Category Archives: Science & Environment

Beirut confronts environmental crisis post-explosion

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor


Thomas Friedman, the famous New York Times Middle East correspondent, described Beirut as “the city of versions” in his 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem. After being ravaged by civil war, invaded by Israel and serving as Yasser Arafat’s PLO headquarters in the 1970s and 1980s, one might think this resilient capital city of Lebanon had seen every version of a crisis.

On Aug. 4, 2019, 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate – a  chemical used primarily in agricultural fertilizers – exploded into a red-hued mushroom cloud. A Russian-owned, Mozambique-bound vessel brought the ammonium nitrate to the port city in 2013. Logistics forced the ship, MV Rhosus, to remain in Beirut – along with its volatile cargo. The shockwave created by the explosion  killed 190 Beirutis and injured an additional 6,000 according
to a Wall Street Journal article. Words fail to capture the mag-
nitude of human loss at the hands of bureaucratic mismanagement. Any person who has seen the countless pieces of raw footage out of Beirut will attest to as much. Yet, the battle for recovery has just begun. Now the city faces an environmental crisis in the aftermath  of the explosion.

Immediately following the events of Aug. 4, The World Bank issued a Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (RDNA) for Beirut. Methodology employed by The World Bank in drafting the Beirut RDNA included analyzing ground data gathered in the field and geospatial satellite imagery. Among the findings are the following stark figures: infrastructure damages ranging from $3.8- 4.6 billion,
housing losses totaling $2.9- 3.5 billion, and transportation sectors will need upwards of $2 billion to recover. The report identified Environment and Social Sustainability as two “cross-cutting” sectors most impacted by the explosion. The RDNA, in addition to specifically naming the environmental sector as heavily hit, reinforced this message by highlighting major losses in the energy sector along with water supply and water sanitation shortfalls.

On Tuesday Sept. 1, 2020, Jihan Seoud, Manager of the Energy and Environment Program at the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Lebanon office expressed deep concern over the explosion, saying Beirut’s environment “was already in a ‘dismal state’ before the disaster.” Seoud’s remarks were summarized in a UN News article published the same day. The epicenter of the explosion – the
Port of Beirut – was the site of storage facilities where hazardous chemicals used in pesticides, pharmaceuticals and heavy metals were held. In addition to these hazardous chemicals, Beirut is facing the daunting task of cleaning up 800,000 tons of construction and demolition waste.

To offer some perspective, the Ohio Environmental Protection  Agency reported that the Buckeye State produced 2.1 million tons of construction and demolition waste in 2018. The Beirut blast produced nearly half of the state of Ohio’s yearly demolition
waste in a single instant.

While the explosion did not impact air quality in the capital, the potential for hazardous particulate matter to become airborne during cleanup remains. Airborne pollutants and COVID-19 would pose a dual threat to healthy and immunocompromised Beirutis alike. Seoud, in the Tuesday press conference, reported that Beirut may also be facing a solid waste crisis; one of the city’s two solid waste plants remains badly damaged. Due to the inoperability of this plant, more waste is being transported directly to landfills, one of which now approaches capacity.

Prior to the events of Aug. 4, Lebanon faced a bill of $2.35 billion in environmental cleanup efforts across the country. The UNDP  estimates a further $100 million will be necessary to counter the “environmental degradation” directly caused by the blast. To get a sense of where these enormous figures come from, one need look no further than satellite imagery. Where the warehouse that stored the ammonium nitrate once stood, there is now a 141- foot deep crater filled with seawater.

Despite these gloomy statistics and a Hezbollah-influenced  government, Seoud is hopeful that Beirut and Lebanon will begin to transition toward renewable energy in the reconstruction process. The rest of the world has much to learn in the way of resiliency from Beirutis. The city, in spite of its troubled past, stands on the precipice of reform, sustainable development and environmental progress now that it has captured the world’s sympathies.

Laplace validated: atmospheric waves revealed

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor


Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French scholar and mathematician, engaged in a thought experiment nearly 220 years ago. In this  particular thought experiment, Laplace imagined the Earth’s atmosphere as a film of fluid enveloping the planet. You might picture this idea with a phenomenon from a well-known video game: Super Mario Galaxy. In this Nintendo classic, Mario is blown up to ridiculously large sizes with respect to the planets he is exploring. Some of these planets have oceans on them. When Mario steps
in one, the water is displaced and splashes upward before falling
back to the surface. It all seems otherworldly as you peer around
the curvature of the planet and see ripples disappear over the horizon.

