Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? The answer depends on why you're asking

There are two answers here: One for the legitimately curious, and one for people who want a disaster to be a referendum on climate change.

Cow Week: Angry cows vs. angry mothers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks. Turns out, cows kill more people every year than sharks do. Each day, I will post about a cow-related death, and add to it some information about the bigger picture.

Now that we have three entries behind us, Cow Week is starting to fulfill its intended function—a format in which to talk about what we do and don't know about why we consider some things risky and some things safe.

Today, we're going to look at the way different emotions have different effects on how we perceive risk. But first, the cow-related violence:

In 2011, a British teenager named Emma Gregory was attacked by cows. Like yesterday's victim, Gregory was crossing a cow pasture with a dog in tow. (Bear in mind here, crossing cow-occupied pastures as part of moving around your community is a more normal thing in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States.) Gregory survived and her furious mother launched a campaign to change signage around the field and generally make sure that people are familiar with the fact that cows are not always docile, friendly, and adorable.

Mrs Gregory also wonders whether or not it would be “reasonably practicable” to install temporary fencing alongside the public right of way to keep ramblers and cattle separate.

Read the rest

Cow week: Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks. Turns out, cows kill more people every year than sharks do. Each day, I will post about a cow-related death, and add to it some information about the bigger picture.

In 2009 and again in 2011, Welsh cattle joined forces to surround and kill women who were out walking their dogs on the outskirts of Cardiff. Apparently, cows really do not like it when you bring a dog around them. So, FYI on that. This story is from a survivor of the 2009 attack:

"I was slightly ahead when I saw the cows, they looked up and seemed curious and started to move towards us both," she said.

"They were coming in a semi-circular formation so I was heading towards the end so I could get away from them."

The next time she looked around Ms Hinchey appeared to be surrounded by the cows, she said.

One of things that made me post this particular story was the disconnect between the idealized image of a field full of docile cattle, happily grazing on grass ... and the truly creepy and threatening image presented in the quote above. I mean, it's like something from a Stephen King novel. Of course, I also don't have a lot of experience with cows in my personal, daily life. Read the rest

Cow Week: Bull gores man, follows him until certain he is dead

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks. Turns out, cows kill more people every year than sharks do. Each day, I will post about a cow-related death, and add to it some information about the bigger picture.

Some cow-related deaths are accidental, or at least understandable. When humans and animals live and work in close proximity, it's not surprising that humans sometimes do things that startle or scare the animals. And when 500-pound animals are scared, bad things can happen.

Other times, though, it really seems like the cows are out to get us. Take this story, related in the July 31st issue of The Times of India. Bhoop Narayan Prajapati, a 65-year-old resident of Deori Township in the Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh, was gored by a bull and later died of his wounds. But, the death turns out to be the culmination of a months-long feud between Prajapati and the bull, centered around Prajapati's attempts to get the bull to stop sitting in front of the door to his house.

Prajapati threw a cup of hot water at the bull one morning. The next day, the bull came back and gored him. But that wasn't quite enough.

Much to people's surprise, the bull reached the hospital following Prajapati. Deepak Chourasia, a town-dweller, said that when the mortal remains of the old man were being consigned to flames the bull again sprang a surprise by arriving at the crematorium.

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Cow Week: Cow kills Irish pensioner

Last winter, I found out something really fascinating: Cows kill more people than sharks. It's true. Here's Popular Mechanics on the statistics:

Between 2003 and 2008, 108 people died from cattle-induced injuries across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 27 times the whopping four people killed in shark attacks in the United States during the same time period, according to the International Shark Attack File. Nearly all those cow-related fatalities were caused by blunt force trauma to the head or chest; a third of the victims were working in enclosed spaces with cattle.

Pretty impressive for an animal usually described as mellow and passive.

It also throws some sharp relief on the way we talk about sharks. (And, for that matter, on the way we think about risk.) Much like the dichotomy between not-terribly-dangerous-but-highly-feared airplane travel and highly-dangerous-but-not-terribly-feared car travel, cows sneak in under our cultural radar—they kill effectively and relatively often, while we save up all our terror for the much, much less deadly shark.

I found out yesterday that August 12 through August 16 is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. So I thought I'd provide a nice counterbalance here. From now through August 18 I will provide you with one example of cow-related killings every day. I should note that I'm not trying to make light of the incidents I post here. These are all very real deaths. People were hurt emotionally and that's not funny. What I'd like to do, though, is use these incidents to get us all thinking about how we assign risk to certain situations, and why some things are terrifying and others aren't and why that distinction is often entirely independent of the actual risks. Read the rest

The whooping cough vaccine your children get may not work as well as the one you got as a kid

About 20 years ago, the United States and a few other countries started using a different pertussis vaccine than had been used previously. The change was in response to public fear about some very rare neurological disorders that may or may not have had a relationship to that older vaccine (it couldn't ever be proven one way or the other).

