New Study Finds the Best Brain Exercises to Boost Memory
Korin Miller – January 28, 2023
Research has found exercise can have a positive impact on your memory and brain health.
A new study linked vigorous exercise to improved memory, planning, and organization.
Data suggests just 10 minutes a day can have a big impact.
Experts have known for years about the physical benefits of exercise, but research has been ongoing into how working out can impact your mind. Now, a new study reveals the best exercise for brain health—and it can help sharpen everything from your memory to your ability to get organized.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, tracked data from nearly 4,500 people in the UK who had activity monitors strapped to their thighs for 24 hours a day over the course of a week. Researchers analyzed how their activity levels impacted their short-term memory, problem-solving skills, and ability to process things.
The study found that doing moderate and vigorous exercise and activities—even those that were done in under 10 minutes—were linked to much higher cognition scores than people who spent most of their time sitting, sleeping, or doing gentle activities. (Vigorous exercise generally includes things like running, swimming, biking up an incline, and dancing; moderate exercise includes brisk walking and anything that gets your heart beating faster.)
The researchers specifically found that people who did these workouts had better working memory (the small amount of information that can be held in your mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks) and that the biggest impact was on executive processes like planning and organization.
On the flip side: People who spent more time sleeping, sitting, or only moved a little in place of doing moderate to vigorous exercise had a 1% to 2% drop in cognition.
“Efforts should be made to preserve moderate and vigorous physical activity time, or reinforce it in place of other behaviors,” the researchers wrote in the conclusion.
But the study wasn’t perfect—it used previously collected cohort data, so the researchers didn’t know extensive details of the participants’ health or their long-term cognitive health. The findings “may simply be that those individuals who move more tend to have higher cognition on average,” says lead study author John Mitchell, a doctoral training student in the Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health at University College London. But, he adds, the findings could also “imply that even minimal changes to our daily lives can have downstream consequences for our cognition.”
So, why might there be a link between exercise and a good memory? Here’s what you need to know.
Why might exercise sharpen your memory and thinking?
This isn’t the first study to find a link between exercise and enhanced cognition. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifically states online that physical activity can help improve your cognitive health, improving memory, emotional balance, and problem-solving.
Working out regularly can also lower your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. One scientific analysis of 128,925 people published in the journal Preventive Medicine in 2020 found that cognitive decline is almost twice as likely in adults who are inactive vs. their more active counterparts.
But, the “why” behind it all is “not entirely clear,” says Ryan Glatt, C.P.T., senior brain health coach and director of the FitBrain Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA. However, Glatt says, previous research suggests that “it is possible that different levels of activity may affect brain blood flow and cognition.” Meaning, exercising at a harder clip can stimulate blood flow to your brain and enhance your ability to think well in the process.
“It could relate to a variety of factors related to brain growth and skeletal muscle,” says Steven K. Malin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “Often, studies show the more aerobically fit individuals are, the more dense brain tissue is, suggesting better connectivity of tissue and health.”
Exercise also activates skeletal muscles (the muscles that connect to your bones) that are thought to release hormones that communicate with your brain to influence the health and function of your neurons, i.e. cells that act as information messengers, Malin says. “This could, in turn, promote growth and regeneration of brain cells that assist with memory and cognition,” he says.
Currently, the CDC recommends that most adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise.
The best exercises for your memory
Overall, the CDC suggests doing the following to squeeze more exercise into your life to enhance your brain health:
Do squats or march in place while watching TV
Start a walking routine
Use the stairs
Walk your dog, if you have one (one study found that dog owners walk, on average, 22 minutes more every day than people who don’t own dogs)
However, the latest study suggests that more vigorous activities are really what’s best for your brain. The study didn’t pinpoint which exercises, in particular, are best—“when wearing an accelerometer, we do not know what sorts of activities individuals are doing,” Glatt points out. However, getting your heart rate up is key.
Malin’s advice: “Take breaks in sitting throughout the day by doing activity ‘snacks.’” That could mean doing a minute or two of jumping jacks, climbing stairs at a brisk pace, or doing air squats or push-ups to try to replace about six to 10 minutes of sedentary behavior a day. “Alternatively, trying to get walks in for about 10 minutes could go a long way,” he says.
In Texas Oil Country, an Unfamiliar Threat: Earthquakes
J. David Goodman – January 28, 2023
PECOS, Texas — The West Texas earth shook one day in November, shuddering through the two-story City Hall in downtown Pecos, swaying the ceiling fans at an old railroad station, rattling the walls at a popular taqueria.
The tremor registered as a 5.4 magnitude earthquake, among the largest recorded in the state. Then, a month later, another of similar magnitude struck not far away, near Odessa and Midland, twin oil country cities with relatively tall office buildings, some of them visible for miles around.
The earthquakes, arriving in close succession, were the latest in what has been several years of surging seismic activity in Texas, a state known for many types of natural disasters but not typically, until now, for major earth movements. In 2022, the state recorded more than 220 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher, up from 26 recorded in 2017, when the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas began close monitoring.
So unheard-of were strong earthquakes in the flat, oil-rich expanse about a six-hour drive west of Austin that some residents at first mistook the November quake for a powerful gust of wind. Lloyd Chappell, a retired propane deliveryperson who was in his recliner at the time, thought one of his grown sons was making a joke of shaking his chair. But no one was there. His water sloshed around in his glass for 30 long seconds.
“We’ve heard noises before — out there in the oil field, they drop big tanks, or things like that,” said Chappell, 66. “But I’d never felt that before.”
The vast majority of the temblors have been concentrated in the highly productive oil fields of the Permian Basin, particularly those in Reeves County, north and west of the city of Pecos. The county’s official population of 14,000 does not account for thousands of mostly male transient workers staying in austere “man camps” and RV parks, brought there by the promise of good pay in exchange for long hours, stark terrain and dangerous work.
Now earthquakes have become part of the same calculation.
“In West Texas, you love the smell of the oil and gas patch because it’s the smell of money,” said Rod Ponton, a former Pecos city attorney who once unintentionally attained international fame by appearing as a worried cat during a court hearing on Zoom. “If you have to have the ground shaking every two or three months to make sure you have a good paycheck coming in every month, you’re not going to think twice about it.”
The economy of Pecos and a handful of surrounding towns — some little more than sand-blown highway intersections and crowded gas station convenience stores — revolves around the oil fields.
John Briers moved several months ago to a man camp in Orla, in Reeves County, to take a job at one of two convenience stores because the pay was twice as much as he was getting in Houston. “It’s nice to have so much space,” he said of the area. “But it’s two hours from the nearest cardiologist.”
