West Coast Festival of Giants – Merced Sun

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On 6 degrees of climate change

(CNN)Climate change is all about degrees.

Six degrees Celsius of warming may not sound like much — probably because “temperatures can swing by 6 degrees within an hour if a warm front passes, and it doesn’t mean the end of the world,” said Mark Lynas, author of a book called “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.”

But if we raise global average surface temperatures by just 6 degrees above pre-industrial levels, Lynas told me, we’ll create “a scenario which is so extreme it’s almost unimaginable.”

“Most of the planetary surface would be functionally uninhabitable,” he said. “Agriculture would cease to exist everywhere, apart for the polar and sub-polar regions, and perhaps the mid-latitudes for extremely heat-tolerant crops. It’s difficult to see how crops could be grown elsewhere. There’s a certain level above which plants just can’t survive.

2 degrees Celsius: A critical number for climate change2 degrees Celsius: A critical number for climate change

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“There’s a certain level where humans biologically can’t survive outside as well … The oceans would probably stratify, so the oceans would become oxygen-deficient, which would cause a mass extinction and a die off in the oceans, as well — which would then release gases and affect land. So it’s pretty much equivalent of a meteorite striking the planet, in terms of the overall impacts.”

I chatted with Lynas, a science writer in the UK, about how to avoid a 6-degree world, the international goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees — and how to talk to kids about climate change.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

    Mark Lynas

    For background: This interview came about because of you. Lynas’s book was one of 12 chosen by readers for a book club as part of my “2 degrees” series on climate change. To follow along, and shape the coverage, sign up for the 2 degrees newsletter. Lynas has agreed to take your questions the week of June 8.

    Sutter: I’ve gotten a lot of questions from readers about what 2 degrees of warming means. What does it mean for sea levels? What does it mean for hurricanes? Extinctions? Those sorts of things. Could I run through a couple of those and get your take on it, as someone who’s read through just mountains of this research?

    Lynas: Sure, sure. I’ll do my best.

    Sutter: OK. Could we start with extinctions? What will we see around the 2-degree mark?

    In the marine environment, I think the most threatened ecosystems are coral reefs. (They’re) threatened both by coral bleaching, due to rising temperatures and ocean acidification, plus the general degradation of everyday, general human activity. It’s very tough to imagine that the world’s coral reefs will continue to exist in their present day form in a 2-degree warmer world.

    The other most-threatened environments probably are the mountain ecosystems — where species will be left marooned in shrinking islands of habitat. As temperature rises, you can imagine biomes rising up the sides of the mountains, and species which are dependent on a certain level of temperature and humidity will get left with nowhere to go.

    Sutter: What about hurricanes and severe weather?

    There’s really a lot of uncertainty about this. It’s possible to imagine hurricanes will become less frequent but more intense, and possibly (form) over new areas.

    Sutter: What about droughts? I get a lot of California questions.

    Lynas: The overall global picture is kind of, ‘unto them that have with be given more and unto them have not shall be taken away’ — if you want to get biblical. That maps out as the subtropics, which are already the drier parts of the globe, will become more water-deficient. The deep tropics will actually get more rainfall, as well as some of the mid-latitudes. But the subtropics — which is the southwest of the U.S. — would expect to see less rainfall, which indeed seems to be what’s happening. That does call into question, really, the development model that large areas of the southwestern U.S. have adopted — expecting a large amount of freshwater to be available to urban areas and agriculture, which are already in a pretty arid location.

    So I do think it’s going to be hard to adapt to that change.

    Sutter: I’ve also gotten questions about the low-lying Pacific Island nations. At 2 degrees, what is their fate?

    Lynas: I used to be adviser to president of the Maldives, who is, by the way, now in jail due to there having been a coup. But his challenge, and his main agenda, when he was president, was to bring to attention the fate of the small island states — especially those that are coral atolls. For the Maldives, the entire country exists at a meter or less above sea level, and little more. It’s difficult to imagine the survival of coral atoll nations at 2 degrees, it has to be said. Although the extinction process depends on the rate of sea level rise. It might take decades, it might take centuries, it’s not clear at the moment. But I don’t think they have a very long term future.

    Sutter: Moving up the degree ladder, you describe a 6-degree world as a “sixth circle of hell.” What do you mean by that — and can you describe some of what we know about that world?

    Lynas: It’s a scenario which is so extreme it’s almost unimaginable. Not many studies have addressed this because it’s so far off the scale of what can be envisaged. I found myself looking back at the really serious traumatic events in the Earth’s geological history, which have led to mass extinctions, such as the one at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago, which wiped out nearly 90% of life on Earth. Actually, a lot of the mass extinctions seem to have been associated with very rapid global warming events. Humans are releasing carbon more rapidly even than took place during mass extinctions. We haven’t gotten there in terms of the overall amount, but we’re certainly moving in that direction. So it’s not a planet that I think any of us would want to live in, and it doesn’t have to happen. While I think it’s important to try to visualize what a 6-degree world would look like, it’s also important to remember that we don’t have to go there.

    Sutter: What else do we know about a 6-degree world?

