Category: Risk assessment

How fake temperatures came to dominate weather forecasts

Scientific American calls bullshit on wind chill:

[I]f the air temperature is, say, 15 degrees F, and a 20–mile per hour wind makes the wind chill –2 degrees F, would the temperature of your exposed skin drop to that temperature?

No. Your skin temperature cannot drop below the actual air temperature. The coldest your uncovered face could get would be 15 degrees F whether the wind is calm or howling at 40 mph….

Try an experiment: Put two thermometers outside, one in the wind and one shielded from it. When you return they will read the same. Or just ask yourself a simple question: If you are driving your car at 20 mph and you read the dashboard thermometer, then speed up to 60 mph, does the temperature drop? No. Because the air temperature has not changed. There is no wind chill for your car—even if you have given your vehicle a human name.

Wind chill is an artificial construct that makes temperatures sound worse than they are. A parallel set of fake numbers makes summer temperatures sound worse than they are. Both serve the interests of broadcasters who seek to exploit public fears about their personal safety by fanning them with constant hype and faked data like “wind chill.”

On guard for venison

Saturday in Purcell’s Cove: RubySeesVenison

Ruby had much to say about this intrusion in her own backyard. The deer, perhaps spying the leash, feigned indifference. Photo: Marla Cranston

Edward Snowden’s Christmas message: asking is cheaper than spying.

Every Christmas since 1993, British Television’s Channel 4 asks a noteworthy figure to record an “alternative” to starchy pieties of Her Majesty’s annual Christmas message to her subjects.

This year, Channel 4 tapped whistleblower Edward Snowden. From his temporary asylum in Russia, Snowden sounded a pithy, 1 minute, 43 second, warning about the dangers of government spying:

A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalysed thought….

Remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.

H/T: A.C.H. Noskwith

Emus down vs. Emu Downs

HillsideTurbineBase

On Monday, Contrarian voiced skepticism about a Digby couple’s claim that wind turbines had decimated their their emu flock.

Andy MacCallum, vice president of developments for Natural Forces Technologies Inc., a company that helps develop small wind projects in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and British Columbia, responds:

I worked on a wind farm in Western Australia a few years ago called Emu Downs Wind Farm. An emu farmer was the major landowner for the project. The emus loved the turbines, and would gather at the turbine bases as they provided shelter from the wind.

This is, of course, merely an anecdote, just as the failure of the Ocean Breeze Emu Farm is merely an anecdote. By themselves, neither proves anything. But the Emu Downs story presents stronger evidence against the turbines-harm-emus hypothesis, than the Ocean Breeze story presents in its favor.

  • If turbines kill emus, then gathering around the Emu Downs turbines should have hurt the Aussie birds, but apparently it did not. The site remains a tourist attraction.
  • A thousand factors could have caused the Ocean Breeze emus’ failure to thrive. Owners Debi and David Van Tassell simply picked the explanation they preferred, with no supporting evidence.

Without considering possible alternatives, the CBC swallowed the Van Tassell’s sad story, whole. Not to be outdone, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald committed the same journalistic malpractice a day later.

The impulse to accept at face value any argument against any development, no matter how far fetched or specious, simply because those advancing it are deemed, “sincere,” is a recipe for basing decisions on ignorance, prejudice, and magical beliefs.

Where are the editors?

[Photo: Workers construct the base of a wind turbine going up at Hillside Boularderie, about 30 km from Contrarian’s Kempt Head base station. Courtesy of Natural Forces.]

The press, the emus, and the killer wind turbines

Reporter and Emu

I see by the CBC that Nova Scotia Power wind turbines have laid waste to a Digby Neck emu farm, decimating a family’s livelihood in the process.

Twenty of Debi and Davey VanTassel’s 27 emus succumbed to the lethal noise produced by NS Power’s murderous machines in the three years since they began slicing the salt air over Digby.

Or maybe it was 30 of their 38 birds—the CBC story gives both sets of figures. In any case, the emus were as hapless as they were flightless, no match for the death-dealing, green-power monsters.

How do we know this?

Because Debi Van Tassel, voice choked with emotion, told the CBC so.

Why, when the birds that provided their livelihood began dropping like cluster flies on a warm window sill, the Van Tassels didn’t even call a veterinarian to examine the corpses. Why bother? They already knew the cause of death.

So certain were Debi and Davey of the emu-killing power of renewable energy, they had protested construction of the wind farm before it even started up.

A vet might not have been much help anyway, given the inconvenient lack of a single peer-reviewed study showing turbine-induced health effects on animals.

Public health researchers in Australia tabulated every known public complaint of human health problems related to wind farms, and found no correlation with the size of a wind farm or complainants’ proximity to them. Well over half of the country’s 41 wind farms generated no complaints; those that did were mostly in areas where protesters promoted health fears before construction began.

The Van Tassel’s putative plight reads like a classic fable. On the one hand, a grieving farm couple, raising charismatic birds from a distant hemisphere, seeking only to wrest a humble livelihood from the windswept Fundy shore. On the other, a corporation so reviled the press exempts it from ordinary standards of fairness and balance, replacing conventional news coverage with one-sided, crowd-pleasing screeds.

“With a vital portion of their income gone,” came the CBC’s maudlin conclusion, “the Van Tassels said they don’t know what’s next for them.”

Absence of evidence and rampant implausibility could not be allowed to interfere with such a stirring yarn. Score one for bunkum over news.

[Disclosure: I count many good friends among NS Power management and staff, and from time to time, I have done work for the company, mainly writing and editing.]

Out of sight, out of mind: 175 dead children

Drones

Pitch Interactive, a data visualization shop in Berkeley, California, has produced an interactive infographic illustrating the results of US drone attacks in Pakistan. I can’t embed it, but clicking on the link will take you to a 90-seconds chronological overview.

Clicking on the ATTACKS, VICTIMS, NEWS, and INFO links in the upper left corner of the infographic adds background information and sources.

Less than 2% of the victims are high-profile targets.
The rest are civilians, children and alleged combatants.
This is the story of every known drone strike and victim in Pakistan.

Since 2004, the US has been practicing in a new kind of clandestine military operation. The justification for using drones to take out enemy targets is appealing because it removes the risk of losing American military, it’s much cheaper than deploying soldiers, it’s politically much easier to maneuver (i.e. flying a drone within Pakistan vs. sending troops) and it keeps the world in the dark about what is actually happening. It takes the conflict out of sight, out of mind. The success rate is extremely low and the cost on civilian lives and the general well-being of the population is very high. This project helps to bring light on the topic of drones. Not to speak for or against, but to inform and to allow you to see for yourself whether you can support drone usage or not.

H/T: Himalaya

Six things the NDP did right – part 2

Here is the final instalment of my four posts on the NDP government’s mistakes and successes. Mistakes here and here. Successes, part one, here, part two below. Between now and election day, I’ll post a selection of reader responses, more of which are always welcome.

4. Wilderness protection

protected-lands

Two hundred years from now, few Nova Scotians will know whether the provincial government balanced its books in 2013, or how much power rates increased between 2009 and 2013, or even who Darrell Dexter was. But they will know that a significant amount of Nova Scotia’s spectacular wilderness areas was permanently protected for the benefit of people and wildlife.

Building on a foundation laid by Mark Parent, environment minister in the Rodney MacDonald government, the NDP has taken Nova Scotia from a mediocre record of wilderness conservation to a position of national leadership.

The Protected Areas Plan for Nova Scotia, released in August, capped several rounds of public and stakeholder consultations to identify lands worthy of protection. It increased the total percentage of protected lands in the province from 9.4 percent (second lowest among Canadian provinces) to 13 percent now (second only to British Columbia, at 14 percent). The total will grow to about 14 percent as new sites are protected over the next few years. The newly protected lands include 700 kilometres of coastline and about 2600 lakes and watercourses.

The plan won praise from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nova Scotia Nature Trust, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Ecology Action Centre, whose wilderness co-ordinator, Raymond Plourde, lauded the government for “hard work and steadfast support for conservation.”

Extending the percentage of protected areas to 14 percent of the province assumes the government to be sworn in next month will continue the plan. The Liberal Party platform [PDF] says the party “support(s) the protection of land,” but at least one Liberal candidate, Lloyd Hines, running in Guysborough, has called for a halt to further land protection.

