Florence was another 1000-year-event, the new normal?

Over a massive region of southeast North Carolina and northeast South Carolina, Florence produced an extraordinary rainstorm that statistically has a 1-in-100 chance of occurring each year. Over substantial areas, the deluge had a 0.1 percent chance of happening, what is known as a 1,000-year event.

But these exceptional rainfall events keep happening and appear to be part of a trend toward more extreme tropical rainmakers, probably connected to climate change.

Since August 2017, two other hurricanes besides Florence have set rainfall records for tropical weather systems in four US states:
– First came Harvey, which dumped an unheard-of five feet of rain in Texas last August. No storm in recorded history had produced so much water in the United States.
-Then came Lane in August, which bombarded the Big Island with more than 50 inches, becoming Hawaii’s rainiest tropical storm.
Florence’s rainfall in North Carolina was the most for any tropical weather system north of Florida along the East Coast on record, and fourth most for any state.

Records like these may only be the beginning as Earth continues to warm. Recently published research has shown hurricanes are slowing down, taking in more water and growing bigger.

[Washington Post]

How Bangladesh digitized education aid for 10 million families

March 1, 2017, was a milestone in the story of financial inclusion in Bangladesh. On that day, 10 million low-income mothers received their first digital payment from Mayer Hashi (Mother Smile), a long-standing government-run program that offers financial aid to the parents of primary school students.

There are many good reasons for countries to digitize government-to-person (G2P) payments. Digital transactions are more transparent and traceable than cash-based ones, and also faster. But there are just as many challenges. In some countries, too few recipients may be enrolled in a mobile money service to support a switch to digital delivery. In others, a lack of mobile money agents may make it too difficult for recipients to convert digital payments into cash, rendering the payments useless. The government departments involved in a payments program may also be unwilling or lack the skills to support a transition away from cash.

In Bangladesh, several leaders in government and the private sector spearheaded Mayer Hashi’s digitization initiative, which likely gained cooperation from some who may have otherwise not supported the effort. This approach may be applicable in other countries.

Rolling out digital payments also required the support of mobile money agents and teachers. The program needed 400,000 primary school teachers to identify low-income mothers who qualified for financial assistance, help program applicants fill out know-your-customer forms and open linked bank accounts and assist with disbursement paperwork. These teachers mailed hard copies of recipient lists to SureCash, which digitized the data and sent them back to the teachers for verification. This process reduced the error rate to 5 percent. SureCash rewarded teachers with a small fee for each record correctly entered into the database of eligible recipients.

Agents were another crucial partner. SureCash raised commissions and offered agents a subsidy for an initial period to ensure agents’ support even during the ramp-up phase.

SureCash had to handle more than 10 million account application forms in just a few months. It imported 45 high-speed scanners capable of processing 60 pages per minute and set up a form processing center staffed by up to 240 people in peak periods. It also upgraded its character recognition software to a custom solution that not only recognized the text in scanned documents, but also color-coded its level of confidence in the scans to flag problematic areas, speeding up human validation.

[Consultative Group to Assist the Poor]

Gang violence and extortion in Central America

Born in the aftermath of civil war and boosted by mass deportations from the U.S., Central American gangs (maras) in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are responsible for brutal acts of violence, chronic abuse of women, and more recently, the forced displacement of children and families.

But it is extortion that forms the maras’ criminal lifeblood and their most widespread racket. By plaguing local businesses for protection payments, they reaffirm control over poor urban enclaves to fund misery wages for members. The maras have helped drive Central American murder rates to highs unmatched in the world: When the gangs called a truce in El Salvador, homicides halved overnight!

The maras are both victims of extreme social inequity and the perpetrators of brutal acts of violence. Many of the murders in El Salvador and Honduras can be ascribed to confrontations with the police, rivalries, score-settling or intimidation carried out by the two outstanding mara organizations: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13); and the Barrio 18, or Eighteenth Street gang (B-18).

While difficult to know the exact number of mara members today, the U.S. military Southern Command’s estimate of 70,000 in Central America continues to be cited, even though it dates from a decade ago. More recent and specialized studies assert there are 70,000 members in El Salvador alone, while the UN Office on Drugs and Crime provides modest estimates of 22,000 in Guatemala, and 12,000 in Honduras. Though imprecise, these figures underline the magnitude of the challenge posed by the gangs.

Violence meted out by the gangs include killings of transport workers, the criminal control exerted over prison systems and the forced displacement of families from their homes. In Guatemala, an estimated 80 per cent of extortions are commanded from prison. El Salvador’s gang-run extortions have been described as a “system of terror that subjects community dwellers to see, hear and remain silent”.

Extortion is the economic engine and represents the largest share of gang income – with an estimated direct cost to businesses of $756 million a year in El Salvador alone. So extreme is extortion in Honduras that the Chamber of Commerce no longer publishes a registry of its members. It is one of the leading causes of forced displacement in gang-controlled communities through the threat it poses to powerless civilians, especially women and children.

