Geophysical Science Is Not Settled

(p. D2) Last year, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Africa erupted without warning.

. . .

Now, in a new study published this Wednesday [Aug. 31, 2022] in Nature, Delphine Smittarello, a geophysicist at the European Center for Geodynamics and Seismology in Walferdange, Luxembourg, and her colleagues articulated how the eruption managed to ambush everyone.

. . .

This sort of unannounced eruption offers scientists a harsh lesson: For every paradigm-shifting secret they extract from their mountainous subjects, “there are always things that we don’t understand,” said Emily Montgomery-Brown, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory who was not involved in the study. “It’s a good reminder not to get cocky.”

. . .

. . . it’s possible that we will never become perfect prophets of our volcanic futures. “There may be things we will never be able to forecast,” Dr. Montgomery-Brown said.

For the full story, see:

Robin George Andrews. “An Eruption That Forecasters Couldn’t Foresee.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 6, 2022): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 2, 2022, and has the title “A Volcano Erupted Without Warning. Now, Scientists Know Why.”)

The article in Nature mentioned above is:

Smittarello, D., B. Smets, J. Barrière, C. Michellier, A. Oth, T. Shreve, R. Grandin, N. Theys, H. Brenot, V. Cayol, P. Allard, C. Caudron, O. Chevrel, F. Darchambeau, P. de Buyl, L. Delhaye, D. Derauw, G. Ganci, H. Geirsson, E. Kamate Kaleghetso, J. Kambale Makundi, I. Kambale Nguomoja, C. Kasereka Mahinda, M. Kervyn, C. Kimanuka Ruriho, H. Le Mével, S. Molendijk, O. Namur, S. Poppe, M. Schmid, J. Subira, C. Wauthier, M. Yalire, N. d’Oreye, F. Kervyn, and A. Syavulisembo Muhindo. “Precursor-Free Eruption Triggered by Edifice Rupture at Nyiragongo Volcano.” Nature 609, no. 7925 (Sept. 1, 2022): 83-88.

(Note: the Sept. 1 issue of Nature was “published” on Aug. 31.)

Kamoya Saw What Others Missed, Not by Magic, but by “An Invaluable Accumulation of Skill and Knowledge”

(p. A24) Kamoya Kimeu, the son of a goat herder whose preternatural gift for spotting and identifying petrified tibias, skull fragments and other ancient human remains among the arid, rocky badlands of East Africa won him acclaim as the world’s greatest fossil hunter, died on July 20 [2022] in Nairobi, Kenya.

. . .

“Digging human bones was associated with witchcraft,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 2009. “It was a taboo in African custom. But I was just a young adventurous man, eager to travel and discover things.”

The Leakeys, and especially Mary Leakey, Louis’s wife, soon recognized Mr. Kamoya’s aptitude, not just at finding fossils but identifying them; they began to offer him lessons in paleontology, evolutionary theory and excavating techniques.

“At the end of each day looking for fossil bones, I sat down with Louis Leakey, and he taught me to tell which bones belonged to which animal and how to tell if they were hominid, and people that led to us,” Mr. Kamoya told New African Magazine in 2000. “I asked: ‘How do you find them?’ He said, ‘It’s just luck. We can find them.’ Then I tried very hard. I was very keen. Then I started to find them.”

. . .

Mr. Kamoya’s most significant find came in 1984, on an expedition around Kenya’s Lake Turkana with Richard Leakey and Alan Walker, an anthropologist from Penn State.

One day Mr. Kamoya went out for a walk along the waterless Nariokotome River. Among the small stones and clumps of dirt he spotted what looked like a matchbook-size skull fragment — Homo erectus, he surmised, an extinct hominid species.

He radioed Mr. Leakey, who came to look. Soon the whole team was involved in a monthslong excavation that ultimately revealed a near-complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus.

. . .

“To some of our visitors who are inexperienced in fossil-hunting, there is something almost magical in the way Kamoya or one of his team can walk up a slope that is apparently littered with nothing more than pebbles and pick up a small fragment of black, fossilized bone, announcing that it is, say, part of the upper forelimb of an antelope,” Richard Leakey told an interviewer with his family’s foundation in 2019. “It is not magic, but an invaluable accumulation of skill and knowledge.”

. . .

“Many people do not like this work because it is hard to understand,” he told The New York Times in 1995. “It is very hard work. It is very hot, walking and sitting with animals like mosquitoes, snakes, lions. I like looking.”

For the full obituary see:

Clay Risen. “Kamoya Kimeu Dies; Uncovered Treasures That Framed Evolution.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, Aug. 24, 2022): A24.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 1, 2022, and has the title “Kamoya Kimeu, Fossil-Hunting ‘Legend’ in East Africa, Is Dead.”)

Wittgenstein Center’s Scenario Has Global Population Peak in 2050 at 8.7 Billion

(p. A2) Since the 1960s, when the global number of people first hit three billion, it has taken a bit over a decade to cross each new billion-person milestone, and so it might seem natural to assume that nine billion humans and then 10 billion are, inexorably, just around the corner. That is exactly what the latest population projections from the U.N. and the U.S. Census Bureau have calculated.

. . .

The U.N.’s projections are the best known. But an alternate set of projections has been gaining attention in recent years, spearheaded by the demographer Wolfgang Lutz, under the auspices of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital at the University of Vienna, of which Mr. Lutz is founding director.

. . .

“There’s two big questions,” Mr. Lutz explains, that determine whether his forecasts or the U.N.’s end up closer to the mark. “First, how rapidly fertility will decline in Africa…. The other question is China, and countries with very low fertility, if they will recover and how fast they will recover.”

. . .

The Wittgenstein forecasts, by contrast, look not only at historical patterns, but attempt to ask why birthrates rise and fall. A big factor, not formally included in the U.N.’s models, is education levels. Put simply: As people, especially women, have greater opportunities to pursue education, they have smaller families.

. . .

The U.N. projects Africa’s population will grow from 1.3 billion today to 3.9 billion by century’s end.

Once education is accounted for, Wittgenstein’s baseline scenario projects Africa’s population will rise to 2.9 billion during that time period. In another scenario from Wittgenstein, which it calls the “rapid development” scenario, the population of Africa will only reach 1.7 billion by century’s end.

Wittgenstein’s phrase “rapid development” is revealing: This isn’t a forecast of doom and decline, but rather one in which health and education simply improve, a world with better human well-being, lower mortality, and medium levels of immigration.

. . .

Wittgenstein’s rapid-development scenario has the global population topping out at 8.7 billion in 2050.

For the full commentary see:

Josh Zumbrun. “THE NUMBERS; As Population Nears 8 Billion, Some See Peak.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2022): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 12, 2022, and has the title “THE NUMBERS; Global Population Is About to Hit 8 Billion—and Some Argue It Is Near Its Peak.”)

Africans Sometimes Sold Other Africans Into Slavery

(p. C1) Records from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by historian David Eltis at Emory University, show that the majority of captives brought to the U.S. came from Senegal, Gambia, Congo and eastern Nigeria. Europeans oversaw this brutal traffic in human cargo, but they had many local collaborators. “The organization of the slave trade was structured to have the Europeans stay along the coast lines, relying on African middlemen and merchants to bring the slaves to them,” said Toyin Falola, a Nigerian professor of African studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Europeans couldn’t have gone into the interior to get the slaves themselves.”

The anguished debate over slavery in the U.S. is often silent on the role (p. C2) that Africans played. That silence is echoed in many African countries, where there is hardly any national discussion or acknowledgment of the issue. From nursery school through university in Nigeria, I was taught about great African cultures and conquerors of times past but not about African involvement in the slave trade. In an attempt to reclaim some of the dignity that we lost during colonialism, Africans have tended to magnify stories of a glorious past of rich traditions and brave achievement.

But there are other, less discussed chapters of our history. When I was growing up, my father Chukwuma Nwaubani spoke glowingly of my great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, a chief among our Igbo ethnic group who sold slaves in the 19th century. “He was respected by everyone around,” he said. “Even the white people respected him.” From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 1.4 million Igbo people were transported across the Atlantic as slaves.

