Thoughts filed in: Environment

Ozersk: the city on the edge of plutonium

Ozersk (also spelled Ozyorsk) – originally known only by the codename Chelyabinsk-40 – is the site of the third-worst nuclear disaster in world history, as well as the birthplace of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons arsenal. But I'll forgive you if you've never heard of it (I hadn't, until now). Unlike numbers one (Chernobyl) and two (Fukushima), the USSR managed to keep both the 1957 incident, and the place's very existence, secret for over 30 years.

Ozersk being so secret that few photos of it are available, is a good enough excuse, in my opinion, for illustrating this article with mildly amusing memes instead.
Ozersk being so secret that few photos of it are available, is a good enough excuse, in my opinion, for illustrating this article with mildly amusing memes instead.
Image source: Legends Revealed

Amazingly, to this day – more than three decades after the fall of communism – this city of about 100,000 residents (and its surrounds, including the Mayak nuclear facility, which is ground zero) remains a "closed city", with entry forbidden to all non-authorised personnel.

And, apart from being enclosed by barbed wire, it appears to also be enclosed in a time bubble, with the locals still routinely parroting the Soviet propaganda that labelled them "the nuclear shield and saviours of the world"; and with the Soviet-era pact still effectively in place that, in exchange for their loyalty, their silence, and a not-un-unhealthy dose of radiation, their basic needs (and some relative luxuries to boot) are taken care of for life.

Is Australia supporting atrocities in West Papua?

A wee lil' fact check style analysis of The Juice Media's 2018 video Honest Government Ad: Visit West Papua. Not that I don't love TJM's videos (that would be un-Australien!). Just that a number of the claims in that particular piece took me by surprise.

Nobody (except Indonesia!) is disputing that an awful lot of bad stuff has happened in Indonesian Papua over the last half-century or so, and that the vast majority of the blood is on the Indonesian government's hands. However, is it true that the Australian government is not only silent on, but also complicit in, said bad stuff?

Japan's cherry blossom: as indisputable as climate change evidence gets

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This year, Japan's earliest cherry blossom in 1,200 years made headlines around the world. And rightly so. Apart from being (as far as I can tell) a truly unparalleled feat of long-term record-keeping, it's also a uniquely strong piece of evidence in the case for man-made climate change.

I think this graph speaks for itself.
I think this graph speaks for itself.
Image source: BBC News

I just want to briefly dive in to the data set (and the academic research behind it), and to explain why, in my opinion, it's such a gem in the sea of modern-day climate science.

Where there be no roads

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And now for something completely different, here's an interesting question. What terra firma places in the world are completely without roads? Where in the world will you find large areas, in which there are absolutely no official vehicle routes?

A road (of sorts) slowly being extended into the vast nothingness of Siberia.
A road (of sorts) slowly being extended into the vast nothingness of Siberia.
Image source: Favourite picture: Road construction in Siberia – RoadStars.

Naturally, such places also happen to be largely bereft of any other human infrastructure, such as buildings; and to be largely bereft of any human population. These are places where, in general, nothing at all is to be encountered save for sand, ice, and rock. However, that's just coincidental. My only criteria, for the purpose of this article, is a lack of roads.

Five long-distance and long-way-off Australian infrastructure links

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Australia. It's a big place. With only a handful of heavily populated areas. And a whole lot of nothing in between.

No, really. Nothing.
No, really. Nothing.
Image source: Australian Outback Buffalo Safaris.

Over the past century or so, much has been achieved in combating the famous Tyranny of Distance that naturally afflicts this land. High-quality road, rail, and air links now traverse the length and breadth of Oz, making journeys between most of her far-flung corners relatively easy.

Nevertheless, there remain a few key missing pieces, in the grand puzzle of a modern, well-connected Australian infrastructure system. This article presents five such missing pieces, that I personally would like to see built in my lifetime. Some of these are already in their early stages of development, while others are pure fantasies that may not even be possible with today's technology and engineering. All of them, however, would provide a new long-distance connection between regions of Australia, where there is presently only an inferior connection in place, or none at all.

Forgotten realms of the Oxus region

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In classical antiquity, a number of advanced civilisations flourished in the area that today comprises parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. Through this area runs a river most commonly known by its Persian name, as the Amu Darya. However, in antiquity it was known by its Greek name, as the Oxus (and in the interests of avoiding anachronism, I will be referring to it as the Oxus in this article).

