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America's missileers stand ready to launch nuclear weapons — and pray they won't have to

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:20:22 -0500

Fifty-three years ago, the United States came closer to nuclear war than ever before, or since. For 13 days in October 1962 — during the Cuban Missile Crisis — America's nuclear arsenal was kept on high alert. There were nuclear missiles just 90 miles from US soil, in Fidel Castro's Cuba. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev could have launched a nuclear strike within minutes. With the death of Fidel Castro last week, and the recent thaw in diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, the Cold War has receded a little further into history. But in a moment when nine nations control nuclear weapons, and a new US president-elect is preparing to take control of the country's nuclear codes, these stories seem newly relevant. For Joe Andrew, a retired chief master sergeant in the US Air Force, missiles were a part of life from childhood. “I knew just about every rocket that the US had,” he said. Back then, many of America's rockets were pointed at space. This was the era of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that shocked the United States into expanding its own space program. “We had to keep up with those Russians!” Andrew remembers thinking. Of course, the competition between the US and the USSR caused not only a space race, but also an arms race. “We had heard about atom bombs ever since I was about 5 years old,” Andrew said. “We knew that if you saw a big flash, don't look at it, because it would burn your eyes.” Andrew decided to join the military and work on weapons that then seemed cutting-edge: nuclear missiles. His new job placed him on the front lines of the Cold War — a conflict waged not only by diplomats and heads of state, but also by thousands of “missileers.” To this day, a well-trained nuclear corps stands at the ready, should a US commander-in-chief ever order a nuclear attack. The front lines of the Cold War When the Cuban Missile Crisis began, Andrew was in Montana, working with Minuteman missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base. He first learned from the news that Soviet missiles had been installed in Cuba. From that moment, he knew his job was about to change. “I go to bed at night, now, with the president's words ringing in my ears,” Andrew said. “I'm thinking, this is like in the science fiction stories. I don't know what the world's going to be like when I wake up in the morning.” He woke up early and drove to a nearby airplane hangar where he worked — and right away, he saw a sign of crisis. The base seemed deserted. “There weren't any airplanes out there,” Andrew said. Air Force planes had been flown to civilian airports across the country. “They didn't want all the planes to be in one place, in case a nuclear weapon landed there.” Andrew realized that if a nuclear war broke out, his base would be a key target. With help from his colleagues, Andrew began driving nuclear warheads across Montana and fixing them to the top of waiting Minuteman missiles. During the long drives between each silo, they listened to updates on the radio. “I remember my thought was, as long as there were words being exchanged between Khrushchev and Kennedy, there's unlikely to be a nuclear strike.” frameborder="0" height="650" src="" width="100%"> Images and text for this interactive timeline are courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library. The view from the home front While Andrew was driving around Montana, Gerri Fornes was at home in Ohio. As the wife of a missile launch officer, she experienced the crisis from the home front. “I remember the day it happened, they called everybody to work,” said Fornes, who's now 89. “Everybody went on alert.” At the time, the Air Force was run by men. Women weren't even allowed to become missile officers. The Fornes family was the oldest in the neighborhood, so Air Force families looked up to them. “The house was suddenly full of young women who we[...]

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The hair trade is a billion-dollar global industry

Fri, 04 Nov 2016 17:05:48 -0400

You've probably heard of a hair shirt — it's rough, woven out of goats' hair and worn as penance. 

Now imagine a wedding garment fashioned from human hair.

Kishore Kumar donned one to make his nuptial vows. The third generation Indian hair trader is just one of the eccentric characters profiled in anthropologist Emma Tarlo's new book: "Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Human Hair."

Kumar "proudly showed me his wedding outfit and I have a photograph of him sitting in a gold throne wearing it," Tarlo says. The hair "fabric" had been dyed blonde and decorated with tiny red and gold sequins. "He also had this idea that he was going to start manufacturing hair for all sorts of different uses, such as fertilizer for food, for skin products, and cloth," she adds. 

Indeed, human hair has been put to all sorts of uses. In Korea and Japan, hair has been used for the lining of men's suits. In south Indian Hindu temples, devotees have their heads shaved, and the shorn hair is carefully reclaimed. 