Some families have chosen to hide similar histories. “We speak of it in whispers,” said Yunus Mohammed Rafiq, a 44-year-old professor of anthropology from Tanzania who now teaches at New York University’s center in Shanghai. In the 19th century, Mr. Rafiq’s great-great-great-grandfather, Mwarukere, from the Segeju ethnic group, raided villages in Tanzania’s hinterland, sold the majority of his captives to the Arab merchants who supplied Europeans and kept the rest as laborers on his own coconut plantations. Although Mr. Rafiq’s relatives speak of Mwarukere with pride, they expunged his name from family documents sometime in the 1960s, shortly after Tanzania gained independence from British colonial rule, when it was especially sensitive to remind Africans of their role in enslaving one another.

. . .

The Zambian pastor Saidi Francis Chishimba also feels the need to go public with his family’s history. “In Zambia, in a sense, it is a forgotten history,” said the 45-year-old. “But it is a reality to which history still holds us accountable.” Mr. Chishimba’s grandfather, Ali Saidi Muluwe Wansimba, was from a tribe of slave traders of the Bemba kingdom, who moved from Zanzibar to establish slave markets in Zambia. He grew up hearing this history narrated with great pride by his relatives.

In 2011, he decided to see the place of his ancestor’s origin and traveled with his wife to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. As they toured a memorial in what used to be one of the world’s largest slave markets, the photos of limbs amputated from runaway slaves and the airless chambers that once held dozens of slaves at a time shocked him into silence. “It brought a saddening in my heart that my own family lines were involved in this treatment,” he said. “It was so painful to think about.”

. . .

(p. C3) . . ., my father does not believe that the descendants of those who took part in the slave trade should now pay for those wrongs. As he points out, buying and selling human beings had been part of many African cultures, as a form of serfdom, long before the first white people landed on our shores. And though many families still retain the respect and influence accrued by their slave-trading ancestors, the direct material gains have petered out over time. “If anyone asks me for reparations,” he said sarcastically, “I will tell them to follow me to my backyard so that I can pluck some money from the tree there and give it to them.”

Mr. Chishimba takes a similar view. “Slavery was wrong, but do I carry upon my shoulders the sins of my forefathers so that I should go around saying sorry? I don’t think so,” he said. Mr. Duke doesn’t believe that Africans should play much of a part in the American reparations conversation, because the injustices the descendants of slaves suffer stem primarily from their maltreatment and deprivation in the U.S. “The Africans didn’t see anything wrong with slavery,” he said. “Even if the white man wasn’t there, they would still use these people as their domestics. However, because the white man was now involved and fortunes were being made . . . that was when the criminality came in.”

For the full essay, see:

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. “THE SATURDAY ESSAY; When the Slave Traders Were African.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 20, 2019): C1-C3.

(Note: ellipsis within the last quoted paragraph was in the original; other ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay was updated Sept. 20, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

Immuno-Suppressed Patients Take Longer to Clear Covid-19, Allowing Time for More Mutations and New Variants

(p. 14) When people with H.I.V. are prescribed an effective antiretroviral and take it consistently, their bodies almost completely suppress the virus. But if people with H.I.V. aren’t diagnosed, haven’t been prescribed treatment, or don’t, or can’t, take their medicines consistently each day, H.I.V. weakens their immune systems. And then, if they catch the coronavirus, it can take weeks or months before the new virus is cleared from their bodies.

When the coronavirus lives that long in their systems, it has the chance to mutate and mutate and mutate again. And, if they pass the mutated virus on, a new variant is in circulation.

“We have reasons to believe that some of the variants that are emerging in South Africa could potentially be associated directly with H.I.V.,” said Tulio de Oliveira, the principal investigator of the national genetic monitoring network.

In the first days of the pandemic, South Africa’s health authorities were braced for soaring death rates of people with H.I.V. “We were basically creating horror scenarios that Africa was going to be decimated,” said Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist who heads the AIDS institute where KRISP is housed. “But none of that played out.” The main reason is that H.I.V. is most common among young people, while the coronavirus has hit older people hardest.

An H.I.V. infection makes a person about 1.7 times as likely to die of Covid — an elevated risk, but one that pales in comparison with the risk for people with diabetes, who are 30 times more likely to die. “Once we realized that this was the situation, we then began to understand that our real problems with H.I.V. in the midst of Covid was the prospect that severely immunocompromised people would lead to new variants,” Dr. Abdool Karim said.

. . .

. . . a single variant can rattle the world, as Omicron has.

The origin of this variant is still unknown. People with H.I.V. are not the only ones whose systems can inadvertently give the coronavirus the chance to mutate: It can happen in anyone who is immunosuppressed, such as transplant patients and those undergoing cancer treatments.

