May 31, 2013 11:36 am
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that unapproved genetically modified wheat was found growing on an Oregon farm. Developed as an experimental crop by Monsanto years ago, the strain of wheat was bred to be resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. “Such wheat was field-tested in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998 through 2005, but Monsanto dropped the project before the wheat was ever approved for commercial planting,” says the Times. Even so, an Oregon farmer found that it was growing in his field.
According to the F.D.A., says the Times, the wheat poses no risks to human health. Yet, the discovery of the modified wheat and the possibility that it may be growing elsewhere has prompted a number of countries that rely on U.S. wheat to suspend their supply. Japan, American’s biggest buyer of wheat, has “canceled plans to buy U.S. wheat,” says Reuters. South Korea, too, has suspended imports. The European Union plans to increase testing for the modified wheat. China and the Philippines plan to wait and see what happens.
The purchase freezes are not only important for the U.S. economy, where wheat exports are an $8 billion business. The U.S. is the fourth largest producer of wheat in the world, but it is “consistently the world’s biggest wheat exporter,” accounting for between 20 percent and 30 percent of world exports annually.
And of all the wheat the U.S. produces, the country that buys the most is Japan. Japan gets just under 60 percent of its wheat imports from the U.S. On the whole, East and South-East Asia represent the second largest importers of wheat. North Africa and the Middle East are the most dependent on wheat imports.
So if Japan, South Korea and others turn off from American wheat, then where will it come from? Importers will have to depend on Canada, the European Union or eastern Europe to increase exports. (Step it up, Australia.) It’s all a delicate economic balance. U.S. farmers don’t want their wheat, genetically modified or not, to rot in storage, so they’ll try to sell it to countries that don’t care (or don’t have the option of caring) about this taint. Someone’s probably willing to pay for it.
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May 30, 2013 1:42 pm
Tomorrow afternoon, the giant asteroid 1998 QE2 will shoot by the Earth. The asteroid is roughly 1.7 miles wide, says NASA, and will pass by around 3.6 million miles away—15 times the distance from us to the Moon. But Friday’s afternoon approach will be the closest this little rock will be to our somewhat bigger rock for the next two hundred years.
The White House, hip to generational fear-of-missing-out anxieties, is ramping up to make this an asteroid-pass to remember. (Just think: Two hundred years. This is your only chance to see this.) As part of their ongoing We the Geeks campaign, the leaders of the free world are orchestrating a live Google Plus hangout to talk about the asteroid. Lori Garver, the deputy administrator of NASA, will be there, as will Peter Diamandis, the co-founder of a company that wants to start mining asteroids for minerals. So will Bill Nye the Science Guy. You can’t miss this chance to hang out with Bill Nye. (Can you? N0.)
According to NASA, the asteroid will make its close pass at 4:59 pm Eastern, 1:59 pm Pacific. The White House’s pre-game show kicks off at 2 pm Eastern, 11 am Pacific.
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May 24, 2013 2:01 pm
Earlier this month, a new type of waterfowl paddled into Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. The bird was of the plastic variety: specifically, the world’s largest inflatable rubber duck, measuring 46 feet tall and 55 feet long.
The floating sculpture migrated to the harbor by tugboat on May 4 after stops in Sydney, Osaka and Sao Paolo. The art installation, created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, drew thousands of camera-toting locals and tourists to the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront.
But last week, the six-story-tall duck was temporarily deflated for maintenance, distressing its rapidly growing fan base as it bobbed helplessly in the water. It wasn’t pretty.
Harbor officials didn’t immediately explain why the duck had crumpled, and rumors spread. There were enough claims that the bird had been deflated by mainland Chinese tourists that the state-run China Central Television issued a statement denying the rumor.
But the duck returned to its full size today, announcing on Twitter:
Thanks for all the support everyone! I am all freshen up! twitter.com/hkharbourcity/…
— Harbour City (@hkharbourcity) May 21, 2013
Fans rallied behind the inflatable bird, tweeting well-wishes. Since its debut, the popular bathtime companion has become something of a beloved national icon. The International Herald Tribune reports:
Thousands gathered around the waterfront when “Rubber Duck” made its debut May 2. Since then, countless duck-themed products have shown up at shops and restaurants. Teenagers are wearing rubber-duck outfits, and tourist kiosks are selling rubber-duck postcards. Its smiling face was even seen at the Cheung Chau bun festival, a 200-year-old tradition on an outlying island.
The South China Morning Post, the main English-language broadsheet, has published no fewer than 19 articles, opinion pieces and blog posts about it. One editorial, “Giant Rubber Duck Has United the City,” argued that it did more to inspire Hong Kongers than a recent government drive to raise morale.