When the November earthquake struck, Briers, 55, was working at the store, whose central seating area acts as an informal workers cafeteria. The force was enough to shake the building, he said, and to push a large mobile crane, parked nearby, into a trailer. Briers likened it to the artillery he felt while serving in the military in Afghanistan.
On a recent weekday, a lunchtime crowd of mostly men in dusty work boots and shirts emblazoned with company logos streamed into the store from white pickup trucks, mostly uninterested in discussing earthquakes. Had they felt any of the quakes that seismic monitors showed striking across the oil fields?
“Nobody really cares while the money is there,” said Nick Granado, 31, stopping briefly before grabbing lunch. He said he had been at home in Pecos with his wife and 2-year-old child at the time of the November earthquake. “It was different,” he said of the shaking. “But I wasn’t scared.”
In Reeves County, oil and gas production has increasingly meant hydraulic fracturing, a process of extraction that produces, as a byproduct, a huge amount of wastewater. Some of that wastewater is reused in fracking operations, but most of it is injected back under the ground. It is that process of forcing tens of billions of gallons of water into the earth that, regulators and geoscientists agree, is to blame for many of the earthquakes.
The connection between wastewater disposal and earthquakes has been long understood. Other states with substantial fracking operations have also seen the ground shake as a result, including Oklahoma, where a similarly rapid increase in earthquakes more than a decade ago included a 5.6 magnitude quake in 2016 that forced the shutdown of several wastewater wells.
Getting rid of the “produced” water is an important business in West Texas, and locations labeled “SWD” — for saltwater disposal — dot the landscape of drilling rigs and truck-worn roads. Each of the past few years, about 168 billion gallons of wastewater have been disposed of in this way, according to data from the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil industry.
Texas only recently began its statewide program of monitoring for earthquakes, after a series of small quakes in North Texas rattled residents of Dallas and Fort Worth. The monitoring started in 2017 — just as petroleum development accelerated in the Permian Basin, particularly in and around Reeves County — and began to detect the increasing seismic activity.
“It was really very fortuitous,” said Peter Hennings, the principal investigator for the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research at the University of Texas.
Hennings said that while natural earthquakes can occur in West Texas, they can also be induced through human activity: the injection of a large amount of water in a short period of time adds fluid pressure under the earth, which essentially decreases the “clamping” between rocks along natural faults and allows them to slip, creating an earthquake.
And seismologists have established a relationship between smaller earthquakes and larger ones, Hennings said: The more small earthquakes you have, the greater the likelihood of a bigger one.
The problem can be addressed by cutting back on the amount of saltwater being injected back into the ground. Oklahoma, for example, did so in recent years and has seen a reduction in the number of earthquakes.
In 2021, the Texas Railroad Commission noted “an unprecedented frequency of significant earthquakes” in and around Reeves County and asked companies to implement their own wastewater plans, hoping to decrease the number of 3.5 magnitude or greater earthquakes by the end of this year.
To address earthquakes outside Odessa and Midland, state regulators suspended permits for deep disposal wells. And just north of the border with Texas, New Mexico regulators have been taking their own steps to control saltwater disposal, including $2 million in fines to Exxon over compliance failures.
The fracking issue has been a big one for Texas environmental groups, which have raised concerns about pollution, climate change, social inequity — and now earthquakes. “It is past time for the Railroad Commission of Texas to update the rules on injection wells,” said Cyrus Reed, the conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, adding that there should be limits on injecting “polluted fracking wastewater” in places impacted by seismic activity.
For local officials in West Texas, the earthquakes have presented new and unforeseen concerns about the structural integrity of buildings and buried pipes, as well as basic questions such as, what are you supposed to do in an earthquake?
“It brought to light that we need to do some safety training,” said the Pecos city manager, Charles Lino. He had been in a staff meeting on the second floor of City Hall — a building Lino described as “very old” — when the floor began to move for what felt like a minute during the November earthquake, whose epicenter was northwest of town.
“Most of the staff were a little shaken and were, like, what do we do?” he said. “I don’t know how to react either, because I’m from this area.” Lino said the city was just beginning to develop its earthquake training.
Months earlier, in March, the head of emergency management for the county, Jerry Bullard, began keeping track of earthquakes. “There were two yesterday and one today,” he said on a recent weekday, looking at his list. He presented his catalog to the county’s leaders at a meeting in December. “They were kind of surprised,” he said.
His concern has been focused on the area’s older infrastructure, including the three-story courthouse in Pecos. But the county has been traditionally hands-off when it comes to building codes in unincorporated areas. “This county does not even have a fire code out in the county,” Bullard said.
At the same time, storing additional wastewater — with its volatile mix of chemicals — above ground in order to avoid injecting too much into the earth has created a new hazard, Bullard said. There were two explosions this month at saltwater disposal facilities in the county, setting off fires and “a black stream of smoke” visible for miles around, he said.
So far, the earthquakes have not caused much notable damage. Some residents said they noticed new cracks in their walls or patios, or a roof that appeared to slant a little more than before. Earthquake insurance is not something people generally purchase in West Texas, although there has been talk of it now, particularly in the larger cities of Odessa and Midland.
“We have tall buildings — not a lot of tall buildings — but people are concerned about foundations,” said Javier Joven, the mayor of Odessa, who met with state regulators and Midland leaders about the issue in 2021. Most of the area’s taller buildings were constructed decades ago, without the requirements now common in earthquake-prone areas, officials said. (Several in Midland have long sat empty, with some recently demolished or slated to be.)
So far, he said, officials have not taken steps to change building codes to address earthquakes, which could add significant new costs to construction. In the meantime, each tremor has become a topic of conversation. The mayor said he had felt at least three.
“The big popular discussion out here is: Did you feel it? Did you feel it?” he said. “And everyone goes on Facebook: I felt it. I felt it.”
3 Chicago-area oil refineries that dump toxic chemicals into Lake Michigan and other waterways are among worst polluters in US, study shows
Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune – January 27, 2023
Oil refineries are dumping massive amounts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the Great Lakes and the nation’s rivers with little, if any, oversight from government regulators, according to a new analysis that found some of the worst polluters are in the Chicago area.
During 2021 alone, 81 refineries in the United States that treat waste on-site released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates and other dissolved solids harmful to fish and other aquatic life, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project determined in its review of federal data.
The refineries also collectively discharged 60,000 pounds of selenium, an element that can mutate fish, and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen, which contributes to water-fouling algae blooms and dead zones in important fisheries such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the refineries are in low-income, predominantly Black and Latino communities that face disproportionate health risks from industrial pollution.
