Next time there's a hurricane, the US may not be warned

A "gap" in satelite monitoring coming up.

As Hurricane Sandy barrelled down on New York, contingency plans were already in action. Days before the storm made landfall, public transport was shut down, electric grid equipment moved and hospital patients evacuated to safer ground. Such precautions indisputably saved lives and millions of dollars, but the window in which these precautions can be taken could be about to slam shut.

Officials have been afforded this window of opportunity by the extensive coverage provided by a fleet of geostationary satellites that continually monitor meteorological developments in and around the US. The data recorded by these satellites shapes the accuracy of forecasts that have become vital during hurricane seasons that could, according to many scientists, become increasingly tempestuous.

The concern emanates from the rapidly deteriorating capabilities of these aging satellites. Systems currently relied upon to contribute towards the accuracy of weather forecasting are approaching or have exceeded their maximum life expectancy. With the launch of the next replacement satellite having slipped to 2017, scientists fear the emergence of a coverage gap that could significantly hamper National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration efforts to protect US civilians.

Although there are currently 90 Earth-sensing instruments carried aboard NASA’s fleet of weather satellites, delays to the launch of the replacement Joint Polar Satellite System mean this figure could fall to as little as 20 by the turn of the decade, an event that NRC committee chairman Dennis Hartmann has labelled as having “profound consequences on science and society”.

Hartmann’s damning indictment tends to be reinforced by statistics. Analysis of the cost of previous storms weighed against the expenditure of NASA’s weather satellites shows that for every $1 invested into space infrastructure, $5 in clean-up costs are saved. What this fails to take into account, of course, is the price of human life – an invaluable quantity that detailed and accurate forecasting has undoubtedly saved in recent years.

The realisation that such a coverage gap could occur has seen the replacement effort labelled as a “national embarrassment” by NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, triggering an urgent restructuring of the troubled and dysfunctional programme. Having been forced into an admission that replacement satellites could not be launched sooner, the US Government Accountability Office has labeled a coverage gap as “almost certain”.

Whether it’s due to negligence of complacency, the combination of increasing commonality of severe weather and a reduction in satellite coverage has created something of a perfect storm in itself. Forecasters will be forced to predict the implications of hurricanes with incomplete data, potentially endangering the lives of civilians. The window of opportunity could be blown in before people have the chance to board it up.

Read more here.

A flooded tunnel in New York. Photograph: Getty Images

Liam Stoker is the aerospace and defence features writer for the NRI Digital network.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear