ireland. Sea level rise is the main cause of the flood risk, but even more intensive extremes of weather along most of northern Europe will also generate significant local effects.
Least affected will be southern Europe, with the exception of a projected decrease along the Portuguese coast and the Gulf of Cadiz, offsetting sea level rise by 20-30 per cent.
This conclusion confirms the result of a separate report from 10 years ago that the regions most prone to a rise in flood frequencies are northern to northeastern Europe, while southern and southeastern Europe show significant increases in drought frequencies.
The cost will be in the many billions. Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, which battered parts of Britain between early December 2015 and early January 2016, caused damage estimated to cost insurers £1.3 billion (AU$1.66b) in claims. Multiplying this throughout Europe under the above scenario will see potential costs in the many billions. Read More

Monday, April 10, 2017

7 Reasons Spirituality Is Integral to an Emotionally Wealthy Life

[Entrepreneur] Work is work, and money is great but we must all be mindful not to worship the God of Green Paper. Money gives us the gift of having the freedom to do more and have more, but what it doesn’t buy us is love or happiness.
Money without love is a deep misery. It’s paralyzing when we realize we can have it all and still feel empty. Happiness, is in part, a byproduct of achievement best gained when we’re working from something and for something larger than ourselves. Success is something to be shared as much as it is to be gained. Sharing gives us a deeper and more meaningful experience of life and people. For this reason, we must have some connection to a philosophy of life that is bigger than solely feeding our egos or material needs. The more spiritual we are, the more connected to something beyond the daily grind of being a human being, the more we enjoy and appreciate our success.
1. Quality of life: The majority of spiritual traditions provide consistent participation in a community of people who embrace and welcome our presence. Whether it is attendance to church, a meditation group, even a running group, a yoga studio or a Spartan race team; membership and participation provides a sense of belonging and builds a strong network of social and emotional support. Feeling we belong somewhere, to some form of dogma or meaningful life philosophy, brings us a sense of safety and security. These strong bonds increase well-being. They balance our expectations around life, relationships and around our ideas of success into a clearer and more meaningful perspective.
2. Support through challenges: When we feel spiritually connected, and connected to a group of similar people, we have more strength to overcome our harder times in life. The spiritual tenets we follow serve as the platform for our personal growth and development. As we get stronger, we come to view our painful times as contemplative opportunities, and eventually come to trust that the hardships we pass through are designed to makes us stronger and wiser as people. We have more faith that we are internally and externally supported to come out on top. Our spiritual practices provide the refuge we need when we need it. Undoubtedly, we are more resilient when we have a community and a deeply held philosophy to live by.
3. Never alone: Spirituality helps us identify with and recognize the interconnectedness of our lives with those of all other things and people. When our heartbreaks, and gut wrenching experiences are framed by the knowledge that countless others have undergone similar types of hardships before us, the blow softens and we feel less isolated in our own pain. Mistakes and failures are an important and shared part of the human experience. No one gets out of life pain free. It is important to practice self-compassion and to love ourselves regardless of mistakes or failures. The beauty of a spiritual philosophy is that it never abandons us; it is there to uphold us. When we are spiritual we learn that we are not by ourselves, we are with ourselves. Read More

There Was Nothing Normal About America’s Freakish Winter Weather

A tornado in Massachusetts, wildfires in the Great Plains, and record snow in the Sierra Nevada. It’s been a weird winter.
[Bloomberg] It’s not your imagination. The weather has been weird.
So weird, in fact, it’s had an almost biblical feel: a February tornado in Massachusetts; record wildfires across the Great Plains and beyond; more snow than ever in the Sierra Nevada; and temperatures whiplashing from balmy to frigid, killing crops and coaxing flowers out of their winter slumber.
While some of the swings may result from chance, scientists agree climate change is adding to weather mayhem and that the world will have to brace for worse. President Donald Trump is also seeking to roll back measures to fight global warming, saying the regulations kill jobs.
“The bottom line: It’s not just in our minds that the weather is changing,” said David Titley, a meteorology professor at Pennsylvania State University. “It is changing, and changing rapidly in ways we understand and ways we are just beginning to examine.”
Start with the temperature. The winter of 2016-17 marked the second mildest on record, according to Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with the National Centers for Environmental Information. February, which has been warming faster than any other month through the decades, also was the second warmest in the 138-year global record. There were some bizarre temperature readings along the way. Like a high of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius) in Chicago on Feb. 18. Or 72 degrees in Boston less than a week later.
The month was so mild that natural gas inventories rose earlier than in any year going back to 1994, when records began, and plants threw off winter’s yoke and began to grow. Read More

