Monthly Archives: August 2013

Wandering through the icebergs

Former fishemen now harvest iceberg bits near Cape St. Francis, Newfoundland, for a company that makes vodka and beer out of the iceberg water. Photo by Greg Locke © 2013

Former fishermen now harvest iceberg bits near Cape St. Francis, Newfoundland, for a company that makes vodka and beer out of the iceberg water. Photo by Greg Locke © 2013

I just posted my photo essay Welcome to Iceberg Alley  in the GEO section.  A collection of photos and a look at how the people of Newfoundland live, study,  work, and make the most of these floating ice giants that come from the melting glaciers of Greenland and the Canadian arctic every spring. Behind it all is the underlying knowledge that it’s all because of a changing climate.

The Photo-Essay can be accessed with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

 

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Welcome to Iceberg Alley

In most places, it’s flowers that signal the coming of spring. Newfoundland and Labrador have the flowers – but also icebergs. It’s not uncommon to wander the coastal trails and fishing villages on a warm sunny spring day, with a backdrop of icebergs drifting by on an impossibly blue ocean.

This is because Newfoundland is at the end of Iceberg Alley, an ocean current that brings icebergs from Greenland glaciers and the Canadian Arctic down the Labrador Sea, crashing them into the north coast of the island and out onto the shallow waters of the Grand Banks, where they melt and fade away.

On the Banks they are a risk to shipping, the fishermen and the offshore oil industry. This is where the “unsinkable” Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, some 300 kilometers southeast of St. John’s. Today, iceberg detection and mitigation are a high tech science that still sometimes resorts to brute force, in the form of powerful supply ships capable of towing and diverting the path of small icebergs away from offshore oil installations. Government aircraft from Canada and the United States do ice reconnaissance and mapping patrols during iceberg season.

Onshore, the icebergs are more welcome, even worshiped, and they are a boon to the province’s travel and tourism business. From March to July, adventure seekers come from around the world to see what is normally out of reach to most everyone except Arctic or Antarctic explorers. There are even businesses that “harvest” icebergs to make vodka, beer and bottled water.

Icebergs are a wonder to witness up close and personal in the North Atlantic from a tour boat or a headland hundreds of metres above the ocean.

However, a darker side that few of the global tourists consider is that this bounty of bergs on this out-of-the-way place is a result of a warming planet. Glaciers and ice fields in the high latitudes are melting and retreating at a unprecedented rate.

In August, 2010, an ice island calved from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier. When it first first broke away, it was twice the size of the city of Vancouver. A year later it had broken into two parts and had drifted as far south as the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland where,  to the delight of tourists and tourism operators, it splintered into thousands of smaller, but still massive, icebergs.

By the way, while it is said nine-tenths of an iceberg is underwater, those iceberg “photos” you see on the Internet, showing the berg above and below the water? …sorry, that’s just clever photoshop artwork.

© 2013 Greg Locke

More about Icebergs

Newfoundland Ice Island from CBC

Extreme Ice Loss. National Geographic James Balog’s TED Talk.

Newfoundland Iceberg Finder

Iceberg Viewing from Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism. http://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/thingstodo/icebergviewing

Natural Hazards from NASA.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Talk, not guns, between Egypt and Ethiopia – for now

There is an unintended consequence of the army’s coup in Egypt, writes international affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe in today’s column. It has averted the threatened war between Egypt and  Ethiopia, over control of the waters of the Nile River on which Egypt has depended since civilization began.

The column, in Commentary, can be accessed with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

Posted in Current Affairs

Seamus Heaney’s living past

SeamusHeany-500px

In 1995 the Irish poet Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

In his death today he becomes a part of our “living past.” And his passing is a reminder of the luminous souls whose work will reverberate long after today’s transient thugs and loud charlatans have passed through the news cycle. More in my  Free Range column.

The column, in Commentary, can be accessed with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

Posted in Gyroscope

Egypt’s military promises talk, not guns, in Nile water dispute with Ethiopia

JONATHAN MANTHORPE
Published: August 30, 2013

An unintended consequence of July’s coup by the Egyptian army is that it has averted a threatened war with Ethiopia, over control of the waters of the Nile River on which Egypt has depended since the dawn of civilisation.

Relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa sank to an all-time low in May, when Ethiopia began diverting the waters of the Blue Nile to begin filling the reservoir for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest hydro-electric scheme which aims to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity when completed in July, 2017.

But Egypt fears the Ethiopian dam will permanently decrease the amount of water it receives from the Nile, both for agriculture and its own 50-year-old hydro-electric scheme, the Aswan Dam. Egypt’s anxiety is heightened by predictions its demand for Nile water is going to dramatically increase in coming years as its population grows.

Threats of war surfaced on June 3 when then President Mohammed Morsi and senior political leaders, unaware they were on live television, discussed destroying Ethiopia’s dam project by aerial bombardment, commando raids and supporting anti-government rebels.

The Morsi government issued a guarded apology when Addis Ababa expressed outrage.
But a week later Morsi himself said, “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all. All options are open.”

The ouster of the Morsi government by the army at the beginning of July has significantly changed the tone of what continues to be a major dispute over the future use of the Nile waters.

On Tuesday Nabil Fahmy, Foreign Minister in the interim military government, said the Cairo administration will only pursue diplomatic solutions to the impasse. He said he plans to meet Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom in New York in September, after the United Nations General Assembly.

Even with the threat of war apparently off the table, there is no guarantee that a diplomatic solution will be easy to come by. In many ways, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the quarrels around it are symbols of a significant shift in power and influence among the nine countries that depend on the Nile for water resources.

For 200 years Egypt, and to a lesser extent Sudan, have been the dominant partners, frequently dictating agreements on water use to their own advantage. But in recent years influence began to shift southward to the countries that are home to the sources of the White Nile and the Blue Nile: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, the new country of South Sudan, and especially Ethiopia.

Under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, who died a year ago, Ethiopia became an assertive force in the Horn of Africa. With the urging and encouragement of the United States, Ethiopia’s army twice in recent years invaded neighbouring Somalia to oust forces of the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab Islamic fundamentalists.

Zenawi was equally opportunistic when he announced that Ethiopia planned to go ahead with the $4.8 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, about 40 kilometres east of the border with Sudan.

He chose March 31, 2011 for the announcement, while Egypt was still in the chaotic aftermath of the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in mid-February, following weeks of mass demonstrations generated by the Arab Spring. Two days later the foundation stone was laid and construction began.

The building is rushing ahead, with the help of $1.8 billion that reports say is being provided by Chinese banks to finance purchase of the electrical equipment for the hydropower plants. The Ethiopian government plans to raise the rest of the money by issuing bonds, aimed mostly at Ethiopian buyers.

The 6,000 megawatts of electricity to be generated by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will make the country an electricity exporter, but is only a small part of the potential 45,000 megawatts that could be generated by hydropower on the country’s mountain rivers. The Blue Nile and Ethiopia’s other tributary rivers join the White Nile, which rises in Lake Victoria, just south of Khartoum. However, the Ethiopian rivers provide 80 per cent of the Nile’s flow by the time it reaches Egypt.

Egypt’s moves to secure its supply of Nile waters began in 1929, when Cairo signed an agreement with Khartoum, at a time when the southern Nile states were still European colonies and Ethiopia was an isolated, impoverished mountain kingdom.

The agreement gave Egypt the right to three-quarters of the Nile’s annual flow of about 84 billion cubic meters. Sudan got 11 per cent, and the remaining 14 per cent was to be shared among the other littoral states.

In 1959 Egypt and Sudan reaffirmed the 1929 agreement, but slightly increased Sudan’s allocation.

Then, in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative was formed as a forum where the nine littoral states could plan joint projects and resolve disputes to assure “equitable utilisation” of the river. But it quickly became clear that Egypt, supported by Sudan, would brook no changes to what they saw as their “historic rights.”

Frustrated by Cairo’s intransigence, in 2010 Ethiopia joined with Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania to form the New Nile Co-operative Framework Agreement. This organisation aims to approve or reject any major hydroelectric, irrigation or other project that would affect the Nile’s flow.

Sudan and the new nation of South Sudan will soon sign this new agreement. But Egypt under the Morsi government refused to do so unless its allocation were guaranteed.

Critically, Egypt’s National Planning Institute estimates that by 2050 the country will require an additional 21 billion cubic meters of Nile water on top of the 55 billion cubic meters it now consumes. By that time, the estimates are that Egypt’s current population of 84 million will have nearly doubled to 150 million. Jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe

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Seamus Heaney: R.I.P.

DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
Published August 30, 2013

 

SeamusHeany-500px

Seamus Heaney. Handout: Faber and Faber.

The death of Irish poet Seamus Heaney is a reminder of the luminous souls amongst us, whose work will reverberate long after today’s transient thugs and loud charlatans have passed through the news cycle.

‘I rhyme / to see myself, to set the darkness echoing’ 

That line from Personal Helicon was cited in its tribute to Heaney by Granta, which published some of the Nobel laureate’s work. But if Heaney set darkness echoing, he also set imagination alight, from the most unlikely of places. In Digging, the first poem in his debut collection Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber), he wrote:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge 
Through living roots awaken in my head. 
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with it.

My own first intensive encounter with Heaney was through Beowulf: his translation unearthed the magic of the 1,000-year-old Nordic epic. The dust jacket on my 2000 Norton & Company edition says the poem is ”about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath.” It is, it adds, “uncannily familiar at the beginning of the 21st Century.”

An “exhausted aftermath” is one way to explain human behaviour in the 21st Century. We have, uncannily, forgotten the lessons of the monstrous 20th Century, as we throw ourselves under the juggernauts of ideological economic thought, political polarization, and fundamentalist zealotry and equally-zealous reactions. We seem collectively unable to tackle threats to our survival, such as those symptomized by climate change.

But here’s the thing: an obsession with such darkness excludes the light required to find a way out. And that is the brilliance of rhyming, of using a pen to “dig” epic tales, and poetry, and the fantastical. Of reminding us of the good and great.

Thank you, Seamus Heaney. R.I.P.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones 

 Contact: editor@factsandopinions.com

 References and further reading:

Poetry Foundation biography of Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney lecture “Delivering Poetry,” upon his acceptance of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature

 


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Fracking: at what cost, for what benefits?

The technology of “fracking” has transformed North America’s fuel forecast and global energy politics in one brief generation. But the story of fracking  is really a story about risk – and how we, as individuals and communities, face and trade off unavoidable contingencies, writes contributor Chris Wood in “Risky Business: The Facts Behind Fracking.” “Rarely is the answer kindergarten-simple,” he adds.

Wood’s elegant piece, reprinted from The Walrus magazine and updated here, appears today in F&O’s new Magazine section. It can be accessed with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

Posted in Current Affairs, Gyroscope

Humans naturally nasty? Research suggests not

Research shows that human “morality” is grounded in science. Whether our societies can transcend tribal affiliations is another matter.

By Deborah Jones 
February 2012

Vancouver, Canada (AFP) —  Biological research increasingly debunks the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish, says biologist and author Frans de Waal.

“Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies,” said de Waal in a plenary speech at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.

New research on higher animals, from primates and elephants to mice, reveals a biological cause of behaviour such as cooperation, targeted helping of others, and synchronization of actions such as yawning, said de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.

Until some 12 years ago, the common view among scientists and policy-makers was that humans are “nasty” at our core, but have developed a veneer of morality — albeit a thin and brittle one, deWaal told scientists and journalists from some 50 countries.

But human children — and most higher animals — are “moral” in a scientific sense, because they need to cooperate with each other to reproduce and pass on their genes, he said.

Research has disproved the view, dominant since the 19th-Century, exemplified by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley’s argument that morality is absent in nature and something created by humans, said de Waal.

And common assumptions that Huxley’s harsh view was also promoted by Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, are also wrong, he said.

“Darwin was much smarter than most of his followers,” said de Waal. Quoting from Descent of Man, de Waal cited Darwin’s argument that animals that developed to have “well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience.”

He showed videos from laboratory experiments revealing the dramatic emotional distress of a monkey denied a treat that another monkey had received; and of a rat giving up chocolate in order to help another rat escape from a trap.

Such research shows that animals naturally have pro-social tendencies for “reciprocity, fairness, empathy and consolation,” said de Waal, a Dutch biologist now at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Asked if wide public acceptance of empathy as natural would change the intense competition on which capitalist economic and political systems are based, de Waal quipped, “I’m just a monkey watcher.”

But he told reporters that research also shows animals bestow their empathy only on  animals in their “in-group” — and that particular trait is a challenge in a globalized human world.

“Morality” developed in humans in small communities, he said, and attempting to stretch the human capacity for empathy morality around the globe is a challenge.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible, I think it should be tried to the fullest extent, but it’s a challenge … it’s experimental for the human species to apply a system intended for (in-groups) to the whole world.”

Copyright © 2012 Deborah Jones

Originally published by Agence France-Presse, February 2012

References and further reading:


Frans de Waal’s page at Emory University

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Manthorpe explains Syria’s Gordian knot

An American-led attack on military assets of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad in retaliation for a nerve gas attack on civilians last week now appears inevitable, writes Jonathan Manthorpe in today’s column. Only the timing is in doubt.
 
The column, in Commentary, is available with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

 

Posted in Current Affairs

Cutting Syria’s Gordian knot no simple feat

Published: August 28, 2013 

An American-led attack on military assets of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, in retaliation for a nerve gas attack on civilians last week, now appears inevitable. Only the timing is in doubt. But it is likely United States President Barack Obama will heed the request of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to let his inspectors, now in the Damascus district of East Ghouta, complete their work.

At least 300 people died and thousands were injured in what is believed to have been an attack on the district with rockets containing sarin nerve gas. This is one of the worst atrocities of Syria’s civil war, which has seen over 100,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands more driven into refugee camps in neighbouring countries during nearly three years of conflict.

While the war, like any other, has provided its own horrors, the images from the gas attack of women and children dying in agony have electrified international outrage. For Obama, the apparent use of poison gas has confronted him with his statement a few months ago that the use of such agents would “cross a red line” demanding international intervention. But there is an active debate within the American political security establishment about what to attack in Syria, and to what end.

The administration is acutely aware of scepticism among its allies and others, stemming from the fabricated evidence used to justify invading Iraq a decade ago to destroy Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpile of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD). After Saddam was overthrown and the country thrown into violent chaos from which it has yet to emerge, no WMD stockpiles were found. Among the American military, with its experience of muddled political leadership in the Iraq and Afghan wars, there is concern about the objectives of a Syrian intervention.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America’s top military official, has written a pointed letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin.  Dempsey said “it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.”

It’s an essential point if intervention deposes Assad and brings to power the fractious groups that make up the Syrian insurgency. They run the gamut from secular liberals to fanatic Islamists allied to al-Qaida. Wrote Dempsey: “We could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

The UN inspectors, working under the constant threat of attack by snipers, are trying to gather samples and other evidence that will conclusively establish what happened last week and who was responsible. U.S. intelligence agencies are certain they already know. Agency officials have told several news outlets they intercepted a panicked phone call made by a Syrian Ministry of Defence official to the head of a chemical weapons unit demanding to know what happened.The nature of that evidence begs the question whether the attack was ordered by the Assad regime or was the work of a rogue senior officer. It is this uncertainty that is prompting the Obama administration to let the UN process run its course.

The outcome the administration would like is conclusive proof provided by the UN inspectors, followed by passage through the UN’s Security Council of a resolution such as that put forward by Britain on Wednesday. This resolution would give member states a UN mandate to intervene in Syria with all “necessary measures to protect civilians.” It’s a similar resolution as that used to justify intervention in the Libyan civil war in 2011 ,which led to the overthrow and murder of leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But such a resolution is unlikely to be passed by the UN Security Council where Syria’s still-staunch allies, Russia, and China, which regularly opposes all interventions in the internal troubles of nation states, have vetoes. Obama is already anticipating a veto in the UN and has talked with several leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s 28 member states. It was NATO that intervened in Kosovo in 1999 after the UN failed to give explicit authority. NATO ambassadors met in Brussels on Wednesday, and the alliance’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said later all available information pointed to the Assad regime being responsible for the poison gas attack. He added, “Those responsible must be held accountable.”

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warns of “catastrophic consequences” for Syria and the region if the U.S. and allies intervene. Lavrov is not alone in looking at the way the Syrian civil war has already affected neighbouring countries and the region, and worrying what further chaos might be precipitated by U.S.-led military strikes.

The Syrian civil war has become a proxy for what is perhaps the central contest in the Middle East: the struggle for influence and supremacy between the Shi’ia sect of Islam led by Iran, and the mainstream Sunni sect led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Assad and his regime are from Syria’s Alawite minority, which is a branch of Shi’ia Islam; Iran’s government in Tehran has therefore given Assad much support in arms and military training; Tehran has also helped veteran fighters from the Hezbollah terrorist group in neighbouring Lebanon to join Assad’s forces. This has led to serious outbreaks of violence and assassinations in Lebanon as Syrian rebels encourage their Lebanese allies to attack Hezbollah.

Meanwhile Turkey, which is supporting the largely Sunni Syrian rebels, is playing forced host to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Ankara is also facing a new front in its long-running troubles with its Kurdish minority who live mostly in eastern Turkey, and among whom there is a strong movement for an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds also live across the common borders with Iran, Iraq, and north-eastern Syria, where they have taken advantage of the civil war to carve out what amounts to an autonomous region. This may prove an inspiration to Turkish Kurds.

If Assad feels seriously threatened by international intervention he may lash out at any of these targets plus, of course, Israel.

Jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe

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