Advanced science, Astrophysics, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, International

Can humans settle on Mars once Earth becomes uninhabitable?

 In 1920, American poet Robert Frost mused: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.” Frost held “with those who favour fire.” His poetic view unsurprisingly coincides with mainstream scientific consensus about the real prospect of our own annihilation—arising from the incomprehensible scale of problems baked into our future by human-induced climate change. That is why probably a year before his death in 2018, the celebrated British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking issued a grave warning that we must leave the Earth and colonise “other planets in the next century in order to guarantee survival from a variety of threats.”

Now that the much-hyped COP26 has ended “not with a bang, but with a whimper,” it is time to seriously consider Hawking’s suggestion—colonise another planet before the Earth ends in fire.

From The War of the Worlds by HG Wells to The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov, science fiction writers have long been fascinated by the idea of settling on another planet, especially Mars. Science fiction aside, it is indeed the dream of a growing number of scientists and geo-engineers to make Mars inhabitable with some terraforming, a term used to describe transforming another planet into an Earth-like planet.

Why Mars and not the Moon? The Moon, our nearest neighbour in the sky, is impoverished in resources. Furthermore, a day on the Moon is 29.5 Earth days long. Also, the Moon being far less massive than Earth has a weaker surface gravity—about 16 percent that of Earth. For example, a fully suited Apollo astronaut (equipment included) who weighed about 500 pounds on Earth, weighed only about 80 pounds on the Moon.

Why not other planets? The inner planets, Mercury and Venus, are too hot for humans to survive. The Jovian planets, Jupiter outward to Neptune, are gaseous, which means they do not have solid ground to put our feet on.

What makes Mars, which is on the outer boundary of our solar system’s habitable zone, a good candidate is its proximity from Earth’s closest approach every 15 to 17 years is about 54.6 million kilometres, its day-night cycle is almost the same as ours, with abundant sunshine, and it has a 687-day year with Earth-like four seasons that last twice as long. Although gravity on Mars is 40 percent that of Earth’s, it is sufficiently strong to retain an atmosphere and is believed by many to be adequate for the human body to adapt to. Additionally, hydrologic and volcanic processes on Mars are likely to have consolidated various elements into mineral ores that are of interest to an industrial society.

But current conditions on Mars—freezing cold and bereft of such amenities as a breathable atmosphere—are inhospitable for human beings. Nonetheless, in the ancient past, the Red Planet was remarkably habitable, featuring lakes, rivers and an ocean. Things, however, changed dramatically after the planet lost its magnetic field about four billion years ago when its molten iron core froze up. Without a magnetic field, charged particles in the solar wind stripped away Mars’ once-thick atmosphere, eventually reducing it to a thin sliver that could no longer retain sufficient heat. As a result, the planet underwent a reverse greenhouse effect.

Today, the greenhouse effect on Mars is extremely inefficient. Its atmosphere, about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, is not thick enough to act as a thermal blanket to keep the planet pleasantly warm. Average surface temperature on Mars is a frigid negative 55 degrees Celsius and varies between negative 125 degrees near the poles during winter to positive 20 degrees at the equator during summer. In addition, the atmospheric pressure is less than one percent that of Earth’s. Since the atmosphere is excessively thin and cold, Mars cannot support liquid water on its surface, but this does not mean the planet is devoid of it.

Thus, before we colonise Mars, we have to fix the Martian atmosphere and make it hospitable to human life. In particular, we have to raise the planet’s temperature to a comfortable level and make the atmosphere thicker. Several possible ways of accomplishing this task have been proposed. Among the many techniques that are on the drawing board, scientists are seriously considering adding temperature-raising gases in its atmosphere, to melting parts of the Martian polar ice caps using giant orbiting mirrors to reflect sunlight, to making the Martian surface non-reflective.

Introduction of fluorine-based compounds that produce a greenhouse effect thousands of times stronger than carbon dioxide is being considered as a long-term climate stabiliser. There is also the possibility of in-situ resource utilisation, thanks to NASA’s Curiosity Rover discovering subterranean methane, another potent greenhouse gas.

Another element that could play an important role in trapping heat on Mars is aerogel, one of the lightest materials known to humans. Composed of 99 percent air, it is also a good insulator, which is why it is being used in the Rover mission. Using modelling and experiments that mimicked the Martian surface, researchers from the Harvard University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and University of Edinburgh demonstrated that a thin layer of this material increased average temperatures of mid-latitudes on Mars to Earth-like temperatures. Aerogel could also be used to build domes for habitation or self-contained biospheres on the surface of Mars.

If large mirrors can successfully be put into orbit, they will reflect sunlight onto Martian poles, so that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are believed to be trapped inside the ice will melt and initiate the greenhouse effect. The orbital mirror plan has the advantage of continually introducing extra heat into the Martian climate long after the poles have sublimated.

The idea of coating the surface of Mars with dark materials in order to increase the amount of sunlight it absorbs was first proposed by author and scientist Carl Sagan. The materials could be dust from the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos—two of the darkest objects in the Solar System—or extremophile lichens and plants that are dark in colour.

As noted above, Mars does not have a magnetic field strong enough to shield it from the harmful electrically charged particles in solar wind. Scientists at NASA think that it is possible to deflect the solar wind by positioning powerful magnets at one of the five points in space between Mars and the Sun, known as Lagrange Points, where the gravitational forces and the orbital motion of the magnets would interact to create a stable location. Simulations showed that a shield of this sort would protect Mars from the solar wind.

A new study suggests that Mars could be provided with a magnetic field by creating an artificial ring of charged particles around the planet. This could be done by ionising matter on the surface of its moon, Phobos, which orbits the planet quite closely and makes a trip around it every eight hours. The ionised (electrically charged) particles, when accelerated, would generate an electric current that would give rise to a magnetic field strong enough to protect a terraformed Mars.

How soon can Mars be terraformed? Realistically speaking, once technologies are perfected, it would probably take several centuries for the Martian climate to resemble anything even remotely Earth-like. Will our planet remain habitable for such a long time? That is a moot question.

Finally, it is ironic that many of the approaches to terraform Mars represent the global environmental catastrophe currently causing such concern here on Earth. In view of this, opponents consider terraforming Mars to be the ultimate in “cosmic vandalism.” Proponents on the other hand see terraforming as the creation of a new Garden of Eden.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, International, Life as it is, Political

IPCC issued a ‘code red’ alert

Human-induced climate change is ravaging our planet and every country, including Bangladesh, is struggling to deal with its impacts

As the world battles record-shattering heat waves, calamitous droughts, deadly floods and landscape-altering wildfires, a roughly 4,000-page report released on August 9, 2021 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spells out, in unequivocal terms, how anthropogenic climate change is ravaging our planet. Prepared by IPCC’s Working Group I and described by its authors as a “code red for humanity,” the report warns that global temperatures will likely to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040 if warming continues at the current rate. This is the threshold value agreed upon in 2015 at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris.

Key takeaways from the IPCC report
> Climate change is a reality and it is going to get worse
> Humans are responsible for the “widespread, rapid and intensifying” effects of climate change, and some of them are irreversible
> Extreme weather is on the rise and will keep getting worse
> Oceans have warmed, their acidification has increased, and there has been a drop in Arctic sea ice
> Glaciers are melting at an accelerated pace
> Sea-level rise will be worse than once thought
> We must cut greenhouse gas emissions now, before brutal weather becomes more prevalent and more destructive
> Tipping points, or cut-offs—which, when exceeded, will set off self-perpetuating irreversible loops in the natural world—have a “low likelihood,” but they cannot be completely ruled out

After the report was made public, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.” Many media outlets did not mince words to describe the nightmarish scenario painted in the report about the future of our planet. The frontpage headline in The New York Times read, “A Hotter Future Is Certain, Climate Panel Warns. But How Hot Is Up to Us.” The Atlantic described the crisis with two words: “It’s Grim.” One of the authors of IPCC’s 2001 report told CNN, “Bottom line is that we have zero years left to avoid dangerous climate change, because it’s here.” On the other hand, in an opinion piece in the conservative The Wall Street Journal, a physicist expressed scepticism about coverage by the media. He wrote, “Despite constant warnings of catastrophe, things aren’t anywhere near as dire as the media say.”

Eight years in the making, the report essentially validates the seemingly bleak future that many of us foresaw with trepidation. It also confirms what scientists had predicted even before coal-fired power plants were built. In 1856, American scientist Eunice Foote was the first to describe the extraordinary power of carbon dioxide—the driving force of global warming—to absorb heat. The first quantitative estimate of climate change influenced by carbon dioxide was made in 1895 by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist and Nobel laureate.

For the general public, physicist James Hansen of NASA sounded the alarm about climate change after his testimony to the US Congress in June 1988 on the detrimental effects of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Yet in 1995, the IPCC is on record stating that the ability to connect climate change to human activities is “currently limited.” This time around, the IPCC admits that they can now link recent natural disasters with climate change in a way that they have not been able to before. What an about-turn!

The latest IPCC report is a stark reminder of what we are experiencing today—scorching summers roasting millions of people worldwide, out-of-control wildfires, protracted droughts, widespread famine, killer storms, torrential rainfall followed by cataclysmic floods, and more. These are among the most visible and damaging signs that the Earth’s climate is changing for the worse as a result of burning fossil fuels. And all these weather-related events are happening because the world warmed by a “mere” 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. Clearly, with each passing day, these events will become more intense, turbocharged, amplified, and worse.

Thanks to the report, many Republicans in the US Congress, who for decades disputed the existence of climate change, no longer deny that the Earth is heating up because of greenhouse gas emissions. Or perhaps the statement from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—that July was the world’s hottest month ever recorded—forced them to acknowledge climate change. However, they are still unwilling to abandon fossil fuels.

Since the 1980s, emissions, particularly of carbon dioxide, have ballooned to unprecedented levels despite repeated, and at times frantic, warnings from scientists about “civilisation-shaking” catastrophes. Scientists at the International Energy Agency say that emissions of carbon dioxide “are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021, the second-largest increase in history, reversing most of last year’s decline caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Climate is controlled by how much of the Sun’s heat arrives at and remains trapped near the Earth’s surface. Because the Sun is expected to shine at the minimum for another five billion years, we can envisage no major changes in the incoming heat for many thousands of years to come. Thus, the changes we will see in climate from now until 2050, a cut-off year determined at COP21 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, will mostly depend on how much of the arriving heat is retained by the Earth’s surface.

Having said that, even if the goals of COP21 are met, the Earth will still be warmer in the future than it is today and the warming trend will continue because it takes a long time for the Earth’s climate to adjust to the changes in its energy budget, resulting from increased greenhouse gas concentrations. Besides, if emissions of carbon dioxide dropped to zero tomorrow, climate change will continue to play out for centuries because the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere have lifetimes of hundreds and thousands of years. Given this circumstance, we can still keep warming below catastrophic levels by going carbon negative together with zero emission. Carbon negative means removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than adding to it.

Climate change and Bangladesh

As for Bangladesh, it is among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Although the global share of carbon dioxide emissions by Bangladesh is a meagre 0.21 percent, climate change has already been inflicting untold miseries on its people. The government has identified floods, cyclones, droughts, tidal surges, tornadoes, river erosion, water logging, rising sea level and soil salinity as major hazards that are behind a shift in migration and increasing poverty.

Bangladesh has a hot climate, with summer temperatures that can hit 45 degrees Celsius. In a world that is hotter by 1.5 to two degrees Celsius, heat waves will break new records, with more than half of summers being abnormally hot. Northern Bangladesh will enter a new climatic regime, with temperatures above levels not seen in the past 100 years. In light of this fact, the government is rightfully demanding that industrialised nations, who are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, reduce their planet-warming pollution without further delay, compensate poor countries for the damages caused, and fund them so that they can be better prepared for a perilous future.

In the past few years, the Bangladesh government made significant advances in disaster risk reduction. It has constructed a series of multi-purpose buildings that are used as storm shelters during cyclones, significantly reducing mortality. Notwithstanding, the damage and loss of income due to climate change is on the rise. Nevertheless, if Bangladesh wants to become a middle-income country, the government should focus on mitigation along with adaptation, and move away from coal-fired power plants.

On a different note, the amount of methane emitted by Bangladesh is so high that the country is now becoming a significant contributor to environmental degradation. Methane is a greenhouse gas that can cause 28 times as much warming as an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide over a period of 100 years. According to IPCC, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher now than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

Melting of glaciers and ice sheets

A few words about the effects of global warming on one of the primary sources of fresh water are in order here. Out of the 71 percent of water that make up the Earth’s surface, the vast majority, over 96 percent, is non-drinkable saline water in seas and oceans. Just 3.5 percent is fresh water, but a minuscule amount—approximately one percent—are in freshwater lakes, streams and in the atmosphere. The bulk of the fresh water, almost 70 percent, is trapped in ice and glaciers. While most of the ice is in the Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland, some are scattered as glaciers in the mountains around the world.

The glaciers we see today are remnants of the past Ice Age, an alternating period of melting and freezing that lasted about a million years. Yielding only to the warmth of the Sun’s rays, these giant rivers of ice grind their way to the sea, crushing everything in their path, scouring the landscape, shaping mountain peaks and carving broad valleys.

Considered to be the “gold standard for measuring climate change,” glaciers are a natural data bank. In between their thick layers of compacted snow, glaciers hold records of volcanic eruptions, chemicals in the air and changes in the atmosphere. They reflect variations in the pattern of weather and climate over long periods of time.

Glaciers feed many of the world’s important river systems, including the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus, and directly or indirectly supply millions of people with food, energy, clean air and incomes. Communities living at the foothills of large mountains use glaciers as a source of water.

Across the high mountain region from the Hindu Kush to the Himalayas, which stretches from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, air temperatures have risen by nearly two degrees since the start of the 20th century. In response, glaciers are melting and retreating, permafrost is thawing and weather patterns are becoming more erratic, disrupting previously reliable water sources for millions and triggering more natural disasters. Scientists are worried that the impacts will hit not just those living in the mountains, but also millions of people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan living in the river valleys below.

Melting of glaciers has another effect. More melting means more water pools in lakes on top of the glaciers or at their lower snouts. Since the late 1970s, the number of glacial lakes across the Himalayas in Nepal has more than doubled. These lakes are often growing so fast and hold so much water that they have gushed through the rock piles holding them back, resulting in devastating floods. Additionally, steep slopes that were locked in place by frozen soil have thawed, causing rockfalls, collapsing terrains, avalanches and mud slides.

Because of global warming, ice sheets are melting at breakneck speed and will continue to melt. Indeed, a historic heat wave in July melted ice in Greenland large enough to flood the entire state of Florida with well-nigh two inches of water. At the same time, extreme flooding from higher sea level will continue to get more frequent, and the sea level itself will continue to rise well into the next century, mainly because of thermal expansion due to the amount of heat the oceans have absorbed so far.

Widespread loss of ice sheets will likely alter climate in other complex ways. For example, their white surfaces help to keep our climate relatively mild by reflecting the Sun’s rays. When they melt, darker exposed surfaces will absorb and retain more heat, thereby raising global temperatures.

It is now a truism that global warming begets more warming. Therefore, the effects of climate change will worsen with every fraction of a degree of warming. Even if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the kinds of extreme weather events we are experiencing this year, in winter and summer alike, will become more severe and more recurrent. Beyond 1.5 degrees, scientists say the climate system will be unrecognisable. In all likelihood, it will lead to the disappearance of small island nations and low-lying coastal countries, as well as unleash tens of millions of climate refugees upon an unprepared world.

What will be the response of our leaders and policymakers after they read the IPCC report? It will not be an exaggeration to say that world leaders, who are under tremendous pressure to deliver on promises made at COP21, cannot distinguish the divide between rhetoric and reality. Hence, at COP26, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland later this year, we should not expect any firm commitment from them to save the world. Instead, their speeches will be like the ones given at past climate-related summits—”full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Finally, the well-researched and well-intentioned report on climate change and recommendations for mitigation and adaptation contained therein can, metaphorically speaking, be characterised as a “recovery mission” rather than a “rescue mission.”

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Disasters - natural and man-made, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious, Technical

Taliban – Pakistan’s weapon of mass destruction

Protection against terrorism

The world is horrified at the speed and extent of Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and the consequent collapse of Afghan military force. Afghan military has shown that it is as strong and stable as the house of cards; when just nudged by Taliban, it starts to collapse and has the domino effect under its own momentum. At this point in time, the 15th of August 2021, Taliban is poised to take over Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and thereby bringing an end to the American invasion of Afghanistan about twenty years ago and completing the utter humiliation of mighty America.

But Taliban is not the rag-tag of rebel soldiers or tribal gangsters with slings and arrows. Taliban had been put together by Pakistan, made into a fighting force and, above all, the strategy of ensuing battle in Afghanistan had been master minded by Pakistan. Pakistan may be a rogue and failed state, but its military machine is very much functional and ready to meddle in other state’s internal affairs. As Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician, said some years ago, “The state of India has an Army, the Army of Pakistan has a state.”  

In particular, one would say, Pakistan always had the inclination to fish in the muddy waters of other countries, particularly Afghanistan. Following the coup d’état in April 1978 (Saur Revolution) by the People’s Democratic Party in Afghanistan against its President Daoud Khan, a chain of events was set in motion. America wanted to sabotage the coup to undermine its cold war rival, the Soviet Union; and the Soviet Union in response sent in troops in December 1979 to prop up the collapsing government of the coup leaders.  

That is when Pakistan found enough ammunition to trump up the situation. How could an atheist communist state be allowed to take over a Muslim state, they thundered? Pakistan drummed up support from Western capitalist states as well as Muslim states to avenge the situation. Mujahedeen, a conglomeration of rebel soldiers with Islamist zeal along with some pro-Chinese elements, were formed by Pakistan with the direct help and administrative support of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan back in the early days following the invasion of Soviet Union. Pakistan took the central role in procuring funds from America and other Western states as well as unlimited funds from the oil-rich Arab states. On top of that, the 34-nation Organisation of Islamic States (OIC) gave Pakistan full political and financial backing. In return, Pakistan was entrusted with military training, logistic and intelligence support as well as arms and ammunition to the Mujahedeen.

It was a perfect win-win situation for Pakistan. Almost the whole of Pakistan’s military machine was bank-rolled on Mujahedeen’s expenses financed by Arab states and America. At the same time, Pakistan formed a gangster fraternity with the CIA and American military machine. Mujahedeen had been made into a fighting force much better than that of many third world country. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was bleeding profusely under the twin attack of the capitalist world and the Muslim world. By 1985, Soviet Union expressed willingness to negotiate its troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, but neither Afghanistan nor America was willing to negotiate. However, in 1988, Soviet Union decided to withdraw from Afghanistan and leave the country to fend for itself. Within a year, the Soviet Union itself was in turmoil and started to break up.

Pakistan was basking in the glory of defeating the mighty Soviet Union. It is said that Afghan war might have contributed, at least partially, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ISI’s chief, Gen Hamid Gul, twirling his moustache bragged to the world that his men had brought down the mighty Soviet Union. However, radical Islam and political Islam got a new lease of life and a safe sanctuary in Pakistan. But that was a small price to pay for Pakistan for the wider geo-political victory and the concocted world status. America also in its turn declared that Soviet Union had been ‘taught a very good lesson’ and the ‘job was well done’. But hardly did the so-called victors realise that they had created a monster, a monster of Frankenstein’s proportion, which one day might devour the masters!

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, America considered the job well done and lost any interest in the back waters of geo-political schism. Mujahedeen had been left in the lurch, with thousands of heavily armed soldiers roaming around aimlessly in the streets of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan’s ISI which had initiated and guided the Mujahedeen right from 1979 took advantage of this vacuum. In doing so, Pakistan received financial help and military assistance from Western countries to manage the situation. But that was not enough to Pakistan’s liking and Pakistan started to play a duplicitous role. On the one hand they continued to get American and Western help to disassemble Mujahedeen and on the other hand they surreptitiously helped to re-organise the terrorist groups into al-Qaeda and others groups including Taliban.

The word Taliban is a Pashtu word – the plural of ‘talib (student)’. The Taliban were students who were trained in the strict Islamic fundamentalism, the Deobandi ideology and vowed to follow the strict interpretation of Sharia or Islamic Law. These hardcore Islamists were put together in 1994 along with the remnants of Mujahedeen as Taliban under the tutelage of Pakistan’s ISI.

The stray Mujahedeen fighters started dispersing to various Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda, ISIS (Daesh), other fringe terrorist groups. American exploitation of Saudi oil, the invasion of Iraq, its blatant opposition of Iranian theocracy etc were all the powder keg of anti-Americanism. America’s desertion from the region without any reconstruction was very much resented in the region. America thus became the culprit, the root cause of the suffering of the people of the country and Pakistan fanned the flame of this narrative. 

When Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, America realised that they had created a monster and that monster had been let loose. The erstwhile ally and reliable foot soldiers in the shape of Mujahedeen had become America’s blood enemies. Afghanistan became the centre of world terrorism and al-Qaeda was the main operative. After the 9/11 attack in 2001 on America by al-Qaeda and when Osama bin Laden was tracked to be hiding in Afghanistan, America demanded his immediate extradition. Taliban being the ideological bedfellow of al-Qaeda refused to do so. America along with other Western countries invaded Afghanistan in December 2001 and dislodged Taliban within a year or so. Although most of the Taliban leadership had been killed and its offices had been massacred, but the brain behind Taliban ideology was safely tucked away across the borders in Pakistan.

Taliban had suffered temporary set-back but not destroyed. They were dispersed to outlying areas in the countryside in Afghanistan and regrouped in Pakistan. America thought that with their fire power and sophisticated military machine, they would annihilate Taliban in a short period of time and leave the country with ‘job well done’ after 2001 invasion! But after 20 years (from 2001 to 2021) of blood, sweat and tears, with over 1.3 trillion dollars cost and more than 2,300 American soldiers’ fatality (along with more than a thousand British, Canadian, Australian and other soldiers’ fatality), America lost any appetite to fight with the Taliban and decided to withdraw on the anniversary of al-Qaeda (supported by Taliban) attack on America!   

America announced its intention more than a month ago, which means more than two months before the intended withdrawal date, and since then America had been haemorrhaging in military capability and political credibility. At that time, the expert opinion was that within two months of America’s withdrawal, Taliban may take over the control of the country. Since that time, the time scale of collapse of Afghan government had been progressively reduced and now, one month prior to American withdrawal, the collapse is imminent. American soldiers, about few thousands remaining, haven’t got enough time to evacuate and any soldiers sent to rescue them will themselves be hostage! The collapse of Kabul is worse than Saigon. In Saigon, American soldiers at least had time to evacuate, now in Kabul they have no time to evacuate and they are likely to be prisoners in the invaded land. The superpower is a badly defeated party and Russia is having the last laugh. Russia now even can throw back ‘America had been taught a very good lesson’.

What made Taliban carryout such successful ‘blitzkrieg’ attack, albeit without air power, on Afghan soldiers? There must be unseen long hand of ISI directing and giving tactical advice to invade town after town and then closing in on the capital itself. Even America with its sophisticated satellite navigation, aerial survey and intelligence services on the ground caught completely unaware and now probably hoping to have divine help to rescue the American soldiers.

Pakistan with its duplicity has got the upper hand for the time being. They had been squeezing America over the years with the threat of Taliban to pump money into the country. Taliban has become Pakistan’s weapon of mass destruction. But there is always a time when the blackmail victim would say, “enough is enough, we must confront the menace”. That time has probably come. America and the rest of the world must stand up and put an end to the blatant Pakistani blackmail using Islamic fundamentalism and ensuing terrorism. 

Dr A Rahman MSRP CRadP FNucI

Advanced science, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Amid global warming – why are we in a deep freeze?

Obverse effects of global warming

During winter, more often than not, a large part of northern United States is pummelled by an Arctic blast, sometimes severe, sometimes less so, that lasts for a week or two. But this winter’s blast plunged not only Midwest and Northeast into a deep freeze with bone-chilling temperatures as low as negative 45 degrees Celsius, but it also tested the mettle of millions of people living in the Deep South, particularly Texas, a state that seldom experience sub-zero temperature.

An onslaught of freak wintery weather—a cocktail of heavy snow, sleet and chilling ice storm—with sub-zero temperatures knocked millions of Texans off the power grid and plunged them into deep freeze, the lowest being negative 12 degrees in Houston. Frozen and burst water pipes in homes and businesses were widespread. Unlike northern states, Texas is not equipped to handle ice, sleet or snow. As a consequence, hundreds of vehicles, including dozens of 18-wheeler, were involved in horrific and sometimes fatal pileups on untreated icy roads.

The recent extreme weather is not limited to the United States. That is because when the winter is extreme in one part of the hemisphere, it is often extreme all across the hemisphere. Thus, the “beast” from the Arctic hit Europe too. In January, Spain experienced a deadly snow storm with dangerously low temperatures. Even a tropical country like Bangladesh, especially the northern region, could not escape the wrath of the cold wave.

Snow fell hard in Greece and Turkey, where it is far less normal. Snow also fell in Jerusalem and parts of Jordan and Syria, while snow-covered camels in Saudi Arabia made for a rare sight. We also had more than our fair share of snow. In the lower Hudson Valley of New York, where I live, Mother Nature already dumped around 36 inches of snow since the last week of January, with more in the forecast. Most of the snow—24 inches—fell in a single storm event from January 31 through February 2.

Climate change deniers have often used cold winter weather to advance their argument that global warming is a Chinese hoax. In one infamous example, when an Arctic freeze descended on the northeast, including New York City, in December 2017, former US President Donald Trump tweeted, “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming to protect against” harsh winters. Only an ignoramus person like him could make such a stupid statement!

It may be counterintuitive, but paradoxically, among the many factors, anthropogenic climate change is mainly responsible for the short-lived bursts of extreme winter weather that we have been witnessing in recent years. Indeed, there is strong scientific evidence that rapid heating of the Arctic caused by global warming is pushing frigid air from the North Pole further down south due to distortion of the polar vortex.

Under normal conditions, cold air is concentrated in a huge low-pressure gyre around the North Pole in an area called the polar vortex—about 15 to 50 kilometres above the Earth’s surface in the layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere. When the vortex is strong, the jet stream—a narrow band of strong, fast-flowing wind in the upper atmosphere that generally blows from west to east all across the globe—acts as a barrier between the spinning cold air in the north and the warmer air to the south. As a result, cold air remains trapped in the Arctic, making winters in the northern mid-latitudes milder.

How does global warming distort the polar vortex? It is well-known that the rise in global temperature is not evenly spread around the world. Because of the loss of Arctic ice which otherwise would have reflected a substantial amount of solar radiation back into outer space, average temperature in and around the North Pole is increasing about twice as fast as in the mid-latitudes. This is known as Arctic Amplification. Several studies show that the amplification is particularly strong in winter. Consequently, a rapidly warming Arctic weakens the jet stream, which in turn weakens the polar vortex to the extent that it becomes distorted, thereby spilling its cold air southward.

According to meteorologists, in a span of two weeks from December to January, Arctic Amplification gave rise to a phenomenon called Sudden Stratospheric Warming, in which temperatures in the atmosphere 15 to 30 kilometres above the Arctic jumped by nearly 55 degrees, from negative 80 to negative 25 degrees. This accelerated warming weakened the jet stream considerably and subsequently distorted the vortex so severely that it got knocked off the pole, resulting in a sudden plunge in temperature south of the Arctic Circle all the way to the US-Mexico border. Hence, the once-in-a-lifetime cold winter in Texas and other southern states.

Continued rise in global temperature will not necessarily mean an end to bitter cold waves during winter any sooner. One group of researchers believe that Arctic blasts will still occur, but their intensity will depend on how much greenhouse gases we vent into the atmosphere. It is very probable that they will become rarer over time, but the ones we are experiencing now will more likely persist and last longer. Another group says that warming in the Arctic will increase the chances of frigid polar air spilling further south, leading to more periods of extreme cold days in the future, much colder than the ones we are experiencing now.

Nevertheless, the recent weather pattern clearly demonstrates that both extreme heat and extreme cold can happen side by side. Besides, two to four weeks of cold snaps do not make a winter. They are short-term weather events, while climate is about long-term trends. Arctic blasts are, therefore, not enough to compensate for the overall warming of the climate across the planet. In fact, last year was one of the hottest years on record, with the average temperature surpassing a number of all-time highs. And it occurred without the warming influence of El Niño.

Finally, we are in a deep freeze amid global warming because our “senseless and suicidal” romance with fossil fuels has fundamentally changed the global weather systems for worse.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, Human Rights, Life as it is, Political

COVID-19: Pauperisation of the Poor

South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) conducted a survey late last year to appraise the socio-economic condition of families in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The findings of the survey contain enough negatives to alarm the policymakers and the concerned citizens alike.

Bangladesh

According to the survey findings, the proportion of Bangladesh’s total population living below the poverty line has doubled from 21.6 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in late 2020 and the proportion of extreme poor tripled from a mere 9.4 percent to 28.5 percent over the  corresponding period. The pandemic has caused serious economic hardship, especially for the poor, all over the world. But such a mammoth slippage is unfathomable, especially when the country achieved nearly 4 percent growth last year compared to negative growth posted by most South Asian countries.

The findings raise serious questions about the efficacy of the government’s recovery packages in reaching the population in dire need of government assistance. The population living marginally above the poverty line or in poverty are always vulnerable to slip into one level down at the slightest sign of any economic instability.

Our policymakers should keep in mind that no degree of economic growth is fulfilling if its benefits fail to reach the downtrodden masses.  Development, no matter how glittering it appears, carries little value to the poor unless its benefits trickle down to them in some form or other. Else, they feel left behind as then they only see the glitter of development but not its benefits.

Moreover, such a substantial spike in poverty level may derail Bangladesh in its journey to achieve middle income country status. Apart from maintaining the required per capita Gross National Income (GNI) level, which it likely will, the country must also maintain the threshold level in one of the two other criteria, the Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) criteria, in the next triennial review to be held in 2021. Only then the chances of Bangladesh being recognized by the UN as a middle income country in 2024 will remain alive. Otherwise, there will be, at a minimum, three-year delay in Bangladesh achieving middle income status unless the UN relaxes the conditions due to the pandemic. 

As of today, the chances of Bangladesh slipping below the threshold level on both counts appear real, demanding immediate pragmatic measures to counter them.

Now the question arises, what went wrong with the government’s relief packages. Why did they fail to deliver the desired benefit to the population in direst need? Was sufficient resources allocated for the vulnerable population in the relief packages? Did the mechanisms used for the delivering the resources to the target beneficiaries work? Well, the time has come to look seriously into the foregoing questions as a first step to mitigate the suffering of the people living below or hovering around the poverty line.

Understandably, the major goal of the relief packages is to keep the economic wheel rolling at a time of unprecedented difficulties caused by the pandemic. It’s common knowledge that preventing the consumption level from rock bottoming is pivotal to succeed in achieving this goal. The following measures may help the country in improving the poverty situation as well as giving the economy a boost:

1) Delivery of increased food and cash resources to the population in dire need;

2) expansion of agricultural grant or loan, as appropriate, to subsistence farmers; and

3) enhancing employment opportunities via increased assistance to small and cottage industries.

Both cash relief and cash freed through food relief will help increase purchasing power of the target population enabling them to buy more manufactured consumer goods, essential for steady economic recovery.

Much thought should be given on formulating the best possible path of achieving speedy economic recovery. The path on which poverty alleviation and economic recovery walks hand in hand. A path on which each complements the other.

It is heartening that the country has attained the economic capacity to make it happen. What’s needed is due diligence to develop necessary plans and programs and their effective execution.

ASM Jahangir is a former Senior Program Manager of USAID/Bangladesh.