Seeing the wood for the trees

A new study in the journal Science ($) claims to have detected… “increases current estimates of global forest cover by at least 9%”, by using new “high resolution satellite images covering more than 200,000 half-hectare-sized plots” in dryland areas.

“The extent of forest area in dryland habitats, which occupy more than 40% of Earth’s land surface, is uncertain compared with that in other biomes. Bastin et al. provide a global estimate of forest extent in drylands, calculated from high-resolution satellite images covering more than 200,000 plots. Forests in drylands are much more extensive than previously reported and cover a total area similar to that of tropical rainforests or boreal forests. This increases estimates of global forest cover by at least 9%”

Sounds like very good news. But I suppose there are three niggling questions here, which immediately spring to mind.

1) Is that 9% figure within the margin of variability for a sample of 200,000 one-acre plots, from an area as massive as whole of the Earth’s dryland tree-growing areas? I mean, if you made a basic Earth model in 3D and pointed a virtual camera at 200,000 random plots, what would be the variability of the results arising simply from chance? Could I re-run it with different samples, multiple times, and then pick one result from a range of -10% to +20%?

2) What proportion of this tree cover has always been there, hiding in plain sight? And to what extent is this 9% figure measuring the carbon fertilisation effect, the ‘global greening’?

3) What part of the 9% is measuring the ‘leafing out’ of the massive tree-planting efforts in the developing world? A chart from the paper, published on a short Science blog post, sort-of-helps with that, but not much…

My hunch would be that a large chunk of of the 9% is natural re-greening in Africa and Russia, plus the huge levels of tree planting in Asia which is now ‘leafing out’ in a manner which makes the saplings visible on high-res satellite images.

Sadly the paper itself is behind a paywall, so it’s difficult to ask the above questions of it. But, effectively, it appears humanity has discovered the equivalent of ‘another Amazon’ sucking down a whole lot of carbon — something which hasn’t yet been fed into the greenhouse warming models.

Moisture Harvesters for all?

I’m not easily impressed by reports of some newly invented uber-box, but a new paper in Science reveals an amazing little device from MIT: “Water harvesting from air with metal-organic frameworks powered by natural sunlight”

“… an efficient process for capturing and delivering water from air, especially at low humidity levels (down to 20%), has not [yet] been developed. We report the design and demonstration of a device based on porous metal-organic framework-801 [Zr6O4(OH)4(fumarate)6] that captures water from the atmosphere at ambient conditions using low-grade heat from natural sunlight below one sun (1 kW per square meter). This device is capable of harvesting 2.8 liters of water [5 British pints] per kilogram of MOF daily at relative humidity levels as low as 20%, and requires no additional input of energy.”

Sadly the Science paper is behind a paywall. But ScienceDaily has a good write-up.

At present, the device…

* is still only a working prototype. The “proof of concept harvester leaves much room for improvement”. But… “Rooftop tests at MIT confirmed that the device works in real-world conditions.”

* needs a mesh pad made… “of zirconium metal and adipic acid”.

* might work best when there’s direct sunlight to warm it.

* it looks like it would need to work with a bug screen and anti-fungals in a real-world deployment. Flies and mites can come in very small sizes, and in a dry environment would be attracted by the moisture: would a fine-meshed bug-screen let enough moisture in overnight?

Apparently zirconium cost about $14 per pound in 2010, according to figures I found, so it is not some incredibly rare metal. It’s also durable in the presence of moisture, since it’s apparently used to cap dental fillings. “Adipic acid” is also common, annually produced in the billions of pounds as a precursor in making nylon. It doesn’t melt before 152 degrees centigrade. The working device used about two pounds of the mixture in a pad. How long the pad remains viable isn’t stated, but the materials sound durable. If the pad can be made to last six months in a desert summer before gumming up its latices with microscopic fungi or other similar blockages, and the starter box costs $95, then it’ll sell like hot cakes. Or, in this case, like hot boxes.

As with all such world-changing devices, we probably want to be alert to unintended consequences of mass deployment as early in the development process as possible. Especially in terms of drinking water with a trace of zirconium or aluminium. Think: the Ancient Romans and their lead water pipes, for instance. But some nano-mesh or other would presumably filter unwanted metal traces out of the water.

But it looks good, very good. And is also well-timed, in terms of offering a simple technology that could help nudge along measures such as a green wall along the southern edge of the Sahara, or even help to water the smallholdings of the coming billions in Africa. It’s also simple like-a-bicycle, which means there should be lots of opportunities for home-brew tinkerer iterations of the sort that took humanity from the ungainly old Penny Farthing and ‘boneshaker’ bicycles to the perfected modern Safety Bicycle form we know today.

Is Africa about to see mass starvation again? Not on present trends.

According to a new end-of-year FAO report “Crop Prospects and Food Situation”

“Global cereal production in 2016 received a further boost, owing to generally favourable growing conditions for the crops harvested later in the season.”

That’s great, and adds to boosts from a host of other factors. Obviously the FAO can’t commit climate heresy by saying so, but you have to suspect this may be a result of the positive effects of global warming and the global greening that arises from it.

There are some interesting insights into Africa in the report, and unlike most international reports the figures are sound. Since the agricultural inputs and outputs are hard for corrupt regional statistics-fiddlers to manipulate, unlike many educational and development aid outcomes, or things like wildlife counts.

There’s one especially positive set of statistics. In the west many people will casually assume that Western Africa and the Sahel nations are mostly desert. But now these nations are…

“about to achieve record production of cereals” in 2017 and rice is also doing well… “growing conditions have also proven conducive across Northern Hemisphere Africa, where the rice output is seen at a fresh peak of 19.8 million tonnes”

While back in the European Union, curiously…

“Significant production declines are estimated in the European Union, with the wheat output falling by 16.5 million tonnes on a yearly basis”.

The trade journal AgriMoney attributes this trend to urbanisation and afforestation of the countryside, and it affects many other crops such as potatoes. According to this trade journal…

“the downward trend in EU crop area [increases] as towns and forests expand, a decline which stretches back to the 1990s.”

The decline may also be something to do with the ageing and declining demographics of the continent, I’d guess? Old people tend to eat less, in aggregate. This rather startling comparison between the EU and the Sahel evokes the surreal image of a future starving elderly Italian pensioner opening their Christmas food aid parcel, to find it stamped: “From the people of Mali”.

But seriously, the FOA report of course reveals hotspots of food stress in the southern hemisphere part of Africa. These are almost all due to the expected local areas of El Nino‑induced drought, but sometimes to socialist politics or some vicious (usually religious) insurgency. Though it can’t be long now before some journalists start lazily eliding the droughts with global warming.

The FAO’s report suggests that the main serious problem areas for 2017 are:

* Malawi where the corn crops failed repeatedly, and where 6.5 million people sound like they could use some regular subsidised corn supplies as food aid in 2017;

* The basket-case nation of Zimbabwe will likely see even more hardship in 2017, with the FOA saying the nation’s dire politics and the 2016 drought will place a biggest-ever 4.07 million people at risk due to severe food shortages. The FAO talks ominously of “large declines” in its cereal production.

* Localised droughts in the far south of the island of Madagascar “have resulted” [in] “up to 850,000 people requiring emergency assistance”, though the rice production there actually increased. It seems unclear if food aid is still needed, or if the local government can keep handling it.

* There is even western media talk of possible problems in a couple of war-torn and inaccessible towns of relatively prosperous Nigeria, following some recently NGO press releases. But the government there rejects the tin-rattling rhetoric being used: “Nigeria accuses aid groups of exaggerating hunger crisis”, stating that…

“aid agencies had been attempting “to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation.”

…in order to bring in funds at Christmas. Food prices are high at present in Nigeria due to some exporting, but the Nigerian government’s complaint is clearly supported by the above FOA report which states that…

“above‑average cereal harvests are expected [for 2017] in most coastal countries including Nigeria where the aggregate cereal output is forecast to remain close to last year’s above‑average level.”