Some refinery pollution is legal because federal and state officials have failed to limit it, despite requirements in the 1972 Clean Water Act mandating a review of standards for various chemicals and metals at least every five years based on the latest science and improvements in water treatment technology.
“You have refineries that may look like they are complying with the law, but the standards are decades old and really don’t require very much,” said Eric Schaeffer, the group’s executive director and former chief of civil enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Three Chicago-area refineries — BP Whiting in Indiana, ExxonMobil Joliet and Citgo in Lemont — highlight the consequences of lax regulations and weak enforcement, Schaeffer said Thursday during an online news conference.
Even when limits are in place, oil companies often pay minimal fines for violating the law. Some aren’t penalized at all.
The Joliet refinery, on the Des Plaines River southwest of the city, exceeded its permitted levels of pollution 40 times between 2019 and 2021, federal records show. Neither federal nor state officials have sued ExxonMobil or fined the company for its repeated infractions.
Only three other refineries discharged more selenium than BP Whiting, located on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan about 8 miles from one of Chicago’s water intake cribs. Small doses of the element are healthy, but higher levels can cause hair and nail loss, gastrointestinal distress, dizziness and tremors.
Citgo Lemont and ExxonMobil Joliet ranked fifth and ninth for selenium pollution, respectively, the analysis showed.
A public beach near the Whiting refinery is a popular spot for surfers drawn by big waves when winter winds whip down Lake Michigan from Canada.
Mitch McNeil, chairman of the local chapter of Surfrider, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he and other surfers have suffered eye, ear and urinary tract infections and gastrointestinal illnesses after swimming in dark brown water that smells alternately like metal, sewage, petroleum and a used ashtray.
“People always ask us why we keep surfing in dirty water,” McNeil said. “Our response is we surf in it but you drink it, so you should be just as concerned as we are.”
BP routinely faces scrutiny about air pollution from the Whiting refinery. Water pollution hasn’t drawn as much attention since the Chicago Tribune reported in 2007 that Indiana regulators were planning to relax limits on the refinery’s discharges of ammonia, brain-damaging mercury and suspended solids — tiny particles of sewage sludge.
The company later backed down and vowed to abide by the terms of its existing permit.
Responding to the new analysis of federal data, BP said it will “continue to operate consistent with its permit as part of our commitment to safe, compliant and reliable operations, not just at Whiting refinery but at every facility BP operates around the world.”
Speaking on behalf of the oil industry in general, the American Petroleum Institute did not directly answer questions about the lack of standards for selenium and other pollutants.
“Our industry takes seriously its obligation to protect our nation’s waters and adheres to strict local, state and federal requirements to ensure water is properly treated and tested prior to leaving a facility,” Will Hupman, the trade group’s vice president of downstream policy said in a statement.
Schaeffer noted that federal pollution standards for refineries and several other industry sectors haven’t been updated since Ronald Reagan was president during the 1980s.
Federal judges are taking notice. Calling existing standards out of date is a “charitable understatement,” a federal appellate court concluded after the EPA in 2019 updated its 1982 limits on water pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Environmental groups asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan in 2021 why the agency had fallen so far behind in meeting its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act. The EPA acknowledged the letter but didn’t respond.
An EPA spokesman said the agency is aware of the new pollution analysis “and will review and respond accordingly.”
Most of the top polluting refineries are in California or along the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and Louisiana. Also in the top 10 is a Phillips 66 refinery on the Mississippi River in Wood River, a small, heavily industrialized Illinois city upstream from St. Louis.
The Wood River refinery released more fish-harming nickel than any of the other facilities reviewed. It also ranked among the top 10 for discharges of selenium, nitrogen and total dissolved solids.
For people who live near refineries, the new report reflects what they see, smell and breathe — and ingest when eating locally caught fish or while swimming.
Gina Ramirez grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side and often visits Whihala Beach in Whiting, 2 miles up the lakeshore from the BP refinery. Nowadays her son joins her.
“To think that we are recreating among some of the most polluted waters is terrifying,” said Ramirez, an outreach manager at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council and senior adviser to the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “U.S. EPA needs to step up.”
John Beard, a former refinery worker who leads the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas, said communities like his rely on the EPA to enforce air and water laws because they can’t afford to fight for a cleaner environment.
“(Oil companies) don’t build these facilities in Beverly Hills, or River Oaks (in Houston) or Madison Avenue,” Beard said. “They don’t build in communities of affluence that have the ways and means to go about seeking justice and correction.”
“Many people say we need the jobs and we need all these products (oil companies) produce,” Beard added. “That’s true. But we don’t need the pollution that comes with it, and they can do better.”
The Colorado River – once 40% of the state’s water supply – is dwindling. About 80% of Arizona and about 20% of its population has no rules on groundwater pumping, which is draining many of our rural aquifers.
Add in these troubles sprouting in metro Phoenix, an area covered by the state’s most stringent groundwater management rules, and we’ve got urgent issues that require urgent responses.
But the headlines make it sound as if we’re completely botching our jobs as water stewards.
Most metro Phoenix cities have spent decades storing water underground for a (non-)rainy day, for example. They have long recycled most of their wastewater, though we don’t yet drink it.
And while much of the coverage has focused on the fact that there isn’t enough water in parts of the far West Valley to support thousands of acres of future development, it glosses over why that growth may never occur:
Because we had the foresight decades ago to create an assured water supply program, which requires builders to prove they have secured enough water for the long haul before they can plat lots.
Homes were built solely on the promise of hauled water. The potential risk of such a deal was glossed over with homeowners. And despite all the negative coverage lately, people are still building in the area.
It doesn’t matter that these so-called wildcat lot splits encompass a fraction of the homes we build every year. Or that not all homes in Rio Verde Foothills are affected, just those that relied on Scottsdale for hauled water.
The headlines on repeat are that Arizona doesn’t have enough water to grow or even sustain existing residents.
The story is more nuanced than the headlines
The full story is more nuanced.
Water is still being hauled to Rio Verde Foothills, albeit from other spotty sources that are vastly more expensive. Residents haven’t lost water; they’ve lost access to cheap water.
That is unlikely to change if EPCOR, a private water provider, is given the green light in April to more permanently serve these residents. Solving the affordability problem won’t be easy.
Meanwhile, on the far west side of the Valley, developers either must find renewable water sources to build on large swaths of open desert or find affordable ways to grow closer in areas with the capacity to serve new residents.
Fixing the cracks through which some development has fallen would be a good start.
In Rio Verde Foothills, the solution cannot simply be to force Scottsdale to serve non-residents. We need to tackle the root problem, which means we need to rein in wildcat lot splits.
Lawmakers could change how we define “subdivisions” – that might be the cleanest fix. Or they could give counties more power to say no to homes that plan to haul water, particularly in areas like Rio Verde Foothills where groundwater is spotty.
In the West Valley, lawmakers must address a proliferation of “build-to-rent” homes, which are touted as a much-needed affordable housing alternative but also aren’t required to prove a long-term water supply before building.
If civic and elected leaders want to counter the narrative that Arizona is irresponsible, they need to get better at telling the full story – which, yes, means more clearly touting the things we’ve done well.
But because perception is reality in water, and virtually everyone else has similar success stories, they also need a clear plan – shared loudly and on repeat – for how they intend to up our game.
US moves to protect Minnesota wilderness from planned mine
Steve Karnowski – January 26, 2023
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Biden administration moved Thursday to protect northeastern Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to a copper-nickel project.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order closing over 350 square miles (900 square kilometers) of the Superior National Forest, in the Rainy River Watershed around the town of Ely, to mineral and geothermal leasing for 20 years, the longest period the department can sequester the land without congressional approval.
The order is “subject to existing valid rights,” but the Biden administration contends that Twin Metals Minnesota lost its rights last year, when the department rescinded a Trump administration decision to reinstate federal mineral rights leases that were critical to the project. Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed suit in August to try to reclaim those rights, and reaffirmed Tuesday that it’s not giving up despite its latest setback.
“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best available science and extensive public input.”
Critics of the project hailed the decision as a massive victory and called for permanent protections for the wilderness. But supporters of Twin Metals said the order runs counter to the administration’s stated goal of increasing domestic supplies of metals that are critical to the clean energy economy.
“The Boundary Waters is a paradise of woods and water. It is an ecological marvel, a world-class outdoor destination, and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and many thousands of people,” Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement.
The proposed underground mine would be built southeast of Ely, near Birch Lake, which flows into the Boundary Waters. The project has been battered by shifting political winds. The Obama administration, in its final weeks, chose not to renew the two leases, which had dated back more than 50 years. The Trump administration reversed that decision and reinstated the leases. But the Biden administration canceled the leases last January after the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 relaunched the review and public engagement process for the 20-year mining moratorium.
Twin Metals said it was “deeply disappointed and stunned” over the moratorium.
“This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains,” the company said in a statement. “We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities, and we remain committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”
Twin Metals says it can mine safely without generating acid mine drainage that the Biden administration and environmentalists say makes the $1.7 billion project an unacceptable risk to the wilderness. Twin Metals says its design would limit the exposure of the sulfide-bearing ore to the effects of air and water. And it says the mine would create more than 750 high-wage mining jobs plus 1,500 spinoff jobs in the region.
Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents northeastern Minnesota, condemned the decision as “an attack on our way of life” that will benefit only foreign suppliers such as China that have fewer labor and environmental protections. “America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union protected jobs,” he said in a statement.
“Ultimately, this sends a chilling message to hardworking Minnesotans who need the widespread economic benefits of mining in our state and sends an even harsher message to the business community that they cannot expect fair treatment in Minnesota or the United States,” the Jobs for Minnesotans coalition of business and labor groups said in a statement.
While Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents the St. Paul area, applauded the order, she also warned in a statement that a future administration could reverse the decision.
The 1,700 square mile (4,400 square kilometer) Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the most-visited federally designated wilderness area in the U.S. It draws more than 150,000 visitors from around the world who paddle its more than 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) of canoe routes and over 1,100 lakes. According to the Interior Department, it contributes over $17 million annually to the outdoor recreation and tourism economy in northeastern Minnesota. Three Ojibwe tribes exercise treaty rights in the area covered by the moratorium.
The order does not affect two other proposed copper-nickel projects in northeastern Minnesota — the PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes and the Talon Metals mine near Tamarack — which lie in different watersheds.
Science has finally cracked the mystery of why so many people believe in conspiracy theories
Adam Rogers – January 26, 2023
When it comes to the spread of cockamamie conspiracy theories, Twitter was a maximum viable product long before Elon Musk paid $44 billion for the keys. But as soon as he took the wheel, Musk removed many of the guardrails Twitter had put in place to keep the craziness in check. Anti-vaxxers used an athlete’s collapse during a game to revive claims that COVID-19 vaccines kill people. (Theydon’t.) Freelance journalists spun long threads purporting to show that Twitter secretly supported Democrats in 2020. (It didn’t.) Musk himself insinuated that the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband was carried out by a jealous boyfriend. (Nope.) Like a red thread connecting clippings on Twitter’s giant whiteboard, conspiratorial ideation spread far and wide.
Social scientists are closing in on some answers. The personality traits known as the “Dark Triad” — that’s narcissism, psychopathy, and a tendency to see the world in black-or-white terms — play a part. So do political beliefs, particularly populism and a tolerance for political violence. Cognitive biases, like believing only evidence that confirms what you already think, also make people more vulnerable.
But according to new research, it isn’t ignorance that makes people most likely to buy into conspiratorial thinking, or social isolation or mental illness. It’s a far more prevalent and pesky personality quirk: overconfidence.
The more you think you’re right all the time, a new study suggests, the more likely you are to buy conspiracy theories, regardless of the evidence. That’d be bad enough if it applied only to that one know-it-all cousin you see every Thanksgiving. But given how both politics and business reward a faith in one’s own genius, the news is way worse. Some of the same people this hypothesis predicts will be most prone to conspiracy thinking also have the biggest megaphones — like an ex-president who believes he’s never wrong, and a CEO who thinks that building expensive cars makes him some sort of visionary. It’d be better, or at least more reassuring, if conspiracy theories were fueled by dumb yahoos rather than self-centered monsters. Because arrogance, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is a lot harder to stamp out than stupidity.
Have faith in yourself (but not too much)
A decade or so ago, when Gordon Pennycook was in graduate school and wanted to study conspiracist thinking, a small but powerful group of unelected people got together to stop him. It wasn’t a conspiracy as such. It was just that back then, the people who approved studies and awarded grants didn’t think that “epistemically suspect beliefs” — things science can easily disprove, like astrology or paranormal abilities — were deserving of serious scholarship. “It was always a kind of fringe thing,” Pennycook says. He ended up looking into misinformation instead.
Still, the warning signs that conspiracy theories were a serious threat to the body politic go way back. A lot of present-day anti-semitism can be traced back to a 19th-century forgery purporting to describe a secret meeting of a Jewish cabal known as the Elders of Zion (a forgery based in part on yet another antisemitic conspiracy theory from England in the 1100s and re-upped by the industrialist Henry Ford in the 1920s). In 1962, the historian Richard Hofstadter warned against what he called the “paranoid style” of America’s radical right and its use of conspiracy fears to whip up support. Still, most scientists thought conspiracy theories weren’t worth their time, the province of weirdos connecting JFK’s death to lizard aliens.
Then the weirdos started gaining ground. Bill Clinton, they claimed, murdered Vince Foster. George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks. Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Belief in baseless theories could lead to actual violence — burning cellphone towers because of that COVID thing, or attacking the Capitol because Hugo Chávez rigged the US election. By the time of the January 6 insurrection, Pennycook had already switched to studying conspiracy.
It still isn’t entirely clear whether more people believe conspiracy theories today. Maybe there are just more theories to believe. But researchers pretty much agree that crackpot ideas are playing a far more significant role in politics and culture, and they have a flurry of hypotheses about what’s going on. People who believe in conspiracies tend to be more dogmatic, and unable to handle disagreement well. They also rate higher on those Dark Triad personality traits. They’re not stark raving mad, just a tick more antisocial.
But at this point, there are just way too many believers in cuckoo theories running around for the explanation to be ignorance or mental illness. “Throughout most of the 1970s, 80% — that’s eight zero — believed Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy,” says Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “Would we say all of those people were stupid or had a serious psychological problem? Of course not.”
Which brings us to the overconfidence thing. Pennycook and his collaborators had been looking at the ways intuition could lead people astray. They hypothesized that conspiratorial thinkers overindex for their own intuitive leaps — that they are, to put it bluntly, lazy. Most don’t bother to “do their own research,” and those who do believe only things that confirm their original conclusions.
“Open-minded thinking isn’t just engaging in effortful thought,” Pennycook observes. “It’s doing so to evaluate evidence that’s directed toward what’s true or false — to actually question your intuitions.” Pennycook wanted to know why someone wouldn’t do that. Maybe it was simple overconfidence in their own judgment.
Sometimes, of course, people are justified in their confidence; after four decades in journalism, for example, I’m right to be confident in my ability to type fast. But then there’s what’s known as “dispositional” overconfidence — a person’s sense that they are just practically perfect in every way. How could Pennycook’s team tell the difference?
Their solution was pretty slick. They showed more than 1,000 people a set of six images blurred beyond recognition and then asked the subjects what the pictures were. Baseball player? Chimpanzee? Click the box. The researchers basically forced the subjects to guess. Then they asked them to self-assess how well they did on the test. People who thought they nailed it were the dispositional ones. “Sometimes you’re right to be confident,” Pennycook says. “In this case, there was no reason for people to be confident.”
Sure enough, Pennycook found that overconfidence correlated significantly with belief in conspiracy theories. “This is something that’s kind of fundamental,” he says. “If you have an actual, underlying, generalized overconfidence, that will impact the way you evaluate things in the world.”
The results aren’t peer-reviewed yet; the paper is still a preprint. But they sure feel true (confirmation bias aside). From your blowhard cousin to Marjorie Taylor Greene, it seems as if every conspiracist shares one common trait: a supreme smugness in their own infallibility. That’s how it sounds every time Donald Trump opens his mouth. And insideaccounts of Elon Musk’s management at Twitter suggest he may also be suffering from similar delusions.
“That’s often what happens with these really wealthy, powerful people who sort of fail upwards,” says Joe Vitriol, a psychologist at Lehigh University who has studied the way people overestimate their own expertise. “Musk is not operating in an environment in which he’s accountable for the mistakes he makes, or in which others criticize the things he says or does.”
An epidemic of overconfidence
Pennycook isn’t the first researcher to propose a link between self-regard and epistemically suspect beliefs. Anyone who has attended a corporate meeting has experienced the Dunning-Kruger effect — the way those who know the least tend to assume they know the most. And studies by Vitriol and others have found a correlation between conspiracy thinking and the illusion of explanatory depth — when people who possess only a superficial understanding of how something works overestimate their knowledge of the details.
But what makes Pennycook’s finding significant is the way it covers all the different flavors of conspiracists. Maybe some people think their nominal expertise in one domain extends to expertise about everything. Maybe others actually believe the conspiracy theories they spread, or simply can’t be bothered to check them out. Maybe they define “truth” legalistically, as anything people can be convinced of, instead of something objectively veridical. Regardless, they trust their intuition, even though they shouldn’t. Overconfidence could explain it all.
Pennycook’s findings also suggest an explanation for why conspiracy theories have become so widely accepted. Supremely overconfident people are often the ones who get handed piles of money and a microphone. That doesn’t just afford them the means to spread their baseless notions about Democrats running an international child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor, or Sandy Hook being a hoax. It also connects them to an audience that shares and admires their overweening arrogance. To many Americans, Pennycook suggests, the overconfidence of a Musk or a Trump isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.
It’s not necessarily unreasonable to believe in dangerous conspiracies. The US government really did withhold medical treatment from Black men in the Tuskegee trial. Richard Nixon really did cover up an attempted burglary at The Watergate Hotel. Jeffrey Epstein really did force girls to have sex with his powerful friends. Transnational oil companies really did hide how much they knew about climate change.
So distinguishing between plausible and implausible conspiracies isn’t easy. And we might be more likely to fall for the implausible ones if they’re being spouted by people we trust. “The same thing is true for you,” Pennycook tells me. “If you hear a scientist or a fellow journalist at a respected outlet, you say, ‘This is someone I can trust.’ And the reason you trust them is that they’re at a respected outlet. But the problem is, people are not that discerning. Whether the person says something they agree with becomes the reason they trust them. Then, when the person says something they’re not sure about, they tend to trust that, too.”
The next step, or course, is to figure out how to fight the spread of conspiratorial nonsense. Pennycook is trying; he spent last year working at Google to curb misinformation; his frequent collaborator David Rand has worked with Facebook. They had some meetings with TikTok, too. That pop-up asking whether you want to read the article before sharing it? That was them.
And what about the bird site? “Twitter? Well, that’s another thing altogether,” Pennycook says. He and Rand worked on the crowdsource fact-check function called Community Notes. But now? “It’s all in flux, thanks to Elon Musk.”
But Pennycook’s new study suggests that the problem of conspiracy theories runs far deeper — and may prove far more difficult to solve — than simply tweaking a social-media algorithm or two. “How are you going to fix overconfidence? The people who are overconfident don’t think there’s a problem to be fixed,” he says. “I haven’t come up with a solution for that yet.”
FDA advisers back the same COVID vaccine for initial shots, boosters
Michael Erman and Leroy Leo – January 26, 2023
(Reuters) -Advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday unanimously voted in favor of targeting the same coronavirus strain for initial COVID-19 vaccine doses and boosters going forward, but some expressed skepticism about whether all Americans need to receive the shots annually.
The agency is trying to simplify its COVID-19 vaccine policy as it considers whether to recommend Americans get an annual booster shot for the virus. But several members of the expert advisory group asked for more robust data on benefits of annual shots for younger, healthier people.
“We’re in a very different place. We have a lot of population immunity,” said Hayley Gans, professor of pediatrics at Stanford University Medical Center. “Now that people are immune, how long does that last?”
Vaccine makers Pfizer Inc with partner BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc introduced late last year updated versions of their COVID vaccines tailored to target Omicron variants as well as the original coronavirus. In the United States, those were used only as booster shots.
The FDA advisory group unanimously backed using those shots for the primary series for those who have yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as well.
The FDA said it envisioned holding a meeting later in the year to determine the composition of shots for the fall, although some vaccine makers might be able to produce updated shots more quickly.
Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna were able to produce the currently available messenger RNA boosters in about three months last year, but Novavax Inc said on Thursday it would require six months to make a new version of its protein-based COVID-19 vaccine designed to match circulating coronavirus variants.
FDA would consider an earlier timeline for vaccines like Novavax’s following the company’s manufacturing assessment, Peter Marks, director of the agency’s Center for Biologics Evaluation & Research, said.
Health officials in the Biden administration have suggested that annual, updated COVID-19 booster shots could provide a high level of protection against severe disease.
(Reporting by Leroy Leo in Bengaluru, Michael Erman in Maplewood, New Jersey; Editing by Bill Berkrot)
Fox’s ‘Straight News’ Anchor Harris Faulkner Lets Rick Scott Peddle His Medicare Lie
Justin Baragona – January 26, 2023
Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner on Thursday allowed Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) to repeatedly push the lie that Democrats slashed hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for Medicare—even though that spurious claim had been debunked months ago.
In fact, not only did Faulkner—often labeled one of Fox’s “straight news” anchors—allow Scott’s falsehood to slide, she wondered how the Florida lawmaker would be able to work with Democrats since they’re “incapable of telling the truth.”
With the GOP now holding a slim majority in the House, the party has shifted much of its focus to austerity and pushing spending cuts across the board. Despite insisting during the midterms that they wouldn’t target Social Security and Medicare, House Republicans are now leveraging the fight over the debt ceiling to explicitly weigh proposals that would slash these entitlement programs.
Faulkner, who began her Thursday program by decrying the Democratic “spend, spend, spend” agenda amid rising debt, sounded the alarm over the “alarming” crisis facing entitlement programs. She aired a clip of President Joe Biden accusing Scott and Republicans of looking to reduce Social Security and Medicare.
“I don’t know one Republican, including me—we would never cut Medicare or Social Security. I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure there are no cuts in Medicare or Social Security,” the senator exclaimed. “But let’s remember, the Democrats, they all voted to cut $280 billion out of Medicare last September and Biden signed it.”
“Yes,” Faulkner empathically agreed.
“Let’s just remember—$280 billion they cut, and they want to say other people will do it,” Scott continued.
Though the Fox anchor heartily endorsed Scott’s assertion, fact-checkers knocked downthis claim last year—which centers on provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers.
According to government budget scorers, the Democratic-led bill that passed last year would save taxpayers anywhere between $237 billion and $288 billion due to pharmaceutical companies agreeing to lower prices on medications for Medicare patients. Still, Scott—whose GOP policy agenda last year drewwidespread criticism for proposing to cut Social Security—insisted at the time that this was a reduction in benefits.
CNN anchor Dana Bash, meanwhile, pushed back against his talking points during an interview last October, telling Scott that the legislation “allowed for negotiation for prescription drug prices, which would ultimately bring down the price and the costs for Medicare consumers.”Faulkner, however, was content to let Scott’s lie stand on Thursday.
Having already agreed with him once, the Fox anchor teed the Florida Republican up for a second round by airing comments from a Fox Business host who accused Democrats of “lying through their teeth” about the debt ceiling and Republicans’ stance on entitlements.
“I have to get your reaction to that because you have to negotiate with these people and you hear Larry Kudlow describing Democrats as they’re incapable of telling the truth about what we owe,” Faulkner declared.
After Scott grumbled that “they are not going to be honest with the American public,” the wealthiest U.S. senator expressed concern that “Wall Street has done really well” while average Americans suffer.
“That’s a flip of what the rhetoric is, isn’t it?” Faulkner reacted. “Democrats are looking across the aisle at you as Republicans and saying we are the ones who care about the middle class and seniors, but now what we’re seeing is that’s not actually true!”
Scott then repeated his false claim about Medicare cuts.
“They cut Medicare, Harris! They cut Medicare just four months ago,” They cut $280 billion out of Medicare, and they wanna say we want to cut it? No, I’m gonna fight like hell to make sure we preserve Medicare and Social Security because we can, we should, and we owe it to our seniors, but we have to do it by living within our means.”
Rather than correct the record, the Fox News anchor instead said that “everybody” has to live within a budget before moving on to Biden’s classified documents scandal.
The Colorado River is overused and shrinking. Inside the crisis transforming the Southwest
Ian James, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, January 26, 2023
The Colorado River begins as melting snow, trickling from forested peaks and coursing in streams that gather in the meadows and valleys of the Rocky Mountains.
Like arteries, its major tributaries take shape across Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, coming together in a great river like no other — a river that travels more than 1,400 miles and has defined the rise of the American Southwest over the last century.
Water diverted from the river has enabled agriculture to spread across 5 million acres of farmland and has fed the growth of cities from Denver to Los Angeles, supplying about 40 million people. Harnessing the river’s bounty has provided the foundation for life and the economy across seven states and northern Mexico.
But the region has for years depended too heavily on the river, taking more than its flows can support. And in recent years, the river’s water-generating heart in the Rocky Mountains has begun to fail.
The Colorado River can no longer withstand the unbridled thirst of the arid West.
A century ago, the signing of the Colorado River Compact divided the water among the states. The agreement established a system that overpromised what the river could provide. That system, after years of warnings from scientists and insufficient efforts to adapt, is now colliding with the reality of a river that is overused and shrinking.
In the last 23 years, as rising temperatures fueled by the burning of fossil fuels have intensified the worst drought in centuries, the flow of the Colorado has declined about 20%.
Reservoirs have dropped to record-low levels, and the shortage continues to worsen. Scarcity is pushing the region toward a water reckoning.
The looming consequences include major cuts in the supplies used for growing crops and sustaining cities. How those water reductions are divided among states, water districts and tribes has yet to be determined, and could end up being negotiated, dictated by the federal government or fought in court. But the need to shrink overall water use will probably result in less water flowing to farms, more water restrictions for residents and fewer green lawns, while also bringing calls for limiting growth, shifting away from thirsty crops like alfalfa, and dedicating less water to golf courses and other water-guzzling businesses.
The Colorado River Basin, which stretches from Wyoming to northern Mexico, is facing unresolved questions about how to adapt, at what cost, and where the cuts will fall the hardest.
The task of downsizing water use is complicated by an allocation system that promised now-nonexistent water on paper, as well as a legal system that benefits those with the oldest, most senior water rights.
Over the last several years, managers of water agencies have reached deals to take less water from the river. But those reductions haven’t been nearly enough to halt the river’s spiral toward potential collapse.
As Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, continues to decline toward “dead pool” levels, the need to rein in water demands is growing urgent.
Efforts to adapt will require difficult decisions about how to deal with the reductions and limit the damage to communities, the economy and the river’s already degraded ecosystems. Adapting may also drive a fundamental rethinking of how the river is managed and used, redrawing a system that is out of balance. This reckoning with the reality of the river’s limits is about to transform the landscape of the Southwest.
Navigating through a forest of snow-covered pines, Brian Domonkos skied up to a site high in the Rocky Mountains, the source of the Colorado River.
He had come to check the snowpack at an isolated stand of monitoring equipment near Berthoud Pass, Colo., where the day before 5 inches of snow had fallen.
“I hope this holds on a little while longer,” said Domonkos, a snow survey supervisor for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. He was concerned that even with the snowfall, Colorado seemed headed for a below-average snow year.
Last spring, the snowpack across the Upper Colorado River Basin stood at 86% of average. By the end of July, however, the melting snow brought runoff that measured just 67% of average.
This pattern has emerged year after year in the river’s headwaters. A near-average snowpack has often translated into meager flows in the Colorado River and its tributaries.
This winter, storms have brought an above-average snowpack in the watershed. But that snow can go only so far in boosting reservoirs that have been dropping for more than two decades.
Average temperatures across the upper watershed — where most of the river’s flow originates — have risen about 3 degrees since 1970. That has contributed to the driest 22-year period in at least 1,200 years.
With higher temperatures, trees and other plants have been absorbing more water, and more moisture has been evaporating off the landscape.
In recent years, long dry spells in the mountains have left the soils parched. And when the snow has melted in the spring, the amount of runoff flowing in streams has often been diminished.
“We are seeing less water,” Domonkos said. “And we’re going to have to adapt.”
The river’s mainstem takes shape in Rocky Mountain National Park, winding through an alpine valley, then flows into reservoirs and meanders through ranchlands.
On one of these ranches, Wendy Thompson can see the river standing outside her house. She walked to the banks, where muddy brown water flowed swiftly past.
“This time of year, it ought to be another foot, 2 feet deeper,” Thompson said.
Thompson is 67 and remembers much more snow in Colorado when she was growing up. The flooding river used to swell across the pastures.
“In 1985 was the last time we really had a flood here,” she said.
Upstream diversions and dry years have left the river smaller. Some sections on her ranch now usually flow less than 2 feet deep.
In late spring and early summer, Thompson pumped from the river to irrigate her hay fields, and sold the crop to other ranchers.
Many ranchers have had less water for their pastures lately, and some have sold cattle to reduce their herds.
“Everyone knows that we’re dry,” Thompson said. “In this area, when there’s no water, you just don’t irrigate.”
Upstream from western Colorado’s ranchlands, water is diverted and routed to the east, flowing through a series of tunnels that pass beneath the Continental Divide to supply Denver and other growing Front Range cities. Two new reservoir projects are under construction to hold more water — the Chimney Hollow Reservoir and the expansion of Gross Reservoir.
The diversions from Grand Lake are a source of concern for Ken Fucik, a retired environmental scientist and board member of the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group. He said he is worried about water quality and recent algae blooms in the lake and adjacent reservoirs.
Fucik questioned whether the new reservoir projects make sense when the river’s existing reservoirs are rapidly declining.
“Where is that water going to come from?” he said.
For more than a century, the history of the Colorado River has been shaped by monumental human efforts to control and exploit its waters to the maximum.
Indigenous peoples have lived along the river and its tributaries for thousands of years, adorning rocks on canyon walls with petroglyphs and pictographs.
The river’s Spanish name, colorado, or red, described the muddy, silt-laden waters that coursed through canyons.
In the mid-1800s, as white settlers moved west, steamboats chugged up the lower Colorado River, paddlewheels turning. Settlers began diverting water from streams and rivers, taking water rights under the prior appropriation system — “first in time, first in right.”
Water was seen as a source of wealth to be seized. The great ambition of politicians, engineers and fortune-seekers was to tame the river and harness its water.
In the early 1900s, they focused on building irrigation projects to “reclaim” the arid lands, a phrase central to the purpose of the Reclamation Service, which was created in 1902 under President Theodore Roosevelt and which later became the Bureau of Reclamation.
From the beginning, some warned against relying too heavily on the river. John Wesley Powell, leader of the historic 1869 expedition down the river through the Grand Canyon, famously told attendees at an 1893 irrigation congress in Los Angeles: “I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”
Before the signing of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, some scientists warned that there was insufficient water, but those warnings went unheeded.
The compact apportioned the river “in perpetuity,” allocating 7.5 million acre-feet of water for the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — and 7.5 million acre-feet for the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Mexico later secured 1.5 million acre-feet under a 1944 treaty.
The river was divided among the states during an especially wet period in the early 20th century.
Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Workers finished pouring the concrete at Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. As described by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, the dams and reservoirs “created only the illusion of abundant water, not the reality.”
Over the last half a century, so much water has been diverted that for many years the river has been entirely used up, leaving dusty stretches of desert where it once flowed to the sea in Mexico.
Even in the 1980s, when plentiful water filled the reservoirs, some presciently warned that the Colorado could not withstand all the demands placed upon it.
The strains on the river have grown more acute with humanity’s heating of the planet. In the 1990s and 2000s, scientists repeatedly warned that chronic overuse of the river combined with the effects of climate change would probably drain reservoirs to dangerously low levels.
