With Seas Rising, Cities May Start Floating

Rising seas threaten to submerge low-lying nations such as the Maldives. When environmental disaster looms, man is called to rise above it with creativity–and you can’t get much more creative than proposed floating cities. Just what is this innovative idea being floated to combat the challenge of climate change for coastal communities?

First things first. Exactly where is the Maldives? This southeastern Asian nation with a population of around 541,000 is located southwest of Sri Lanka and India. Composed of 26 atolls, it is the lowest country in the world.

The harsh reality is that the Maldives, long a luxury vacation destination for the wealthy, may go under–literally. According to National Geographic, some experts fear this Indian Ocean nation may become the first one to disappear entirely beneath the sea. Such a fate isn’t surprising given the country consists of 1,190 low-lying islands, 80% of whose land area is less than a meter (just over 3 feet) above sea level, and sea levels are projected to rise up to a meter by the end of the century. Can you say, “Glub, glub?”

Citizens of the Maldives have no choice but to come up with a practical solution to the rising sea levels they are facing. Aha! Why not work with nature and not against it? The nation can’t stop the waves, but, hey, why not go up with them? A floating city could rise with the sea.

To pursue the idea of a floating city, a Dutch developer, the local government in the Maldives’ capital, and a Dutch architect are collaborating. Their aim? Build the first floating city in the world–the cleverly (Warning: sarcasm font in use) named Maldives Floating City or “MFC.”

Hard at work on this novel project is the aptly-named Dutch architectural firm Waterstudio which is dedicated entirely to building on the water. Being based in The Netherlands, home to a floating park, a floating office building, and a floating dairy, gives it plenty of inspiration.

The first floating city in the world will be located in a 500-acre lagoon ten minutes by boat (of course!) from the country’s capital and its international airport. No land reclamation is required for MFC, and the floating community will be eco-friendly. A mass of modular floating platforms in the pattern of brain coral (what a brainy idea!) will form the city. Water canals offer transportation by boat to move people and goods within MFC, while land-based movements are limited to walking and biking as cars aren’t permitted.

How big will this floating city be? The aim is to house 20,000 people in a web of 5,000 floating buildings. Not only is housing offered, but schools and shops will be included in the development as well.

While this plan sounds amazing, how safe would it be? What if a big storm comes up? (As a Florida resident, I am of course mindful of such a possibility.) Coral reefs naturally surround the Maldives. These formations, which act as wave breakers, should help protect the city from storms and extreme weather. Additionally, artificial coral banks are to be attached to the underside of the floating city which will stimulate coral growth and thus more protection.

This futuristic city may be the answer for the Maldives’ climate change issue, but when would it be built? The answer is that the future is NOW. The first units in this development were to open for viewing in June 2022. Residents can move in early in 2024 with the city being fully completed in 2027. Prices are around $250,000 for a family home, but apartments will also be offered.

Even if the sea were not rising so dangerously for one of the the world’s most vulnerable nations to climate change, floating cities also offer a possible solution for another problem–overcrowding. The Maldivan capital of Male is one of the world’s most densely populated cities in the world, and it’s located on a small finite island. MFC provides additional housing without the need for additional land on which to build it.

Floating cities aren’t only being considered in the Maldives. In December 2021, the South Korean shipping city of Busan announced it was working on a prototype of a similar city, to be called Oceanix, Such a development would allow the country’s second largest city (population about 3.4 million) and the world’s sixth busiest port to expand off its coast. That project is being pursued jointly with UN Habitat, the United Nation’s agency for urban and sustainable development.

Experts have suggested that other large coastal cities, such as Miami, New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai, may also consider the possibility of floating cities. Miami, the U.S. metropolitan area most exposed to sea level rise, has been battling severe flooding due to the rising sea level, and Miami Beach is facing a rise of more than two feet in sea level by 2060. New York City is home to the most people living within 3 feet of high tide; various projections call for sea levels to rise another 1 to 4 feet there by 2100. Things could get wet in NYC in a New York minute!

So, if anyone asks, “What’s up?,” you can truthfully answer, “Sea levels and cities above the waves.” It’s rise to the challenge of rising sea levels or watch cities–and countries–go under. Man’s creativity in devising floating cities may turn the tide with the quandary of how to deal with ocean creep impacting coastal communities.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Does a floating city seem like an idea out of a sci-fi movie? How comfortable would you feel living in such a community? What problems or issues can you see arising with such developments?

Hot But Not Spicy — Summer Of The Sriracha Sauce Shortage

Baby formula isn’t the only thing lacking on grocery shore shelves right now. A severe sriracha sauce shortage means a really hot, but not spicy, summer is in store for those who like some zing in their food. The cause? A paucity of peppers to prepare the product.

Not familiar with sriracha sauce? Let’s start with how to even say the word. It’s pronounced “see-rah-jah.” Can’t wrap your tongue around this twister? Just mumble it and move on.

It’s also helpful to know what sriracha sauce is. It’s a hot sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. The taste? Tangy sweet with a kick of garlic and spicy. The color of the sauce, a reddish orange, is the first clue it might be packing some heat. Here in the U.S., sriracha sauce is often used like ketchup. So beloved is it that cookbooks are dedicated to its use.

A debate exists as to the origin of this sauce. According to one report, a Thai woman living in the eastern town of Si Racha first produced it. For those of us ignorant of Thailand’s geography, Si Racha is located southeast of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand. Well, at least we’ve all heard of Bangkok.

Sriracha sauce is commercially produced here in the United States. The nation’s leading manufacturer is Huy Fong Foods, Inc., a California based private company founded in 1980 by Chinese-Vietnamese businessman David Tran. The business’ factory is in Irwindale, CA, and the company typically sells more than 20 million bottles of its hot sauce annually.

The term “sriracha” is considered generic. In the U.S., the sauce is also known as “rooster sauce,” referring to the rooster shown on the Huy Fong Foods’ bottle. But seeing a rooster on a bottle will be a rarity this summer due to a shortage of the company’s signature Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce.

Huy Fong Foods disseminated the bad news in an April 19 email to customers. It was suspending sales of its spicy sauce over the summer because of a “severed shortage” of chili peppers. Without an essential ingredient, the peppers, the company was precluded from producing its popular product. The communication went on to advise that all new orders submitted would be filled after Labor Day. (Checking my calendar, that means things will be pretty bland until after September 5th.)

Due to this inability to obtain the sauce, some restaurants no longer offer free sriracha on their tables. (On the bright side, that leaves more room for salt, pepper, and soy sauce.) Eateries are also limiting the amount of sauce which customers can have.

The sauce shortage is shining a spotlight on its essential ingredient–the chili pepper. Peppers come in three groups–bell, sweet, and hot. Of course, it’s the hot peppers which are making consumers hot over their shortage. Huy Fong Foods’ sriracha sauce is made from sun-ripened red jalapeno-hybrid chili peppers. (So, of course it would be HOT.)

Chili peppers grow on a plant in the genus Capsicum. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers, gives them their intensity. It’s a chemical irritant to humans, producing a burning sensation in tissue with which it comes into contact. Actually, sriracha sauce isn’t as hot as the more familiar Tabasco sauce. On the Scoville scale, which measures a chili’s heat levels, sriracha measures 2,200 compared to 3,750 for Tabasco.

Surprisingly (at least to me), a chili pepper is technically a berry (fruit). Hmm. Not thinking a chili pepper pie for dessert sounds appealing. Nevertheless, the berry is most often prepared and eaten like a vegetable.

Chili peppers originated in Bolivia and were first cultivated in Mexico. As of 2019 Mexico was second only to China in their world production with the U.S. ranking #9.

So what’s causing the shortage of chili peppers? The weather and, particularly, climate change. The shortage did not suddenly pop up this year. In July 2020, Huy Fong Foods started experiencing a shortage which merely got worse after poor weather affected chili crops this year; specifically, an unexpected crop failure of the spring chili harvest occurred. In New Mexico, the 2021 chili pepper harvest had already decreased 22% over the 2020 production.

Mexico and the Western U.S., where many chili peppers are grown, are currently experiencing a drought. And this isn’t any drought; it’s a “historic drought.” According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, CA was in “severe drought” around June 10th. Even worse, its Central Valley, the state’s most productive agricultural region which provides more than half the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the U.S., was in “extreme drought.”

Lovers of all things hot on/in their food in the form of sriracha sauce will only have the extreme summer heat available for hotness in the coming weeks. Perhaps the cooler temperature of autumn will bring a successful fall chili pepper harvest so tongues can be irritated and burn with spicy sriracha sauce. As a hot sauce lover, I am concerned about this current crop shortage, but I’m even more concerned about extreme weather becoming the norm. We should be as worried about what’s happening to our Earth as we are about the curtailment of a condiment being carried.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Do you like spicy foods? If you use sriracha sauce, what do you put it on or in? How much does it concern you that a major agricultural region in this country is experiencing “extreme drought?”

Wacky Alaskan Election Pits Santa Claus Against Sarah Palin

Just when you thought the world couldn’t get any crazier, we learn Santa Claus is running for federal office. He, along with 47 others, including Sarah Palin, are vying to fill Alaska’s vacant seat in the House of Representatives. What in the world is going on in The Last Frontier?

Although big in size, Alaska doesn’t have a huge population; in fact, less than a million people live there. So, the State holds only one seat in the House of Representatives. For the past 49 years, Don Young served as Alaska’s lone representative in the House. His death on March 18th required a special election to be set to fill his seat for the remainder of his term. Cue political pandemonium.

Candidates came out of the woodwork (or perhaps a snowbank since it’s Alaska after all) to vie for the open position. Although over 50 folks submitted an application to run, the field was eventually whittled down to a mere 48 contenders. Unsurprisingly, this number is the most candidates ever in one election in Alaska and more than two times as large as any primary field in the state’s history. More people are running for office in this race than competed in the 2022 Iditarod–a dog sled race. Politics more appealing than a sports competition? What??

