Equilibrium & Sustainability

The best place to hide during a nuclear blast

Those in the vicinity of a nuclear blast are unlikely to survive, though researchers have some advice for people in farther-away areas: stay out of the hallway.

In a study published in Physics of Fluids, scientists simulated an atomic bomb explosion to determine the best and worst places to be in a concrete-reinforced building during such an event.  

The safest place: the corners of a room, author Ioannis Kokkinakis of Cyprus’ University of Nicosia said in a statement. 

“Even in the front room facing the explosion, one can be safe from the high airspeeds if positioned at the corners of the wall facing the blast,” Kokkinakis added. 

Researchers advised those seeking shelter to stay away from windows, doors and corridors, where high airspeeds from the blast wave can cause severe injuries or fatalities — even in sturdy, concrete-reinforced structures. 

In particular, the close quarters of a hallway can amplify the force of the blast wave, they found. 

They observed the air from the blast — which reflects off walls and bends around corners — potentially produces a force equivalent to 18 times a human’s body weight.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Not on the list? Subscribe here.

Today: Why a bad time for airline passengers doesn’t necessarily translate to a bad time for airlines. Plus: Europe’s answer to U.S. clean energy subsidies, why OPEC expects to keep growing and the threat of forever chemicals in freshwater fish.



Passenger woes won’t shake airline profitability 

The airline industry’s financial recovery is outstripping its ability to get people where they want to go, according to a new report.

Aircraft leasing company Avolon said in a report this week that it expects traffic to reach pre-pandemic levels by summer.

One principal revenue driver is the flurry of aircraft to and from a recently reopened China, which is draining an already limited global flight capacity.

Hitting the bottleneck: This combined rise in passengers and a lingering aircraft shortage is increasing strain on air networks while keeping ticket prices high, the report found. 

Of particular concern: 2,400 planes that the world aeronautics industry had slated to build during the coronavirus pandemic but never built.

  • While airline traffic is still 25 percent below pre-pandemic levels, revenues are just 13 percent lower, according to the report.
  • That’s a sign that fares are going up — and that the main restriction to airlines’ financial recovery is their “capacity to put planes in the air,” it added. 

Ongoing crisis: The flight bottleneck is a grim sign for an aircraft sector already beset by many infrastructure failures and corporate governance concerns. 

Chronic underinvestment: Airline union members and Congressional Democrats last summer blamed airline industry woes on a longstanding habit of plowing back profits into buying up company stock. 

That meant that airlines chose to effectively raise compensation for executives — rather than investing in planes, operations and employees. 

Between 2010 and 2020, airlines spent 96 percent of their free cash flow on stock buybacks, according to an investigation by Bloomberg. 

Let in the states? Many critics say the airlines’ main problems around customer service stem from the fact that they have just one regulator: the Department of Transportation.

  • Amid the rampant travel interruptions last summer, a bipartisan group of 38 state attorneys general called on Congress to give them authority to enforce consumer protection laws. 
  • “This type of consumer mediation is the bread and butter of the work of attorneys general, and we are ready, willing and able to take on this work,” Connecticut Attorney General William Tong (D) said in a statement. 

Tong added it was “no secret that flying has become more frustrating since the pandemic, with canceled and delayed flights, lost luggage, and inadequate customer service.”  

EU looks to challenge US, China over clean energy

The European Union (EU) announced its intentions on Tuesday to create extensive new clean energy subsidies that could keep firms from moving to the U.S. and China.

A sweeping list of state subsidies could help position the EU as a a leader in the global clean energy transition, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. 

Foreign concerns: In particular, the EU worries that its green tech firms will move to the United States, which last summer passed $369 billion in funding to subsidize green production. 

But von der Leyen also singled out China, which she said “dominates global production in sectors like electric vehicles or solar panels … with the promise of cheap energy, low labor costs and a more lenient regulatory environment.” 

Trading dependencies? “In less than a year, Europe has overcome this dangerous dependency” on Russian pipeline gas, von der Leyen said. 

Nonetheless, she reiterated her concern about a possible shift of clean energy firms to the U.S. and China.

  • “For rare earths, which are vital for manufacturing key technologies — like wind power generation, hydrogen storage or batteries — Europe is today 98 percent dependent on one country: China,” she said. 
  • She also pointed to lithium, for which three countries — Australia, Chile and China — control 90 percent of production, leading to “incredibly tight” supply chains. 

One opportunity for Europe: Last week a government-owned mine operator in Sweden discovered the continent’s largest rare earth mineral deposit, containing more than 1 million metric tons, our colleague Zack Budryk reported for The Hill. 

For more, click here for the full story.


OPEC predicts moderate economic growth for 2023

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on Tuesday credited the U.S. and European Union for better-than-expected economic growth in 2022, while cautioning that such progress may slow this year. 

Maintaining ‘good growth’: The growth dynamic in the U.S. and the Euro-zone played a key role in lifting last year’s global economic growth estimate to 3 percent, the Vienna-based group stated in its monthly oil market report

Such positive trends should help maintain a “good growth level” in 2023, according to the report. 

Proceeding with caution: Nonetheless, OPEC predicted that growth would remain as anticipated at about 2.5 percent in 2023, as opposed to the 3 percent achieved in 2022. 

  • “Although growth momentum is expected to carry over into 2023, the world economy will continue navigating through many challenges,” the group stated. 
  • Challenges cited include high inflation, monetary tightening by major central banks and high sovereign debt levels in many regions. 

How did the U.S. do? Economic growth estimates for the U.S. in 2022 were revised from 1.7 percent last month up to 2 percent and from 0.8 percent up to 1 percent for 2023. 

  • The Federal Reserve raised rates at the beginning of last year and continued to do so until the year’s end.  
  • That helped lead to an appreciation of the U.S. dollar and an increase in the price of oil. 

What’s ahead for oil supplies? The U.S. is expected to be among the main drivers of non-OPEC supply growth in 2023, while Russia could experience declines, according to the report.    

  • Russia managed to weather external pressures on its economy at the beginning of its war in Ukraine.  
  • But the report forecast “a continuation of the decline witnessed towards the end of 2022” due to ongoing sanctions. 

What about China? Beijing’s growth estimates remained unchanged at 3.1 percent for 2022 and 4.8 percent for 2023, despite a decision to relax zero-COVID-19 policies, according to OPEC. 

These measures are expected to help bolster economic growth in 2023 and have “raised optimism for a recovery in oil demand,” the report stated.   

But there’s also some pessimism: The OPEC report remained cautious about China’s potential growth, stressing that recent steps “could also have a negative impact.” 

“A too-loose COVID-19 policy could lead to an overstretch of China’s health system, amid rising infections,” the report stated.  

To see more details from the report, as well as thoughts from energy economists, please click here for the full story.

Study: Some US fish highly contaminated with PFAS

Eating just one serving of freshwater fish each year could have the same effect as drinking water heavily polluted with “forever chemicals” for an entire month, a new study has found. 

Alarming highs: The equivalent monthlong amount of water would be contaminated at levels 2,400 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health advisories, according to the study

The study, published in Environmental Research, also showed that locally caught fish are far more polluted than commercial catches with per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). 

What are PFAS again? These so-called forever chemicals are notorious for their persistence in the body and the environment. 

  • PFAS are key ingredients in jet fuel firefighting foam, industrial discharge and many household products, including certain types of food packaging.  
  • For decades, they have leached into drinking water supplies while also contaminating irrigated crops and fish that inhabit local waterways. 

A pescatarian problem: Fish consumption has long been identified as a route of exposure to PFAS, according to the study.  

  • Researchers first identified such contamination in catfish that inhabited the Tennessee River in 1979. 
  • “Food has always been kind of the hypothesis of how most people are exposed to PFAS compounds,” corresponding author David Andrews, of the Environmental Working Group, told Equilibrium. 

Significant exposure source: The new study evaluated the presence of different types of PFAS in 501 fish fillet samples, collected across the U.S. from 2013 to 2015. 

Finding a culprit: While the samples included many types of forever chemicals — of which there are thousands — the biggest culprit was the compound known as PFOS, the researchers found.  

PFOS responsible for about 74 percent of PFAS totals, the researchers found. 

Although PFOS has largely been phased out of manufacturing, it used to be the main ingredient in fabric protector Scotchgard, and it lingers on in the environment. 

PFOS was particularly potent: Ingesting just one serving of freshwater fish would be equivalent to drinking a month’s worth of water contaminated with PFOS at levels of 48 parts per trillion, according to the study.  

That’s 2,400 times greater than federal drinking water health advisories for PFOS, which are 0.02 parts per trillion. 

To read the rest of the story, please click here.

Tuesday Troubles

Natural disasters drove 3.3 million Americans from their homes in 2022, a dead sperm whale shows the threats facing the species and an Arizona suburb goes dry. 

3.3 million Americans displaced by natural disasters in 2022 

40-foot sperm whale found dead on Oregon beach 

  • A 40-foot sperm whale with gash wounds was found dead on a beach in Oregon this weekend — marking a significant loss for an endangered species whose population has been struggling to recover, The Washington Post reported. An official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that the whale appears to have been fatally struck by a ship, according to the Post.

Arizona suburb cut off from city water amid drought 

  • Residents of a Scottsdale, Ariz., suburb are struggling to find and afford alternative water sources after the city cut off their water, The New York Times reported. “We’re really hoping we don’t go dry by summer,” resident Joe McCue told the Times, “Then we’ll be in a really bad spot.” 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for more and check out other newsletters here. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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