English: Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles a...
English: Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Photographed and uploaded by user:Geographer Category:Images of Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Los Angeles is the second largest city in the ...
Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

California was wet all over as March began: torrential rain, heavy snow, mudslides. The drought barely noticed.

The water crisis there is now in its third year; some scientists believe 2013 was the driest year in California since 1580. The state, the most populous in America, gets 75 percent of its water from snow, and this year, 70 percent of its usual snowpack is missing.

Britain’s problem has been exactly the opposite: biblical flooding. The Thames has been flowing at its highest level, for the longest period, since 1883. Storms across south western England have left Brits kayaking through their towns. According to Britain’s weather service, the rain across England and Wales is the heaviest in 240 years.

There have always been floods and droughts. But water problems of all kinds seem more common and more urgent because they are.

In 2013, the world had a record number of $1 billion weather disaster – 41, topping the previous high from just three years earlier. Almost all 41 involved water-flooding, drought or damage from cyclones.

There are three reasons we’re seeing more water issues.

The first is population growth. The drought in California is made worse by the fact that the state’s population is one-third bigger than in 1990. Ten million more people live there today. Their added water use drains the equivalent of a 40-hectare lake, 15 meters deep, every day. The challenge of supplying water to growing populations is acute in mega-cities like Beijing, Delhi and Los Angeles.

Living standards have also been rising in developing nations like India, China and Brazil. The more people rise to the middle class, the more water they use- for toilets, for clothes washers, for daily showers. People with modern plumbing often use five or 10 times the water as those without it.

Finally, climate change is likely to make routine cycles of weather more severe and perhaps more frequent. The Thames Barrier, a mechanical dam that protects London from flooding, was used 35 times during the 1990s. This January alone, it was used 17 times. And this year’s flooding comes just two years after another natural disaster in the same part of England: the worst drought in 100 years.

The consequences ripple widely. The American drought has crippled California farmers, who grow 60 percent of the country’s produce, and has left the nation with its smallest cattle herd in 60 years, sending beef prices to record highs. Economists estimate that the flooding in Britain could shave a full point off of its G.D.P.

Often, what we do about the weather is tough it out and hope things go back to “normal.” But what we’ve seen with water over the last decade is a warning. Tumult may be the new normal.

There are two secrets to understanding and addressing water problems. The first is that all water problems are local. Whatever the connections to weather patterns over the Pacific, England’s flooding has to be fixed in England. The drought is California’s problem – conservation in Kansas won’t help. But that’s actually good news. Communities – cities, states, multistate watersheds – have the ability to solve problems right where they are happening.

The second thing to remember is that water doesn’t respond to wishful thinking. It responds to careful, permanent changes in how we live, how we farm, how we build and what we charge for the water itself. The British government has a nine-year-old report about preparing for increased flooding. The title:

“Making Space for Water.” You’re not going to hold back the flood. You have to anticipate it, and adapt.

Most big communities in California have yet to mandate water-use reductions. In part, that’s because water use has already changed there, slowly but dramatically. In 1972, the average resident of Los Angeles used 715 liters a day. Today, the average is 465 liters.

Here’s what the change means: The Los Angeles metro area has 50 percent more people than it did 20 years ago, but it uses the same amount of water. The drought, bad as it is, would have been far worse if people were still using so much water. Thinking ahead matters.

The amount of water on Earth doesn’t change-no “new” water is being created, no water is being destroyed. It simply is used, evaporates and is used again. But we’re being reminded that water doesn’t end up where we want it, when we want it.

In a world of big problems, water problems are among the biggest. But unlike many other big problems – climate change, economic inequality – most water problems are solvable. There’s usually enough water, and even enough money. What we need is time and the realism to tackle the problems.

In that sense, the current water tumult is doing us a favor. If we pay attention, water is giving us fair warning.

Charles Fishman is the author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, March 8, 2014
NIF flashlamps
NIF flashlamps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Laser Bay 2, one of NIF's two laser bays
English: Laser Bay 2, one of NIF's two laser bays (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mockup of a gold-plated hohlraum designed for ...
Mockup of a gold-plated hohlraum designed for use in the National Ignition Facility (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Upper portion of the NIF's target cha...
English: Upper portion of the NIF's target chamber under construction. The large square beam ports are prominent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The Beamlet laser, a scientific proto...
English: The Beamlet laser, a scientific prototype of one of the NIF’s 192 beamlines, that has been operating at LLNL since 1994. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Outside view of the Tokamak Fusion Te...
English: Outside view of the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Layout of the NAtional Ignition Facil...
English: Layout of the NAtional Ignition Facility. Image taken from a LLNL publication. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is taking years, but nuclear energy research has always taken years. There is the over-arching question of sustainability and safety - and health hazards to top it all.
Not to sound scientist-like, I stop here.
Read on...


LIVERMORE, CaliforniaFusion, the process that powers the sun, is the dream of many – safe, nonpolluting and almost boundless. Here at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the primary focus of fusion work involves nuclear weapons, many scientists talk poetically about how it could end the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.

“It’s the dream of the future, solving energy,” said Stephen E.Bodner, who worked on fusion at Livermore in the 1960s and ‘70s, recalling that the military focus then was a ruse to keep government money flowing to the lab for energy research. “Everyone was winking,” he said. “Everyone knew better.”

The basic concept behind fusion is simple: Squeeze hydrogen atoms hard enough and they fuse together in helium. A helium atom weighs slightly less than the original hydrogen atoms, and by Einstein’s equation E=mc2, that liberated bit of mass turns into energy. Hydrogen is so abundant that unlike fossil fuels or fissionable material like uranium, it will never run out.

Scientists have never figured out a way to keep a fusion reaction going long enough to generate usable energy. The running joke is that “fusion is 30 years in the future – and always will be.”

Now, however, scientists here have given the world some progress. In February, a team headed by Omar A. Hurricane said it had used giant lasers to fuse hydrogen atoms and produce flashes of energy, like miniature hydrogen bombs. The amount of energy produced was tiny – the equivalent of what a 60-watt light bulb consumes in five minutes.

The fusion occurred at the National Ignition Facility, which has cost $5.3 billion to build and operate. The key to the facility is ignition. For government purposes, ignition was defined as a fusion reaction producing as much energy as the laser beams that hit it. To achieve that, an initial smidgen of fusion has to cascade to neighboring hydrogen atoms.

The center of NIF is the target chamber, a metal sphere 10 meters wide with gleaming equipment radiating outward. It looks like something from “Star Trek” – in fact it doubled as the engine room of the Enterprise in last year’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” movie.

Each blast starts with a small laser pulse that is split via mirrors into 192, then bounced through laser amplifiers that fill two warehouse-size rooms. The beams are then focused into the chamber, converging on a gold cylinder the size of a pencil eraser. In a brief moment, the imploding atoms fuse together.

The scientists call it bang time.

Each shot is so short that the cost in electricity is just $5.

Livermore officials were confident enough that NIF would achieve ignition soon after it was turned on that they laid out a plan for building a demonstration power plant they said could be ready for electrical grids by the 2030s.

Dr. Bodner, who had left Livermore in 1975 and set up a competing program at the Naval Research Laboratory, was a critic of NIF. In 1995, he predicted that instabilities in the imploding gas would thwart ignition. He championed a different laser fusion concept in which the lasers shine directly on the fuel pellets. That creates other technical difficulties. Dr. Bonder, who retired in 1999, said his team was able to show those could be overcome.

The sun’s immense gravity provides the squeeze that enables fusion. On earth, there are two main possibilities: powerful lasers to jam the hydrogen together, as at NIF, or magnetic fields to contain a hot hydrogen plasma until the atoms collide and fuse.

Most fusion energy research has focused on the magnetic approach, particularly doughnut-shaped machines known as tokamaks.

In 1994, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at Princeton University in New Jersey generated 10.7 million watts of power for a brief moment. Three years later, the Joint European Torus in England topped that, at 16 million watts.

The next step in the magnetic route is a mammoth international collaboration known as Iter. Construction on Iter has begun in southern France, with the first operations expected to begin in the 2020s – if it comes together. Under a complex management structure, the partners in the project (the European Union, Japan, China, Russia, the United States, India and South Korea) agreed to contribute pieces of the reactor, with the central Iter organization attempting to coordinate.

But the recent progress has come in the laser path to fusion.

Dr. Hurricane adjusted the laser pulse to warm the gold cylinder initially. That reduced the implosion pressure that had been tearing the pellet apart, but calmed some of the instabilities, yielding a higher rate of fusion.

In September, Dr.Hurricane’s team had its first shot that showed signs of the fusion reaction spreading through the fuel.

Jeff Wisoff, NIF’s acting director, said, “Now we at least have a sparking match.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, March 29, 2014