This Alaskan election is primarily a by mail election. Ballots must be received, or at least postmarked by, June 11th. In some 165 communities in the state, mostly rural locations, opportunities exist for in-person or early voting. These are areas where mail service is often spotty. (NOTE: I think that could be said for urban areas all over the country too, but I digress.) Ballots will be counted not one, not twice, but FOUR times before the target certification date of June 25th.

Then we’ll know the individual who’ll be headed off to D.C., right? Nope. The four candidates with the top four votes advance to a special election in August. Voters will use ranked choice voting, meaning they will indicate who is their first, second, third, and last choice. Whoever is #1 will serve the remainder of Young’s term which ends in January 2023.

The field of candidates is quite interesting. There’s not a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker that I could identify, but a gold miner, contractor, fishing guide, garden columnist, and an orthopedic surgeon, among others, are running. But that’s a good thing according to Chris Bye, a Libertarian candidate for the office. He believes, “typical Alaskans can make better decisions than groomed or professional politicians.” Bye, who quit his job with the military to run for office describes himself as a “normal dude.” (We’ll see if that’s how he remains if he flies off to spend time in the nation’s capital.)

With so many people to choose from on the ballot, the race is more confusing than a typical election. Thus, name recognition will be a big factor. The two most recognizable names are, hands down, Sarah Palin and Santa Claus–not necessarily in that order. Palin, the divorced mother of five, states she’s running because “public service called.” She, of course, was Alaska’s first female governor and John McCain’s pick for his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. Former president Donald Trump has endorsed Palin in this current race. (Trump’s ticked lots of folks off, and now we can add Santa Claus to that long list.)

No joke–Santa Claus from the North Pole with a long white beard is really running in this election. But it’s not the Santa Claus we know and love. While his legal name is Santa Claus, the candidate does not magically fly around in a sleigh on Christmas Eve. The white-bearded gentleman, age 75, serves on the city council for Alaska’s North Pole community, where some 2,000 North Polites (is that what you call them?) live. (No word on how many reindeer are in the area…..)

Having Santa Claus in the race could be a bit dicey. Are you considered “naughty” if you don’t vote for him? If so, current state senator and candidate Josh Revak’s definitely on the naughty list. He’s released a campaign video stating he’s “waging a war on Santa” and his “Marxist fantasies.” Apparently, Santa and Bernie Sanders share many of the same political views.

While this election is political, party affiliation isn’t that big a deal. There are no more party primaries being held in Alaska. All candidates of whatever party are listed on the same ballot. In this case, the ballot is a mere one page with 48 options. (Note to voters of a certain age–have reading glasses handy when ready to peruse the ballot.) Candidates cover the political spectrum with 16 Republicans, 6 Democrats, 22 independents, at least one Libertarian, and some Undeclared.

And with politics, comes ugliness. Why what could be uglier than being unneighborly? General contractor Max Sumner won’t be able to go borrow a cup of sugar from Sarah Palin, a fellow resident of Wasilla (population around 10,000) now that the two members of the same community are pitted against each other for this House seat.

But then, there’s refreshing honesty in this election also. Sumner admits he voted for himself. While we are sure most candidates do, they don’t always state that fact publicly. He also notes he’s as serious about running in this race “as anyone else that knows they aren’t going to win.” Double points for being both honest and realistic.

In all seriousness, and for the sake of Alaskans, I hope the best man or woman wins the election. That having been said, it would be fun if Santa Claus won the race. What great headlines and comedic fodder would result. Don’t we all long to read news that can bring a smile to our faces even if just momentarily? My parting words to these candidates? And to all a good fight!

WONDERing Woman:

Is it responsible to run for office if you don’t think you can win? Do you believe some people vote based on name recognition alone? Do you like the idea of an open election where all voters of whatever political affiliation can participate?

Let Them See Cake — Protestor Smears Cake On The Mona Lisa

Was your Memorial Day weekend exciting? Whatever your experience was, it can’t top what happened to the Mona Lisa; an attack against the world’s most famous painting took the cake–literally. The priceless work of art was assaulted by a disguised museum visitor wielding–not a knife or gun–but a piece of cake.

Sunday May 29th was seemingly just another night at the museum. No, it wasn’t New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, and Ben Stiller was nowhere in sight. The location was the Louvre in Paris which houses over 7,500 works in its painting collection. Displayed in the typically crowded room called the Salle des Etats, the Mona Lisa sat with that mysterious smile on her face.

As tourists gathered before Leonardo da Vinci’s oil painting oohing, aahing, and taking pictures, something strange happened. An elderly women in a wheelchair in front of the artwork leapt up, smeared a piece of cream cake across the glass protecting the Renaissance painting, and began yelling in French. Well, yelling in French wasn’t that strange since the museum is in Paris, but the visitor’s actions were certainly unexpected.