Sunday, March 19, 2017

California's poor flock to Texas as West Coast homes and jobs fall out of reach



[Dallas News] They got tired of California dreamin'.
Skyrocketing home prices and fierce competition for jobs in the Golden State are prodding poor families to pack up and head to Texas. Our state was the top destination for low-income residents leaving California between 2005 and 2015, according to a recent data analysis by the Sacramento Bee.
In that time period, about 293,000 impoverished people left California for Texas and nearly half that figure moved into California from our state, for a net loss of 156,000 people, the Bee reported.
The fact that people are moving in large numbers to Texas is an indicator that the state has economic growth and opportunity, said state demographer Lloyd Potter.
"Of course, the ideal is for Texas to be adding more higher-income, higher-skill kinds of jobs relative to lower-income, low-skill, low-education kinds of jobs," Potter said. "But you need the whole spectrum in a functioning economy."
In past decades, many Californians have resettled next door in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon, said James Gaines, chief economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A& M University.
They still do. The Bee's analysis shows that after Texas, those three states are the largest recipients of California's low-income migration.
But Texas has become a more attractive choice for tens of thousands of poor Californians. Gaines points to jobs and housing as reasons.
"Texas is simply — overall, in any measure — a much lower cost-of-living state," the economist said. Read More

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Tailoring food security and livelihood assessments for urban settings

[Relief Web] By 2008, for the first time in history more people lived in cities than in rural areas. Today the world’s urban population stands at about 3.9 billion, but it is expected to surpass six billion within 30 years. Close to 90 percent of the increase will be concentrated in developing countries in Asia and Africa, particularly India, China and Nigeria .
Estimates vary but it is likely that more than one billion people live in urban slums, the fastest growing human habitat.
Urbanization can be seen as an indicator of economic progress, but unplanned urban expansion raises many challenges.
Many urban residents struggle to pay the high cost of city living (rents and food) or to afford sufficient food to meet their minimum nutritional requirements.
Unhygienic, crowded living environments with poor access to basic services, lack of security of tenure, unemployment, violence, public health risks and poor sanitation may further undermine their food security. These underlying causes of food and nutrition insecurity are often exacerbated by an increasing number of climate change related disasters, and by international and domestic hikes in the cost of food and fuel. Due to a high dependency on markets for food, urban populations are particularly vulnerable to food price fluctuation.
The urban poor may have a less diverse range of coping strategies to employ in the face of food insecurity than do their counterparts in rural areas: for example they cannot access land to grow their food and inter-generational support networks tend to be weaker.
Managing urban areas is one of the major development challenges of the 21st century. This challenge includes ensuring access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets the dietary needs and food preferences of all urban residents at all times to allow them to lead active and healthy lives.
However, food security assessment tools specifically designed and tested for urban settings are limited because the humanitarian community has traditionally focused on assisting people in rural areas. The characteristics of vulnerability in urban settings are generally more complex and require a different approach to identification and targeting. More subtle vulnerability assessment and targeting tools are needed to take into account this complex dynamic. This work is urgent as urbanisation gathers pace. Download PDF Report

Interview: preparing for climate and disaster migration

[Open Democracy] As sea levels rise, lands dry out, and disasters linked to natural hazards become more common, more and more people are going to be forced to move. Are we prepared?
Atle Solberg: My name is Atle Solberg, I work for the Platform on Disaster Displacement. The objective of the Platform on Disaster Displacement is to follow-up on the work started by the Nansen Initiative, and to implement the recommendations of the Protection Agenda – a toolbox to better prevent and prepare for displacement and to respond to situations when people are forced to find refuge, within their own country or across the borders.
Cameron Thibos (oD): What do we mean by climate and disaster forced migration and displacement? How does that distinguish between other types of forced migrants?
Atle: Within the climate change negotiations they have talked about three types of human mobility that may be caused by or linked to climate change. One is migration, which is predominantly voluntary. There are also examples of displacement, which are predominantly forced. And then you have planned relocation.
That is one way of looking at it. We talk about disaster displacement, and by that we are talking about people who are forced or obliged to flee because of disasters caused by natural hazards. These could be hurricanes or tropical storms, but there is also the slow onset of events like rising sea levels or desertification. When we refer to disaster, we are talking about disasters caused by natural hazards: geophysical, metrological, or climatological. We are not talking about man-made disasters, or those that may be linked to conflict.
Cameron: How do the protection needs differ for those displaced by natural disasters and climate change, as opposed to other types of forced migrants – for example refugees of war?
Atle: In general terms, everyone who is forcibly displaced would normally have immediate and specific protection needs linked to their displacement. Those will often be similar, and in that sense they don't always differ. People forcibly displaced will very often be separated from their family, and they may have lost their house or belongings. People may be injured and in need of medical assistance.
Some categories of people are more vulnerable than others in displacement, such as women and children, and people might not be able to return because their home is destroyed or it is too dangerous. So it's not that their protection needs are necessarily very different. They might be quite similar regardless of whether you are forcibly displaced because of skirmishes due to an armed conflict, because of an earthquake, or if you must be evacuated to avoid a hazard. Read More