[Excerpts from 2017 report by International Crisis Group]

Despite dangers and intimidation, Guatemalans still seek a better life in US

Despite the Trump administration’s immigration clampdown, newly released data show the number of Central American families and unaccompanied children crossing the Southwest border illegally has risen sharply.

Why? A day’s wage in Guatemala, tending a cornfield or working on a construction crew, is 40 quetzales — equivalent to $5.23. With this income, a family can afford to eat meat maybe once a week. They cannot send their children to school. And there is no savings to buy a motorcycle or small truck to haul their produce to market, much less build a dream house with cement blocks and indoor plumbing.

Alex Cano knows the American dream first-hand. He worked as a roofer in Jacksonville, Fla., making $120 a day, until he was arrested and deported.

A hundred yards away on the main street, Secundino Funes lives in a rough-hewn house with chickens scurrying in and out. He’s 30 years old, with a wife and five kids. He, too, makes 40 quetzales a day tending a corn plot.

Last year, he borrowed 85,000 quetzales, about $11,000 — an astronomical sum for a subsistence farmer — to make the trip north. He paid a smuggler to take him to Florida where his brother said he could get him a farm job. Funes saw it as his only way out of penury. But the Border Patrol caught him, and now he’s in a predicament. “I owe 85,000 quetzales. I have to pay it back. I can’t earn it here,” Funes says. “So I have to go back to the other side again to earn some money to pay my debt.”

Some Guatemalans, like Funes and Cano, flee to the United States to improve their economic status. Others leave in a hurry to escape gang violence and extortion rings which are epidemic in Central America. The challenge of successive U.S. administrations has been how to convince these Central Americans to stay home.

[NPR]

Reflecting back on the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season will forever be remembered by the people of the Caribbean. During that season, there were 13 named tropical storms, with two of these catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes – Irma and Maria. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall, they caused havoc and devastation in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Sint Maarten, the Bahamas, Saint Barthelemy, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and also impacted the southeastern islands of the Bahamas, St. Kitts and Nevis, and the northern border of Haiti.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane and the most powerful on record, with maximum winds of approximately 185 miles per hour, made a direct hit on the island of Barbuda on September 6. It caused widespread and catastrophic damage throughout its long lifetime, particularly in the northeastern Caribbean and the Florida Keys. It was also the most intense hurricane to strike the continental United States since Katrina in 2005.

Hurricane Maria, also a Category 5 hurricane, is regarded as being the worst natural disaster on record to affect Dominica and Puerto Rico, and the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. At its peak, the hurricane caused catastrophic damage and numerous fatalities across the northeastern Caribbean, compounding recovery efforts in the areas of the Leeward Islands already struck by Hurricane Irma. (Maria was the third consecutive major hurricane to threaten the Leeward Islands in two weeks, after Irma had made landfall in several of the islands two weeks prior and Hurricane Jose passed dangerously close shortly afterward, bringing tropical storm force winds to Barbuda.) As of August 28, 2018, 3,057 people were estimated to have been killed by the hurricane: 2,975 in Puerto Rico, 65 in Dominica, five in the Dominican Republic, four in the contiguous United States, three in Haiti, two in Guadeloupe, and three in the United States Virgin Islands. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $91.61 billion (2017 USD), mostly in Puerto Rico, ranking it as the third-costliest tropical cyclone on record.

[UN Development; Wikipedia]

Global Climate Summit calls for bolder action to meet Paris Climate Goals

On the premise that the nations of the world are not doing enough to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Governor Jerry Brown, New York City’s former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other dignitaries convened a high-profile international gathering in San Francisco September 12-14 to inspire more ambitious action and showcase successful efforts.

The Global Climate Action Summit brought together more than 4,000 leaders from states, regions, cities, corporations, and civil society from around the world. Organizers sought to strengthen efforts so that global greenhouse gas emissions begin trending down by 2020 with the overall goal of keeping global temperature increases to less than  than 1.5°C if possible and by no more than 2° C as defined by the Paris Agreement.

Speaking at a press conference, New York Mayor Bloomberg said people are taking action on climate change because the same steps that help reduce carbon emissions also make cities better places to live and to work. “[In New York City], we were able to cut carbon emissions by nearly 20 percent in just six years, and the steps we took to get there also made our air cleaner than it had been in a quarter of a century. At the same time, we were able to create a record number of jobs. Now other cities around the world are achieving similar results,” he said.

Largely through the actions of the U.S. cities from both Democratic and Republican states belonging to the C40 cities coalition, Bloomberg said, the United States has reduced emissions more than any other large nation in the past decade.

“In fact, last year,” he added, “U.S. emissions fell to their lowest level in 25 years without any help from Washington. The U.S is already half-way to the commitment we made [to meet our Paris Agreement commitment], and … we will get the rest of the way no matter what happens in Washington.”

[Renewable Energy World]

Indigenous peoples allies of climate mitigation

As global warming continues to outpace the tepid international response, a range of environmentalists are raising their collective voice to demand full rights and recognition for those long associated with land stewardship connected to climate mitigation: indigenous peoples.