* The Horn of Africa is generally stressed, and major food aid may be needed in the spring in some war-torn parts of it such as parts of Sudan and Somalia, but The World Bank is saying of places such as Ethiopia that…

“Economic growth remained at a respectable 8% in 2015/16, which is impressive especially compared to previous drought situations … said Carolyn Turk, World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan.” … “growth momentum will still remain and since 2016 rains arrived as expected, the recent drought will not likely affect Ethiopia’s medium-term economic growth.” (my emphasis)

Overall, the central and southern parts of Africa appear to have coped relatively well with the El Nino‑induced droughts, the worst in several decades, which have in places provided a bitter ‘stress test’ of Africa’s continuing development and growth. From my reading of the FOA report it seems that, with some relatively modest and targeted food aid in early 2017, the dozen or so very real hardship spots in Africa should pull through without mass starvation. None of these hotspots have arisen due to global warming.

The largest ongoing real risk in 2017 appears to me to be a Venezuela-style systemic collapse in Zimbabwe, and a few conflict zones.

There are reasons for optimism, beyond the next few months. Africa’s weather and rains in the south should be back to normal in 2017, and there are now plans and money on the table to try to make future African droughts even more survivable. Such as:

* grain marketing boards made to work in such a way that everyone can see exactly where any corruption or price-fixing is.

* better management of water access, better access to Africa’s huge river systems for generally increased water supply.

* better long-term weather forecasting of drought, and seed distribution systems that enable small farmers to switch crops quickly in response.

* better access to market prices and trends, via a farmer’s mobile phone, encouraging the sort of businesses literacy that will make swopping to drought-resistant crops easier.

* free or very cheap school meals.

* large national grain reserves (such as those held by Morocco and Zambia).

* reserve government funds, held in corruption-free escrow in dollars — for quickly buying and shipping emergency grain to short-term food not-spots and refugee camps. Such as that currently being deployed by Kenya to help people hit by drought.

* better roads for quick transportation of aid, which will also offer more efficient transport of crops to market.

* drought-resistant and GMO crops.

* simply bringing more land under the plough, as Africa’s population grows and young workers are available, thus boosting overall local production.

* increased open access to global markets, such as the UK after Brexit, opening up the possibility of having rows of high-value crop types growing alongside staple crops.

* cutting bio-fuels production, through which the West diverts a significant part of its field crops to make motor fuel. A reduction in bio-fuels would generally decrease global food prices.

Digital Kenya – new and free, a major academic book

A new Open Access book from Palgrave, just published: Digital Kenya : An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making.


Positive and optimistic, but what a gloomy front cover it has. I can only assume that the off-putting cover was chosen by some annoying ‘anti-capitalist’ intern at Palgrave who disapproved of the book’s fact-based message. Anyway here’s the book’s upbeat intro, to whet your appetite…

This is not your usual run-of-the-mill entrepreneurial business book. The authors are going after nothing short of a transformation in the African business environment, specifically in Kenya. There are scores of books on innovation and entrepreneurship, but this one is clearly focusing on what could make Kenya tick in an age of innovation and rapidly evolving technology.

YouGov’s 2015 global pessimism survey

Business Insider reports on a 2015 global survey of pessimism from YouGov“China is the only country that’s optimistic about the future”.


Interesting, although one would need to see the data broken down by age and gender to really get something out it.

I sometimes think that what the UK needs is a robust and well-tested short course for men of a certain age. It would take them through the basics of rational optimism, then inculcate awareness of the strong media bias toward pessimism, and finally train them in how to avoid falling into pessimistic habits-of-mind as they age. It might be offered to all men aged age 55, in part be based on The Rational Optimist, and would be very different from humdrum courses in happy-clappy ‘positive thinking’ or ‘mindfulness’. It would specifically train nascent “grumpy old men” in how to steer clear of becoming “grumpy old men”, and to use their rational faculties to understand how distorted their world-view often becomes as they head into middle-age. It might run alongside a general free in-depth health-check for men (minus the scary and painful anal prostate-probing, which apparently happens). Apparently age 55 is the best age for such health-checks to happen for men. Such a free course would potentially be of huge long-term social benefit, to a nation as well as to an individual.