Security sprang into action and tackled the attacker who turned out not to be old nor even a woman. Instead it was a 36 year old man wearing a white jeans, an orange scarf, a black wig, and makeup. (Sadly, there’s no word on the color of lipstick the man used to accessorize his vandalism outfit.) He threw red roses at the feet of the security personnel who tackled him. Meanwhile museum staff wiped thick cream off the painting’s protective glass.

Who’d perpetrate such a bold act of vandalism? Based on what the man yelled, he appears to be a climate activist. His words (translated from French, of course), urged those in hearing range to “Think about the Earth….Think about the planet.” Maybe I’m just dense, but I’m having difficulty finding the connection between Mona Lisa, cream cake, and environmental issues.

Carted away from the museum, the attacker ended up a police psychiatric unit for evaluation. Not only is Paris for lovers, but some loonies are in the City of Lights as well. A charge of damaging cultural artifacts is pending. Is this the best charge to pursue? The painting was untouched and undamaged; its protective glass case simply had delicious cream cake spread across it.

Needless to say, those present in the Louvre at the time of the incident got the photo opportunity of a lifetime. Those taking selfies with the smeared cake visible likely said “cake” rather than “cheese” before clicking. (Make that “gateau” instead “fromage” for the French-speaking visitors.)

Video and pictures taken went viral on social media. As a result of the buzz, a t-shirt has already been designed by a Tokyo-based label bearing the image of the painting behind cake smeared protective glass. For a mere $60, this item can be added to your wardrobe. Me? I’d rather spend $60 on delicious cream cake, especially from the Parisian bakery where the offending piece of cake was purchased. I’m waiting for the news report on exactly what type of cake it was and what establishment made it. (Que a stampede to obtain some.)

Although the attacker may be touched in the head, he did have a detailed plan which worked well. Pulling this stunt off was no piece of cake. (Yes, pun intended.) Museum staff believed he was an elderly, disabled woman; they not only admitted him but allowed him access to the spot in front of the painting reserved for the handicapped. Personally, I believe the security staff need eye exams. After seeing the video, I don’t think the perpetrator looks anything like an elderly woma,n.

Although the Mona Lisa may not be connected to the environment per se, its high visibility made it ripe for an attention-getting protest. The painting, owned by the French government, is priceless and holds the Guinness World Record for the highest insurance valuation–$100 million in 1962 ($870 million in 2021). It’s one of the first artworks displayed at the Louvre and the museum’s biggest draw. Before the pandemic as many as 30,000 people a day viewed the Mona Lisa.

Not only is the painting one of the most valuable paintings in the world, it is also OLD. Da Vinci painted the half-length portrait around 1503-1506, making the work over 500 years old. Because of its age and for security, da Vinci’s 16th century masterpiece is kept under strict climate-controlled conditions in a bulletproof glass case. Glass has protected the artwork since the 1950’s.

Despite its worth and fame, the Mona Lisa isn’t huge, measuring only 30 inches by 21 inches. The painting’s subject isn’t anyone famous; although debated, the portrait is believed to be an Italian woman named Lisa Gheradini. Even the portrait’s name is tame. “Monna” in Italian (Americanized to “Mona”) is simply a polite form of address like “ma’am” or “madam.”

Is ultra-tight security really needed for this valuable painting? The answer would be a resounding “YES!” A number of incidents involving the the Mona Lisa have occurred over the years. In 1911, it was stolen by a Louvre employee. (Check those references, peeps!) The bottom of the canvas suffered an acid attack in the 1950’s. A rock was thrown at the painting in 1956. In 1974 when on loan to the National Art Museum in Tokyo, the artwork was sprayed with red paint. And in 2009, a Russian woman flung a ceramic cup at it; the cup broke, but the painting was unharmed. For such a nice, smiling lady, Mona Lisa sure does take a lot of flak.

With all Mona Lisa has been through in her 500+ years, you have to admire her attitude. She’s still smiling. While we may never know why she was smiling when Leonardo da Vinci painted her, I suspect there’s a different reason for her to smile now. She’s enjoying her great popularity with millions of admirers. And maybe, just maybe, she’s thinking, “Hit me with your best shot” when she spots potential vandals. Getting her to frown will be no cakewalk.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you ever been to the Louvre? How much security should an art museum have? What’s an appropriate punishment for someone who intentionally damages a valuable piece of art?

Did Monkeys Put A Pox On Us?–Monkeypox Cases Spread Outside Africa

Just when you thought it was safe to take off the face mask, another virus swoops in to terrorize us. The latest health scare is the appearance of monkeypox cases in the United States. I kid you not; there really is a sickness called monkey pox, and its emergence in our country is no joking matter.

Originally found in monkeys, monkeypox suggests monkeys may have put a pox on us. That’ll teach us to use them for research subjects, the monkeys are no doubt thinking. The sickness was discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept by researchers in Copenhagen.

Interestingly, the type of monkeys who first became ill were crab-eating macaque monkeys. Crab-eating? Maybe I’m stereotyping monkeys, but aren’t they the cute critters who eat bananas? When did they start eating crabs? And isn’t that crab-eating macaque pictured above eating a banana? Well, perhaps bananas are the dessert course following the seafood.

Apparently monkeys kept monkeypox to themselves for a few years. They didn’t share it with humans until 1970 when a case was reported in Congo. Sometimes sharing isn’t the polite thing to do, so man could’ve lived (literally) without a new medical issue to face courtesy of monkeys.

Monkeypox is normally reported in people living in the tropical rainforest regions of Central and West African with the majority of cases seen in Congo. In fact, thousands of cases are reported in Congo annually, Nevertheless, cases of this virus have occurred outside Africa (specifically Israel, Singapore, and the U.K.) which were linked to international travel or imported animals.

Fortunately for Americans, monkeypox does NOT occur naturally in the United States. Nevertheless, a monkeypox outbreak took place here in in the U.S. back in 2003. Forty-seven confirmed and probably cases were identified then in six states, but thankfully no one died.

During the 2003 outbreak, humans (Americans) contracted the illness from pet prairie dogs (people have pet prairie dogs??). These pets had come into contact with imported small mammals (read RODENTS) from the African country of Ghana offered for sale in a pet store. So you have bigger things to fear from going into a pet store than your child convincing you to bring home a cute puppy. You may bring home MONKEYPOX.

But monkeypox has reared its ugly head here in 2022. A U.S. resident tested positive for it in Boston on May 18th after returning from a trip to Canada, and a New York City resident was hospitalized at Bellevue as another possible case. According to the World Health Organization,131 confirmed cases and 106 suspected cases have been identified in nineteen countries outside of Africa, where the virus is endemic. Health experts are baffled by the illness’ spread in developed countries.

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to monkeypox. Good news? It is a rare disease which is difficult to spread. The virus typically enters the body through broken skin, the respiratory tract, or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth). Of the two strains of monkeypox existing, West African and Congo Basin, the one currently being seen in patients, West African, is the milder of the two. That strain doesn’t spread as easily and has caused less deaths. The death rate in Africa is not high; only 1 in 10 people who contract monkeypox there die from it. That’s comforting unless you’re in that 10% who perish.

And, in news that could be deemed good or bad depending on your perspective, a CDC infectious disease specialist assures us that there is no need to be particularly worried about the outbreak. Why common household disinfectants can kill the monkeypox virus. (Cue the hoarding of Lysol and bleach again.) Somehow, government statements that all will be well (pun intended) don’t make me feel all that confident.

So, what’s the bad news about monkeypox? If you contract monkeypox, you may not die, but there is currently no proven safe treatment for it. (Translate that you just have to endure it.) The symptoms aren’t pleasant to suffer or even to see. The illness begins with fever, headache, muscle aches, and exhaustion. The lymph nodes swell. Then comes the “fun” part.

One to three days after the fever begins, a rash appears, usually on the face, similar to chickenpox. It starts as flat red marks that become raised blisters filled with pus. Yuk! These can spread all over your body, including in your eyes and on your private parts. Three-quarters of patients with monkeypox have lesions on their palms and the soles of their feet. The illness lasts 2-4 weeks.

A test already exists for detecting the virus. It is a PCR test of samples from skin lesions. So, nothing is stuck up your nose, but you have to have pus-filled lesions on you from which samples can be taken.

So, the illness isn’t pleasant. (That’s an understatement.) What can be done to prevent it? A preventative does exist–the smallpox vaccine. Monkeypox has symptoms similar to smallpox which was eradicated in humans in 1980. Since smallpox vaccinations are no longer given, the general public no longer has immunity to poxviruses. While they may not be immune, the public could receive smallpox vaccines if necessary since the U.S. has stockpiled millions of doses of smallpox vaccine in case of an outbreak.

Regardless of what the illness du jour is, our health is never anything to monkey around with. While it’s important to be in the know about new outbreaks, knowledge must be tempered with common sense. Health officials should be aware of and prepared to deal with illnesses whether common or rare. But we don’t need to panic just because an outbreak is highlighted in the media. Use common sense to protect yourself–keep your distance from someone who is ill, regularly wash your hands, and, for heaven’s sake, don’t buy a prairie dog for a pet.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Are you numb to new health scares after the COVID-19 pandemic? How worried are you about contracting monkeypox? Is the fact that illnesses once confined to specific locations on the globe are spreading across it a sign that it really is a “small world after all?”

Paper Paucity Poses Political Predicament

Can’t find baby formula on the grocery store shelves? That’s not the only commodity currently in great demand but short supply–printing paper is also scarce. And with that paper paucity comes political peril. The fate of the upcoming November mid-term elections depends on paper supplies.