Researchers have released what they called “the most comprehensive assessment to date of carbon storage” on forested lands occupied by indigenous peoples and local communities in 64 tropical countries. And one of the main findings of the research is that indigenous peoples are far better stewards of the land than their countries’ governments.

Indigenous communities often work to keep forests intact, which, in turn, keeps carbon locked in trees, vegetation, roots, and soil instead of seeing it released into the atmosphere through deforestation and soil disturbance for ranching, mining, or timbering.

The study’s release is timed to coincide with the September 12 opening in San Francisco of the three-day Global Climate Action Summit hosted by California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The connection between indigenous rights and environmental protection is expected to be a summit highlight.

[Mongabay]

Costa Rica’s recipe for happiness and long life

Every Sunday, when his health allows, 100-year-old Francisco Gómez gets a ride from his daughter to the outskirts of town, where he spends the day at a community center dancing. Gómez didn’t really learn to dance until he started attending these weekly gatherings for the elderly and their caretakers. He says the dances have given him something to look forward to since the death of his wife earlier this year.

The dances are just one of the activities coordinated by Progressive Attention Network for Integral Elder Care, a program created by Costa Rica’s Health Ministry in 2010 to help elderly people stay active and socially engaged. Though the network spans Costa Rica, it is particularly robust on Nicoya, a peninsula on the country’s Pacific coast that is among five world regions known as blue zones, where people live the longest. Researchers from National Geographic identified high levels of spirituality, a strong cultural base and close social relationships as ingredients in the peninsula’s recipe for a long life.

This government strategy seems to have paid off, and Costa Rica continuously ranks as one of the happiest places on earth. The countries at the top of the happiness scale are relatively wealthy; Costa Rica is a notable exception. The country’s GDP per capita is $11,630, compared with $59,531 in the U.S., which lags behind Costa Rica in happiness.

“Costa Rica tells us that there is something beyond money that is important,” said Mariano Rojas, a happiness expert from Costa Rica and an economics professor at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute. “There is a difference between the quantity of money you have and the way you use it. There is a way to spend money that contributes to the happiness of the people.”

In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its military, rededicating its defense budget to education, health and pensions. Even as new administrations have come and gone, this basic budgeting tenet has remained intact. In 2016, Costa Rica spent more on education as a proportion of GDP than any country except one, according to data from the World Bank.

Since the mid-20th century, Costa Rica has had public health care to which all Costa Ricans have access, along with free and compulsory primary and secondary education. And it is the only country in Central America where 100 percent of the population has access to electricity.

[Huffington Post]

Enormous iceberg bobbing like a giant cork after splitting from ice shelf

A trillion-ton iceberg the size of the American state of Delaware has been on the move since breaking off Antarctica in July 2017.

The iceberg will probably bump around in its current location near the ice shelf that calved it for at least a few months, periodically getting stuck on shallow seamounts on the ocean floor, said Theodore Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. “There are lots of little pinnacles that can snag an iceberg,” Scambos told Live Science.

At around 2,240 square miles (5,800 square kilometers) in surface area, the iceberg is among the largest iceberg observed since satellite tracking began.  “I think, right now, it would be the biggest floating object on the ocean,” said Scambos.

The iceberg was bumping around like a huge bobbing bath toy. It mashed into the side of the Larsen ice shelf a handful of times in the past year, splintering off several smaller bergs.

“Eventually, with snags and twists and bends and probably a little bit of inherent rotation … it will drift to the north,” Scambos said. The giant iceberg will get caught up in a current called the West Wind Drift, or Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which will pull the berg into warmer waters, where it will break up and melt, Scambos said.

[Scientific American]

Wind and solar farms could totally transform the Sahara Desert

Installations of largescale wind and solar farms don’t just have the power to supply the world with an immense amount of energy, they have the power to actually change climates on massive scales, potentially for the better. A new climate-modeling study has found that wind and solar plants throughout the Sahara Desert could significantly increase precipitation across the region and increase vegetation, reports Phys.org.

The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world, and it’s growing. It covers a massive swathe of Northern Africa, making much of the terrain uninhabitable. So any increase in precipitation here would likely be a good thing, study authors speculated.

“We found that the large-scale installation of solar and wind farms can bring more rainfall and promote vegetation growth in these regions,” explained Eugenia Kalnay, co-author on the study. “The rainfall increase is a consequence of complex land-atmosphere interactions that occur because solar panels and wind turbines create rougher and darker land surfaces.”

If wind and solar installations covered this barren terrain it could supply about 3 terawatts and 79 terawatts of electricity respectively. That would meet global energy demands several times over. “In 2017, the global energy demand was only 18 terawatts, so this is obviously much more energy than is currently needed worldwide,” said lead author Yan Li.

Massive amounts of clean energy, plus a more habitable landscape (which means more viable agricultural and economic development), plus more greenery over a large area that could become a significant carbon sink.

It’s remarkable to think that instead of burning fossil fuels and creating catastrophic climate change, which involves increased desertification, that we could instead use clean energy to produce positive climate change and transform the world’s largest desert into a habitable oasis.

[MNN.com]