The inflatable rubber duck will remain in Victoria Harbor until June 9.
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May 24, 2013 11:32 am
Just north of Seattle, a bridge over the Skagit River collapsed yesterday, plunging cars and their drivers into the water. The Interstate 5 bridge, built in 1955, was listed as “functionally obsolete” but was not considered structurally unsound. No one was killed in the collapse.
Authorities are still investigating what caused the bridge to break apart and have suggested that a commercial vehicle might have hit it, prompting the collapse. But they aren’t sure yet. At least three vehicles wound up in the water, including a camping trailer, according to witnesses.
The New York Times explains that the bridge was certainly old and outdated, but no more so than many of Seattle’s bridges:
The bridge was built in 1955 and has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, according to federal records. That is well below the statewide average rating of 80, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data, but 759 bridges in the state have a lower sufficiency score.
According to a 2012 Skagit County Public Works Department report, 42 of the county’s 108 bridges are 50 years or older. The document says eight of the bridges are more than 70 years old and two are over 80.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, Washington isn’t the only state whose infrastructure is in need of serious work. Their 2013 report card gave the entire United States a D+ overall, and a C+ for bridges. Washington State got a C- for it’s bridges, ” in part due to the nearly 400 structurally deficient bridges in Washington State. 36 percent of Washington’s bridges are past their design life of 50 years.”
The report explains that bridges in the United States are in pretty bad condition overall:
Over two hundred million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metropolitan regions. In total, one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that to eliminate the nation’s bridge deficient backlog by 2028, we would need to invest $20.5 billion annually, while only $12.8 billion is being spent currently. The challenge for federal, state, and local governments is to increase bridge investments by $8 billion annually to address the identified $76 billion in needs for deficient bridges across the United States.
The 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which killed thirteen people, made the consequences of these numbers all too real. And in Washington, D.C., a 60-year-old bridge over the Anacostia River was in the news in January as it began to fall apart faster than repairs could be made.
“If any bridge is unsafe, we immediately take it out of service,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the Washington Post in January. “However, it’s no secret that many aging bridges across the country are in need of repair or replacement, and there simply isn’t enough money in Washington to fund them all.”
Transportation for America released a report last year that mapped and documented the state of the country’s bridges. The report found that “68,842 bridges — 11.5 percent of total highway bridges in the U.S. — are classified as ‘structurally deficient,’ requiring significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.”
And it wasn’t just the I-5 bridge that collapsed yesterday, either. In Texas, a railroad bridge caught on fire and collapsed into the Colorado River.
So while there may not be money laying around to fix bridges, there are certainly bridges laying around that need fixing.
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May 23, 2013 12:13 pm
On Monday, we tried to put the tornado that ripped through central Oklahoma, killing 24 people, in historical context. The tornado stayed on the ground for 40 minutes, and the path of destruction was estimated to be 1.3 miles across at its widest. Winds blew at more than 200 miles per hour. We wrote how this monster storm fit in with what we know about tornadoes:
There are a lot of parameters by which a tornado can be deemed the worst, and by pretty much all counts today’s Moore tornado is up there. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration keeps a list of historical tornadoes—devastating twisters known for their size, their duration and their destruction. Though the Moore tornado doesn’t trump any of them, its combination of size, strength and duration made it an incredibly dangerous storm.
The aftermath of the storm has seen the clean-up and damage assessment begin. So far, the damage caused by the storm is estimated to have been in the range of $2 billion, a sum that would make this the 3rd most expensive U.S. tornado of all time.
At first, the storm was rated an EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale. Since then, it has been upgraded to an EF-5, the highest ranking on the scale. The is the the 59th level 5 storm in the past 63 years. Though many people think of the Enhanced Fujita scale as a scale of wind speed, it is actually a scale for damage. By looking at the amount of damage caused to different types of structures, scientists assign the storm an Enhanced Fujita scale classification. From the amount of damage they see, they then try to reverse engineer the storm’s wind speeds.
As it tracks along the ground, a tornado’s power can change. By looking at the damage, you can see how the storm evolved. The National Weather Service put out this map showing how the Moore tornado grew from an EF-0 when it first touched down to an EF-4 in the heart of the city. It also briefly spiked up to EF-5 based on the damage seen at the Briarwood Elementary school.
On Google’s Crisis Map, you can see the scar cut into the city by the tornado. Dotting the map are little triangles, each color-coded by the EF scale rating, with light blue being EF-0 and purple EF-5. Clicking on each of these triangles shows a description of the damage at the site and in many cases a photograph, a clear, if depressing, visualization of the Enhanced Fujita scale.
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