"It's immediately put in these safes, locked safes and then it's all transported up to the sorting workshops where it's sorted into very precise lengths," Tarlo explains. "Then about three times a year it's auctioned off by e-auction to prevent hair cartels and fixing of prices." 

Yes — hair cartels.

Much of the global hair trade involves the creation of custom-made hair pieces. 

At the very bottom of the supply chain is the recuperation of "comb waste," hair left in combs after brushing or in drains after washing.  

"Throughout Asia you've got peddlers going door-to-door, collecting what are really globs of hairballs. And these all have to be untangled. And the untangling of this hair takes place in workshops and in people's homes in very poor places where the labor is cheapest — so in parts of Bangladesh, parts of India and increasingly in Mynamar," Tarlo adds. "When I was visiting a village in Myanmar, I could see people sorting out these hair balls just with a needle in their village homes." 

Tarlo describes the work of India's Benjamin Cherian, who specializes in reclaiming temple hair for the top end of the hair market. He's working to make the hair trade more respectable and to raise standards. 

"He has very good labor rights in his factories," Tarlo notes. "He's gotten all sorts of certification, proving that his factory has met international standards of trade, but that is quite rare."  

A final use of human hair might have you rethinking your lunch: amino acids derived from hair can be used as a flour enhancer for the dough of pizza crusts and bagels. Those amino acids are also sometimes found in soy sauce. 

"It's a flavor enhancer, but it also gives elasticity to foods. So it was commonly used in bagels and pizza base and probably still is to some extent," Tarlo says. "Whether the bagel that you ate for breakfast actually contains it, that I don't know."   

A man prepares wigs as he waits for customers in downtown Johannesburg.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

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Arctic ice melt poses a risk of uncontrollable climate change, scientists say

Fri, 25 Nov 2016 15:43:52 -0500

A new report warns that current levels of Arctic ice melting could trigger key "tipping points" leading to catastrophic and uncontrollable climate change. If these tipping points are reached, the effects would become their own drivers of global warming, regardless of human attempts to reduce carbon emissions.

The Arctic Resilience Report is the work of 11 research institutions from around the world, including six universities and the Arctic Council, a forum of Arctic states. Its lead author, Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute, told the Guardian that "the warning signals are getting louder" and that current Arctic conditions "make the potential for triggering ... much larger."

A number of the tipping points relate to shrinking areas of ice, both on sea and on land. As you might expect, sea ice and land ice are both highly reflective, acting like mirrors reflecting much of the sun’s energy back into space.

When ice cover is reduced, that energy is instead absorbed as heat, leading to a rise in temperatures. This, in turn, triggers further melting and additional temperature rises.

The Guardian’s Fiona Harvey says the risk of ignoring these potential triggers is severe. “There are many of these tipping points — and this has the potential to create a runaway form of global warming that ... would be very, very difficult to stop."

Scientists have expressed shock at the huge increases in temperature currently being recorded in the Arctic. Temperatures for November would normally be around -13 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 Celsius). Instead, this month they have been about 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees C). In addition, sea ice coverage is down 30 percent from levels 25 years ago, and is at the lowest levels ever recorded for this time of year.

“That’s not a minor fluctuation,” says Harvey. “That is what scientists call way-off-the-charts. We need to understand that the problem is growing ever more urgent."

Freshwater ponds appear atop the Arctic ice cap during the summer melt.


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Could scientists help defuse a nuclear crisis?

Mon, 21 Nov 2016 12:52:48 -0500

In January, President-elect Donald Trump will take control of America’s nuclear arsenal. In a time when nine countries have nuclear weapons, it’s a massive responsibility.

But historically, it’s not a responsibility that presidents have borne alone. In the height of the Cold War, US leaders like Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy relied on experienced scientists who had witnessed the devastation caused by nuclear weapons.

According to Audra J. Wolfe, a historian of Cold War science, nuclear scientists can help defuse tensions during diplomatic crises. “Scientists can remind the president of the very real damages that those kinds of weapons can do,” she said in an interview. “They can be a voice of reason. They can point to evidence. They can talk about radiation, they can talk about fallout.”

