China’s Rare Earths Monopoly is No Game — It’s a National Security Risk

The game of monopoly involves wheeling and dealing, strategy, and winners and losers. Monopoly is fun when it is a board game, but it’s frightening when the monopoly being played involves a chokehold on the market of strategic elements by rival super power China. Let’s pass “Go” and collect some knowledge about this current risk to our country’s safety.

China is the world’s predominant supplier of rare earths. And when I say “predominant,” that equates to 85% to 95% of the global demand. Yup, I’d say that’s a monopoly. Increased demand has strained the world supply with growing concern that a shortage of rare earths may occur. Guess who that puts in the driver’s seat for controlling where its supply goes? Ding, ding, ding! China, of course.

But what exactly are “rare earths?” Rare earths are a group of seventeen chemically similar elements crucial to the manufacture of many high tech products. They are essential, nonrenewable, and irreplacable materials that power most of modern technlogy and are vital to the development of military technology.

Despite their name, rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust. They are also often found in the same location. The challenge is that minable concentrations of rare earths are less common than for most other mineral commodities. They are also hazardous to extract. Federal environmental regulations make the extraction of rare earths very expensive. Accordingly, only one rare earth mine, located in Mountain Pass, CA, is operational here in the U.S.

The rare earth metals comprising the group of seventeen are lustrous, silvery-white, soft heavy metals. Each appears on the periodic table (look down at the bottom of the chart) and has a name you would not want to appear on a spelling test, such as Yttrium and Praseodymium.

The significance of rare earths cannot be overemphasized. They’re in almost everything technological in use today. Don’t believe me? Where are they? Here are some tech products and the rare earths utilized to produce them.

Loudspeakers and computer hard drives. Neodymium.

X-ray and MRI scan systems and TV screens. Gaoblinium. (A spelling word gem and tongue-twister.)

Catalytic converters. Cerium.

Camera and telescope lenses. Lanthanum.

Stong metals used in aircraft engines. Praseodymium.

Cell phones, cars, TV’s, and computers are among the indispensable products run with the strong internal magnets manufactured from rare earths. Modern medical devices and communication systems are entirely dependent on these resources.

And when it come to the military, the strategic importance of rare earth’s is massive,sometimes literally. Each F-35, for example, contains 920 pounds of rare earths. Precision-guided weapons, stealth technology, drones, and satellites are among the key defense tools that rely on rare earths. Given this dependence, the peril of having to rely on China to obtain these materials is frightening. The bottom line is that, to remain militarily competitive with the Asian superpower, the U.S. has to depend on a vulnerable supply chain. Yikes!

To add to the anxiety, consider this fact. Although the U.S. does have one operational mine and could possibly expand mining for rare earths in this country, it has no capability to process what is mined. One hundred percent of the output of the MP Materials mine in California is sent to Chinese processing plants.

So, not only does China produce the most rare earths, but it controls the refineries and processing plants which transform the raw ore. Since 1985, China has sytematically gained near complete control over the global supply chain. Because of China’s tightening of restrictions on its exports, some countries have begun stockpiling rare earths.

And China is clearly not afraid to use rare earths as a political weapon. In 2020, reports emerged that, in response to a U.S. defense deal with Taiwan, China was threatening to cut off the supply of rare earths to three U.S. defense manufacturers, including Lockheed Martin, the producer of F-35’s.

The U.S. government, aware of the threat of China’s monopoly, has sought to address it. The Biden administration is pushing to reduce U.S. reliance on Chinese imports of rare earths. Efforts are being made to produce more rare earth minerals here in this country. Sen. Mark Kelly (D. Ariz.), a retired U.S. Navy pilot and prior NASA astronaut, has characterized China’s hold on the rare earth market as “a national security risk.” He is now urging the Pentagon to act quickly to eliminate rare earth metals from our country’s military weapons systems.

The U.S. has been down this road before. Middle Eastern countries, not all of them friendly to the U.S., have a grip on the oil produced in their area. Threatening to cut off, or at least reduce, the supply is a powerful weapon. Now the focus is swinging to rare earths. And China recognizes the power it holds. As Deng Xiaoping noted in 1987, “The Middle East has oil. China has rare earths.” And the U.S. has a problem.

Being dependent on any other country, much less China, for materials needed for commonly used tech products and the viability of our country’s defense system is worse than going to jail, going directly to jail while playing Monopoly. A good game strategy is required now that our precarious situation has been recognized; considered action must be taken to address it. If appropriate steps are not taken, a different board game may be what we are playing–Life–our own and the very existence of our country.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you heard of “rare earths” before? Even if you have, were you aware their use was so prevalent in tech products today? Is the U.S. too dependent on imports from China, rare earths or not? If so, what can or should be done about the situation?