    Lynas: Most of the planetary surface would be functionally uninhabitable. Agriculture would cease to exist everywhere, apart for the polar and subpolar regions, and perhaps the mid-latitudes for extremely heat-tolerant crops. It’s difficult to see how crops could be grown elsewhere. There’s a certain level above which plants just can’t survive. There’s a certain level where humans biologically can’t survive outside, as well. We get close enough already in the Arabian Peninsula and some other parts of the world. Remember, 6 degrees is a global average. It would be probably twice that over land and somewhat less than that over the oceans. The oceans would probably stratify, so the oceans would become oxygen deficient, which would cause a mass extinction and a die off in the oceans, as well — which would then release gases and affect land. So it’s pretty much equivalent of a meteorite striking the planet, in terms of the overall impacts.

    Sutter: I’m wondering why you took this approach — looking at climate change by degrees?

    Lynas: A lot of people want to know what warming we get with what emissions path, or what warming we might get by what date. That’s pretty fundamentally uncertain because they depend on different factors which aren’t very well quantified. I felt that looking at it degree by degree was much more robust. If the temperature rises by X amount then what will be Y impacts? There are three major sources of information about that. One is the observational changes we’re already seeing in terms of impacts in temperature rise. The second is computer models showing different ecosystem changes or whatever. And the third is paleoclimate sources — so looking at how the climate was different in earlier hotter periods in geologic time. So piecing those together and mapping them onto a degree by degree picture seemed to me to be a way to try to convey this in a visual and intuitive — but also highly scientifically appropriate — way.

    Sutter: What do you think about the world’s focus on the 2-degree mark? One activist said to me that 2 degrees is the only thing the international community agrees upon for climate change.

    Lynas: I think it’s important to have a target — because it focuses policy and it focuses people’s efforts. And it makes sense also to have a target based on the temperature. But it’s not something we can meet, by definition. We don’t have a simple thermostat where we can decide exactly how much carbon to emit and have an exact temperature result dependent on that. So, there’s uncertainty, really, about what level of emissions will lead to what temperature outcomes, by when. However, I think that 2 degrees is really the absolute upper limit of what’s tolerable in terms of ecosystems and, probably, adaptive capacities of human societies. A 2-degree world is a world without coral reefs, and with much less snow and ice and with fairly dramatic heatwaves — and other impacts. So, I would like to see a global warming future in which warming actually is lower than that, personally.

    Sutter: Do you think that’s possible?

    Lynas: I think it’s possible. It’s not very likely. If our current understanding of climate sensitivity is broadly correct then we’re probably going to come in between 2 and 3 degrees, somewhere, by the end of the century. I guess the good news is the absolutely calamitous 5 and 6 degree outcomes are particularly unlikely, too, although still possible. And certainly, the risk of them happening is higher than the risk of an airplane crashing when we get onto it.

    Sutter: Wait, so you’re saying the risk of 5 or 6 degrees of warming — a doomsday scenario — is higher than an airplane crashing?

    Lynas: Well, the likelihood of an airplane crashing is, I don’t know, one in 1 million — or something on that order of magnitude. Whereas the likelihood of coming within 5 or 6 degrees of warming is probably more than 1 in 100. It’s the sort of risk that one would not tolerate at a personal level. But, perhaps because we can diffuse responsibility, we feel that it’s tolerable for our species to take that gamble with the whole planet. Maybe it’s because we just think there’s nothing we can do about it. And we have an in-built optimism bias, myself included, where we like to think that things will just turn out all right, because they often tend to. And meantime we’ll go on with our lives as normal. It’s a big ask, I guess, to make society as a whole forgo the main energy source we all enjoy, which is fossil fuels, in order to forestall uncertain impacts decades into the future.

    Sutter: One of the things that struck me from your book is that you were surprised people are depressed by climate change. Isn’t this a pretty depressing subject?

    It doesn’t really matter whether you find it depressing or not, it’s the scientific reality. We have to deal with it. A thing like climate change is known as a ‘wicked problem.’ It’s seen differently by different people, according to their psychological, political and cultural biases. You can frame it as just a technology challenge: Let’s get off of fossil fuels and let’s get onto renewables and nuclear — easy. Or you can frame it as a moral challenge: We’re trespassing on the rights of future generations and how dare we do that. Or you can see it as a political challenge — that somehow these big fossil fuel corporations are transgressing democracy and forcing us to stay hooked on oil and coal and gas. Different people, according to their politics, will see climate change fundamentally in this way. It’s not a simple problem to understand.

    Sutter: So how do you look at it? Do you ever find climate change overwhelming or depressing, personally?

    Well, I’m a pragmatist. I think it’s a solvable problem. I don’t think we need to abandon capitalism or change our entire political system in order to tackle this challenge. Other people do, and I disagree with them on that. And we have debates late into the night. But I think with next-generation nuclear technologies, and particularly with the way solar power is developing so rapidly, and how rapidly it’s coming down in cost, and how quickly the technology is improving, there are zero-carbon options now becoming much more widely available, which will bring down our emissions much more rapidly than people think — or than people thought just a few years ago. I don’t think there’s any point being pessimistic about that. Pessimistic people don’t achieve anything. It’s important to do what’s possible — and to do it quickly.

    Sutter: What do you make of the way the world’s responding?

    Lynas: We are now inhabiting a human-dominated planet. We are in a new epoch known as the Anthropocene. The Holocene is now considered to be over. And I don’t think there’s really been another species that has had that effect on the planet before — maybe the first bacteria that emitted oxygen, or photosynthesizing microorganisms. But we really are into terra incognita looking forward. That gives our species a serious level of responsibility for planetary management that people just don’t really appreciate at any kind of fundamental physiological or political level. We are in charge. It’s up to us. We actually do have an overall effect on the earth’s temp. It’s not up to Mother Nature anymore to run the show.

    Sutter: Do you have children?

    Lynas: Yeah. The reason I was distracted just a minute ago was my kids just came back from school.

    Sutter: Do you talk to them about this? What do you say?

    Lynas: I talk to them a bit. They know what I do. Younger generations have grown up with this specter. It’s a bit like how those of us who are older grew up with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation … So they’re not entirely in a different situation, I suppose, from previous generations. You could feel bad for future generations, but on the other hand I’m not sure their future is any worse than the future for somebody born in, say, 1900, who in all likelihood, in Europe, would have killed in one of the world wars. It’s a manageable problem. We’re beginning to get the grips of it. There are some positive signs already — China and the U.S. agreeing to peak emissions, and things like that. So it’s not a counsel of despair. And I think it’s important to talk to kids at that level — not to make them think that somehow they’re fundamentally doomed.

    That isn’t the case and doesn’t have to be the case.

    Sutter: What needs to happen to ensure things do improve? What are the benchmarks you’re looking to to say, ‘OK, we’re managing this problem. We’re doing what’s needed’?

    Lynas: Well, I’m a ecomodernist, which is a new label a lot of environmental thinkers are beginning to attach to themselves — because it’s a bit different from more traditional environmentalism, which thought we were somehow doomed or we were fundamentally a destructive species. We can turn this around — this and other problems as well, if we have a more pragmatic approach to politics, economist — and especially technology. We need to have a price on carbon, so that emitting carbon dioxide isn’t cheaper than other energy sources. We need to invest heavily in research and development in zero-carbon sources, including next-generation nuclear renewable energies, especially solar. And we need to deploy them on an ever wider scale, with increased financing. We also need to have a political agreement — so there’s a sense the whole world is moving in the right direction. All of those things are not just possible, but I think they’re fundamentally achievable, and likely. But we need to keep the pressure up on politicians and on everyone else.

    Email questions to: climate [at] cnn.com.

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    Climate change is here and will only worsen. Get used to more flooding, wildfires and drought, depending on where you live. Thats the take-home message of lt;a href=quot;http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/06/politics/white-house-climate-energy/index.htmlquot;gt;a White House report released in Maylt;/agt; that is part of President Barack Obamas second-term effort to prepare the nation for rising sea levels and increasingly erratic weather. Here, a flooded parking lot at the Laurel Park horse racing track is seen Thursday, May 1, in Laurel, Maryland. Click through to see more examples of severe weather:More than 300 experts helped produce the report over several years, updating a previous assessment published in 2009. A Democratic operative who now counsels the President called the report quot;actionable sciencequot; for policymakers and the public to use in forging a way forward. In this image, cars are seen in the aftermath of an embankment collapse in Baltimore as a massive storm system pounded the mid-Atlantic on April 30.The report breaks the country down by region and identifies specific threats should climate change continue. Major concerns cited by scientists involved in creating the report include rising sea levels along Americas coasts, drought in the Southwest and prolonged fire seasons. In this image from January 16, a wildfire burns in the hills just north of the San Gabriel Valley community of Glendora, California.The Great Plains could experience heavier droughts and heat waves with increasing frequency, while more wildfires in the West could threaten agriculture and residential communities, the report notes. In this image, dry and cracked earth is visible on what used to be the bottom of Folsom Lake on March 20, in El Dorado Hills, California. Republican critics immediately pounced on new report as a political tool for Obama to try to impose a regulatory agenda that would hurt the economy. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky mocked what he described as the hypocritical stance of quot;liberal elitesquot; who demand strong action on climate change while failing to reduce their own carbon footprint. He called the debate quot;cynicalquot; because Obama knew that quot;much of the pain of imposing such regulations would be borne by our own middle class.quot; Here in March, an avocado grove near Valley Center, California, is left to wither because of the rising cost of water. Recent polling indicates most Americans believe human activities cause climate change but also shows the issue is less important to the public than the economy and other topics. A Gallup poll in March found that 34% of respondents think climate change, called global warming in the poll, posed a quot;serious threatquot; to their way of life, compared with 64% who responded quot;no.quot; At the same time, more than 60% of respondents believed global warming was happening or would happen in their lifetime. Here, a pedestrian crosses Douglas Avenue on a bike during a snowstorm on February 4, in Wichita, Kansas. The report predicts sea levels will rise at least a foot by the end of the century and perhaps as much as 4 feet, depending on how much of the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelf melts. Such an outcome could be catastrophic for millions of people living along the ocean, submerging tropical islands and encroaching on coastal areas. In this image, dated October 29, 2012, streets are flooded under the Manhattan Bridge in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, New York, as Superstorm Sandy slammed the Northeast coast.03 climate change 0506 RESTRICTED 02 climate change 0506 RESTRICTED03 Climate Change RESTRICTED02 Climate Change01 Climate Change08 Climate Change RESTRICTED01 climate change 0506 RESTRICTED

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Why 2015 is the year agriculture drones take off

For years now, drone advocates have cited precision agriculture—crop management that uses GPS and big data—as a way to boost crop yields and profits while resolving water and food crises. Unfortunately, for all the hype surrounding the concept drones haven’t had a significant impact on the agriculture business, at least, until now.

With the debut of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Section 333 exemption (which permits companies to fly drones commercially on a case-by-case basis) in November that’s poised to change, particularly in the United States. For the first time agriculture drones will legally be able to gather widespread data across an entire growing season, allowing companies to test their business models and technologies together for the first time—and ideally make a profit in the process.

“This is the first year we’ll actually be able to see, by the time the growing season is over, the impact on the farmer and the impact of the quality of the grapes,” says David Baeza, whose precision agriculture startup Vine Rangers uses drones and ground robots to gather data on vineyard crops.We’re really excited about that.”

Before the F.A.A. began offering permits for commercial drones, companies like Vine Rangers couldn’t charge farming operations for their services, which meant they were often relegated to working with farms (often smaller independent ones) on exploratory pilot programs.

The shift in regulatory policy will now allow Vine Rangers and other certified firms—many of which are in the startup phase—to assist both large and small farming operations with water and disease management, and charge for the services. They’ll also be able to use drones to help with better planting and crop rotation strategies, and provide a higher degree of all-around knowledge of how crops are progressing day-to-day in different parts of a given field.

This boost in crop intelligence should make farms more efficient and help smaller operations compete with their more well-heeled Big Agriculture competitors. More importantly, companies can now test their business models and develop new revenue streams, as well as attract new investment.

“We can actually move companies from pilot program to paid,” Baeza says about revenue possibilities that now exist for companies like his. The startup currently has two clients–both vineyards–in California’s Central Valley and working to expand its operations to other wine growing regions. “The biggest part about getting paid is obviously bringing in revenue,” he says. “But now we can test the parameters of the business model as well.”

Revenue will be key for drone agriculture startups—most of which currently focus on smaller specialty crops like grapes and avocados over row crops like corn or other grains–as they prepare their businesses as and aim to grab market share in a space analysts expect to grow exponentially in the years ahead. A widely-cited drone report released by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that the legalization of commercial drones will create more than $80 billion in economic impact (such as revenue, job creation) between 2015 and 2025, and that precision agriculture will provide the biggest piece of that growth.

Startups like Vine Rangers are honing their drone technologies on specialty crops for now, but eventually will move into large-scale farms, which are bigger and require more resources to cover, Baeza says. As such, the advent of all these technologies will impact both small and international companies, though exactly how that will unfold remains to be seen.

“The biggest thing to watch is what’s going to happen to giants like Monsanto,” Baeza says. “How you define this market is changing, and the incumbents are in for a battle.”

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Salinas’ airport an untapped economic gold mine

Saturday’s Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Fly-in at the Salinas Municipal Airport was a smash hit.

Airport Manager Brett Godown said Monday that he was pleased with the turnout.

He should be.

It’s great that Godown, the city and AOPA could pull this off. My hat’s off to them. How great would it be if the city staged a general aviation convention (camp-in?) of this type every year?

“The weather on Friday and Saturday was a bit finicky but that didn’t deter (AOPA) members coming and seeing some of the best Salinas has to offer (my opinion is slightly bias),” Godown said in an email.

Folks, even if you don’t particularly like aviation (and that would be just weird), understand that Saturday marked a big deal for our city’s airport. Though admission was free, the event was served as a big economic multiplier for the city economy. Just think of the hotel nights, gas purchases (aviation and car) and restaurant meals bought. Nothin’ but upside, eh?

Oh, and despite there being so many aircraft around not a single accident was reported. According to Godown, the Salinas Air Traffic Control Tower experienced 1,300 operations (takeoffs and/or landings) on Saturday as compared to a normal day’s estimated 166 flight operations. Pretty amazing.

The one day fly-in attracted about 3,000 spectators and 400 private aircraft. And, believe me, I was out there and the ramps were wingtip to wingtip. Several dozen pilots and their families even camped out overnight on the tarmac. Some 70 exhibitors filled a large tent pavilion, pitching everything under the aviation world sun – parts, planes and services. Add in some music, food and some aerobatics and you had a real party on your hands.

Seriously, though, the event once again showed the airport’s potential as one of the city’s most powerful economic engines. And though I think Godown’s doing a great job out there, I just don’t get the feeling that City Hall quite grasps the real potential here.

Like I was saying in Saturday’s column about how the city really needs to start showing some leadership about getting the Chinatown area back on its feet, it also needs to start investing more staff time and resources at the airport.

I mean, seriously, City Council has now spent more than $800,000 of general fund money on John Hartnett and his vaunted Silicon Valley Global Partners consultancy and for what? Some five years after the city engaged SVG, all we can show are two entrepreneurial development classes (put on, actually, by the Kauffman Foundation) and a kids computer coding club? C’mon. Show me a serious deliverable from SVG and I will be the first to sing their praises.

In the meantime, we have an airport that I believe could be made into a real money maker. And, sure, we’re going to have to think way the heck out of the box on this but so what? That’s what we should be doing.

Steady readers know that my idea is to extend Salinas’ main runway by several thousand feet so that bigger and heavier aircraft can take off and land there. To do this, we would have to redesign the runway configurations and, yes, retire the municipal golf course that’s adjacent to the airport.

(Sorry golfers – I count myself as being among your tribe, but we need that land to extend the runways to accommodate the bigger jets.)

But to what end?

With longer runways, we could the pursue bringing UPS or FedEx here and invite them to set up a regional shipping hub for the Central Coast.

And I think they would do this because too often Monterey’s airport is unusable – shrouded in fog and poor weather. Salinas, on the other hand, is ridiculously sunny most of the year. The fact that the 101 Freeway is literally a stone’s throw away from the airport makes this idea all the more groovy.

Interestingly, our city does have an Airport Commission and it is scheduled to meet May 28 at 7 p.m. at City Hall. By the way, in case you were wondering, here’s who serves on the commission: Diane Ausonio (mayor’s appointee), Sal Munoz (District 1), Mark Zanko (District 2), Jim Shumaker (District 3), Richard Fors (District 4), Susan Purvis (District 5) and Robert McGregor (District 6).

And, yes, sure, this idea of extending and reconfiguring the runways will indeed cost a boatload of money. But all capital improvement projects are deliberative and political in nature, which means spending priorities can be changed when a majority of the City Council says so. State and federal grants are available, too.

Just think of what could happen if the city actually focused on the economic development of one of the biggest assets it already owns – the airport.

At a minimum, it’s my hope that Mayor Joe Gunter, City Manager Ray Corpuz Jr. and City Council will at least direct Airport Commissioners to begin looking at how we can squeeze every possible economic development dollar out of the facility.

Each year our city government spends gobs – and I mean gobs – of money on outside consultants. It would be a shame if we couldn’t spend a little of that money on some aviation consultants who could objectively tell us what we really have on our hands here.

My guess is that that they will find this airport is an untapped gold mine.

Civic Chronicles columnist Jeff Mitchell covers politics, government and life in the Salinas Valley on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Reach him at 831-754-4281 or email him at jemitchell@thecalifornian.com

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Model aircraft to fly over Castle – Merced Sun

More than 200 model aircraft will fly over Castle Airport throughout the next four days during the 18th annual West Coast Festival of Giants that starts Thursday.

The event is the second-largest in its kind in the country, according to organizers. It brings pilots from many West Coast regions. This year, more than 200 aircraft pilots will come from states including Washington, Oregon and Arizona.

In the past, the event has attracted pilots from as far as the Philippines, organizers said.

Scott Malta, president of the Merced-based Central California Model Flyers Club, said the aircraft that will be displayed and flown will represent many eras of aviation.

There will be military aircraft from World Wars I and II, as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Aircraft from the golden age of aviation – the 1920s and 1930s – will also be on display.

The event will run through Sunday. Flying will start Thursday at noon and at 9 a.m. each day thereafter. The Festival of Giants is open to the public and admission is free, with a $5 daily or $10 full-event charge for vehicle parking.

Free shuttle service will be available Sunday to transport people to and from Castle Air Museum, where Open Cockpit Day will be taking place.

Malta said turbine-powered aircraft flying is a must see and hear for people of all ages.

“It’s a great family outing,” Malta said. “The model aircraft look like real airplanes; they are well-designed and decorated.”

According to Malta, the event is a unique opportunity for people in the area. “It’s something you just don’t see anywhere else,” he said.

Castle Airport is an ideal place for this type of event to take place because of the wide-open spaces. The event is also beneficial to the community and its economy, Malta said, because it helps bring in visitors from across the country who spend money in hotels and restaurants in the area.

Spectators are advised to bring a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and a chair. Food and drink vendors, as well as hobby aircraft vendors, will be on site. Organizers ask attendees to enter through the Castle Commerce Center at either Buhach or Wallace roads.

For more information, call Malta at (209) 617-5789 or Rick Maida at (408) 460-1526.

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Sutter: On 6 degrees of climate change

Climate change is all about degrees.

Six degrees Celsius of warming may not sound like much — probably because “temperatures can swing by 6 degrees within an hour if a warm front passes, and it doesn’t mean the end of the world,” said Mark Lynas, author of a book called “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.”

But if we raise global average surface temperatures by just 6 degrees above pre-industrial levels, Lynas told me, we’ll create “a scenario which is so extreme it’s almost unimaginable.”

“Most of the planetary surface would be functionally uninhabitable,” he said. “Agriculture would cease to exist everywhere, apart for the polar and sub-polar regions, and perhaps the mid-latitudes for extremely heat-tolerant crops. It’s difficult to see how crops could be grown elsewhere. There’s a certain level above which plants just can’t survive.

“There’s a certain level where humans biologically can’t survive outside as well … The oceans would probably stratify, so the oceans would become oxygen-deficient, which would cause a mass extinction and a die off in the oceans, as well — which would then release gases and affect land. So it’s pretty much equivalent of a meteorite striking the planet, in terms of the overall impacts.”

I chatted with Lynas, a science writer in the UK, about how to avoid a 6-degree world, the international goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees — and how to talk to kids about climate change.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

For background: This interview came about because of you. Lynas’s book was one of 12 chosen by readers for a book club as part of my “2 degrees” series on climate change. To follow along, and shape the coverage, sign up for the 2 degrees newsletter. Lynas has agreed to take your questions the week of June 8.

Sutter: I’ve gotten a lot of questions from readers about what 2 degrees of warming means. What does it mean for sea levels? What does it mean for hurricanes? Extinctions? Those sorts of things. Could I run through a couple of those and get your take on it, as someone who’s read through just mountains of this research?

Lynas: Sure, sure. I’ll do my best.

Sutter: OK. Could we start with extinctions? What will we see around the 2-degree mark?

In the marine environment, I think the most threatened ecosystems are coral reefs. (They’re) threatened both by coral bleaching, due to rising temperatures and ocean acidification, plus the general degradation of everyday, general human activity. It’s very tough to imagine that the world’s coral reefs will continue to exist in their present day form in a 2-degree warmer world.

The other most-threatened environments probably are the mountain ecosystems — where species will be left marooned in shrinking islands of habitat. As temperature rises, you can imagine biomes rising up the sides of the mountains, and species which are dependent on a certain level of temperature and humidity will get left with nowhere to go.

Sutter: What about hurricanes and severe weather?

There’s really a lot of uncertainty about this. It’s possible to imagine hurricanes will become less frequent but more intense, and possibly (form) over new areas.

Sutter: What about droughts? I get a lot of California questions.

Lynas: The overall global picture is kind of, ‘unto them that have with be given more and unto them have not shall be taken away’ — if you want to get biblical. That maps out as the subtropics, which are already the drier parts of the globe, will become more water-deficient. The deep tropics will actually get more rainfall, as well as some of the mid-latitudes. But the subtropics — which is the southwest of the U.S. — would expect to see less rainfall, which indeed seems to be what’s happening. That does call into question, really, the development model that large areas of the southwestern U.S. have adopted — expecting a large amount of freshwater to be available to urban areas and agriculture, which are already in a pretty arid location.

So I do think it’s going to be hard to adapt to that change.

Sutter: I’ve also gotten questions about the low-lying Pacific Island nations. At 2 degrees, what is their fate?

Lynas: I used to be adviser to president of the Maldives, who is, by the way, now in jail due to there having been a coup. But his challenge, and his main agenda, when he was president, was to bring to attention the fate of the small island states — especially those that are coral atolls. For the Maldives, the entire country exists at a meter or less above sea level, and little more. It’s difficult to imagine the survival of coral atoll nations at 2 degrees, it has to be said. Although the extinction process depends on the rate of sea level rise. It might take decades, it might take centuries, it’s not clear at the moment. But I don’t think they have a very long term future.

Sutter: Moving up the degree ladder, you describe a 6-degree world as a “sixth circle of hell.” What do you mean by that — and can you describe some of what we know about that world?

Lynas: It’s a scenario which is so extreme it’s almost unimaginable. Not many studies have addressed this because it’s so far off the scale of what can be envisaged. I found myself looking back at the really serious traumatic events in the Earth’s geological history, which have led to mass extinctions, such as the one at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago, which wiped out nearly 90% of life on Earth. Actually, a lot of the mass extinctions seem to have been associated with very rapid global warming events. Humans are releasing carbon more rapidly even than took place during mass extinctions. We haven’t gotten there in terms of the overall amount, but we’re certainly moving in that direction. So it’s not a planet that I think any of us would want to live in, and it doesn’t have to happen. While I think it’s important to try to visualize what a 6-degree world would look like, it’s also important to remember that we don’t have to go there.

Sutter: What else do we know about a 6-degree world?

Lynas: Most of the planetary surface would be functionally uninhabitable. Agriculture would cease to exist everywhere, apart for the polar and subpolar regions, and perhaps the mid-latitudes for extremely heat-tolerant crops. It’s difficult to see how crops could be grown elsewhere. There’s a certain level above which plants just can’t survive. There’s a certain level where humans biologically can’t survive outside, as well. We get close enough already in the Arabian Peninsula and some other parts of the world. Remember, 6 degrees is a global average. It would be probably twice that over land and somewhat less than that over the oceans. The oceans would probably stratify, so the oceans would become oxygen deficient, which would cause a mass extinction and a die off in the oceans, as well — which would then release gases and affect land. So it’s pretty much equivalent of a meteorite striking the planet, in terms of the overall impacts.

Sutter: I’m wondering why you took this approach — looking at climate change by degrees?

Lynas: A lot of people want to know what warming we get with what emissions path, or what warming we might get by what date. That’s pretty fundamentally uncertain because they depend on different factors which aren’t very well quantified. I felt that looking at it degree by degree was much more robust. If the temperature rises by X amount then what will be Y impacts? There are three major sources of information about that. One is the observational changes we’re already seeing in terms of impacts in temperature rise. The second is computer models showing different ecosystem changes or whatever. And the third is paleoclimate sources — so looking at how the climate was different in earlier hotter periods in geologic time. So piecing those together and mapping them onto a degree by degree picture seemed to me to be a way to try to convey this in a visual and intuitive — but also highly scientifically appropriate — way.

Sutter: What do you think about the world’s focus on the 2-degree mark? One activist said to me that 2 degrees is the only thing the international community agrees upon for climate change.

Lynas: I think it’s important to have a target — because it focuses policy and it focuses people’s efforts. And it makes sense also to have a target based on the temperature. But it’s not something we can meet, by definition. We don’t have a simple thermostat where we can decide exactly how much carbon to emit and have an exact temperature result dependent on that. So, there’s uncertainty, really, about what level of emissions will lead to what temperature outcomes, by when. However, I think that 2 degrees is really the absolute upper limit of what’s tolerable in terms of ecosystems and, probably, adaptive capacities of human societies. A 2-degree world is a world without coral reefs, and with much less snow and ice and with fairly dramatic heatwaves — and other impacts. So, I would like to see a global warming future in which warming actually is lower than that, personally.

Sutter: Do you think that’s possible?

Lynas: I think it’s possible. It’s not very likely. If our current understanding of climate sensitivity is broadly correct then we’re probably going to come in between 2 and 3 degrees, somewhere, by the end of the century. I guess the good news is the absolutely calamitous 5 and 6 degree outcomes are particularly unlikely, too, although still possible. And certainly, the risk of them happening is higher than the risk of an airplane crashing when we get onto it.

Sutter: Wait, so you’re saying the risk of 5 or 6 degrees of warming — a doomsday scenario — is higher than an airplane crashing?

Lynas: Well, the likelihood of an airplane crashing is, I don’t know, one in 1 million — or something on that order of magnitude. Whereas the likelihood of coming within 5 or 6 degrees of warming is probably more than 1 in 100. It’s the sort of risk that one would not tolerate at a personal level. But, perhaps because we can diffuse responsibility, we feel that it’s tolerable for our species to take that gamble with the whole planet. Maybe it’s because we just think there’s nothing we can do about it. And we have an in-built optimism bias, myself included, where we like to think that things will just turn out all right, because they often tend to. And meantime we’ll go on with our lives as normal. It’s a big ask, I guess, to make society as a whole forgo the main energy source we all enjoy, which is fossil fuels, in order to forestall uncertain impacts decades into the future.

Sutter: One of the things that struck me from your book is that you were surprised people are depressed by climate change. Isn’t this a pretty depressing subject?

It doesn’t really matter whether you find it depressing or not, it’s the scientific reality. We have to deal with it. A thing like climate change is known as a ‘wicked problem.’ It’s seen differently by different people, according to their psychological, political and cultural biases. You can frame it as just a technology challenge: Let’s get off of fossil fuels and let’s get onto renewables and nuclear — easy. Or you can frame it as a moral challenge: We’re trespassing on the rights of future generations and how dare we do that. Or you can see it as a political challenge — that somehow these big fossil fuel corporations are transgressing democracy and forcing us to stay hooked on oil and coal and gas. Different people, according to their politics, will see climate change fundamentally in this way. It’s not a simple problem to understand.

Sutter: So how do you look at it? Do you ever find climate change overwhelming or depressing, personally?

Well, I’m a pragmatist. I think it’s a solvable problem. I don’t think we need to abandon capitalism or change our entire political system in order to tackle this challenge. Other people do, and I disagree with them on that. And we have debates late into the night. But I think with next-generation nuclear technologies, and particularly with the way solar power is developing so rapidly, and how rapidly it’s coming down in cost, and how quickly the technology is improving, there are zero-carbon options now becoming much more widely available, which will bring down our emissions much more rapidly than people think — or than people thought just a few years ago. I don’t think there’s any point being pessimistic about that. Pessimistic people don’t achieve anything. It’s important to do what’s possible — and to do it quickly.

Sutter: What do you make of the way the world’s responding?

Lynas: We are now inhabiting a human-dominated planet. We are in a new epoch known as the Anthropocene. The Holocene is now considered to be over. And I don’t think there’s really been another species that has had that effect on the planet before — maybe the first bacteria that emitted oxygen, or photosynthesizing microorganisms. But we really are into terra incognita looking forward. That gives our species a serious level of responsibility for planetary management that people just don’t really appreciate at any kind of fundamental physiological or political level. We are in charge. It’s up to us. We actually do have an overall effect on the earth’s temp. It’s not up to Mother Nature anymore to run the show.