In a recent article for The Washington Post, Wolfe looked to history for lessons about this kind of “science diplomacy.” In the 1960s, when the US and Soviet Union were locked in a nuclear arms race, scientists from the two superpowers met on a regular basis — and their work helped limit nuclear testing and prevent nuclear proliferation.

“Many of the scientists who were federal advisers were also meeting as private citizens with other scientists from other countries,” Wolfe said. To this day, the community of nuclear scientists is tight-knit and international. “So one of the things that they can do is to continue to talk to each other, and keep the channels of communication open, in the event of a crisis.”

In recent years, American and Russian nuclear scientists have grown apart, partly thanks to disagreements about the crises in Ukraine and Syria. That’s made it harder for the two groups to communicate and collaborate.

Wolfe said that some “optimists” believe relations will improve under President-elect Trump, who has in the past spoken positively of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wolfe was skeptical, however. “My personal opinion is that that kind of optimism may be short-sighted,” she said.

Given the tensions between Russia and the US, and the fact that nine nations now have nuclear weapons, “science diplomacy” seems as timely today as it was in the Cold War.

When scientists have the ear of politicians, “they can be a voice of reason,” Wolfe said. “They can point to evidence. They can talk about radiation, they can talk about fallout.”

In the end, though, nuclear weapons are the responsibility of the commander-in-chief. If a US president decides to order a nuclear strike, there’s little that scientists — or anyone else — can do to stop it.

The Cold-War era nuclear fallout shelter constructed for US President John F. Kennedy on Peanut Island near Riviera Beach, Florida. The dingy, cavernous steel shelter hastily built on a man-made island is a stark reminder of the harsh realities Kennedy faced from the first days of his presidency at the height of the Cold War. 

Joe Skipper/Reuters

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Get your cowbell ready. World Cup skiing returns to Vermont.

Fri, 25 Nov 2016 13:50:46 -0500

The best women skiers in the world are going to be in Killington, Vermont this weekend — skiers like Lara Gut, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Tessa Worley. Get ready for cowbells and crowds.

This will be the first time a World Cup Alpine event has been held in the Eastern United States since 1991.

“It’s a very big deal to the people of New England,” explains Nathaniel Vinton, former ski racer and the author of "The Fall Line: America's Rise to Ski Racing's Summit." “There are very deep roots for ski racing in New England. That’s where the sport was really born, as far as the United States goes.”

Killington has a lot riding on this weekend’s slalom and giant slalom races.

Major money has been invested in the hope that Killington will be a location for world-class alpine ski racing in the years to come.

But climate change is a growing concern for elite ski racing as reduced snow has in some cases forced the cancellation or relocation of events.

“There’s evidence that the winter season is shortening in the Alps where this sport is normally staged and for a long time, they’ve been looking for reliable snow,” says Vinton. “For a long time that’s been in Beaver Creek, Colorado, a very high altitude area. The FIS, which organizes the World Cup, was happy to put races in a venue that had such dependable snow in November and December. It turns out this year, that’s not the case. Beaver Creek’s races got canceled because it was so warm … so it’s a good thing that the World Cup came to Vermont this year.”

Vinton says that conditions this year are pretty good.

“There’s fresh snow, which is not always welcome for the World Cup racers, they like an icy surface. Killington has prepared that for the women’s races this weekend. So they will scrape off all the new snow so that they can get down to the hockey rink kind of surface.”

Much of the buzz this year surrounds local hero Mikaela Shiffrin, a 21-year-old graduate of Burke Mountain Academy in Northern Vermont and the best slalom skier in the world right now.

Shiffrin is the reigning Olympic gold medalist and world champion in slalom. She has 20 World Cup wins, the most ever by an American woman in slalom.

So get out your cowbell and cheer her on.

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Mikaela Shiffrin of the U.S. at the Alpine Skiing World Cup Finals in Meribel, in the French Alps, March 22, 2015.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters

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You took a DNA test and it says you are Native American. So what?

Wed, 23 Nov 2016 13:42:14 -0500

Have you been tempted to try one of those genetic testing kits, like the ones sold by or Maybe you’ve seen a commercial featuring Kim Trujillo. In it, Trujillo talks about how she discovered she was part Native American. Kim Trujillo talking about being part Native American in an ad for DNA testing. Credit: So you get the kit, swab your mouth, mail it back and you find out you are Native American. Then what? That’s what Kathryn Marlow wanted to know. She’s a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s 180. Marlow started looking into what these genetic ancestry tests are really telling us. “Different companies have different databases but they range from having about 25 to 30 ethnic regions, as they call them,” she explains. “Some of these regions are very specific … you could find out that you are Irish or Greek, but when it comes to North America, all you could find out is that you are Native American, which could mean from the northern tip of North America to the southern tip of South America, so all of the Americas are encompassed in Native American." So your ancestors could be from Nunavut, for all you know. But if you have never skinned a seal or spent half your year in near darkness, can you claim to be Inuit? For insight on the subject, Marlow spoke with Kim Tallbear. Tallbear teaches in the faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. She's skeptical about genetic testing and what it means for identity. “Being a Native American isn’t just about having an ancestor among those founding populations,” says Tallbear. “It’s not just a matter of what you claim, but it's a matter of who claims you. And if no indigenous community claims you, it’s a little bit presumptuous to be running around saying 'I am, therefore, Native American.'” In fact, TallBear sees it as a form of racism to claim Native American heritage based on a DNA test alone.  "You have people with no lived experience in [an] indigenous community, they can't even name any indigenous family or ancestors, but they have a family myth about a Cherokee great-grandmother, or they're descended from Pocahontas — you get that a lot in Virginia. So I think it's another kind of claim to own indigeneity, to try to have a moral claim or sense of belonging on the North American continent and so that's the context in which these tests are so popular." CBC's Marlow also reached out to Kim Trujillo, the woman in that commercial. Marlow asked her what it meant to find out she was part Native American. Trujillo says she knew she had some Spanish, German, and Native American ancestry, but she wanted to know more about her family tree. Learning that she was part Native American was just the start for Trujillo. She’s been doing her own research about her family history. She also got in touch with the genetic "matches" that were recommended to her as part of the DNA test. Trujillo told Marlow that everything she's learned about her Native American ancestry makes her feel more connected to current indigenous issues, like the ongoing protest by the Standing Rock Sioux over the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. But she says she knows there's more to being indigenous than just finding out you have Native American ancestry — and that she can't just sign up for a tribe. [...]

A man from the Muskogee tribe looks at the Oceti Sakowin shrouded in mist during a protest against the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 11, 2016. 

Stephanie Keith/Reuters

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With Trump heading to the White House, global climate activists look for hope in US cities and states

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 10:20:32 -0500

The US delegation was heading into the UN climate summit two weeks ago as rock stars to many of the attendees gathering in Marrakech, Morocco. After all, it was the US that paired up with China to push through last year’s historic Paris Agreement after decades of failure to act decisively. Instead, though, the delegation was left at a loss for words about what’s next after the surprise election of climate change denier, Donald Trump, for US president. “You know I just can’t speculate, I can only tell you what is right now. And, umm, and you know, that’ll be for, for the future to answer,” was pretty much all US Undersecretary of State Catherine Novelli could muster when peppered with questions at a briefing about what might happen to the overall climate fight under Trump. The US is the world’s second biggest current carbon emitter and biggest historic emitter. It’s also the world’s biggest economy and was poised to play a major role in making the Paris Agreement work, with the goal of holding the rise in global temperatures to less than one more degree Celsius, or below 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. But Trump has called climate change a hoax and has promised to pull the US out of the agreement. So is it game over for a US role in battling the climate crisis, at least for the next four years? Not necessarily, said many people at the Marrakech conference. Even if the federal government puts on the brakes, they say momentum will continue elsewhere. “Individual US states and major cities, these largest local governments, they have understood the severity of the climate change phenomenon,” said outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Like many of the conference attendees, Ban thinks cities like New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and states like California, will continue to carry the climate torch, no matter what Trump does. “They are moving forward because consumers are demanding it, people are demanding it,” Ban said. “They know that this going toward low carbon economy, that’s the answer for their business future.” California, in particular, has been a leader in emissions reductions and climate change planning for years. The state sent five people to the Marrakech talks, including Ken Alex, a senior advisor to Governor Jerry Brown. “There are many opportunities,” Alex said in explaining his state’s determination to push on. And Alex said it’s not just about climate per se. “Honestly, a lot of it is economic for California. It’s good for trade.” Some in Marrakech were hoping that if the US does withdraw from the Paris deal, big states like California could still actually help meet at least some of the emissions cuts promised by the Obama administration. “Those jurisdictions, rather than falling back because of what happened in the election, they’re actually going to become more aggressive,” said Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Stavins says places like California, Washington, Oregon and the Northeast states won't be able to make up for an overall federal policy, but they can at least help keep the Paris process alive.  “If their actions could be recognized within the structure of the Paris climate agreement, that’s going to be more than a placeholder for the United States. That could prevent that unraveling that is such a risk,” Stavins said. The beauty of the Paris Agreement is its flexibility and its potential to recognize contributions of governments below the national level, says former Spanish negotiator Teresa Ribiera, who now runs a climate change think tank in Paris. “Formally, they will not be a signatory part of the agreement,” Ribiera said, but “they will find places to cooperate and be part of the solutions that are going to be built.” Ribiera says this is not the ideal solution to the sudden uncertainty around the Paris Agreement. But if Trump pu[...]