The Mining Association of Nova Scotia accused the government of putting future economic growth at risk by permanently protecting land from economic use. It will lobby the incoming government to allow land swaps, so mining and quarrying companies can access the protected land.

5.  A five-year highway plan

For decades, Nova Scotia governments have tried to control budget deficits, some more successfully than others. Nova Scotia has another kind of deficit we rarely hear about: a highway infrastructure deficit. The province has about 23,000 km. of roads, and for years, we’ve been wearing them out faster than we fix them.

Paving and politics are deeply entwined, which means road construction and maintenance decisions haven’t always reflected objective criteria. The Dexter Government took several useful steps to arrest and begin reversing the decline of our highways:

  • It produced and published a five-year plan for highway and bridge maintenance and construction. The plan’s annual updates are readily available on the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal website. Four instalments have been produced so far. They are not perfect. They are vague about the timeframes for multi-year, 100-series highway expansion projects, but they represent a big improvement over plans drawn up on a napkin in the minister’s back pocket.
  • The province improved its criteria for maintaining paved roads. In the past, when paving decisions weren’t based on pure politics, they were prioritized on a worst-first basis. Roads in the worst condition got paved first. This sounds logical, but it ignores a key fact about highway engineering. At a certain point in their lifespan, paved roads begin to show signs of deterioration. If early steps are taken to repair the damage—by sealing cracks, applying a mixture of stone chips and asphalt, micro sealing with a thin layer of asphalt, or applying a single layer of asphalt—major reconstruction can be delayed for several years.
  • The Dexter Government took two bold steps to rectify the costly consequences of non-competitive bidding on major highway jobs. It purchased a paving plant and deployed it in rural counties where a lack of competitive bidding led to construction costs that were much higher than in neighbouring New Brunswick. The government established a provincial chip-seal crew for the same reason. Predictably, the paving cartel went ballistic and hired a PR outfit to plant horror stories with business-compliant reporters bemoaning delays and cost overruns in the civil service paving crews. But paving bids plummeted by amounts that dwarfed the provincial overruns.

[View Larger Map]

The interactive map above, cribbed from the department’s website, shows that highway projects are still over-concentrated in government ridings. To some extent, this is inevitable given the NDP sweep of rural ridings in 2009. But the steps outlined above represent a serious effort to address highway deterioration that a new government would be imprudent to abandon for short term political gain.

6.  The Maritime Link

The natural gas industry, the wind power industry, the province’s two opposition parties, and a bogus citizens’ group that is really a front for the gas industry have had a field day parlaying voter resentment over recent power rate increases into skepticism about the wisdom of developing the Maritime Link to receive electricity from Muskrat Falls in Labrador. The quality of their arguments has ranged from shallow and self-serving to intellectually dishonest.

hi-muskrat-falls-river-2012-8col

Simply put, the government that takes office next month would be nuts to pass up the chance to open a power corridor to Labrador, site of the largest untapped hydro resource on earth. [Disclosure: In 2011 and 2012, I carried out writing projects for Emera involving the Maritime Link.]

Historically, the big problem with Nova Scotia’s electrical system is a lack of diversity. When oil was cheap in the ’50s and ’60s, we over-committed to oil-fired power plants, only to see the price of oil increase almost tenfold in the 1970s. We repeated the mistake in the 1980s, replacing all those oil-fired plans with coal plants. This made sense at a time when coal was cheap, mining it created local jobs, and no one had heard of climate change. But the last big mine closed in 2000 2001, and since then we’ve sent hundreds of millions of dollars a year to coal brokers in faraway lands, with no local local economic benefit. Once again, we found ourselves at the mercy of  wild swings in the price of imported fossil fuels.

The obvious solution is to diversify our electricity supply, and increase our access to market priced electricity, so we will never again find ourselves shackled to world prices for fossil fuels. In short, the solution is a little coal, a little natural gas, a little wind, a little hydro, eventually a little tidal, and occasional purchases from the North American grid—something we can’t do today, because our slender electrical connection to New Brunswick is too frail to support significant imports.