Sutter: Do you have children?

Lynas: Yeah. The reason I was distracted just a minute ago was my kids just came back from school.

Sutter: Do you talk to them about this? What do you say?

Lynas: I talk to them a bit. They know what I do. Younger generations have grown up with this specter. It’s a bit like how those of us who are older grew up with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation … So they’re not entirely in a different situation, I suppose, from previous generations. You could feel bad for future generations, but on the other hand I’m not sure their future is any worse than the future for somebody born in, say, 1900, who in all likelihood, in Europe, would have killed in one of the world wars. It’s a manageable problem. We’re beginning to get the grips of it. There are some positive signs already — China and the U.S. agreeing to peak emissions, and things like that. So it’s not a counsel of despair. And I think it’s important to talk to kids at that level — not to make them think that somehow they’re fundamentally doomed.

That isn’t the case and doesn’t have to be the case.

Sutter: What needs to happen to ensure things do improve? What are the benchmarks you’re looking to to say, ‘OK, we’re managing this problem. We’re doing what’s needed’?

Lynas: Well, I’m a ecomodernist, which is a new label a lot of environmental thinkers are beginning to attach to themselves — because it’s a bit different from more traditional environmentalism, which thought we were somehow doomed or we were fundamentally a destructive species. We can turn this around — this and other problems as well, if we have a more pragmatic approach to politics, economist — and especially technology. We need to have a price on carbon, so that emitting carbon dioxide isn’t cheaper than other energy sources. We need to invest heavily in research and development in zero-carbon sources, including next-generation nuclear renewable energies, especially solar. And we need to deploy them on an ever wider scale, with increased financing. We also need to have a political agreement — so there’s a sense the whole world is moving in the right direction. All of those things are not just possible, but I think they’re fundamentally achievable, and likely. But we need to keep the pressure up on politicians and on everyone else.

Email questions to: climate [at] cnn.com.

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Military wants to use swarms of disposable “Cicada” drones: dropping flies …

A mini-drone that fits in the palm of your hand could give the military an upper hand on the battlefield by providing key intelligence readings. Hundreds of these small, plastic drones could be dropped off a flight and left to scatter across the battlezone. Though they don’t have any engines, these “Cicada” drones are equipped with sensors that help adjust the gliding pattern, directing the drone towards a dropzone with an accuracy within a couple of feet. These are hard to spot since they easily disguise as a bird from afar and once behind the lines can use their sensors and microphones to spy on enemy positions. These can also prove very useful for civilian missions, most notably for gathering meteorological data.


Cicada, the

Cicada, the “paper airplane with a circuit board”. Image: © AFP Laurent Barthelemy

The name “Cicada” is after a species of insect that lays dormant underground for a couple of years, before it bursts through by the swarms. Once outside the insects quickly reproduce, then drop to the ground dead. Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory  felt inspired and wondered if they could design and deploy drones that are so tiny and numerous, that’s impossible for the enemy to shoot down every single one them. This is how the military’s Cicada, or Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, was born. It’s the smallest and cheapest of any military drone developed thus far. The prototype cost only a thousand dollars, while a full scaled manufactured model could drop to about 250 USD a piece.

It only contains 10 moving parts and no engine, but it makes no difference since it can make its way by gliding just as well. A built in GPS receiver tells the little drone, which looks more like a paper airplane than a military-grade aircraft, where it needs to land, so it constantly adjusts its wings and rudder to get there. In a test about three years ago in Yuma, Arizona, Cicada drones were released from 57,600 feet (17,500 meters). After dropping and gliding for about 11 miles, the drone landed within 15 feet of its target. This could be refined even further, so later versions might land right atop, with pinpoint accuracy.

“It looks like a bird flying down,” said Daniel Edwards, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory. But, he said, “it’s very difficult to see.”

“They are robotic carrier pigeons. You tell them where to go, and they will go there,” Edwards said.


An airplane or balloon could drop hundreds of Cicadas behind enemy lines. Image: NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY

An airplane or balloon could drop hundreds of Cicadas behind enemy lines. Image: NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY

It would’ve been nice if the Cicada was also fitted with some cameras, but this would have severely compromised the design and entire scope of the drone. Once you have a camera, you also need a storage medium and hardware that can handle serious bandwidth. But it does have ears, which are often more than enough. For instance, a Cicada dropped behind enemy lines in key points near a road can eavesdrop using its built-in microphone. Based on the noise and ground vibration, you can then learn when, how many, and what kind of vehicles are using the road. Cicada is also equipped with  temperature, air pressure and humidity sensors.

What’s more, the Cicada is extremely robust. In test flights, the engineers flew prototypes through all sorts of obstacles. Sometimes it would get hit pretty hard, but came out in working condition nevertheless.

Edwards said. “You can thrown them out of a Cessna or a C-130,” he said.

“They’ve flown through trees. They’ve hit asphalt runways. They have tumbled in gravel. They’ve had sand in them. They only thing that we found that killed them was desert shrubbery,” he said

According to Edwards, both the Pentagon and intelligence agencies are very interested in the Cicada and closely following the research.

 

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