Let’s start with the big picture. Paper, paper everywhere, but just a few pages on which to print. Don’t think paper is everywhere? Think again. It is the single largest component of landfills in the United States. Nevertheless, an ongoing scarcity of printing grade paper exists, and that problem is compounded by the skyrocketing price for the paper which is available. Paper producers simply cannot keep up with industry demand for it.

Several factors combine to result in declining paper production here in the United States. No new printing paper mills have begun operation in decades while multiple paper mills have closed. Those mills still in business have converted to production of more profitable packaging and corrugated grades of paper and consumer paper products. The almighty bottom line rules, of course.

So, how does this industry shift affect the consumer? Let’s say you love to read books. (Raising my hand.) Boosted by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, books sales jumped 13% in 2021. More reading means more demand for books means more paper is needed to print them. But printers can’t get the paper they need, at least not from here in the U.S.

While blaming the pandemic for paper supply woes might be tempting, lockdowns aren’t the only reason for the current deficit of printing paper. In fact, about a year before COVID, U.S. paper mills shifted to producing paperboard used in packaging over freesheet paper. Why the shift? The dramatic increase in online shopping resulted in a dramatic increase in the need for packaging to ship orders in. But, of course, COVID exacerbated the problem since being stuck at home necessitated (or at least led to) a great deal of online shopping.

An additional complication is the inability to obtain the components needed for making paper. Some of them come from overseas. Lockdowns in foreign countries and supply chain logistics add to the difficulty. Labor shortages in the U.S. heighten the difficulty of transporting the components to the mills once they land here.

Why not just obtain the needed paper itself, rather than just the components, from overseas then? Although that sounds like a simple solution, in reality it isn’t. Numerous factors have combined to make that option less and less viable.

One finger of blame can be pointed at Vladimir Putin. Not only is Ukraine shell shocked by his invasion, but the war (no, it’s NOT a “military operation”) has done the same to the paper industry. Russia and Ukraine, both heavily forested areas, are big pulp-producing areas. But the countries’ focuses are now on things other than tree-cutting; Russia’s cutting down civilians and destroying the Ukrainian landscape while Ukraine is laser-focused on survival and defense of the country.

European paper mills are also affected by the ongoing war. Production is reduced because their primary energy source is natural gas which is purchased from Russia. Current events have dried up that energy source.

And then there are labor woes in Europe. UPM, the largest paper company in the world, had several paper mills shut down due to striking workers. On January 1, 2022 (Happy New Year or Onnellista uutta vuotta! as Finns would say), the Finnish Paperworkers’ Union called for a strike. On top of that, the transport workers’ union also struck shutting down the ports from which the paper the mills produced was shipped. What difference did these strikes make? Well, in October 2021, UPM made 306 sea shipments; that dropped to 53 in January 2022. Fortunately, after a 16-week strike, an accord was reached between the paper workers’ union and UPM.

With huge demand, paper production (a $188 billion industry) should be increasing, right? Wrong. The global paper output for 2022 is an estimated 416 million TONS. Nevertheless, that figure is 4 million TONS short of what was produced in 2018. And short leads to shortage.

OK, but how does all of this paper industry drama affect 2022 mid-term elections in the U.S.? Quite significantly. NINETY-TWO percent of Americans live in jurisdictions that rely on paper ballots for voting. (I’m in one of those jurisdictions.) In 2020, some 90 million mail in ballots were utilized requiring approximately 270 million envelopes. Yes, those were paper ballots and paper envelopes.

But it isn’t simply paper ballots and envelopes election officials need. Voter registration forms, “I Voted” stickers, and voter guides are also paper. Bottom line. LOTS of paper is needed for election officials to put on an election. Not just any paper will do either. Election officials must purchase ballot paper which meets specific requirements.

Even if election officials find the type of paper required, they face another challenge. Can they afford it? Inland Press in Detroit provides ~25% of the ballots for the State of Michigan. That business has seen a 40% increase in paper costs. Election officials, of course, are restricted to a budget which may not allow for drastic price increases. Even if they can handle a big increase, guess who is ultimately going to foot the bill? The taxpayers, i.e., you and me.

So concerning is the prospect of the inability to obtain the paper needed for elections that Congressional attention has spotlighted it. Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL), who is involved with oversight of federal elections, held a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. on March 18th to discuss the implications for upcoming elections with restricted paper supplies. The CEO of PRINTING United Alliance, Fred Bowers, summed up the concerns with this paper shortage in the election sphere when he said, “Printing is an essential industry, and nothing highlights its essential feature more than, the fact that, without printing, faith in our democratic process and elections are at risk.”

What will happen in November remains to be seen. And I mean not only who will win the elections but whether elections can even be held if sufficient paper supplies are not obtained. Stay tuned for the results.

WONDER-ing Woman:

What should election officials do if sufficient paper supplies aren’t available? Would you feel comfortable voting online as opposed to using a paper ballot? Are you shocked that paper items are the #1 component of landfills?