During the last decade, scientists have found that roughly half the decline in the river’s flow has been due to higher temperatures; that climate change is driving the aridification of the Southwest; and that for each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), the river’s average flow is likely to decrease about 9%.
The drying of the Colorado’s upper reaches has shrunk the flow and accelerated the declines of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
The system of dividing the water, including the agreement signed a century ago, was designed for a climate that no longer exists, said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center. Continuing this pattern of overuse, she said, is like depleting a bank account by overspending, edging closer to bankruptcy.
“It’s not going to work for anybody,” Bolinger said. “What we really need to do is just completely readjust the budget.”
The federal government has begun to lay the groundwork for scaling back water use.
Interior Department officials have said annual diversions need to be reduced by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, or about 15% to 30%. They have urged the seven states that rely on the river to reach a consensus, while warning they may need to impose cuts.
So far, negotiators for states and water agencies have failed to agree on how to share such large reductions. Some fear these disputes could lead to lawsuits.
As the reservoirs’ levels continue to drop, time is swiftly running out.
“We have got to put the kibosh on these extra water uses right now, the uses of water beyond what’s being supplied. Either we stop them or nature will,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. “Make no mistake. This is a full-on five-alarm fire going on right now.”
The Colorado River has reached this critical stage in a decade when extreme droughts have shrunk other rivers to historic lows around the world, from the Mississippi and the Rio Grande to the Yangtze in China, and the Danube and Rhine in Europe.
Research has shown that climate change is intensifying the water cycle, bringing more intense and frequent droughts, as well as more intense rainfall and floods. In one recent study, researchers found that streams in the western and southern United States have been drying over the last 70 years, with flow data revealing longer and more severe low-flow periods.
Even as wet and dry cycles continue to come and go, the Colorado River is on a long-term downward trend of aridification because of higher temperatures, Udall said.
“It’s fundamentally changing, and it’s not going to go back to how it was before,” Udall said. “We’re going to have to talk about permanent reductions in water use.”
‘A perfect storm for the whole food system right now’: One of the world’s largest fertilizer companies warns that every country—even those in Europe—is facing a food crisis
Tristan Bove – January 26, 2023
The Ukraine war upended the global economy in many ways. Energy markets have been among the most affected, with declining Russian oil and natural gas exports to the West sparking a domino effect of fuel crises worldwide. But the war has also warped another critical facet of the global economy: food.
Prior to the war, Russia and Ukraine were global breadbaskets as top producers and exporters of wheat, sunflower seeds, and barley. The fighting ended up aggravating hunger and food crises in low-income countries that are dependent on imports. But both Russia and Ukraine are also key cogs in the global fertilizer industry, and the war has triggered a shortage of the critical commodity that few people consider but is nevertheless essential to global food security.
Much as Russian President Vladimir Putin leveraged the world’s reliance on his country’s fossil fuels to weaponize energy supplies during the war, he is doing something very similar with fertilizer and food, Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of Norwegian chemical company Yara International, among the world’s largest fertilizer producers and suppliers, told the Financial Times in an interview published Thursday.
Putin’s energy gambit, which sent fossil fuel prices soaring and left Europe on the brink of recession last year, has so far not gone as expected, with a warm winter working against him and Europe able to buy natural gas from elsewhere. But Holsether warned the world’s reliance on Russia for fertilizer threatens more disruption of food supply, adding to existing challenges of logistics bottlenecks and climate change.
“If you look at the role that we have allowed Russia to have in global food supply, we depend on them. How did that happen? What kind of weapon is that? And Putin is weaponizing food,” Holsether said.
“It is sort of a perfect storm for the whole food system right now: very challenging in Europe, of course, with higher prices; even worse in other parts of the world where a human being dies every four seconds as a result of hunger,” he added.
Global fertilizer crisis
When natural gas prices surged last year after Russia invaded Ukraine, so did prices for fertilizer, which manufacturers such as Yara produce with ammonia and nitrogen obtained as a byproduct from natural gas. Fertilizer prices had already begun increasing in 2021 due to high energy costs and supply-chain issues.
Declining natural gas prices and weak demand among farmers have eased pressures somewhat over the past few months. Earlier this month, fertilizer prices fell to their lowest level in nearly two years in tandem with natural gas prices. But despite falling prices, Holsether insists that the global fertilizer market is precarious, and countries should shift from relying on Russian natural gas, to safeguard their agricultural industries.
“Putin has weaponized energy and they’re weaponizing food as well,” Holsether told the BBC at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s the saying, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’”
Fertilizer prices remain high by historical standards, and the World Bank warned earlier this month that global supply is still tight due to the war, production cuts in Europe, and stricter export controls in China.
Averting a food crisis
If fertilizer is in short supply or prices remain unaffordable to many countries, farmers may be unable to keep their soil fertile enough for crops.
Concerns over fertilizer have taken center stage in recent weeks in Africa, which is heavily reliant on Russian food imports, and where agricultural production has taken a blow in recent years due to drought in many countries. The eastern Horn of Africa—including Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya—has been particularly hard-hit, as it is likely on the verge of a sixth straight failed rainy season, the worst drought conditions in 70 years of recorded data.
Securing additional sources of fertilizer was the cornerstone of a $2.5 billion U.S. food assistance package to Africa signed last month, while Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen noted the importance of stabilizing fertilizer supply in Africa multiple times during a visit to Zambia this week.
“Now we’re in 2023, it’s tragic and shouldn’t be like that,” Holsether told the FT about the state of global hunger. “That should be a very strong reminder of the need to have a more robust food system—from a climate perspective, from a logistics perspective, but also from a political perspective.”
Holsether said that all countries must become more self-sufficient with their food production. For fertilizer, he touted the promise of “green fertilizers” that use hydrogen and renewable energy to produce ammonia rather than natural gas, saying that clean and local solutions are critical to decoupling the global food system from Russia’s war.
Holsether also warned that European nations should not rely on their wealth to avert a food or fertilizer crisis. Like with natural gas, Europe has in recent months turned to the U.S. for nitrogen to replace Russian imports, but Holsether warned that Europe buying its way out of a food crisis is no remedy for global food insecurity.
“Yes. Not near term…there will be a shortage and there will be a global auction for food—but Europe is a wealthy part of the world,” Holsether said when asked if Europe should be concerned for its food security.
“But we need to think it through,” he added, saying that Europe buying food and fertilizer products from other countries will only create more global supply shortages and take away from other countries in dire need.
“In terms of food and food security, when you have that, you see wars or mass migrations, extremism, all these things,” he said.