Latest Surge to Deal With Is Tidal and Not Viral – A Tsunami

First Delta. Then Omicron. But the latest surge Americans have been forced to deal with has nothing to do with viruses; it was a surge of water–a tsunami! The tide turned, but not in a good way. It became a tidal wave for coastal residents to avoid along with the latest COVID variant.

What? A tidal wave affecting the United States? Yes, indeed. A January 15th eruption of an undersea volcano in Tonga led to tsunami advisories for Hawaii as well as coastal regions of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California. What does one do to prepare for a tsumani? Stay away from the water and be prepared to head for the hills–or at least higher ground.

Before going into the details of this scary recent event, let’s learn a bit about tsunamis. Most know they involve a huge wall of water bearing down on some hapless and helpless coastal area. I mean who hasn’t seen at least one disaster movie where a tsunami is part of the storyline? But disaster movies aren’t really known for their educational value.

The word “tsunami” comes from a Japanese word meaning “harbor wave.” Given the name, it isn’t surprising to find out Japan has the longest recorded history of tsunamis. Well, of course, a country would name something it repeatedly experienced.

Basically, a tsunami is a series of waves in a water body caused by the displacement of a large volume of water. While normal ocean wavers are produced by wind or tides, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions cause tsunamis. Initially, a tsunami looks like a rapidly rising tide, so it is often referred to as a tidal wave. Actually it looks more like a massive surge of water than a typical breaking wave.

The tsunami leading to advisories being issued in parts of the U.S. this past weekend was the result of a massive volcanic eruption near Tonga. Raise your hand if you know exactly where Tonga is. Right. So, the Kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian country in the South Pacific some 1,500 miles north of New Zealand. It is an archipelago consisting of 169 islands, only 36 of which are inhabited.

Why is Tonga’s location important? Well, as it relates to the tsunami advisory, understand that Tonga is 3,144 miles away from Hawaii with another 2,471 miles needed to reach California. That means the force of the volcanic eruption was so massive that it propelled water thousands of miles away with such force that it was feared it would wreak havoc. Yikes!

Just how big was the eruption which generated the tsunami? It was big enough to be seen from space and captured by satellite imagery which showed a giant mushroom cloud above the South Pacific. A resulting sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska, and pressure shockwaves circled the planet TWICE. Three of Tonga’s outlying islands were hit by FORTY-NINE foot waves, and an ash plume rose 12.5 miles high. I’d say that was a pretty massive eruption! And experts agree; they indicate this eruption was likely the biggest volcanic event recorded since Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991.

Are you a visual learner? Check out this video to see for yourself what happened in Tonga:

The culprit in the tsunami incident was an undersea volcano situated about 40 miles north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, which began erupting early Friday. The volcanic island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai (say that three times fast!) is part of the highly active Tonga-Kermadec Islands volcanic arc. The January 15th blast was actually its third eruption in recent weeks. An eruption on December 20th lasted for a week followed by another on January 13th. But the latest blast was a doozy, estimated to be seven times more powerful than the December 20th one.

In the aftermath of the eruption and ensuing tsunami, life has been turned upside down for Tonga’s population of 105,000. There have been three deaths (with the number expected to rise), injuries, and the loss of homes. Water has been polluted. All internet connection with the country was lost due to the severing of an underwater cable. Thick, gray ash covers everything, making the land look like, what has been described as a “moonscape.” The country’s king evacuated his palace, which remains flooded. Outside aid means the country, which has so far avoided an outbreak by closing its border to international travelers, may be exposed to COVID by relief workers.

Thousands of miles away, the U.S. fared much better. Hawaii escaped with minimal damage and minor flooding. Waves with heights only up to four feet were reported across the West Coast. Many marinas, piers, and beaches were closed upon issuance of the tsunami advisory from the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. (Who knew such a center existed?) The National Weather Service advised individuals to stay out of the water and away from the shore due to strong waves and dangerous currents. These advance warnings and preventive measures apparently helped to avoid injuries and death.

But don’t think the story is over. New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry warned Tuesday that further eruptions are likely with the attendant risk of a tsunami. Even when the eruptions end and people in the U.S. don’t have to worry about finding the nearing tsunami evacuation route, the story will continue. Rebuilding and returning to a normal life in Tonga will take time and money. Fortunately, financial assistance is already pouring in due to appeals from the famous Tongan athlete, Pita Taufatofua, better known as the shirtless Olympic flagbearer for his country. As of Wednesday afternoon, his efforts at relief fundraising for Tonga had surpassed $340,000.

While much of the current news deals with tiny things, viruses which surge and threaten our health and our lives, big things threaten us as well. Massive walls of water can overtake people with little or no warning, and no mask can protect them from such harm. Perhaps what ought to be surging right now is thankfulness we have survived another day.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Do you know the appropriate action to take when there’s a tsunami advisory? Can you find Tonga on a globe or map? Which is scarier to you–catching COVID or facing a tsunami?

The Platinum Jubilee Proof Is In The Pudding

Are you jubilant about the Platinum Jubilee? What better way to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s unprecedented 70 years on the throne than to create her very own pudding (pudding???) to honor her. A baking competition is now underway across the United Kingdom to determine what kitchen masterpiece will be fit, not for just any queen, but their long-reigning queen.

Those of us here across the pond may be ignorant of the upcoming milestone event. As of February 6, 2022, 95 year old Queen Elizabeth (a/k/a Prince William and Prince Harry’s grandmother) will have officially been on the throne for SEVENTY years. As a young woman, Elizabeth ascended to the throne upon the unexpected death of her father, King George VI, in 1952. But, because planning takes time of course, she was not formally crowned until June 6, 1953.

As we all know, England has been around for a very long time. Thus, for Elizabeth to be the first British monarch to have remained on the throne for 70 years is a big accomplishment. Runner up? Queen Victoria came in a distant second in this category having served as queen for almost 64 years.

Queen Elizabeth’s monumental achievement has been a long (really long!) time coming, so one day is simply not enough to give it the recognition it deserves. Thus, the celebratory events will last for several months beginning in February and climaxing on Jubilee Weekend (6/2 through 6/5), and finally concluding on Sunday, June 5th.

While the typical concerts, parades, and services will be a part of the festivities, a creative twist sets this Jubilee apart from prior ones. A Platinum Pudding Competition is included. Entrants around the U.K. ages 8 and up have the opportunity to come up with a brand new, “perfect” platinum pudding recipe. But the clock is already ticking since the deadline for entries is February 4th.

From the submissions received, five finalists will be selected for a final round in March. These lucky bakers will cook live for an elite panel of judges in the Fortnum & Mason store in central London. Among the judges are the head chef from Buckingham Palace, Great British Bake Off judge Dame Mary Berry, and MasterChef: The Professionals judge Monica Galetti. Yes, its a tough job to taste and judge desserts, but someone has to do it; these brave judges will do so for Queen and country.

The winning recipe will be shared with the public. A mass consumption of the Platinum perfect pudding will occur on Sunday, June 5th when Big Jubilee Lunches are set to be held across the country. Over 200,000 neighborhood lunch events are anticipated in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland at which the new pudding will be served. These meals are a chance for citizens to share food in an activity promoting community and friendship. (Weight watching is apparently not an aim since a scrumptious dessert dedicated to the monary is to be served. Who can refuse that course?)

As an American, I just can’t see why a pudding, newly created or not, would be such a big deal. I mean would the Queen dance a jig over getting to eat pudding at a celebration? I wouldn’t. Has anyone really ever eaten a container of Jell-O Pudding at some momentous event?

Well, that thinking simply shows my ignorance. Apparently “pudding” is synonymous with dessert in Britain. And Brits would call what Americans think of as pudding “custard.” Yes, words matter. In England, “puddings” come in all sorts of varieties–baked, bread, batter, milk, etc., but at least they are all sweet. Some have strange names, though, like spotted dick, a steamed cake with currants which is flavored with suet. (Um, suddenly that Jell-O pudding is sounding more and more appealing….)

So what type of “pudding” should the entrants consider creating? The palace’s head chef, Mark Flanagan, kindly offered his suggestions: Keep it simple. Choose subtle and elegant over over fussy and complicated. OK, then. I’m sure Flanagan’s words have given entrants a laserlike focus on the path to pitching a prizewinning pudding.

If I was going to enter the contest (which I am not), I’d look at what the Royal Family’s likes are to start off. According to her former personal chef, the Queen is said to love anything chocolate. (Guess she has something in common with lots of commoners on that point.) In fact, her favorite cake is a chocolate biscuit cake which also happens to be adored by her grandson, Prince William; the future monarch likes it so much, the cake was served as the groom’s cake at his 2011 wedding. Kate Middleton, William’s wife, is fond of sticky toffee pudding. Why mess with success? My suggestion is to whip up something chocolate with toffee thrown in for good measure.

Thankfully, the “pudding” contest isn’t traditional in the strictest sense. Why do I say that? The word “pudding” is believed to come from the French word “boudin,” meaning a small sausage. Early English puddings were savory, and encased meats were used in medieval puddings which were usually boiled. And, who’d want the four and twenty (live) blackbirds baked in a pie that we learned about in that childhood nursery rhyme? I’m all for the modern, sweet view of pudding. Hurray for progress!