Great Balls Of Fire–Fireball Streaks Across Southern Skies

In Ukraine, fiery objects streaking across the sky spell death and destruction in the form of manmade weapons. But natural beauty can also whiz by overhead in the form of meteors producing shooting stars as they disintegrate. A fireball from space recently zoomed above several southern states in the U.S. Great balls of fire!

While I’d describe spotting such light in the sky as beautiful or spectacular, scientists have more formal names for this phenomenon. And the name depends on where the object is. If the object is aloft, then it’s a meteor. It becomes a meteorite when a piece of debris from outer space survives passage through the atmosphere to reach the surface of a planet or moon. Obviously, I’m not a scientist, but the name meteorOUCH seems more fitting to something that crashes into the ground at high speed.

A dazzling fireball was seen in three states–Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas–in the early morning of April 27th. Numerous eyewitnesses reported the incident according to NASA Meteor Watch. The fireball Southerners spotted was initially reported to be traveling at 55,000 mph but was subsequently reduced to a mere 35,000 mph. Yes, that’s three zeroes after either a 55 or a 35. Yikes! Isn’t that speeding?

Meteors are referred to as fireballs when they appear brighter than Venus. This particular meteor appeared ten times brighter than a full moon at its peak. In fact, satellites picked up several bright flashes from the fireball. Cue music: “I wear my sunglasses at night!”

Not only was the recent meteor bright, but it generated energy equivalent to three tons of TNT. Cover your ears! Per reports, more people heard the meteor than saw it. The energy emitted rattled houses in Mississippi before the fireball ultimately disintegrated 34 miles over a swampy area north of Minorca, Louisiana.

NASA confirmed fragments found in Mississippi were indeed meteorites. For a picture of one such fragment, check out https://www.facebook.com/NASAMeteorWatch. And, yes, the fragment is black. I’d imagine being part of a fireball results in charring. While meteorites resemble Earth rocks, they have a burned exterior that can appear shiny.

Usually less than 5% of a meteor ever makes it to the ground. Most of it disintegrates when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Factors such as friction, chemical reactions, and pressure cause the meteor to heat up and radiate energy, turning it into a fireball. Resistance or drag of the air makes it very hot. The object disintegrates as the pressure exceeds the strength of the meteor, resulting in a bright flare. This lighted trail of vaporized material in the Earth’s atmosphere is called a “shooting star.”

Over 50,000 meteorites have been found on Earth. They usually range in size from a pebble to a fist. Sometimes their crashing into the Earth leaves an impact crater. Approximately 190 such craters dot our planet, including the Barrington Meteor Crater in Arizona which measures 0.6 miles across. Watch out below!

And finding a meteorite can lead to some interesting results. Historians indicate that the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, possibly originated from the observation and recovery of a meteorite. The discoverers believed the meteorite had fallen to Earth from Jupiter. No, not Jupiter the planet, but Jupiter the principal Roman deity.

Ancient history is part and parcel of meteorites. These objects from space represent the original, diverse materials that formed planets billions of years ago. So, holding a meteorite is like holding ancient history in your hands.

The majority of meteorites which fall to Earth are made of stone. The other two types of meteorites are iron and stony-iron. And it’s not just raindrops which keep falling on our heads. Scientists estimate some 48.5 TONS of meteorite material falls to earth EACH DAY. This amount seems more reasonable given NASA’s indication that several meteors PER HOUR can be seen ANY night. Since most meteors originate from shattered asteroids we can blame a pain in the asteroid for a heavenly night light show.

But being bonked on the head by a falling meteorite isn’t the only danger one can face as the Russians learned in 2013. A house-sized brilliant fireball lit up the skies over Chelyabinsk back then and blew up 14 miles above the ground. The blast equated to about 440,000 tons of TNT and generated shock waves powerful enough to blow out windows over a 200 square mile area. That’s a lot of glass to pick up!

While heavenly light displays cause wonder, meteors can also be destructive with shock waves and impact craters. But it’s not man’s fault when these naturally occurring space objects streak across the sky. On the other head, man-made objects which streak across the sky, such as is currently happening in Ukraine, are intentionally sent to wreak havoc from above. Let’s control what we can and stop killing one another. Instead, let’s all peacefully enjoy the night sky which may include a view of a brilliant fireball producing amazement not terror.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you ever spotted a meteor in the night sky? How would it feel to hold a meteorite made of material billions of years old? Is it disconcerting to realize how much debris actually falls to Earth from space on a daily basis? What would you do if you found a meteorite?

Taliban Prohibit Poppy Picking

True to their name, the TaliBAN like to ban things. They won’t allow girls to go to school and now they’ve banned poppy picking as well. While this poppy prohibition may appear random, there is method to the Taliban’s madness; poppies are the source of opium. For various reasons, the current government in Afghanistan has imposed this ban, but the fallout from it spells trouble with a capital “T” for impoverished Afghans. Let’s dig a little deeper into the Taliban’s foray against flowers.

On April 3rd, an Afghani government spokesman (translate Taliban mouthpiece) announced a ban on harvesting poppies. What poor timing! Harvesting of poppies had already begun in southern Kandahar. To the east, Afghani farmers were just beginning to plant their latest poppy crop. But, the Taliban theme song is apparently, “Oh, yes. We’ll have no dread poppies!” And to show they mean business, the government will penalize those who proceed with a harvest by having their crops burned and being thrown in jail. Yikes!

What’s the big deal with a ban on poppy production anyway? Actually, this ban is a HUGE deal. Farmers extract opium from poppies which is required to make heroin, and Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium. The country’s poppy crops accounted for 90% of the global opium trade in 2021, and heroin made from opium produced from Afghani poppies makes up 95% of the European market.

The economic impact of poppy production in Afghanistan is enormous. According to a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan, illicit narcotics are Afghanistan’s largest industry except for war. Poppies are the main source of income for millions of day laborers and small farmers. In 2021 the income from opiates in Afghanistan constituted over 7% of the country’s GDP–that’s Gross Domestic Product for those not conversant in economics acronyms–and is pegged at between $1.8 and $2.7 billion (that’s billion with a “B”).

With the recent takeover by the Taliban, the country is already in economic straits. The recently announced ban on poppy production will merely impoverish the already suffering poorest citizens of Afghanistan. Can’t the farmers simply switch to another crop? Unfortunately, scant incentive exists to do so. Farmers can earn twelve times more income per acre for poppies compared to conventional crops. U.S. and NATO troops attempted to restrain poppy production during their two decades in the country by paying farmers to grow alternate crops such as saffron and wheat. Nevertheless, the industry thrived because said payments simply couldn’t compete with earnings from growing opium poppies.

Interestingly, this recent prohibition on poppy production isn’t the first Taliban ban on the activity. A similar ban was imposed under previous Taliban rule in the late 1990’s. Within two years, poppy production was mostly eradicated; however, the production soared again after the Taliban were ousted in 2001. An all-time high for opium production in Afghanistan was set in 2017 with 9,900 tons yielded worth some $1.4 billion in sales. According to a 2020 U.N. survey, poppies are grown in 22 of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

What’s the Taliban’s rationale for banning poppy production? Several factors play into this decision. First, the Taliban are a fundamentalist Islamic group, so religious views about the evils of drug use are front and center. To be fair, the Taliban aren’t simply picking on poppy picking. The government’s order outlawed the manufacture of narcotics as well as the transportation, trade, export, and import of heroin, hashish, and alcohol. Thus, no Afghani can legally hoist a glass of bubbly to toast a successful poppy harvest.

A second factor driving this ban is political concerns. If Kabul wants to interact with the international community, prerequisites exist. A key demand from the big boys such as the U.S. is that the Afghani government take action against drug production in Afghanistan. To receive financial assistance and some form of foreign recognition, the Taliban must take a public stance against this activity.

A third factor spurring the Taliban to prohibit poppy production is media spin. Quite the negative press has been generated by their precluding Afghani girls from receiving an education and from alleged violations of human rights. A war against drugs puts them in a more positive light and diverts attention from the plight of Afghani girls and abused citizens.

A final factor making a ban on the opium trade attractive is its impact on terrorist groups. Poppy production is a large source of revenue for terrorists. Cutting off poppy production cuts such groups off at the knees.

Being in agreement that poppy production should be banned makes the Taliban and the U.S. strange bedfellows. But, let’s get real. The mere fact a ban has been announced does not mean the production will magically go “Poof!” and no longer occur. The economic rewards for raising such a crop are astronomic, luring poor Afghanis to undertake illegal production.

Additionally, poppies have been around since early history and are not simply going to go away because the Taliban has outlawed their production. Poppies played a part in the practices of ancient Egypt. Doctors during that time would have their patients eat poppy seeds to relieve pain.

And let’s be fair to poppies. Not all poppy species are used for drug production. It is only the Papaver somniferum which is the source of the narcotic drug opium. (NOTE: I’m not a botanist, but I can do internet research to dig up impressive scientific plant names.) Somniferum means “sleep-bringing” and refers to the sedative property of opiates. Since Papaver somniferum is too difficult a name for non-botanists to remember, this particular poppy is commonly referred to as the opium poppy.

For enquiring minds who want to know, opium is the dried latex produced by the large seed pods found under the opium poppy’s flower. Incisions are made on the green seed pods, and, once dry, the latex which oozes from these incisions is collected.

The opium poppy is a study in contrast. It produces a substance which can be dangerous and harmful. On the other hand, its flower is beautiful and this poppy is prized as an ornamental plant for gardens. It also produces edible seeds. While I’d be sad to forgo poppy seeds on my bagel and for delicious poppy seed chicken, it would be worth the loss to reduce the scourge of illegal drug use. And I’m pleased there’s on issue on which the U.S. and the Taliban agree.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Does the economic benefit to Afghanis justify allowing the negative consequences of drug use of opium poppy products? Were you aware how integral poppy production is to the economy of Afghanistan? Does a ban on anything ever totally suppress it?