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World climate activists to US: Please don't be a 'rogue state' under Trump

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 17:12:42 -0500

President-elect Donald Trump has yet to name his picks for the top environment and energy posts in his new administration, but all signs are that he'll tap people dedicated to rolling back many of President Barack Obama's initiatives, especially on the climate crisis. That’s no surprise. Trump ran as a fierce critic of environmental regulation and the new global climate agreement. The Obama administration helped broker the plan, which went into effect earlier this month. All that has climate activists gathered at this month’s UN climate conference in Marrakech concerned — but also determined to fight back. Among them is Thilmeeza Hussain. She's from the tiny, low-lying island nation of the Maldives, which is slowly being inundated by the rising waters of the Indian Ocean. She's also part of an international activist group, Climate Wise Women. Hussain says activists at the climate summit are upset but energized. “Various civil society groups have been organizing and calling for bold action for the US not to pull out of the Paris Agreement,” she says. “Also, quite frankly, they’ve told the US not to be a rogue state. But when you have a climate skeptic elected into office in one of the most powerful countries in the world, it does not send a very reassuring message.” Hussain knows something about rogue states. She served as the Maldives’ deputy ambassador to the UN under former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was overthrown in 2012 after becoming the only democratically elected president in the country’s history. And she knows that Trump’s ascendance to the White House will make activists’ work harder. The Paris Agreement last December was preceded by a growing wave of climate activism, which didn’t stop once the unprecedented deal was signed. “People knew this was not enough, and we know the urgency of the situation,” Hussain says. Now, she says, they’ll have to ramp up the fight even more. “What we need to do more is just get out on the streets … face the oil companies that are running the agenda,” she says. She’s heartened that this is already happening with protests against such things as the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and Canada's tar sands. But, she says, “we need more people to get involved and be more aggressive about it. There’s only 350 gigatons of carbon budget left for the entire planet, and if we continue business as usual, we will consume the entire budget in the next five years." Hussain says she’s heartened by the efforts of some business leaders to cut emissions and push political leaders, including this week’s appeal to Trump by dozens of US companies not to abandon the Paris deal. But she says what’s most important is the industry that’s not shifting fast enough on climate. “We need to fight the oil companies, the fossil fuel industry, that is influencing the political process,” Hussain says. “A lot of our politicians are in their pockets. And that’s one of the reasons why the subsidies for the fossil fuel industry continue, and governments all around the world are giving permits to open up new coal plants.” Unlike years past, she says, it’s “not a fight between the rich and the poor, or between the developed and the developing countries. This is a fight between those who act on climate and those who refuse to act.” And Hussain says the fight will have to pick up especially in her adopted country of the US, where she stayed amid the unsettled political environment back home in the Maldives after President Nasheed’s ouster. “We need to put pressure on the new administration and talk some sense into their heads. … Because when somebody says ‘I don’t believe in climate change,’ it feels like somebody is saying, ‘I don’t believe the earth is round, it’s flat.’ It’s just that stupid.” Read more: From climate change vi[...]

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