Building the World

August 15, 2023
by Building The World

WATER: Lahaina – Help and Hope

“Lahaina Beach – West Maui” by D. Howard Hitchcock, 1932. Hawaii State Art Museum. Creative Commons 0: public domain. Included with appreciation.

Hawai’i may often be depicted in colors of blue water and green tropical plants. But now, Lahaina, on Maui, is charred brown. Lahaina lost lives: the total of fatalities in the worst fire in US history is still rising, already surpassing deaths in California’s Camp Fire of 2018 that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.

“Fire hydrant flushing,” by photographer Lldar Sagdejev, 2011. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

While heat, drought, and wind created conditions for fire, Lahaina’s municipal systems might have made it worse. Hydrants, placed along city streets for emergency water access, produced little to help firefighters. Lahaina’s water infrastructure draws water from a creek and from wells underground. But when the ravaging fire melted delivery pipes, causing them to burst, losing precious water, those leaks, in turn, affected the pressure of the whole water system, including the delivery of water to hydrants.

Fire damage and lost acreage in the U.S. has tripled in the last three decades. Image: “Wildfires burned in the United States” by Our World In Data, 2020. Creative Commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

As the climate warms, and droughts increase, wildfires may be more frequent. In 2022, seven countries’ capitals surpassed 40-year high temperatures In South Korea, 42,000 acres burned in a fire in Uljin. In Algeria, a fire in the region of Al Taref consumed 14,000 acres. In Argentina, Corrientes province suffered a fire that charred 2, 223, 948 acres.In the USA, the named McKinney Fire burned  60,000 acres. That same year, in the European Union, over 2 million acres burned.

“Burnout on Mangum Fire” by photographer Mike McMillan/USFS, 2020. Creative Commons public domain. Included with appreciation.

Fire also damages essential infrastructure. Lahaina’s water system suffered damage; that’s not an unusual effect of fire. In Australia, when heat rose to 151 degrees Fahrenheit (66.3 Celsius) and winds gusted to 79 miles per hour (128 kilometers per hour), Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric lost some power when NSW grid links went down; 14,000 people lost electric power. Fire damaging water – the very element needed to quell flames – is not a new phenomenon.  In 1633, famous landmark London Bridge suffered a fire that damaged its waterwheels, thereby preventing pumping water to stop the flames. In Lahaina, Hawaiian Electric equipment and infrastructure of Hawaiian Electric, serving 95% of the state’s residents, suffered damage to power lines. With electric and water system affected by the fire, Lahaina’s infrastructure proved to be a factor in the scope of the disaster. An early assessment of the cost of Lahaina fire damage: $6 billion. Lahaina is both a tragedy and a warning.

How can we protect buildings and essential infrastructure? Image: “Fire in Massueville, Quebec, Canada” by photographer Sylvain Pedneault, 2006. Creative Commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

How can we protect people and property from fires developing from heat, drought, and winds? Here are a few ways:

Assess water systems to protect hydrants and pipes

Climate-proof power grids and essential infrastructure

Limit plants (avoid non-native) and vegetation near buildings

Strengthen regulations for construction materials, emphasizing cement, stone, or stucco

Require tempered glass in windows to reduce window blow-out that fans flames

Test signal systems and err on the side of caution when issuing warnings

It is true that preventive protective measures are costly. But post-fire rebuilding costs are 10 to 50 times suppression costs. Global predictions for climate-related wildfires may reach $50 billion – $100 billion annually by 2050. While the world surely needs to quell warming; meanwhile, directing funds and attention to prevention of future fire damage is important. This will be an area of significant innovation, applicable globally.

“Maui, Hawai’i: seen by Landsat.” Image, public domain. Included with appreciation.

Lahaina’s fire was ultimately stopped by water. Flames expired when they had consumed vegetation (some non-native that burned faster) and buildings, until the blaze reached the ocean. People fleeing burning homes endangered their lives to save them by jumping into the Pacific waters. The water system of Lahaina must now be rebuilt. Can the waters of the Pacific help? Maybe. Seawater contains salt, corroding the very means of its conveyance. Moreover, salt water damages vegetation, buildings, and even fire equipment. In the future, desalination innovations may make it possible for coastal areas to use sea water for many purposes, including fire response.

“A Helping Hand” by photographer Damian Gadal, 2008. Creative commons. Included with appreciation.


Contact: Hawaii Community Foundation or Maui United Way, Maui Food Bank.

Visit or text HAWAII to 90999 to make a donation.

For those who lost pets, Maui Fires Pets Help Group may provide help.

Baker, Mike, Kellen Browning, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs. “As Inferno Grew, Lahaina’s Water System Collapsed.” 13 August 2023. The New York Times.

Howard, Peter. “Flammable Planet.” September 2014.

Kartit, Dina et al .”Wildfires breaking out across the world.” 24 August 2022. Reuters.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U

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August 7, 2023
by Building The World


As above, so (much more) below! Cities can be 18F/10C hotter (0r as high as 20C) below, creating underground climate change. Image: “Morning sunrise above Suwon Gwanggyo Lake with City in Background” by photographer Matthew Schwartz, 2016. Creative Commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

As above, so below,” goes the saying. Just one look at a large city’s skyscrapers and buildings will hint at the massive infrastructure below. But did you know that climate change, experienced by the occupants of those buildings, is also lurking beneath their urban landscape? Our cities are suffering under heat domes, but it is even hotter below.

Machinery under buildings is related to “underground climate change,” a growing urban concern. Image: “Underfall Yard Pumps” by photographer Blythe Varney, 2017. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

Problem: The technical term is subsurface heat islands, but it’s easier to think of it as underground climate change. Equipment below skyscrapers generates heat; subways and tunnels create conditions that increase warmth. Pipelines under the ground, even sewers, are sources of subsurface heat. Land around and below large structures changes when heated, triggering slight shifts in topography. Foundations begin to erode; tunnels weaken; train rails warp; retaining walls may show cracks, then collapse.

Subway systems under major cities are one source of underground climate change. Image: “Washington, DC – Farragut West Station, 2018” by photographer Tdorante10. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

Example: A study by Professor Alessandro F. Rotta Loria of Northwestern University placed sensors under buildings and transport infrastructure in Chicago, Illinois, noting that the ground below was measurably hotter than surface land (a difference of 18F/10C). Professor Rotta Loria studies subsurface urban heat islands, warning that “underground climate change can represent a silent hazard for civil infrastructure…but also an opportunity to reutilize or minimize waste heat in the ground.” (Rotta Loria, 2023).

Underground climate change can weaken retaining walls. Image: “Wallstones Breaking” drawing by Dimitry Borshch, 2008. Creative commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

Difficulty: Because it is out of sight, underground climate change is difficult to recognize – until a retaining wall breaks. Think of it as similar to the gradual change in an iceberg below the water: slow, relentless, and then tragic. Or a slow earthquake: not sudden – until it is.

Chicago’s buildings are hotter underground by as much as 18F/10C. Image: “Chicago Skyline” by photographer Jesse Collins. Creative Commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

Scale Counts: The bigger the city, the more likely underground climate change is happening. The study cited above was conducted in Chicago: population 2.6 million (2022). The study performed simulations over 100 years: from 1951 when subway tunnels were built under Chicago’s downtown “Loop” to projections until 2051. It is not unique to Chicago. Some of the world’s megacities, with populations over 10 million, could suffer significant damage. Megacities are dense, encouraging high rise construction that may exacerbate underground climate change. Cities that are growing quickly may be particularly vulnerable. For example, the most populous city of Nigeria, and its former capital before the new capital of Abuja was built in 1991, Lagos is among the world’s top ten fastest-growing cities. Another city vulnerable to underground climate change? Tokyo, Japan: population 37 million.

Dense, populous megacities may be the most vulnerable to underground climate change. Image: “Oloosa Market in Lagos, Nigeria,” by Omoeko Media, 2018. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

Emerging Answers: There are two approaches – prevent waste heat underground, or use it. In the area of prevention: new urban building codes, especially for dense cities, will need to place more emphasis insulation and energy efficient design. But secondly, waste heat could be used as an energy resource. Geothermal innovations that capture waste heat from the subsurface can find a use for that energy. Innovations for use of waste energy will become an area of significant potential.

“Climate Change Icon” by Tommaso.sansone91. Created in 2019 and dedicated by the designer to the public domain. Included with appreciation.

Above/Below: We tend to focus on mitigating climate change by addressing what we can see and feel. Noticeable effects are mainly above the ground. But there will also be great need – and opportunity for innovation – below. Is your city likely to experience underground climate change? What are some of the ways your city can measure, assess, plan to address, and even harness for beneficial use, underground climate change? 

Brooke, K. Lusk. “CITIES and HEAT – Above,” 27 July 2023.

Khan, Sarah S. “Rising underground heat causes unbearable MTA commutes.” 24 July 2023. The Ticker.

Prisco, Jacopo. “Underground climate change is deforming the ground beneath buildings, study finds.” 17 July 2023. CNN

Rotta Loria, Alessandro F. “The silent impact of underground climate change on civil infrastructure.” 11 July 2023. Communications Engineering 2, 44 (2023)

Zhong, Raymond with photographs by Jamie Kelter Davis. “Rising Heat Underground Is Sinking Chicago Ever So Slightly.” 11 (updated 14) July 2023. The New York Times.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U




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July 27, 2023
by Building The World


The sun is baking Earth, especially cities. Image: “Sun spots on surface of sun” by telescope photographer David Dayag. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

HEAT – So far, July 2023 has been the hottest on Earth in history. Sadly, that breaks the record just set in June 2023. The heat has set new records equally in Canada, United States, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and eastern Australia. If 2022 is any indication, the heat will be deadly: 11,000 people died from heat that year – every week. It was not just heat stroke; high temperatures and humidity are dangerous for people coping with heart and pulmonary conditions. The heat is coming both from the sun and from the very ground on which we stand. In this post, we’ll explore heat coming from above, as it affects cities.

Urban heat island. Image drawn from data of U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2008, and refined by graphic artist The New Phobia. Image is based on public information and therefore in the public domain, creative commons. Included with appreciation,

Cities are especially prone to heat retention. A study based on satellite land surface temperatures from 2002-2021 revealed cities are 29% hotter than rural locations. In the United States, over 100 million people are presently under a “heat dome.”

How does a “heat dome” form? It’s a phenomenon we may see more often, as the climate warms. Image: “Heat Dome during Heat Wave” from U.S. National Weather Service, 2011. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

Southern Europe is suffering, and heat is now reaching central states like Germany and Poland. The metal of the Eiffel Tower expands in temperatures over 40C, growing as much as 6 inches (0.152 meter). Paris, France reached 109F (42.7C) this summer, affecting the Tower, as well as those sweltering beneath in the nearby cafes.

The Eiffel Tower’s iron expands in high heat, causing the iconic structure to grow taller. “Tour Eiffel” by photographer Nitot, 2005. Included with appreciation.

Asia is also affected. In April 2023, a heat wave began in Asia that caused 179 deaths and 460 hospitalizations in India. Schools were closed in Odisha; blackouts in power stations affected Lucknow. Singapore had the warmest month of May on record in 2023. China recorded a temperature of 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52.2C) recently.

“Heat Wave Sign” from Guangdong, China. Image: People’s Republic of China, 2005. Image is public domain in China and included with appreciation.

Cities are not only the hottest places on the planet, they are becoming the future. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities. In 1960, there were only two mega-cities (with populations over 10 million: New York and Tokyo. In 1990, there were ten; in 2014, 28. By 2040, there will be 40 cities with over 10 million people. In our era of global warming, heat is and will continue to be an urban problem. Where can solutions be found?

Phoenix, Arizona, USA has experienced temperatures at or above 110F (43.3C) during the entire month of July 2023. Image: “Phoenix, Arizona skyline, facing west, 2004” by photographer Bravo1. Dedicated to the public domain by the photographer. Included with appreciation.

SOLUTIONS – Immediate

Create a Heat Risk Map for your city – Durban, South Africa; New York, USA; and Toronto, Canada have already posted heat vulnerable areas online, using Landsat data.

Install sensors to measure surface temperature and humidity – Madrid, Spain has launched a sensor network system.

Develop a Heat Action Plan for your city, working with local communities and councils. Ahmedabad, India saved over 1,000 lives since the city launched its Heat Action Plan in 2013, the first South Asian city to do so. A new version is updated yearly.

Open Cooling Centers and a finder map via an app: Washington DC, USA,; Paris, France; Athens, Greece, and Rotterdam, Netherlands have created apps that indicate the closest cooling center.

Athens, Greece, has opened cooling centers. In July 2023, wildfires caused evacuations on the Greek island of Rhodes in heat reaching 113F/45C. Image: “Athens at Sunset” by photographer Panos Zoulakis, 2019. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

SOLUTIONS – Longer Term

Plant trees, bushes, heat-absorbing vegetation to relieve urban heat.

Encourage green roofs and green walls in which a layer of vegetation grows upon a building’s surface to absorb sun and heat.

Upgrade building codes to specify cooling materials for construction, especially roofs.

Paint roofs with white paint, including one developed by Professor Xiulin Ruan and team from Purdue University that reflects sun and heat away from buildings, reducing heat by 98%.

Repave city streets and sidewalks – these surfaces cover 40% of a city’s land. Innovations in pavements include higher permeability to cool surfaces by evaporation.

Support research and development for new kinds of fans and air-conditioning. As the world warms, demand for air-conditioning will increase, especially in dense cities.

Thermal map of Atlanta, Georgia, USA based on NASA satellite data, May 11-12, 2009. Blue=cooler; red=warm; white=hot. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

Summary: we are only now beginning to experience the heat of global warming. Large cities will become dangerous due to urban density, construction, and paved surfaces. But cities are also most able to respond quickly and to test innovations. What are conditions in your area? What are your ideas for responding to urban heat? 

Brooke, K . Lusk. “Mega-Cities from 1960 to 2020 – growth and predictions.” Pages 110-120, Five Foundations for Building a Better World, 2018.

C40. “How to Adapt your City to Extreme Heat.”

Cappucci, Matthew, with contributions by Jason Samenow,  “Coast-to-coast heat home sends temperatures soaring, threatens all-time records.” 13 July 2023. The Washington Post.

Gallego, Mayor Kate. “Phoenix mayor on how the city is coping with heat above 110 degrees every day of July.” 25 July 2023. All Things Considered. National Public Radio interview with Juana Summers. AUDIO:

Li, Xiangyu, et al., “Full Daytime Sub-ambient Radiative Cooling in Commercial-like Paints with High Figure of Merit.” 21 October 2020. Cell Reports Physical Science, Volume 1, Issue 10.

Liu, Zihan, et al., “Surface warming in global cities is substantially more rapid than in rural background areas.” 29 September 2022, Communications Earth & Environment 3, 219 (2022).

Madrid, Spain. “Sistema de Vigilancia de la Calidad del Aire del Ayuntamiento de Madrid.”

Purdue University. “The whitest paint is here – and it’s the coolest. Literally.” 15 April 2021. Purdue University News.

Sherriff, Lucy, “The simple ways cities can adapt to heatwaves: Satellite images reveal how green spaces, white roads, and water features are helping keep cities cool during deadly heatwaves.” 6 July 2023. BBC Future Planet.

Great appreciation to Rachael M. Rusting for sharing research.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U




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July 22, 2023
by Building The World

ENERGY: Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer. Portrait from student days in Göttingen, Germany. Image: Public Domain. Included with recognition.

Summer blockbuster movies are meant to entertain, but the film Oppenheimer presents more than an opportunity for three hours in an air-conditioned theatre to escape the record-breaking summer heatwave. The film, about a scientist who for many is the face of the Manhattan Project, is a lesson in hindsight. And maybe a hope for future foresight.

Roosevelt and Churchill could have made a very different decision. Image: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, 18 January 1943. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain. Included with recognition.

There was a moment in time when, after learning from Albert Einstein and other scientists, that nuclear power as a new form of energy was not only possible but could also be used to destroy the world, a different decision could have been made. In the midst of a troubling war, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met. Churchill sent a team to work with the Americans. General Leslie Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, selected J. Robert Oppenheimer as scientific director to develop nuclear energy – in the form of a weapon. This was only part of Einstein’s communication, but it was the first on which action was taken. The Manhattan Project was launched. But the key decision still had not been made.

Manhattan Project’s Trinity test of “Gadget” 16 July 1945. Image from USDE, public domain. Included with recognition.

Roosevelt worried about the decision. He considered informing a war enemy country, perhaps Japan, that there would be a bombing and that all citizens should be evacuated. Then, the bomb would have been dropped, demonstrating the horror and power, and the shock would be sufficient to stop the war. Why was this course of action not followed? After considering the decision, Roosevelt feared the bomb might indeed fall but not detonate, thereby leaving on the field of war a full-scale model to reverse-engineer, improve, and return fire against its creators. Tragically, the decision to move forward was taken by successor President Truman, and terrible injustice rained upon unsuspecting residents of Japan. Oppenheimer, who developed the bomb and witnessed its power when tested, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Tragic atomic bombing of Japan, 1945. Image: “Bombs detonating over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right),” by photographer Sergeant George R. Caron, 1945. Caron was the first person to see the bomb from the air upon detonation. A military officer on the mission, Caron also happened to be a photographer. Public Domain. Included with recognition.

While its purpose was military, the Manhattan Project also demonstrated that people can come together to work on something of great importance, coordinated across geography and through sectors of society, with remarkable speed and efficacy. Tragically, the Manhattan Project, and Oppenheimer’s team, achieved a level of terror and destruction never before seen. But it also developed a new form of energy. What are we to do with this, now?

In 1946, the Atomic Energy Act introduced guidelines for the safe and beneficial use of this potent new form of energy. In Section I, a, the Atomic Energy Act states “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the people of the United States that…the development and utilization of atomic energy shall…be directed toward improving the public welfare, increasing the standard of living, strengthening free competition in private enterprise, and promoting world peace.” The Peace Symbol, created by Gerald Holtom in 1958 by combining semaphore letters (Semaphore is signal system using visuals that can be read at a distance. In the 19th century, ships began to communicate via semaphore flags – it this system that Holtom used.) “N” and “D” to signal nuclear disarmament, remains an important and inspirational icon, reaching beyond the original meaning to a broader call to peace. But its source and heart developed from the very issue that the Oppenheimer film explores.

The Peace Symbol created by Gerald Holtom combines the semaphore letters “N” (Nuclear) and “D” (Disarmament). Image: Gerald Holtom. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

What should the future of nuclear energy be? Oppenheimer’s last words on the subject remain controversial but include “the peacetime applications of atomic energy will have in them all that we think, and more.” The original atomic energy was achieved through fission – dangerous then and still troubling now. Small modular reactors (SMR) are bringing fission energy to a new and less dangerous scale. Reuse and recycling of nuclear waste is similarly changing energy practice. Many energy experts state that we may need nuclear power as a supplement to other forms of renewable energy like solar, wave, and wind. But it is also true that nuclear plants, even SMRs, are still vulnerable, as recent military history in Ukraine warns. Recently, fusion energy may soon offer a capability that could achieve the dual goals of carbon-free energy and world cooperation. Fusion energy advances in ITER in France and in the United States, among others, may produce options in the near future.

Nuclear power is a major energy source in France. Image: “Nuclear plants map of France” by Eric Gaba, based on NASA satellite data, public domain. Included with recognition,

Nuclear capability remains with us, but the stain of nuclear tragedy also remains, as the Oppenheimer movie reminds us. Oppenheimer is often called the “American Prometheus,” after the fire-stealing Greek Titan, whose brother was Epimetheus. Prometheus means “forethought;” Epimetheus means “hindsight.” What is your view of nuclear energy? How can we use what we know, through hindsight, to lead a future informed by foresight? 

Prometheus means “foresight.” Epimetheus means “hindsight.” Image: Nevit Dilmon. Creative commons 3.0. Included with recognition.

Bird, Kai and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus. 2006. ISBN: 0375726268

Bobin, Jean Louis. Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion. 2014. ISBN: 9789814590686

Davidson Frank. P, and K. Lusk Brooke. “The Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Act,” pages 477-514, Building the World. Volume 2. ISBN: 0313333742.

Gates, Bill. “Interview with Bill Gates on Nuclear Energy and Reaching Net Zero.” 21 October 2022. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). VIDEO.


Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) National Ignition Facility. “Fusion ignition breakthrough hailed as ‘one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century'” 5 December 2022.

Nolan, Christopher interviewed by Dennis Overbye. “Christopher Nolan and the Contradictions of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” 20 July 2023. The New York Times.

Oppenheimer, J. Robert. “Now I am become Death,” speaking of the bomb. VIDEO. Atomic Archive.

Oppenheimer, J. Robert. “Farewell Speech,” 2 November 1945, Association of Los Alamos Scientists. Atomic Heritage Foundation. Nuclear Museum.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. 1986. ISBN: 9780671657192

United States Congress “Atomic Energy Act of 1946” Public Law 585, 79th Congress, Chapter 724, Second Session S. 1717.

Great appreciation to Jean-Louis Bobin and Lucien Deschamps for sharing research.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U


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July 13, 2023
by Building The World

WATER/ENERGY: Deep Seabed Mining – Part 2

Deep Sea Mining will affect marine life in the largest continuous marine habitat on Earth. What do you think? Make your voice heard now Image: “Fluorescent Coral” by Erin Rod, 2019. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

In July 2023, the Legal and Technical Commission of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) will discuss a possible mining code framework. While autonomous bulldozers would not begin to scrape the deep until 2026, it is not too soon to take steps – before it is too late. Which should we value: energy or water? Part 1 of this discussion focused on energy: minerals like copper, cobalt, lithium, manganese, nickel, platinum, and rare earths are needed for batteries to store renewable energy. These minerals are present, in abundance, in the seabed. Part 2 of this topic brings the focus to the water environment in which these minerals are found. It is the largest continuous marine habitat on Earth. Many feel we should not undertake seabed mining too quickly, if at all. Mining disasters on land are evidence of potential damage: what would happen underwater, where currents could expand the problem?

Dr. Sylvia Earle, marine scientist, and founder of “Mission Blue” to preserve ocean life. Image: NOAA, 1970. Public domain. Included with appreciation.

Champions bring issues to life. Enter “Her Deepness”: Sylvia Earle. Earle’ organization Mission Blue has proposed Hope Spots to preserve the ocean environment. Enter Lewis William Gordon Pugh, often called “Sir Edmund Hillary in a Swim Suit,” the first person to swim every ocean including Antarctic waters to promote awareness of the Ross Sea –  now largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the world. Enter Rena Lee: leader of the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity, who chaired 36 hours of nonstop negotiation that produced the agreement for the High Seas Treaty to protect 30% of Earth’s water and land by 2030. Marine Protected Areas offer a chance to save enough to sustain the ocean environment. Related to that concept is the campaign of 50 Reefs to protect some of the world’s most sustainable coral reefs with the hope of regenerating neighboring reefs over time.

Global Marine Protected Areas (as of November 2022). Image from Marine Protection Atlas, Marine Conservation Institute; graphic by Yo. Russmo. CC 4.0. Included with appreciation.

ISA has initiated a few marine protected areas of their own. They call these “Areas of Particular Environmental Interest” or APEI. Recently, ISA approved four new ones in the CCZ totaling 200,000 square miles (518,000 square kilometers). Just as a comparison, the CCZ is 1.7 million square miles (4.5 million sq km). Next to be determined: how will exploited versus protected areas be compared to track environmental changes if or when mining begins?

Deep Sea Mining may soon begin in the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. Image: “Polymetallic Nodules Exploration Area in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone” by International Seabed Authority (ISA), 2016. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

ISA “DeepData” began in 2002 as a way to collect and centralize all data on marine mineral resources. Will the APEIs be included? Comparing and measuring an initial mined area with a protected area could monitor effects before opening permits to other projects.

Some companies, and countries, have called for a moratorium on deep sea mining. Once it begins, there may be consequences we have not anticipated. Image: “Mid-ocean ridge topography” graphic by United States Geological Survey, 2011. Public domain. Included with appreciation.

Some business users of minerals like cobalt have declared they will not purchase or use any materials obtained by deep sea mining. Some countries have signed a moratorium including Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Federation States of Micronesia, Fiji, France, Germany, New Zealand, Palau, Panama, Samoa, and Spain, among others. More than 700 scientists joined with the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) to warn about potential damage. Sir David Attenborough advised a moratorium and the UK offered a opportunity to sign a petition (if you are a UK citizen or resident). Some experts state we can reduce mineral demand by 58%,  thereby avoiding a need for deep sea mining. When all ISA members (the USA is not among them) meet in July 2023, a precautionary pause discussion is on the agenda. But there are states, including Nauru, that want to proceed.

Climate disasters closer to home take our immediate attention. The Cerberus heatwave of 2023 may be even hotter than that of 2022, shown here from Copernicus Sentinel satellite data. Image: “Surface Air Temperature Anomaly July 2022” by ESA/Copernicus Sentinel. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

Why don’t we hear more about sea bed mining on the news? Present climate disasters are closer to home. The Cerberus heatwave scorching southern Europe made headlines. Copernicus Sentinel satellite data showed land temperatures in Spain’s Extremadura region climbed to 60C (140F) this week. Across the southern United States, a “heat dome” blanketed states from Texas to Florida. Torrential rains (warmer water retains more moisture) engulfed Vermont. New York State closed sections of the Erie Canal due to severe flooding. Japan’s Shinkansen train system came to a halt as the country coped with a once-in-a-millennium rainfall. Environmental disasters where we live understandably deflect focus from what is out of sight, like the deep sea.

The ocean is the largest continuous marine habitat on Earth. Image: “Dumbo Octopus, Opisthoteuthis agassizii” by NOAA, 2019. CC 3.0. Included with appreciation.

The issue of deep sea mining is critical to the future. But, importantly, it has not yet begun. Some say it may be inevitable, but it should not be unnoticed, and certainly must be carefully undertaken. There is time for you to become involved, to offer your ideas and your suggestions. You can find out more, and sign a petition to vote on this issue here.

Let your voice be heard on deep sea mining as ISA gathers to decide. Image: “Your Vote Counts” by NAACP, Creative Commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

Brooke, K. Lusk. “Nauru and Deep Sea Mining” 30 June 2023.

Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “The Race to Defend the Deep Heats Up in Kingston.” 10 July 2023.

Greenpeace International. “Petition on Deep Sea Mining.”…/act/stop-deep-sea-mining/

Greenpeace International. “Governments leave door open to deep sea mining starting this year.” 31 March 2023.

Heffernan, Olive. “Seabed mining is coming – bringing minerals, riches, and fears of epic extinctions.” 24 July 2019 Nature.

Humphreys, John and Robert W.E. Clark. “A  Critical History of Marine Protected Areas.” 2020. Marine Protected Areas: Science, Policy, and Management, pp. 1-12.

International Seabed Authority (ISA).

Khan, Yusuf. “Deep-Sea Mining Is Close to Reality Despite Environmental Concerns” 22 August 2022. The Wall Street Journal.

Mission Blue. VIDEO. Netflix.

MIT. “Deep Sea Mining.”

Rabone, M., et al., “A review of the International Seabed Authority database DeepData from a biological perspective,” 30 March 2023. DATABASE: The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation, Volume 2023.

Simas, Moana, Fabian Aponte, Kirsten Wiebe. “The Future is Circular: Circular Economy and Critical Minerals for the Green Transition.” 15 November 2022. Project number 102027433. SINTEF.

United Nations. “High Seas Treaty.”

World Wildlife Fund. “Future mineral demand can be met without deep seabed mining as innovative technology can cut mineral use by 58%.” 28 November 2022.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U








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July 4, 2023
by Building The World

CITIES: Wildfires, Fireworks, and A New Sky

Will drones replace fireworks? Image: Nagaoka Festival 2006 by ZorroIII. Creative Commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

Many cities light up the sky during festive occasions. In the United States, today marks a holiday often celebrated with fireworks. But with drought plaguing some areas, the risk of igniting wildfires is causing an innovation: sky art with drones. Instead of traditional fireworks, the city of Boulder, Colorado will feature a drone show (the Marshall Fire of 2021/22 killed two people and devastated 6000 acres/2,428 hectares). Galveston, Texas will also illumine the holiday with a drone display. California towns of La Jolla and Ocean Beach will flash the night sky with animations. It’s a new idea for La Jolla: the city has forgone any fireworks for five years.

Drone aerial display during coronation of King Charles III. Image: Department for Culture, Media and Sport, by SkyMagic Drone Shows, May 2023. Creative Commons 1.0 Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

Drones replacing fireworks on this holiday will not be a first. Tokyo used drones during their most recent Olympics; during their first Olympian experience, the city launched the innovation of Shinkansen. And, in 2023, the coronation of King Charles III featured an artistic drone light display.

Drones are an innovation that has grown to a $1 billion market in the past decade. Image: Drone Flying Eye, 2011 by Drone Flying Eye. Creative Commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

For sky art, drones have advantages over fireworks: no smoke, no falling particles, and a quieter display. Drones are an innovation that has grown impressively over the past ten years from almost nothing to a $1 billion market in 2021.

Has your city used drones instead of fireworks? What do you think of this new trend? For a sample of drone light shows, click here.

Hirsch, Lauren and Michael J. de la Merced. “Fireworks Have a New Competitor: Drones.”1 July 2023. The New York Times.

O’Connell, Brian. “7 Best Drone Stocks to Watch in 2023.” U.S. News & World Report.

Williams, Ashley R. “Some US cities are replacing 4th of July fireworks with environmentally friendly drones.” 2 July 2023. CNN.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U

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June 30, 2023
by Building The World

ENERGY/WATER: Deep Seabed Mining – Part 1

What kind of treasure is buried in the deep sea, and to whom does it belong? Image: “Brian Aqua by Month,” 2014, from data and images by NASA, public domain. Included with appreciation.

As the quest for clean energy continues, so does the search for battery components like cobalt, and other minerals. On land, mining has been an active industry, but resources are getting harder to access. Because land’s properties, and hidden treasures, are also present in the ocean, mining may be expanding to the seabed. The same thing happened in the energy sector earlier: oil wells were first drilled on land, then offshore.

“UNCLOS Maritime Zones – Exclusive Economic Zone and High Seas” by JK Donehue, 2020. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

The deep sea—and the seabed—are not the property of any single nation. Coastal countries do maintain proprietary rights to their waters to a distance of 200 nautical miles/230 land miles (370 km), known as an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Within its EEZ, a country controls the rights to living and so-called “non-living” resources, including minerals. That means if a country is coastal, and it happens to have seabed minerals within the allotted reach, those resources are theirs to exploit without any permissions required.

“A schematic of mining of nodules on the deep seabed floor,” by MimiDeep, 2022. Creative Commons 1.0: dedicated to the pubic domain by the designer. Included with appreciation.

Minerals needed to supply the ever- growing demand for electric batteries include cobalt. There are three main types of cobalt deposits found in the seabed:

  •   polymetallic nodules found in the seabed;
  •   sulfide deposits found around hydrothermal vents; and
  •   ferromanganese crusts that line the sides of seamount crests and crusts.These areas contain cobalt, manganese, titanium, nickel, even gold. The relatively good news is that ferromanganese crusts can be found at more shallow depths of 0.25 to 3.0 miles (400 to 5,000 meters) where there is considerable volcanic action. A significant amount of cobalt deposits may lie within the EEZs of specific countries, so they would have access and rights there.

International Seabed Authority logo. Image by Anna Elaise, ISA, 2009. Creative Commons public domain. Included with appreciation.

Resources outside of national boundaries belong to the whole world (even land-locked, non-coastal countries). These rights are regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), established in 1994 as a follow-on to the UN Convention on the Law of Sea. Any country that is a signatory to UNCLOS (the U.S. is not, yet) may apply for an international seabed contract. ISA can grant two kinds of contracts: exploration and exploitation. The first gives permission to map where the desired minerals are and what might be necessary to reach and extract them. The second, exploitation, is mining. So far, all the contracts granted have been for exploration only. But that may soon change.

Nauru, third-smallest country in the world, may change history. “Aerial view of Nauru” by U.S. Department of Energy, 1999. Creative commons public domain. Included with appreciation.

Nauru, third-smallest nation in the world, applied to ISA and was granted an exploration contract for Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary company of DeepGreen, a Canadian company. DeepGreen merged with Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation, and the new firm was named The Metals Company (TMC), which quickly began working in an area of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) designated as NORI-D. The contract was to develop nickel, and perhaps later other minerals.

Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), located in international waters between Hawaii and Mexico, may contain large deposits of valuable minerals. Image by NOAA, 2011. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

Many valuable minerals are contained in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in international waters between Hawaii and Mexico. TMC estimates the CCZ area might contain the largest nickel deposit in the world. The polymetallic nodules there also contain manganese, copper, and cobalt. NORI embarked on 18 expeditions to evaluate resources as well as biodiversity, geochemistry, and the cyclic systems of nutrients. But mining the sea poses problems not yet encountered on land.

Exploration, and exploitation (mining) of the deep sea may pose problems not yet encountered on land. Image: “Deep Sea Exploration” by Dr. Steve Ross, NOAA, 2005. Creative commons, public domain. Included with appreciation.

The Republic of Nauru recently gave notice to the ISA of NORI’s intention to mine the CCZ. Nauru’ s official letter, dated 25 June 2021, invoked the “Two Year Rule,” requiring ISA to complete its decision. There is a provision in the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), found in Section 1(15), that requires ISA to make a decision on a proposed contract within two years. Hence the informal name, “Two-Year Rule.” The rule is on the books as a safeguard to those who are ready to mine, but blocked when the approval process stalls.

Sir David Attenborough at the Great Barrier Reef. Image courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

Many have called for a moratorium, among them Sir David Attenborough as well as a number of marine science experts. But it would seem that mining may commence, soon. In March 2023, at the ISA general meeting, the Legal and Technical Committee began developing terms for exploitation contracts. In April 2023, ISA announced it would invite exploitation applications in July 2023.

What are the Rights of the Commons? Image: Wiki Human RIghts graphic by Jasmina El Bouamraoui and Karabo Poppy Moletsane and Wikipedia, 2021. Creative Commons Public Domain CC0. Included with appreciation.

If the international seabed belongs to everyone, how will the value of any minerals mined be shared? Certainly, private companies will need to be in partnership with sponsoring nations, like Nauru. And the costs of operations may be significant. But is there a plan for sharing some portion of the profits with the owners of the deep seabed – the world? Similarly, what is the plan for addressing potential loss and damage, if and when mining accidents or environmental degradation may occur? Will the work of Senator Sherry Rehman of Pakistan apply? If the international ocean and seabed belong to the world, a kind of blue commons, should rights be similar to those defined by the Outer Space Treaty? In our era of deep sea and deep space exploration (and exploitation), should we update our laws and rights concerning that which is shared by all humanity and nature? Might the insights of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrum help us to determine how to govern the commons of international waters?

“International waters in dark blue; exclusive economic zones in light blue” by graphic artist B1mbo, 2011. Creative commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

Finally, will there be a balancing of exploitation with preservation? Establishment of the High Seas Treaty created a legal mechanism for marine protection. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) established an international legal instrument for conserving and sustaining Earth’s ecosystems. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) set goals for 2030 and 2050. In June 2023, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) advanced a draft report on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Should ISA consider requiring those nations and private enterprise partners who are granted exploitation contracts to contribute to Marine Protected Areas? The ISA has established some, and others are in development. More on that, next post.

How can we balance future seabed mining with the sustainable future of marine biodiversity? Image: “Clupea harengus migrating” video by Uwe Kils, Creative Commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

International Seabed Authority (ISA). “ISA Contract for Exploration: Public Information Template – NORI”

ISA. “Draft regulations on exploitation of mineral resources in the Area. Prepared by the Legal and Technical Commission” 2023.

ISA. Overview VIDEO. “International Seabed Authority celebrates 25 Years.” July 2019.

Shabahat, Elham. “Why Nauru Is Pushing the World Toward Deep-Sea Mining,” 14 July 2021. Hakai Magazine.

Singh, Pradeep A. “The Invocation of the ‘Two-Year’ Rule’ at the International Seabed Authority: Legal Consequences and Implications” 18 July 222, The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law 27 (2022), p. 375-412.

United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. “Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.” 15/4, December 2022.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U


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June 19, 2023
by Building The World



“Juneteenth Celebration” flyer for Juneteenth 1980 celebration at the Seattle Center. Image: Creative Commons 2.0, courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives. Included with appreciation.

As we celebrate and honor Juneteenth, here, written and spoken by poet Maya Angelou, is “Still I Rise.”

Angelou, Maya. “Still I Rise.”

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U

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June 14, 2023
by Building The World

WATER: Liquid Assets in a Blue Economy?

Water- the blue economy? “Splash” by photographer José Manuel Suárez. Wikimedia creative commons 2.0. Included with appreciation.

Chicago, city on the blue edge of Lake Michigan, plans to enter the “blue economy.” The city is reaching out to businesses in drought-stressed areas that need water for manufacturing: an example is silicon chip producers. As poet Carl Sandburg characterized it, the “City of Big Shoulders” is taking on the power of water. Current, a Chicago-based water innovation enterprise, is one of the prime movers. Current offers a private database with over 600 innovative technologies for water solutions: partners and contributors have access to that database. World Business Chicago, a public-private economic development agency, helped to launch Current. Other partners include the City of Chicago and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), along with universities and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Chicago on Lake Michigan, now part of the Blue Economy. Image by photographer J. Crocker, 2010. Wikimedia creative commons public domain. Included with appreciation.

Customers are not just businesses. The city of Joliet, Illinois, located 35 miles (kilometers) inland, signed a 100 year contract to buy water from Chicago from 2030 to  2130. Joliet now uses groundwater from wells located in the city, but the Illinois State Water Survey warned that the Cambrian-Ordovician Sandstone aquifer Joliet now relies upon will not be adequate after 2030. Joliet will join five other towns forming the Grand Prairie Water Commission. To encourage residents to accept the deal, Joliet named the project “Joliet’s Alternative Water Source Program” and set up a webportal along with social media sites.

Joliet, Illinois signed a 100-year contract to receive Chicago’s water. Here, an image from an earlier diversion of water from the Great Lakes via a Joliet Power House in 1921. Image: Army Corps of Engineers, 1921. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

Joliet will pay for the cost of facilities required to produce and deliver treated water, but not any costs for replacing service lines in Chicago or any cost of Chicago’s own water system. The revenue for Chicago is expected to generate $24 – $37 million annually, for a total of $1 billion of the life of the contract.

Jardine Water Purification Plant in Chicago, the world’s largest by volume. Jardine filters water from the Great Lakes, for distribution to city residents. Image: photograph by Sea Cow, 2022. Creative commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

Chicago’s Jardine Water Purification Plant, world’s largest by volume, draws water from the Great Lakes to distribute to the the city’s residents. But some of the older pipes in the system may leak; estimates tally lost water at 6 billion gallons (22,712,470,704 liters) per day. In the United States, water leaks are responsible for the loss of 2.1 trillion gallons (7 trillion liters) per year – enough to put Manhattan under 300 feet of water. Chicago is also home to the world’s largest wastewater plant: Stickney Water Reclamation Plant. Chicago’s water economy is the 4th largest in the United States, and produces 83 patents per year for water innovation.

The Great Lakes contain 80% of North American surface fresh water, and 18% of the world’s. Photograph by NASA Aqua satellite, 2010. Creative commons public domain. Included with appreciation.

Lake Michigan is part of a series of freshwater bodies known as the Great Lakes, now joined in the Saint Lawrence Seaway terminating in Calumet Harbor, making the area one of the world’s largest inland ports (another large inland port is China’s Port of Nanjing). The Great Lakes supply 80% of North America’s surface fresh water. Globally, the water in the Great Lakes represents 18% of all global available fresh surface water.

Water: liquid asset or human right? Image: “Drinking water” by photographer de:Benutzer: Alex Anlicker, 2012. Creative commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

Should water be sold? Restrictions in the GATT, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now WTO, World Trade Organization) and an earlier version of NAFTA may be easing due to a decision by the Great Lakes Compact to allow Nestlé to bottle, sell, and export the Lakes’ water. In 2021, Nestlé withdrew its permit to extract groundwater near Evart, Michigan. Bottled water is a growing industry, so many may be looking to the Great Lakes. There is a provision in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, a binding agreement including the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The Compact allows bottling and small container use of the water, but forbids pipelines conveying water to distant places. For example, a pipeline from Lake Michigan to the state of Arizona would be forbidden. It might be noted that Arizona’s Land Department leased land to Fondomonte, a Saudi Arabian enterprise. Arizona’s state law allows unlimited pumping in rural areas. Fondomonte draws water from the Butler Valley basin to farm alfalfa. Agriculture uses 70% of Arizona’s water.

Historically, as cities have grown, water demand has spurred innovation.The Roman Aqueducts were engineered to bring fresh water to an expanding Rome. England’s New River brought needed water to a burgeoning London. The Colorado River was harnessed and directed to provide water to 40 million people in American states, Tribal Nations, and Mexico. All of these water innovations were dedicated to the public, and natural, commons.

“Acquedotto romano a Monte Romano” by photographer Elena Baladelli, U.S. Department of Defense, 2018. Creative commons public domain. Included with appreciation.

Traditionally, water has been considered a “common pool resource” (CPR). Fishing grounds and forests are also considered common pool resources; some would add air. Elinor Ostrom, first women to win the Nobel Prize in Economics (shared with Oliver E. Williamson), established the theory of the commons in resource management and identified eight design principles for managing and sustaining the commons. It may also be noted that access to clean water and safe sanitation is #6 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize Laureate (Economics) 2009. Photograph by Prolineserver, 2009. Creative commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

But exporting and selling water might be something new. Water trading is now part of the economies of Australia, Chile, Iran, Spain, and South Africa, among others. Is water a liquid asset or a human and natural right? Blue Economy developments are thriving. California manages a $1.1 billion water trading market. Arizona leases land and water rights to Saudi Arabia. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange offering is the first regulated, exchanged-traded risk management tool to manage water supply and demand risk.Water futures trade on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in the Nasdaq Veles California Water Index futures: ticker H20M3.

Water futures are now trading on NASDAQ. Image: “NASDAQ” by photographer Kowloonese, 2004. Creative commons 3.0. Included with appreciation.

When Earth was first seen from space, the most distinctive difference between our planet and others was the color blue. Earth is 70% water. We can live three weeks without food but only three days without water. As the world population grows, and climate change introduces alterations in water supply, water sustainability will be increasingly critical. Who owns water, who should benefit from its use, how to design and build water systems that renew this essential resource – all of these factors will determine our future.

“Earth” and sometimes called “The Blue Marble” photograph by NASA mission crew of Apollo 17. Public Domain. Included with appreciation,

What do you think? Is water a liquid asset in the new blue economy or a human and natural right for all? How will water futures influence the future of water?

Abrams, Daniel, and Cecilia Cullen. “Analysis of Risk to Sandstone Water Supply in the Southwest Suburbs of Chicago. Prairie Research Institute, Illinois State Water Survey, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2020.

Allhands, Joanna. “The Saudis are draining Arizona to feed their cows, right? Well, not exactly.” 3 April 2023, Arizona Republic.

Almeida, Isis and Kim Chipman. “Chicago’s $1 billion water deal shows Great Lakes wealth.” 2 May 2023. Phys.Org.

Annin, Peter. The Great Lakes Water Wars. 2009. ISBN: 9781597266376

Brooke, K. Lusk. “Leaking or Lacking – Water Infrastructure,” in Renewing the World: Water, pages 49ff. ISBN: 9798985035919.

CME Group. “Understanding the Water Futures Market.” July 2021.

Current Water. “Where Innovation Flows.”

Dempsey, Dave. Great Lakes for Sale: From Whitecaps to Bottlecaps. 2021. ISBN: 9781954786585

Joliet, Illinois. “Joliet Announces Historic Water Agreement with City of Chicago: 100-year Contract Ensures Sustainable Drinking Water Source for Southwest Suburban Residents.” 20 April 2023.

Kalakailo, Sophia. “Company formerly known as Nestle drops water withdrawal permit” 26 October 2021. Great Lakes Now.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. 1990 ISBN: 9780521405997.

United States Congress. “Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.” Public Law 110-342, 110th Congress. 3 October 2008.

Appreciation to Richard Cathcart and Shira White for sharing aspects of research.

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June 9, 2023
by Building The World

CITIES: Wildfires and Climate – How to Help

Wildfires are increasing due to climate change. Image: “Burning Mangum Fire” in Arizona. Public Domain.Included with appreciation.

June 2023: Canada is on fire (below are links to help). Canadian wildfires have consumed 9.4 million acres (3.9 million hectares) – 15 times the average over the past decade. Quebec fires forced 11,000 residents from their homes; Nova Scotia suffered the largest blaze in its history. The East coast is not alone: Western British Columbia battled the second-biggest wildfire on record for the area. In Central Canada, Alberta issued evacuation orders and heat directives. Canadian railway CN is adjusting trains in several provinces. Why? Drought dries forests and heat sparks blazes. While wildfires are normal in nature, hence the term “wildfire season,” climate change is intensifying the threat to land, cities, and public health.

New York City’s Empire State Building as seen through smoke-haze from Canadian wildfires. Image “Empire State Building June 7 2023” by Aethemplaer on Twitter. Creative Commons 4.0. Included with appreciation.

No longer are fires, and related smoke, a local danger. Just south of Canada, winds blew smoke into the air of Vermont to New York to South Carolina, and then westward to Ohio and Kansas. New York City’s iconic skyline was cloaked in soot. Satellite images show the movement of smoke over Manhattan.

Smoke from Canadian wildfire blowing over New York City on June 7, 2023. Image: by NOAA. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

The year 2023’s fire season is just beginning in North America. If recent years are a warning, it is time to take precautions. In 2022, wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington state consumed thousands of acres, destroyed homes and agricultural land. Canadian British Columbia battled 193 wildfires in 2022, sending smoke to Vancouver and also to Seattle, Washington. Wildfires have become so frequent that they often have names: Sandia, Red, Tower, Mountain, Dixie, Camp. The latter, in 2018, burned 153,000 acres (62,000 hectares), killed 85 people, and destroyed the entire town of Paradise, California.

Camp Fire of 2018 engulfed Paradise. Image: photograph by Landsat and Joshua Stevens, NASA. Public Domain. Included with appreciation.

Wildfires are a global threat. Australia’s wildfires in 2020 spiked atmospheric temperatures and even widened the hole in the ozone layer. Fires threatened Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric‘s largest generator Tumut 3. During China’s 2020 heatwave, the city of Chongqing, home to 32 million people, relocated 1500 residents due to fires erupting. Factories suspended work for seven days. In 2022, Hunan province closed its mountain access for one month to help 4,000 firefighters battle a blaze.

Copernicus satellite system: “Europe’s eyes on Earth.” Image: Copernicus logo courtesy of European Union. Creative commons fair use. Included with appreciation.

As global space-based observation progresses, we may be able to predict wildfires. The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) reports on European Union countries. EFFIS uses satellites in concert with the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) to observe active wildfires and estimate air quality pollution. Then, CAMS coordinates with the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) to predict where the wind will blow fire pollution, sending warning to cities. Another space-based monitoring system is CAMS Biomass Burning Aerosol Optical Depth measuring how much sunlight can pass through the air (or not), indicating concentrations of particulate matter.

Image: “Grain size dependence of penetration of airborne particulate matter.” Graphic by Dr. Claire Horwell, Durham University, UK and Ken Donaldson, USGS. Creative commons public domain. Included with appreciation.

Particulate matter (PM) is the term for mixture of solid and liquid drops of pollutants suspended and carried in the air. Particles can be made of inorganic and organic compounds including soot, metal, dust, soil, pollen, mold, and little flakes of burnt matter. Small particles can be inhaled, enter the lungs and pass into the bloodstream. The tiniest particles, those less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and known as PM2.5, are the most dangerous.

How can you tell if your local air’s PM2.5 might be at high levels? Look out any window. If air is hazy, and wind is relatively still, there is danger. Here are actions to take:

Preventing Wild Fires and Related Damage – manage forests, limit residential plantings needing extensive water, build new construction with fire-proof or fire-resistant materials, use satellite data to anticipate fire-prone areas and take preventive action.

Preventing Health Risks due to Fire and Smoke – remain indoors, do not open windows, use an air-filter device if available, cancel unnecessary outdoor exposure. If you do need to venture outdoors, wear an N95 mask (or two), and when returning, remove and launder outerwear garments that may harbor toxic residue.

Providing Help to Those Impacted by Canadian Wildfires – fires have displaced 20,000 people, destroyed property, and sent many to the hospital for smoke inhalation. Here’s some ways to help:

Canadian Red Cross – every dollar donated will be matched;

Firefighters Without Borders – support international and Canadian firefighters;

Donate a Mask – help a charity that distributes free N95 masks.

In the future, climate response will mean addressing, especially, the shared resources of the global commons. These include areas that lie beyond national jurisdiction: the high seas, outer space, and the atmosphere – the very air we breathe. Wildfires may erupt in a specific place, but winds that circle the globe bring “there” to “here.” As we respond to problems we face today, let us keep an eye on a better, cleaner, more equitable future.

But still, like air, I’ll rise. -Maya Angelou

Brooke, K. Lusk. “Designing residential and commercial communities in the age of drought and wildfires.” Renewing the World: WATER. Success Casebook. 2023. ISBN: 9798985035933.

Coleman, Jude. “Australia’s epic wildfires expanded ozone hold and cranked up global heat.” 1 September 2022. Nature.

European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS)

Global Commons Alliance.

Stack, Liam, Mike Ives, and Kevin Williams. “Here’s the latest of the widespread effects of the smoke in North America.” 8 June 2023. New York Times.

Williams, Nia. “Wildfires burn across Canada with little relief in sight.” 8 June 2023. Reuters.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U

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