The vaccine we use today was created to get around any possible mechanism for those disorders and, along the way, ended up having lower rates of the less-troubling (and far, far more common) sort of side effects, as well. Think short-term redness, swelling, or pain at the site of injection.

The downside, reports Maryn McKenna, is that this new vaccine might not be as effective as the old one. In fact, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Rafael, Calif., and Australia's University of Queensland’s Children’s Medical Research Unit, are raising the possibility that a less effective vaccine could be part of why we're now seeing a big increase in pertussis outbreaks.

In the most recent research, a letter published Tuesday night in JAMA, researchers in Queensland, Australia examined the incidence of whooping cough in children who were born in 1998, the year in which that province began phasing out whole-cell pertussis vaccine (known as there as DTwP) in favor of less-reactive acellular vaccine (known as DTaP). Children who were born in that year and received a complete series of infant pertussis shots (at 2, 4 and 6 months) might have received all-whole cell, all-acellular, or a mix — and because of the excellent record-keeping of the state-based healthcare system, researchers were able to confirm which children received which shots.

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Four people dead on Mt. Everest, one still missing

A long line of climbers follow each other up Mt. Everest. Image: Ralf Dujmovits.

1996 was the deadliest year in the history of modern climbing on Mt. Everest. In one May weekend, eight people died when they were caught on the mountain in a storm. Over the course of the year, the death toll climbed to 15 total.

In the wake of that year, people tried to make sense of what had happened—particularly when it came to the May 10/11 deaths. All the reporting brought some internal mountaineering debates into the public eye in a big way for the first time. Is it really a good idea to treat Mt. Everest as an adventure-minded tourist attraction, suitable for anyone with a little climbing experience and enough money? What are the risks of having lots of inexperienced, guided trekkers up on the mountain at the same time? Do those climbers have enough climbing instincts to make the right decisions about going on or turning back when they're exhausted and under the influence of a low-oxygen environment? What can their guides do, under those circumstances, to force a right decision? Remember: This isn't a place where help is readily available if you get into trouble. Helicopters can only go so high up the mountain. And if you collapse, the chances of somebody else being able to carry you down are pretty slim.

These questions are likely to come back into the spotlight now. Between May 18th and 20th—last weekend—four people died on Mt. Read the rest

Thinking in a different language affects how you make decisions

Back in 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the economics Nobel Prize for showing that human beings don't have a really good intuitive grasp of risk. Basically, the decisions we make when faced with a risky proposition depend more on how the question is framed than on what the actual outcome might be.

The classic example is to tell a subject that there's going to be a disaster. Out of 600 people, she has a chance of saving 200 if she takes x risk. If she doesn't take the risk, everybody dies. Most people will take the risk in that scenario, but if you present the same situation and frame it differently—"If you take this risk, 400 people will die"—the decisions suddenly flip in the other direction. Nothing has changed about the outcome. But everything has changed in terms of how people feel about the decision they have to make. This is the kind of thing that matters a lot to economics because it helps to explain why economic behavior in the real world isn't always as rational and self-interested as it is in theory.

There's a new study out in the journal Psychological Science that might add another layer of complexity to Kahneman's research. If you're thinking and talking in your native language, you're likely to respond to a risky situation pretty much exactly as in the classic example. But, these researchers found that if you're thinking and talking about the situation in a second language, things change. At Wired, Brandon Keim explains:

The first experiment involved 121 American students who learned Japanese as a second language.

Read the rest

Climate change isn't liberal or conservative: It's reality

Paul Douglas is a Minneapolis/St.Paul meteorologist. Meteorologists don't study the same things as climate scientists—remember, weather and climate are different things—but Douglas is a meteorologist who has taken the time to look at research published by climate scientists and listen to their expertise. Combined with the patterns he's seen in weather, that information has led Douglas to accept that climate change is real, and that it's something we need to be addressing.

Paul Douglas is also a conservative. In a recent guest blog post on Climate Progress, he explains why climate isn't (or, anyway, shouldn't be) a matter of political identity. We'll get back to that, but first I want to call attention to a really great analogy that Douglas uses to explain weather, climate, and the relationship between the two.