Laplace’s Mario was the Moon. He postulated that our Moon would  create a gravitational pull on the atmosphere in the same way it pulls on the oceans and creates atmospheric tides of high and low  pressure. Think of Mario stepping down on the atmosphere and  squishing it into regions of high pressure on his side with the opposite side of the planet bulging outward to compensate, creating
a region of high pressure. Now imagine Mario walking around
on the atmosphere parallel to the equator, creating a never-ending
wave of high and low pressure. Physicists refer to this wave-like behavior as being “sinusoidal.” Laplace envisioned this 220 years
ago; now his thought experiment has been validated. The sole mechanism that drives these pressure waves did not turn out to be the Moon, but a grand combination of solar heating, turbulence, chaos in the form of hurricanes and a little bit of assistance from the
push and pull of the Moon… or a stomping Mario?

In 2016, the European Center for Medium-Range Forecasts released a data set dubbed ERA5. The data set brought together weather data from ground stations, satellites and weather balloons. In its final form, the data set reconstructed what a planet-wide weather system would have recorded between 1979 and 2016. ERA5, in the hands of the University of Tokyo’s Takatoshi Sakazaki, proved to be the tool that would tease Laplace’s waves into existence. What made this data set unique was that it took pressure and temperature measurements about every ten kilometers. Prior work attempting to discover the atmospheric waves had been limited to a single weather station or a global patchwork of stations separated by great distances.

There is an important fact about waves that must be understood in this context. Atmospheric waves are primarily classified by their spatial and temporal frequency—that is, the distance and time between successive peaks on a wave. Imagine two atmospheric waves oscillating at an identical frequency and riding around the
earth side-by-side, shadowing the other’s movements. If these waves decided to overlap, they would be able to look back around the planet and see that they match each other perfectly. This phenomenon creates what are known as “normal modes” of a wave.

Some normal modes of a wave are less energetic than others, so they “peak” at greater distances. Thus, prior to the ERA5 data set, Hamilton and Rolando Garcia were able to discover the lowest-energy normal mode of atmospheric waves since they only looked at data from a single station — separated by half the circumference of Earth. In other words, they could only detect atmospheric waves whose peaks were spaced by distances near half of the Earth’s circumference. Sakazaki and his post-doctoral research adviser, Kevin Hamilton, realized that they could piece together higher- energy, higher-frequency normal modes of these waves with ERA5 data that looked at smaller distances (ten kilometers) and timescales. They managed to tease out the other modes of atmospheric waves and prove that Laplace had stumbled upon a global orchestra of gaseous oscillations with his thought experiment.

But what does Mario have to say? Imagine that Mario is moping around the Earth creating his low-frequency, low-energy atmospheric wave. Meanwhile, the Sun is heating up different parts of the Earth in its own wavelike fashion as it creates day and night. Suddenly there are two atmospheric waves. Now the wind decides to blow at certain speeds all around the globe. A third wave! Hurricanes spawn in the Atlantic while typhoons spin up in the Pacific, adding their own chaotic waves to the global system. At different distances and times all of these waves synchronize to the other’s motion and frequency, thus creating the first mode and traceable atmospheric wave.

Mario gets all worked up when he sees a goomba in his mind’s eye. He starts power walking and stomping like mad on imaginary goombas in his fury. The first wave he created with his mope disappears as the new pressure waves race around the planet. Typhoons and hurricanes get stomped out in favor of Amazonian rains and strong winds whip around Patagonia in the Southern Ocean. The whole system is in turmoil! Yet, the individual pressure, temperature and weather waves synchronize again, forming the second mode and a new class of atmospheric waves. These higher-energy, higher-frequency waves race around the globe faster. They may even hang out over the northern hemisphere more than they do over the southern.

Perhaps Mario needs extra umph in smashing a goomba. Thus, he would be able to plant both feet on the southern and northern atmosphere and take great bounds around the earth. The atmospheric pressure waves would sync up in the northern and southern hemispheres respectively, creating a high-pressure re-
gion over the equator. Now there are northern and southern wave modes racing one another around
the globe.

Of course, Mario cannot run and jump infinitely fast and create an infinite number of modes. This would break some of the basic tenets of physics – namely, degrees of freedom. His speed limit is something like “Princess Peach is in danger” revolutions per day. The atmosphere cannot just bend into any shape it wants, just as Mario cannot run faster than Princess Peach speed. In other words, the freedom of movement it experiences is limited to three-dimensional space and its constituent molecules.

This is precisely why the discovery of Laplace’s waves is so revolutionary. Sakazaki and Hamilton’s work gives us an additional degree of freedom in predicting weather and Mario’s motivations. They have completed a theory developed 220 years ago; their work was published in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and adapted by Charlie Wood of Quanta Magazine in his article, “Global Wave Discovery Ends 220-Year Search.”