The Maritime Link serves this strategy in several ways:

  • It assures Nova Scotia a 35-year supply of clean, renewable energy sufficient to meet eight to 10 percent of our current electricity demand (and much more than that in the first five years, owing to a quirk in the arrangement with Nalcor, the Newfoundland energy utility).
  • Because Muskrat Falls is the small first step in a series of massive hydro developments planned in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritime Link will give us preferred access to that additional clean renewable energy when it comes on line.
  • When Newfoundland’s lamented contract with Quebec for power from the massive Churchill Falls generating station expires in 2041—not that far off in utility planning terms—the Maritime Link will also give us preferred access to that clean renewable energy.
  • Because Newfoundland has its eye on the massive electricity demand in New England and New York, construction of the Maritime Link will lead to construction of a robust transmission corridor between Cape Breton and Boston. This, too, can only increase our options for power purchases and sales at market prices.
  • At the moment, we have maxed out the capacity of our electricity grid to absorb intermittent power sources like wind. Hydro power makes an ideal backup for wind power because, unlike coal-fired plants, it can be ramped up quickly when wind turbines tapers off due to diminishing winds. The Maritime Link will enable further expansion of clean, renewable wind power in Nova Scotia.

These advantages are so solid and so varied as to make Nova Scotia’s embrace of the project the obvious choice. Against them, the project’s critics, all of whom have some vested interest in a competing fuel source or in defeating the current government, draw comparisons to the spot price of whatever fuel source is cheapest at the moment. They pretend we can base 35-year power planning decisions on the assumption that prices will stay that low for three decades.

This is rank nonsense. Every serious energy planner knows the only reliable thing about fossil fuel prices is that they are sure to gyrate wildly, while trending relentlessly upward. Last year, the prospect of tapping massive shale gas deposits made natural gas the darling of the day, but now gas prices have gone up again, and some energy experts contend the shale gas bubble is poised to burst.

By contrast, hydro projects look expensive at the start, but like the sweetest of bargains five or 10 years into their decades-long lifespans. The notoriously low price Hydro Quebec pays for power from Churchill Falls—currently one-quarter of a cent per kilowatt-hour—was actually above the market price when the contract was signed in late 1960s. All the costs of building a hydro development are payable up front, but because they use no fuel, hydro plants go on producing for decades at stable prices that look better with each passing year. Can any of the Maritime Link’s naysayers claim coal and gas prices will not increase over the next 35 years?

When analysts pick over the bones of the NDP’s almost certain defeat in next week’s election, they will focus on the issue of electricity rates. The NDP government has been honest about the short-term costs of converting Nova Scotia’s electricity system from its decades-old over-reliance on imported fossil fuels to a diverse mix of renewable sources, and it made the right decision committing to the Maritime Link. Opposition parties have pandered to public resentment over recent power rate increases, while offering magical promises to freeze rates and lower renewable targets (in the case of the Tories), or to abandon energy efficiency and adopt deregulation strategies that have proven disastrous in other jurisdictions (in the case of the Liberals).

That this contrast—honesty and sound decisions vs. pandering and magic solutions—will see the NDP driven from office is surely the most dispiriting aspect of recent public discourse in Nova Scotia.

Those ill-informed osprey — feedback

cat-kills-bird

On Sunday, I posted a short iPhone video of an osprey nest next to an 800 kw wind turbine at River John, Nova Scotia, to make the tongue-in-cheek point that someone forgot to tell the osprey about the perils of infrasound and shadow flicker. The point was tongue-in-cheek in the sense that I have no way of knowing whether young birds successfully fledged from the nest, but serious in the sense that I think health arguments against wind turbines are largely spurious.

Bruce Wark, former reporter, CBC radio producer, and King’s journalism professor, thinks I overlooked the most obvious threat wind farms pose for Osprey and other birds:

Here’s an excerpt from a scientific abstract based on a study by K. Shawn Smallwood in the peer-reviewed publication Wildlife Society Bulletin: “I estimated 888,000 bat and 573,000 bird fatalities/year (including 83,000 raptor fatalities) at 51,630 megawatt (MW) of installed wind-energy capacity in the United States in 2012. As wind energy continues to expand, there is urgent need to improve fatality monitoring methods, especially in the implementation of detection trials, which should be more realistically incorporated into routine monitoring.”