You can’t point to any one weather extreme and say “that’s climate change”. But a warmer atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes. You can’t prove that any one of Barry Bond’s 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his “base state,” raising the overall odds of hitting a home run.

Mr. Douglas, I'm going to be stealing that analogy. (Don't worry, I credit!)

A few weeks ago, I linked you to the introduction from my new book, Before the Lights Go Out, where I argue that there are reasons for people to care about energy, even if they don't believe in climate change—and that we need to use those points of overlap to start making energy changes that everyone can agree on, even if we all don't agree on why we're changing. Read the rest

The war at home: Energy crisis and risk in America

Here are two myths you need to let go of:

The solution to high gas prices is more oil.

Climate change is something that happens to polar bears and people from Kiribati.

The truth is that fossil fuels are extremely useful and valuable. And, by their very nature, the supplies are limited. Likewise, climate change isn't just something that's going happen—it's already taking place, and you can see the effects in your own backyard.

Too often, I think, we talk about the risks of fossil fuel dependence and climate change in ways that make them seem abstract to the very people who use the most fossil fuels and create the most greenhouse gases. That's a problem. There are lots of reasons to care about energy. But I think that fossil fuel limits and climate change are the most pressing reasons. And I think it's incredibly important to discuss those very real risks in a way that actually feels very real.

This isn't about morality, or lifestyle choices, or maintaining populations of cute, fuzzy animals. (Or, rather, it's not just about those things.) Instead, we have to consider what will happen to us and how much money we will have to spend if we choose to do nothing to change the way we make and use energy.

Over at Scientific American, you can read an excerpt from my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. In it, you'll read about the energy risks hanging over the Kansas City metro area—a place that, in many ways, resembles the places and lifestyles shared by a majority of Americans. Read the rest

Listen to a sane debate about nuclear energy

What happens when you get the chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the chief scientist of Greenpeace, an energy and environmental policy expert, and an environmental activist/politician in a room together to talk about nuclear energy?

You can listen to the whole (very, very interesting) conversation—part of the Science Question Time series—which was recorded last Thursday at the Institute of Physics in London.

I recently started describing my position on nuclear energy as "frienemies"—I'm not strictly against it, and think we're likely to need it, but I also have some serious issues with how safety is regulated and what we will do with the waste. I think this nuanced discussion did a nice job of laying out the benefits and detriments in a reasonable way. The discussion gets heated, but it is pleasantly lacking in the sort of wild-eyed propaganda and not-particularly-comforting-corporate-pronouncements that tend to characterize these sorts of debates. (Or, rather, it would be, were it not for one memorable audience heckler.)

Download the audio file.

Visit the Biochemical Society's website for updates about future Science Question Time events. Read the rest

What happens when a Coronal Mass Ejection hits the Earth?

At approximately 11:00 am Eastern time (15 minutes from now as I type this), the Earth will come into contact with the largest Coronal Mass Ejection since 2005—a huge burst of charged particles and magnetic fields that exploded off the surface of the sun Sunday night.

Scientists have been tracking it as it headed our way. In fact, intrepid astronomy reporter Lee Billings contacted me this morning to tell me that ejection had just passed our Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, which is why we have such a precise estimate of when it would hit Earth. Despite the size of this CME, Billings says it probably won't cause any major damage. However, a larger CME that hit us with less warning very well could be a huge problem. That's because CME's can interfere, to varying degrees, with radio communications, GPS signals, and lots of other electronic stuff that we've come to rely on. What's more, Billings says, our warning system is aging fast. That ACE satellite, for instance, has enough fuel to survive to 2024, but it's equipment is old enough that it's likely to fail at any time.

Lee has written a great piece on Coronal Mass Ejections and the very real risks they pose to modern technology over at Popular Mechanics. It's a great breakdown of what CME's can do and what we do to prepare for them that manages to get the risks right, without becoming too hyperbolic and apocalyptic-y. It's 10:59 AM now. Happy CME!

A geomagnetic storm produces dangerous electrical currents in a manner analogous to a moving bar magnet raising currents in a coil of wire.

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Disaster book club: What you need to read to understand the crash of Air France 447

Right now, I'm reading a book about why catastrophic technological failures happen and what, if anything, we can actually do about them. It's called Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow, a Yale sociologist.

I've not finished this book yet, but I've gotten far enough into it that I think I get Perrow's basic thesis. (People with more Perrow-reading experience, feel free to correct me, here.) Essentially, it's this: When there is inherent risk in using a technology, we try to build systems that take into account obvious, single-point failures and prevent them. The more single-point failures we try to prevent through system design, however, the more complex the systems become. Eventually, you have a system where the interactions between different fail-safes can, ironically, cause bigger failures that are harder to predict, and harder to spot as they're happening. Because of this, we have to make our decisions about technology from the position that we can never, truly, make technology risk-free.

I couldn't help think of Charles Perrow this morning, while reading Popular Mechanics' gripping account of what really happened on Air France 447, the jetliner that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2009.

As writer Jeff Wise works his way through the transcript of the doomed plane's cockpit voice recorder, what we see, on the surface, looks like human error. Dumb pilots. But there's more going on than that. That's one of the other things I'm picking up from Perrow. What we call human error is often a mixture of simple mistakes, and the confusion inherent in working with complex systems. Read the rest

The future of energy and the future of risk

I got to have another great conversation with synthetic biologist and blogger Christina Agapakis on Bloggingheads.tv's Science Saturday. Christina and I chatted about some of the issues that came up at an energy conference I spoke at recently, examined the possibility of using synthetic biology to create fuel, and talked about how we navigate the often-confusing questions of technology and risk. Read the rest

Fukushima: The first 24 hours

IEEE Spectrum has a big special feature online now about the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its after-effects. It includes an interactive map showing the impact that Fukushima has had on evacuation of residents, contamination of soil, and contamination of food and water supplies.

It also includes a blow-by-blow account of what happened during the first 24-hours of the disaster. This solid investigative reporting by Eliza Strickland highlights several key points where simple changes could have lead to a very different outcome than the one we got.

True, the antinuclear forces will find plenty in the Fukushima saga to bolster their arguments. The interlocked and cascading chain of mishaps seems to be a textbook validation of the "normal accidents" hypothesis developed by Charles Perrow after Three Mile Island. Perrow, a Yale University sociologist, identified the nuclear power plant as the canonical tightly coupled system, in which the occasional catastrophic failure is inevitable.

On the other hand, close study of the disaster's first 24 hours, before the cascade of failures carried reactor 1 beyond any hope of salvation, reveals clear inflection points where minor differences would have prevented events from spiraling out of control. Some of these are astonishingly simple: If the emergency generators had been installed on upper floors rather than in basements, for example, the disaster would have stopped before it began. And if workers had been able to vent gases in reactor 1 sooner, the rest of the plant's destruction might well have been averted.

The world's three major nuclear accidents had very different causes, but they have one important thing in common: In each case, the company or government agency in charge withheld critical information from the public.

Read the rest

A new system for studying the effects of climate change

I've talked here before about how difficult it is to attribute any individual climactic catastrophe to climate change, particularly in the short term. Patterns and trends can be said to link to a rise in global temperature, which is linked to a rise in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. But a heatwave, or a tornado, or a flood? How can you say which would have happened without a rising global temperature, and which wouldn't?

Some German researchers are trying to make that process a little easier, using a computer model and a whole lot of probability power. They published a paper about this method recently, using their system to estimate an 80% likelihood that the 2010 Russian heatwave was the result of climate change. Wired's Brandon Keim explains how the system works:

The new method, described by Rahmstorf and Potsdam geophysicist Dim Coumou in an Oct. 25 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, relies on a computational approach called Monte Carlo modeling. Named for that city’s famous casinos, it’s a tool for investigating tricky, probabilistic processes involving both defined and random influences: Make a model, run it enough times, and trends emerge.

“If you roll dice only once, it doesn’t tell you anything about probabilities,” said Rahmstorf. “Roll them 100,000 times, and afterwards I can say, on average, how many times I’ll roll a six.”

Rahmstorf and Comou’s “dice” were a simulation made from a century of average July temperatures in Moscow. These provided a baseline temperature trend.

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Taxonomy of technological risks: when things fail badly

"A Taxonomy of Operational Cyber Security Risks" by CMU's James J. Cebula and Lisa R. Young is a year-old paper that attempts to classify all the ways that technology go wrong, and the vulnerabilities than ensue. Fascinating reading, a great primer on technology and security, and as a bonus, there's a half-dozen science fiction/technothriller plots lurking on every page.
This report presents a taxonomy of operational cyber security risks that attempts to identify and organize the sources of operational cyber security risk into four classes: (1) actions of people, (2) systems and technology failures, (3) failed internal processes, and (4) external events. Each class is broken down into subclasses, which are described by their elements. This report discusses the harmonization of the taxonomy with other risk and security activities, particularly those de- scribed by the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publications, and the CERT Operationally Critical Threat, Asset, and Vulnerability Evaluation (OCTAVE) method.
A Taxonomy of Operational Cyber Security Risks (PDF) Read the rest