Actually a baking competition is a nod to the current popularity of baking/cooking shows. It is way to celebrate which is less stuffy than a public address from the monarch, a classical concert, or a military parade. And a “pudding” in the sense that the Brits now use the word is going to be more fun to create than Coronation Chicken. Yes, indeed, that poultry dish was invented for the Queen’s formal crowning celebration back in 1953. That idea, unlike the Platinum Pudding Competition, is for the birds.

The Queen, who turns 96 on April 21st, has been a dedicated public servant during her unprecedented time on the throne. She’s had to endure family drama and personal loss in addition to the heavy mantle of state responsibilities. Why not let her celebrate with something sweet? Let her eat pudding, I say!

WONDER-ing Woman:

How often do we take for granted the person we are speaking with defines a word in the same way we do? What type of “pudding” would you make to honor Queen Elizabeth? What’s a fitting name for a dessert dedicated to the long-reigning monarch?

Fish, Not Raindrops, Keep Fallin’ On Our Heads

B.J. Thomas sang about raindrops falling on his head in a hit piece from the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” While there’s nothing unusual about raindrops descending from the sky, fish plummeting to earth from above is pretty unnerving. As if 2021 wasn’t crazy enough with a pandemic and emerging variants, the year came to a close with a weather phenomenon known as animal rain causing a stir in Texas. Fish unexpectedly dropped in on the Lone Star State–literally. Holy carp!

Don’t believe this event occurred? Just visit the Facebook page of Texarkana, Texas, a town located some 200 miles from Dallas in east Texas. On December 29th, the municipality reported fish falling from the sky around and about town and provided photo evidence. [See] Landing sites included residential properties and a used car lot. Posts on social media with video and pictures of fish which had rained down from above on Texarkana residents abounded. At least one resident took advantage of the unusual event by grabbing a bucket and collecting the palm-sized fish lying about to use for bait.

What in the world was going on? The label affixed to such an event is “animal rain.” It’s a rare meteorlogical phenomenon where flightless animals fall from the sky. Such occurrences have been reported throughout history. Way back in the 1st century A.D., Pliny the Elder (not to be confused with Pliny the Younger), a Roman naturalist and author, documented storms causing frogs and fish to fall from the sky.

Yeah, sure, but Pliny’s sighting was ages ago and on a different continent. Nevertheless, reports of fish plummeting from the sky have been made right here in the United States during modern times including in Marksville, LA in 1947; in Philadelphia, PA in 2016; and in Oroville, CA in 2017. The Oroville event was quite a learning experience for the pupils of one local school who were out at recess when it began. Fish hit several of the students and littered the playground and school roof with fish.

The U.S. doesn’t have the corner on modern day fish showers though. Singapore experienced a rain of fish in 1861. Rural inhabitants of Yoro, Honduras claim that every summer there is what they call Lluvia de Peces, or fish rain. I’m betting there’s not a fresh rain smell in Yoro after that shower.

According to the BBC News, fish are the most common creature to descend when there’s animal rain. However, other creatures can come down as well. Frogs made an aerial descent on Kansas City in 1873 and on Dubuque, Iowa in 1882. Snakes dropped down on Memphis, TN in 1877. Jellyfish rained down upon Bath, England in 1894. Worms sprinkled Jennings, LA in 2007 and a Scottish school in 2011. Spiders fell from the sky in Goulburn, Australia in 2015. Octopi and starfish rained down upon Shandong Province, China in June 2018. On the bright side, all the falling creatures were small and not cats and dogs.

How is it possible for land-based (as opposed to sky-based) creatures to end up high in the air only to plummet down on our heads? The hypothesis is that tornadic waterspouts pick up small creatures from bodies of water and carry them for some distance, even miles, after sweeping them up. Since waterspouts can spin up to 100 mph, it is not difficult to imagine small animals being pulled into the funnel.

But as waterspouts move over land, their swirling energy is lost, and they must dump their heavy loads. The cloud then releases objects of a similar weight at the same time with the heaviest items being jettisoned first. So, fish would drop before raindrops based on their weight. With this scientific explanation, some have speculated animal rain may account for the Biblical plague of frogs in Egypt, a story which is related in the book of Exodus.

Updrafts may also be responsible for sweeping up creatures for a wild ride before releasing them to terrorize people below. An updraft is a wind current caused by warm air from high pressure which is near the earth which rises into cooler, low-pressure areas in the atmosphere. Winds are likely to catch small creatures such as bats and birds to later rain down on startled people.

The idea that any type of creature might be falling from the sky down on my head is enough to make me want to routinely carry an umbrella for protection. I’d take getting wet over getting walloped by a fish or bombed by a bat or bird any day. Perhaps weather forecasters will take notice of these unusual events and advise us when it might be cloudy with a chance of fish fillets rather than meatballs.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Before reading this post, had you ever heard of animal rain? How would you react to seeing fish plummeting from the sky? If a small creature had to drop from above, what would you most like to spot coming down?