Saturday, March 18, 2017

An ancient memorization strategy might cause lasting changes to the brain

[The Verge] Weird as it might sound, there are competitive rememberers out there who can memorize a deck of cards in seconds or dozens of words in minutes. So, naturally, someone decided to study them. It turns out that practicing their techniques doesn't just improve your memory — it can also change how your brain works.
There’s been a long-standing debate about whether memory athletes are born with superior memories, or whether their abilities are due to their training regimens. These tend to include an ancient memorization strategy called the method of loci, which involves visualizing important pieces of information placed at key stops along a mental journey. This journey can be an imaginary walk through your house or a local park, or your drive to work. The important thing is that you can mentally move back through it to retrieve the pieces of information you stored. (The ancient Greeks are said to have used it to remember important texts.) 
Boris Nikolai Konrad, a memory coach and athlete who’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for memorizing 201 names and faces in just 15 minutes, chalks his superior memory abilities up to training with this and other mnemonic techniques. “It's a sport like any other,” Konrad told The Verge. Only, he adds, “you're not moving that much.” But practicing is key.
To find out what’s going on in top-level rememberers’ brains, Konrad teamed up with neuroscientist Martin Dresler at Radboud University in the Netherlands. They recruited 23 of the top 50 memory competitors in the world. All were between the ages of 20 and 36. Then, the scientists scanned the memory athletes’ brains while they were just relaxing, and also while they memorized a list of 72 words.
The team, and their co-investigators at Stanford University, found that the memory athletes’ brains don’t appear to be built any differently from yours or mine, according to results they published in the journal Neuron. “That was quite surprising, since these are really the best memorizers in the world,” Dresler says. “And still, they didn’t show a single memory structure, any single region or collection of regions that was anatomically strikingly different from normal control subjects.”
Even so, their brains don’t work the way yours or mine does. The athletes were able to recall at least 70 of the 72 words they studied — compared to an average of only 39 words for the non-athletes they were compared to. What’s more, while the professional rememberers’ brains were structurally similar to the control group, the memory athletes’ brain scans showed unique patterns of activity, where brain regions that are involved in memory and cognition were statistically more likely to fire together. Read More

Saving corals from the effects of climate change

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Why the Earth’s magnetic poles could be about to swap places – and how it would affect us


[Cosmos] The Earth’s magnetic field surrounds our planet like an invisible force field – protecting life from harmful solar radiation by deflecting charged particles away. Far from being constant, this field is continuously changing. Indeed, our planet’s history includes at least several hundred global magnetic reversals, where north and south magnetic poles swap places. So when’s the next one happening and how will it affect life on Earth?

During a reversal the magnetic field won’t be zero, but will assume a weaker and more complex form. It may fall to 10% of the present-day strength and have magnetic poles at the equator or even the simultaneous existence of multiple “north” and “south” magnetic poles.

Geomagnetic reversals occur a few times every million years on average. However, the interval between reversals is very irregular and can range up to tens of millions of years.

There can also be temporary and incomplete reversals, known as events and excursions, in which the magnetic poles move away from the geographic poles – perhaps even crossing the equator – before returning back to their original locations. The last full reversal, the Brunhes-Matuyama, occurred around 780,000 years ago. A temporary reversal, the Laschamp event, occurred around 41,000 years ago. It lasted less than 1,000 years with the actual change of polarity lasting around 250 years.

The alteration in the magnetic field during a reversal will weaken its shielding effect, allowing heightened levels of radiation on and above the Earth’s surface. Were this to happen today, the increase in charged particles reaching the Earth would result in increased risks for satellites, aviation, and ground-based electrical infrastructure. Geomagnetic storms, driven by the interaction of anomalously large eruptions of solar energy with our magnetic field, give us a foretaste of what we can expect with a weakened magnetic shield.

In 2003, the so-called Halloween storm caused local electricity-grid blackouts in Sweden, required the rerouting of flights to avoid communication blackout and radiation risk, and disrupted satellites and communication systems. But this storm was minor in comparison with other storms of the recent past, such as the 1859 Carrington event, which caused aurorae as far south as the Caribbean. Read More