The Oxus region is home to archaeological relics of grand civilisations, most notably of ancient Bactria, but also of Chorasmia, Sogdiana, Margiana, and Hyrcania. However, most of these ruined sites enjoy far less fame, and are far less well-studied, than comparable relics in other parts of the world.

I recently watched an excellent documentary series called Alexander's Lost World, which investigates the history of the Oxus region in-depth, focusing particularly on the areas that Alexander the Great conquered as part of his legendary military campaign. I was blown away by the gorgeous scenery, the vibrant cultural legacy, and the once-majestic ruins that the series featured. But, more than anything, I was surprised and dismayed at the extent to which most of the ruins have been neglected by the modern world – largely due to the region's turbulent history of late.

Ayaz Kala (fortress 2) of Khwarezm (Chorasmia), today desert but in ancient times green and lush.
Ayaz Kala (fortress 2) of Khwarezm (Chorasmia), today desert but in ancient times green and lush.
Image source: Stantastic: Back to Uzbekistan (Khiva).

This article has essentially the same aim as that of the documentary: to shed more light on the ancient cities and fortresses along the Oxus and nearby rivers; to get an impression of the cultures that thrived there in a bygone era; and to explore the climate change and the other forces that have dramatically affected the region between then and now.

Natural disaster risk levels of the world's largest cities

Every now and again, Mother Nature reminds us that despite all of our modern technological and cultural progress, we remain mere mortals, vulnerable as always to her wrath. Human lives and human infrastructure continue to regularly fall victim to natural disasters such as floods, storms, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, and droughts. At times, these catastrophes can even strike indiscriminately at our largest and most heavily-populated cities, including where we least expect them.

This article is a listing and an analysis of the world's largest cities (those with a population exceeding 10 million), and of their natural disaster risk level in a variety of categories. My list includes 23 cities, which represent a combined population of approximately 380 million people. That's roughly 5% of the world's population. Listing and population figures based on Wikipedia's list of metropolitan areas by population.

What are fossil fuels?

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Let me begin with a little bit of high school revision. Fossil fuels are composed primarily of carbon and hydrogen. There are basically three types of fossil fuels on Earth: coal, oil, and natural gas. It's common knowledge that fossil fuels are the remains of prehistoric plants and animals. That's why they're called "fossil fuels" (although they're not literally made from prehistoric bones, or at least not in any significant amount). Over a period of millions of years, these organic remains decomposed, and they got buried deep beneath rock and sea beds. A combination of heat and pressure caused the organic material to chemically alter into the fuel resources that we're familiar with today. The fuels became trapped between layers of rock in the Earth's geological structure, thus preserving them and protecting them from the elements up to the present day.

Hang on. Let's stop right there. Fossil fuels are dead plants and animals. And we burn them in order to produce the energy that powers most of our modern world (86% of it, to be precise). In other words, modern human civilisation depends (almost exclusively) upon the incineration of the final remains of some of the earliest life on Earth. In case there weren't enough practical reasons for us to stop burning fossil fuels, surely that's one hell of a philosophical reason. Wouldn't you say so?

Step one: consume less

Consume less, and all else will follow. It's as simple as that. The citizens of the modern developed world are consuming far above their needs. The planet's resources are being gnawed away, and are diminishing at an alarming rate. The environmental side-effects are catastrophic. And the relentless organism that is our global 21st-century economy rolls ever on, growing fatter every year, leaving ever less pockets of the Earth unscathed, and seemingly unstoppable. But despite the apparent doom and gloom, the solution is ridiculously simple. It all begins with us. Or perhaps I have it all wrong: perhaps that's precisely why it's so complicated.

Robotic garbage sorting

The modern world is producing, purchasing, and disposing of consumer products at an ever-increasing rate. This is hardly news to anyone. Two other facts are also well-known, to anyone who's stopped and thought about them for even five minutes of their life. First, that our planet Earth only has a finite reservoir of raw materials, which is constantly diminishing (thanks to us). And second, that we first-world consumers are throwing the vast majority of our used-up or unwanted products straight into the rubbish bin, with the result that as much as 90% of household waste ends up in landfill. When you think about all that, it's no wonder they call it "waste" .There's really no other word to describe the process of taking billions of tonnes of manufactured goods — a significant portion of which could potentially be re-used — and tossing them into a giant hole in the ground (or into a giant patch in the ocean). I'm sorry, but it's sheer madness! And with each passing day, we are in ever more urgent need of a better solution than the current "global disposal régime". Could robots one day help us sort our way out of this mess?