Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Why Modern Famine Predictions Failed

 What's Natural column

published in the Pacifica Tribune Wednesday December 18, 2019

Victims if 1876 Famine in India

When I graduated high school in 1968 there were rampant predictions of environmental collapse and eco-catastrophe theories flourished. The highly influential Stanford scientist Dr Paul Ehrlich dominated the doomsday media stating, “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born.” Predicting global famine in 1970 this PhD wrote, “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”

Why was Ehrlich’s apocalyptic predictions so wrong? Ehrlich believed the promise of the “green revolution” via high yield crops and better cultivation practices would never offset the needs of a growing human population. Indeed, the early distribution of high yield “miracle seeds” had failed to stave off famines during the cooler 1960s. But then the earth began to warm, there was a CO2 fertilization effect and the growing season increased in concert with great leaps forward in genetics, biotechnology and agricultural innovations. 

From NASA : CO2 fertilization -  change in leaf area across the globe from 1982-2015. Credits: Boston University/R. Myneni

To produce high yield crops, early researchers had simply cross-bred compatible plants possessing desirable traits. Genetic manipulation via selective breeding had been done for hundreds and thousands of years as humans successfully created a wide variety of farm animals, or dog breeds like Chihuahuas and Great Danes from their ancestral wolf. Similarly, selective breeding transformed a scraggly grass into modern corn. Later, modern “mutant breeding” evolved in the 20th century as seeds were exposed to gamma rays searching for “hopeful monsters.” The public fails to recognize they likely consume many of the 3,000 crop varieties created via mutant breeding such as high yield barley, oats and grains commonly used in making premium beers and whiskey. For chocolate lovers, mutant breeding created a cocoa tree resistant to deadly fungus. At California’s UC Davis, scientists irradiated rice seeds to create a high yield variety that reached supermarket shelves in 1976 as “Calrose” rice, which still dominates over other varieties in many regions of the Pacific.

Next, the discovery of “restriction enzymes” in 1970 allowed scientists to successfully engineer organisms by surgically removing useful genes from one species and placing them into another species. Such genetically engineered plants now comprise most of today’s soybean, corn and cotton crops, as well as some varieties of potatoes, apples, papayas and sugar beets. Yields increased as engineered crops were better able to flourish under stressful conditions. Plants became more resistant to specific insect and fungal pests, producing greater yields without pesticides. Despite the tremendous benefits of genetically modified crops (GMOs), many people remained distrustful of possible detrimental health effects. More radical groups condemned GMO’s simply because they generated profits for large businesses. 

Golden Rice Adds Vitamin A

The strange battle between pro and anti GMO groups is best illustrated in the Golden Rice saga. Golden Rice was first engineered in 1990s as a non-profit attempt to prevent blindness and premature deaths from vitamin A deficiency. That deficiency afflicted 250 million children, mostly in Asia, and killed more than 200,000 people a year. Because rice is those children’s primary food source, 2 German scientists, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, removed a gene, from daffodils that produced beta-carotene and carefully inserted the gene into rice.  Beta carotene is the key building block for vitamin A and gives the rice its golden color. Later a more efficient gene from corn was used. Potrykus and Beyer also insisted the technology to create Golden Rice be donated freely. So, the biotech company Syngenta waived its right to commercialize the product. The humanitarian benefits of free Golden Rice could not be more clear.

Nonetheless opponents of GMOs, led primarily by Greenpeace, vilified Golden Rice. Greenpeace lobbied countries around the world to prevent legalization of Golden Rice by simply generating as much fearful speculation about “imagined” health repercussions.  Greenpeace was also fanatical about fighting biotechnology companies. They justified their propaganda campaign against Golden Rice claiming, "Corporations are overhyping golden rice benefits to pave the way for global approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops.”

However, as Golden Rice continued to be proven safe, a letter signed by more than 100 Nobel laureates, accused Greenpeace of leading a “fact-challenged propaganda campaign against innovations in agricultural biotechnology." They demanded Greenpeace end its campaign against GMOs. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, had previously left the organization because its original good intentions were being subverted by extremists. Moore bemoaned, "They're linking Golden Rice with death, which scares parents into not wanting the technology developed”. Such false propaganda so infuriated Moore he created an alternative movement – Allow Golden Rice Now. As the outcry of support grows, countries are now increasingly moving towards legalizing Golden Rice. 

Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions were incomprehensible. That environmental groups like Greenpeace vehemently propagandized against the technologies that prevented Ehrlich’s doomsday is even more unintelligible. But then again, there are many activists who only see humanity as earth’s scourge and best eliminated.

Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Why Worse Wildfires part 2

What’s Natural?

Why Worse Wildfires?  Part 2

Fighting the Ranch Fire

Why worse wildfires? The short answer is more humans cause more wildfire ignitions in altered landscapes. Since 1970, California’s population doubled, adding 20 million people. As more human habitat was developed, the increasingly disturbed landscape quickly became covered in easily ignitable invasive grasses (see part 1). To protect human habitat, fires were suppressed and ground fuels increased. Development also expanded a vulnerable electric grid. Furthermore, more people increased the probability of careless fires and more innocent accidents. And sadly, a larger population added more arsonists.

During a typically warm and dry July day, a rancher was innocently driving a stake into the ground to plug a wasp’s nest. Surrounded by dry grass, the hammer’s spark ignited a devastating inferno named the Ranch Fire. Despite sensationalist’s hype, global warming had not made the grass drier. Grass becomes highly combustible in just a few hours of dry weather. And like most of northern California, there has been no warming trend for maximum summertime tempertures. Based on Western Regional Climate Center data, maximum summer temperatures in the Mendocino area had cooled by 3°F since the 1930s. The rapidly spreading Ranch Fire soon merged  with a different fire to form the Mendocino Complex Fire, California’s largest documented fire.

Similarly, a highway accident sparked roadside grasses that kindled northern California’s 7th largest fire, the Carr Fire

Summertime cooling trend at Ukia,  Mendocino County, California

Careless fires cannot be considered accidents and offenders should be held accountable. A hunter’s illegal and improperly attended campfire caused the August 2013 Rim Fire, centered around Yosemite National Park. It was California’s 5th largest fire. 

Governments and utility companies should likewise be held accountable for carelessly maintaining our electric grids. An electric spark ignited California’s deadliest fire, the Camp Fire which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. As a 2018 research paper estimates, “Since the year 2000 there’ve been a half-million acres burned due to powerline-ignited fires, which is five times more than we saw in the previous 20 years.” 

More disturbing is the number of fires started by arson. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, nationally, as in California, one in every five brush, grass, or forest fires since 2007 were intentionally set. Arsonists have been recently charged for some of California’s 2019 fires. Arson accounted for 55% of Kentucky’s fires and is the leading cause of Florida’s fires. Because arson is so difficult to prove, arson statistics are probably underestimated. So, experts in Australia combine arson and “suspicious” fires to argue half of Australia’s fireswere likely intentionally set. That means each year 31,000 Australian bushfires are intentionally ignited. And as in the American west, Australia’s bush fires have been increasingly fueled by invasive grasses like Buffel grass.

Wildfires caused by natural lightning ignitions, peak during the summer months of July and August, and become virtually non-existent in the autumn and winter. In contrast, human ignitions have created year-long fire seasons. Counter-intuitively, California experiences the most dangerous fire weather during the cooler and wetter seasons.  As seasonally cold air settles in over the high mountain deserts in autumn and winter, episodes of high winds, known as the Santa Ana and Diablo winds, flow downslope. Sinking air warms 5°F for every 1000-foot drop in elevation so these downslope winds can raise lowland temperatures 25°F in just a few hours. That warming causes relative humidity to fall, so these winds rapidly suck moisture out of whatever vegetation it passes over. In combination with faster spreading embers, fires burn 2 to 3 times more area during high wind events.

Human vs Lightning Wildfire Ignitions from Balch 2017

Under natural conditions, seasonally extreme winds never coincided with the season of abundant lightning. But due to human ignitions there has been an increased probability of more ignitions occurring during strong cool-weather winds. California’s 2nd biggest fire, the Thomas fire, was ignited in December by a downed power line during high winds. The third largest fire, the Cedar Fire was ignited in October by a lost hunter who carelessly lit a signal fire. California’s deadliest fire, the Camp Fire, was ignited by a powerline and fiercely spread due to a November high wind event.  

Climate change does not ignite fires. Climate change does not affect how quickly dead grasses and bushes can dry. Climate change may affect the winds, but any warming, natural or human, would reduce those extreme winds. Regards California’s worst fires, a US Geological Survey’s wildfire expert states, “Some will argue that it’s climate change, but there is no evidence that it is. It’s the fact that somebody ignites a fire during an extreme [wind] event.”

Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism