By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

2014 Predictions Part II: The Negative

By Jeff Danner Posted January 12, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Last week I set out my predictions for five positive science and technology news stories that I am expecting in 2014. This week I’ve got predictions for four negative ones. As with last week, each prediction begins with an imaginary headline.

1. Hurricane Cristobal to be Second Category 4 Storm to Hit Pensacola this Month

Every year tropical cyclones form in the Atlantic and make their way towards the southeastern United States. Over the past century, an average of six strong storms – categories 3, 4, and 5 – made landfall each decade. Just as simple statistics govern how often a single person will be struck twice by lightning, they also tell us that one of these years the same city on our coastline will be devastated by a category 3+ storm more than once. I predict that 2014 will be the year that Pensacola will be the city.

This sequence of events will convince all but the most ardent of skeptics that Global Warming is actually occurring. This will be particularly ironic since the events in question will not be related to climate change but are the simple outcome of math.

2. Food Riots in Liberia Enter their Third Week

The United Nations estimates that one in eight people around the globe suffers from chronic undernourishment. A disproportionate number of these hungry people live in under-developed countries. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to soldier on in difficult times, but watching one’s children go hungry often stirs strong responses. As such, hunger and increased food prices are at the top of the list of the most common catalysts for civil unrest throughout history. I think 2014 will bring such unrest in Liberia.

The recent sad arc of Liberian history began with food riots in 1980 which then led to a series of civil wars and upheavals, culminating in the brutal regime of Charles Taylor, which ended in 2003. Things looked encouraging in 2005 when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected as the first ever female president in Africa. She continues to hold office and was awarded the Noble Peace Price in 2011.

Even considering the best efforts of President Johnson-Sirleaf, I see trouble for Liberia on the food security horizon. Liberia, despite its temperate climate, imports over 90% of its rice, a staple food for Liberians, particularly the poor. Part of the reason for this is that a staggering 57% percent of Liberia’s arable land has been leased to foreign countries and companies using an instrument called a concession (I am planning a fuller treatment of this phenomenon in a separate column). These factors combine to make Liberia extremely vulnerable to disruptions in food imports. When this next occurs (and, 2014 or not, it will), I suspect the Liberians will not sit idly by and watch their children go hungry while prime farmland in their country has been leased to foreign governments to grow oil palm for biodiesel.

3. Chicken Run

When you buy chicken at the grocery store, it is highly likely that it contains harmful bacteria. Recent studies have shown that 97% of chicken is infected with some combination of E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, staphylococcus and other potentially harmful bacteria. To make matters worse, nearly half of the chicken in the store is tainted with bacteria that have some degree of resistance to antibiotics. The percentage of grocery store chicken containing drug resistant bacteria has been increasing dramatically over the last several years. As more people become aware of how pervasive this problem is, I expect chicken sales to drop during 2014.

4. Fracking, Not in Lee County but in the Ukraine
While local concerns about fracking are focused on the undue influence of the oil and gas industry on the ongoing formulation of regulations in Raleigh and the threat to water quality in Lee and Moore counties, we should also be paying attention to events in the Ukraine and understand how fracking relates to the recent and massive political protests which occurred there. Its strategic position between the European Union and the Russian Federation is at the root of most issues in the Ukraine. During 2013, the Ukrainian government was moving towards greater cooperation with Western Europe, which provoked a reaction from the Russians concerned about the potential loss of trade revenues and international influence. Since most of Ukraine’s natural gas supply comes from Russia, when the Russians wanted to stop Ukrainian-European cooperation, it threatened to shut off the gas.

Seeing an opportunity in this dispute, Chevron Corporation has approached the government of the Ukraine with a proposal to start fracking operations there in order to reduce their dependence on Mother Russia. I anticipate that the Ukrainians will agree.

As I have written about many times, any hope of maintaining a climate which approximates what we have seen these last 15,000 years will require keeping the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at less than 450 parts per million. To do so will require leaving large portions of current, known fossil fuel reserves it the ground. Fracking in the Ukraine with be yet another step in the wrong direction and it will be a big one. Other nations will follow. In fact, as I was working on the final edits on this column today, I read a report on French oil giant Total proposing fracking in the United Kingdom. May our children forgive us.

Have a comment or question? Use the comment interface below or send me an email at commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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