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Hunting the Godzilla El Niño
This year’s El Niño—a warming of the sea surface across the southern Pacific, which can cause all sorts of abnormal weather patterns including extreme storms—could be among the strongest ever recorded. In this Nature article, a team of oceanographers tracks the phenomenon across the southern oceans trying to understand how it arises and what the likely effect could be. Already, “Indonesia has suffered through a withering drought that has intensified fires in forests and agricultural land, and Pacific corals are experiencing one of the worst bleaching events on record.” The story provides a fascinating look into the science of extreme weather—a topic likely to be more and more in the news in the coming years.

San Francisco Prepares for the Big One with Microgrids
Continuing on the natural disaster beat, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Laurie Guevara-Stone looks at the way San Francisco is preparing for the next major earthquake—by building microgrids. In theory, these local systems, dependent not on the wider grid but on distributed power generation (usually including diesel generators), could help keep the lights on the next time freeways start collapsing. The focus is on keeping hospitals and emergency shelters running in a disaster, using not generators but renewable energy and storage. The project could help demonstrate that “powering buildings with renewables is not only the environmental thing to do, but also the prudent thing to do.”

The “Uncertainty Loop” Haunting Our Climate Models
On Vox, the inimitable David Roberts goes long to examine an issue that many climate scientists and policymakers don’t really want to talk about: lingering uncertainty in climate models. The conclusion is unsurprising: “Basically, it’s difficult to predict anything, especially regarding sprawling systems like the global economy and atmosphere, because everything depends on everything else.” But developing policies and technologies to cope with climate change absolutely requires us to understand uncertainty and to incorporate it into our forecast models. That’s leading to the rise of what is essentially a whole new science of risk and uncertainty.

What the Return of High School Football Means to an Oil Boom Town
Football and oil—how could a story be any more American? This Newshour video, produced by the fine Inside Energy reporting team, examines Alexander, North Dakota, which had not fielded a football team for nearly three decades—until this year, when the oil rush in the Bakken fields contributed to a burst of growth and a revival of the local football team.

Could Small Amounts of Radiation Be Good For You? It’s Complicated.
The fear of radiation exposure, even in low doses, lies behind much of the public antipathy toward the building of new nuclear power plants. Especially in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, the concern over even minor radiation leaks has stymied nuclear power’s rebirth in many countries—even though most scientists say those fears are irrational. In fact, according to this Discover story, it’s increasingly clear that low-dose radiation may actually be beneficial. “An increasing number of researchers (though still firmly in the minority) … have begun studying whether low doses might in fact aid in genetic repair, prevent tissue damage, and other benefits.” Whether that will be enough to save the nuclear industry remains to be seen. 

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