These numbers sound shocking. Indeed, I think they are presented in a contextless way* that insures they will shock. But they are actually surprisingly low, especially for birds. He estimates 573,000 bird fatalities for year based on an installed capacity of 51,630 megawatt (MW) If we assume 1 MW/turbine, the average turbine kills about 10 birds a year.

Whenever you hear numbers like this, it’s always useful to ask, “compared to what?”

Compared to what energy sources? The large array of windows on the south side of my passive solar house kills more than 10 birds a year. More to the point, the coal-fired power plants in Nova Scotia that could be displaced by wind power destroy bird habitat, cause deleterious climate change, and release pollutants that must impact mortality among birds with their supercharged respiratory systems. Gas does the same, only less so (or possibly less so, depending on methane leakage during production and transmission). Hydro dams destroy wildlife (including bird) habitat.

Compared to what other causes of human-assisted bird mortality? In a paper published in the journal Nature,** Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., estimates that domestic and feral cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds per year, along with 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion wild mammals per year in the US alone.

Taking the median of Marra’s ranges, we can say that US cats, feral and domestic, kill about 2.4 billion birds and 12.4 billion birds per year. Marra estimates the US cat population at 114 million, so each cat kills an average 21 birds per year—making a cat twice as lethal as a wind turbine (without even counting the 101 mammals an average bird cat kills per year).

Wark was kind enough to respond to these points:

In my Coast cover piece on wind, I stayed away from birds and bats because, as you point out, the relative numbers are low especially compared to cats. I concede that point. However, the reason I responded to you is that you were trying to use the osprey nest video to make a questionable point, i.e. that noise and flicker must not be as big a problem as wind turbine opponents claim because an osprey had built its nest near one of them. A more telling point from the opponents’ perspective is that the osprey risks flying into the turning blades as it navigates around the turbines near the nest.

I think where you and I would agree is that we consume too much electricity and that there is no environmentally costless way of producing large amounts of it. People pin their hopes on wind and hydro because they’re supposedly “clean and green” and so, the reasoning goes, if we could only kick our dirty coal habit and use wind and water instead, we’d be able to “save” the planet without having to cut our consumption too much. It’s the same reasoning environmentalists use when they contribute to various “save the planet funds” to offset their addiction to air travel. As I see it, the problems involved in cutting consumption are compounded by the fact that our economy depends on it so we’re caught on a treadmill where household spending fuels growth, jobs and all the other hallmarks of “prosperity.”

I do agree with Wark that there is no costless way of producing large amounts of energy, but the environmental cost of producing it with coal dwarfs the cost of doing so with wind, hydro, solar, nuclear, and probably outstrips that of doing it with gas. If it is true that we face planetary disaster owing to human induced climate change, then it is irresponsible to dwell of what are really NIMBY objections in disguise.

* This comment applies only to the abstract of Smallwood’s paper. Unfortunately, the Wildlife Society Bulletin follows the increasingly common and lamentable practice of putting the full text of its studies behind a paywall. It’s possible that, in the full text, Smallwood contextualizes the numbers that seem so sensational in the abstract.

** The full text of Marra’s paper is likewise behind a paywall.

 

 

Malcolm Gladwell, Oriental deference, and the Asiana crash

I enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, and often feel I come away with fresh insights into the way the world works, as opposed to how it appears to work. But I will read Gladwell with more skepticism after reading a spectacular takedown in an unlikely blog called “Ask-a-Korean.”

If you have followed media coverage of the July 6 crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco Airport, you have doubtless heard speculation that Korea’s culture of deference to authority, a culture deeply embedded in the Korean language, played a role in the crash. This theory owes much to Gladwell, who devoted a chapter of his best-selling 2008 book Outliers to “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” Discussing the book with CNN, Gladwell said:

The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it’s not the maintenance, it’s not the weather, it’s the culture the pilot comes from.

The anonymous author of Ask-a-Korean (a 32-year-old, Korean-born, US-educated lawyer in Manhattan) begins his assault on Gladwell’s “culturalist” explanations of airplane mishaps obliquely. (I take the liberty of quoting at length owing to The Korean’s wry Canadian reference):

[While watching a tournament, I] fixate on the golfers’ mistakes. When I see a golfer hitting a poor shot, I take a moment trying to recreate the swing in my mind, trying to see if I could identify what went wrong. I picture the golfer making his approach to the ball; the stance; the back swing; the alignment of the club head when the back swing reaches the top; the down swing; location of the hip during the down swing; the follow-through. Then I think about the path of the ball flight, and try to identify which part of the swing contributed to the deviation from the intended path.

And then I do something peculiar. I look up which country the golfer is from. And if I happen to remember a poor shot from a different golfer of the same country, I try to see the bigger picture in addition to their respective swings. I start wondering if there is something about that country’s culture that affects their golf swings. In the particular golf tournament attended, I saw two Canadian players hitting a poor shot. One golfer hit it short in the 10th hole, dropping the ball into the water. The other, in the narrow 16th hole, badly sliced the drive and ended up in the woods. Quickly, I mustered every scrap of knowledge I had about Canadian culture in my head, and I tried to connect the dots: is there something about Canadian culture that leads to poor golf shots by two different golfers at two different holes?

Just kidding–of course I am kidding. Obviously, I did not think about connecting Canadian culture and poor golf shots, nor do I ever try to connect any national culture with poor golf shots. Nobody in the right mind would do such a thing. We all know that.

But if we all know that, why do so many people do the same thing when it comes to airplane crashes?

From here, The Korean proceeds to a gentle but relentless evisceration of Gladwell’s argument, citing basic factual errors, obvious but overlooked facts, misquoted transcripts, misleadingly excerpted transcripts, misleadingly introduced irrelevant facts, failure to consult or interview Korean speakers or linguists specializing in Korean—a record of deck-stacking so egregious, you have to wonder whether the New Yorker’s legendary fact-checkers were on a departmental bender the day the piece came in.

[Here] we come to the greatest harm that culturalism causes: like racism, culturalism destroys individual agency. Under culturalism, a huge group of individuals are rendered into a homogeneous mass of automatons, eternally condemned to repeat the same mistakes. We still don’t know what exactly caused the Asiana crash. But it is hardly outlandish to think that it was a simple human error. To err is human, as they say–but culturalist explanation robs Korean pilots of this basic humanity. Because of our culturalist impulse, a Korean pilot cannot even make a mistake without tarnishing all other Korean pilots.

To progress is human as well. Even without Gladwell’s deck-stacking, it is true that Korean Air had a spotty safety record. Like Korea itself, the airline grew extremely fast between the 1970s and 1990s. Because of its very fast growth, even subpar pilots got a job, and training became spotty. The Flight 801 crash in 1997 did serve as a wake-up call for KAL and Korean government, which regulates KAL. Korean government initiated an aggressive turn-around, and the safety record did turn around. As Patrick Smith of Slate put it, 2008 assessment by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, ranked South Korea’s aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as nothing less than the highest in the world, beating out more than 100 other countries. But if the culturalist explanation is to be believed, none of this matters. As long as Koreans remain Koreans, they will communicate poorly, and they will be more prone to plane crashes.

I will resist the temptation to quote more. You really should read the post and its sequels.

Some perspective on the Asiana crash

Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot blog adds an astounding data point to the accident, which killed at least two people and injured many more, some very seriously.

[T]his was the first multiple-fatality crash involving a major airline in North America since November, 2001. The streak has ended, but it lasted nearly twelve years, with some 20,000 commercial jetliners taking off and landing safely in this country every single day — an astonishing run. Is it perverse to suggest that Saturday’s accident, awful as it was, serves to underscore just how safe commercial flying has become? [Emphasis added]

20,000 x 365 days x 12 years = 87.6 million major airline flights, a jaw-dropping safety achievement.

Smith’s blog and that of James Fallows offer fascinating analysis of the crash, pitched mainly to lay readers. Another takeaway: That initial media and “aviation expert” speculation about the causes of a crash almost always proves to be wide of the mark.

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