By the time the KRISP team identified the second case of a person with H.I.V. producing coronavirus variants, there were more than a dozen reports of the same phenomenon in medical literature from other parts of the world.

Viruses mutate in people with healthy immune systems, too. The difference for people with H.I.V., or another immunosuppressing condition, is that because the virus stays in their systems so much longer, the natural selection process has more time to favor mutations that evade immunity. The typical replication period in a healthy person would be just a couple of weeks, instead of many months; fewer replications mean less opportunities for new mutations.

. . .

. . ., South Africa’s efforts to tackle the variant issue, and be transparent about it, have come at a steep price, in the form of flight bans and global isolation.

“As scientists, especially in the kind of forefront, we debate playing down the H.I.V. problem,” Dr. de Oliveira mused in his lab last week. “If we are very vocal, we also risk, again, big discrimination and closing borders and economic measures. But, if you are not very vocal, we have unnecessary deaths.”

For the full story, see:

Stephanie Nolen. “A Variant Hunt on Dirt Roads and in the Lab.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 5, 2021): 1 & 14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 6, 2021, and has the title “The Variant Hunters: Inside South Africa’s Effort to Stanch Dangerous Mutations.” The online version says that the New York edition of the print version had the title “A Variant Hunt From the Labs To Dirt Roads.” The title of my National edition of the print version was “A Variant Hunt on Dirt Roads and in the Lab.”)

120 Million Added People Face Food Scarcity Due to Covid-19

(p. A1) An estimated 270 million people are expected to face potentially life-threatening food shortages this year — compared to 150 million before the pandemic — according to analysis from the World Food Program, the anti-hunger agency of the United Nations. The number of people on the brink of famine, the most severe phase of a hunger crisis, jumped to 41 million people currently from 34 million last year, the analysis showed.

The World Food Program sounded the alarm further last week in a joint report with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, warning that “conflict, the economic repercussions of Covid-19 and the climate crisis are expected to drive higher levels of acute food insecurity in 23 hunger hot spots over the next four months,” mostly in Africa but also Central America, Afghanistan and North Korea.

The situation is particularly bleak in Africa, where new infections have surged. In recent months, aid organizations have raised alarms about Ethiopia — where the number of people affected by famine is higher than anywhere in the world — and (p. A5) southern Madagascar, where hundreds of thousands are nearing famine after an extraordinarily severe drought.

. . .

In South Africa, typically one of the most food-secure nations on the continent, hunger has rippled across the country.

. . .

An estimated three million South Africans lost their jobs and pushed the unemployment rate to 32.6 percent — a record high since the government began collecting quarterly data in 2008.

. . .

In Duncan Village, the sprawling township in Eastern Cape Province, the economic lifelines for tens of thousands of families have been destroyed.

Before the pandemic, the orange-and-teal sea of corrugated metal shacks and concrete houses buzzed every morning as workers boarded minibuses bound for the heart of nearby East London. An industrial hub for car assembly plants, textiles and processed food, the city offered stable jobs and steady incomes.

“We always had enough — we had plenty,” said Anelisa Langeni, 32, sitting at the kitchen table of the two-bedroom home she shared with her father and twin sister in Duncan Village.

For nearly 40 years, her father worked as a machine operator at the Mercedes-Benz plant. By the time he retired, he had saved enough to build two more single family homes on their plot — rental units he hoped would provide some financial stability for his children.

The pandemic upended those plans. Within weeks of the first lockdown, the tenants lost their jobs and could no longer pay rent. When Ms. Langeni was laid off from her waitressing job at a seafood restaurant and her sister lost her job at a popular pizza joint, they leaned on their father’s $120 monthly pension.

Then in July, he collapsed with a cough and fever and died of suspected Covid-19 en route to the hospital.

“I couldn’t breathe when they told me,” Ms. Langeni said. “My father and everything we had, everything, gone.”

For the full story, see:

Christina Goldbaum and Joao Silva. “No Job, No Food: Virus Deepens Global Hunger.” The New York Times (Friday, August 6, 2021): A1 & A5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 6, 2021, and has the title “No Work, No Food: Pandemic Deepens Global Hunger.”)

World Population Decline Will Slow Global Warming

(p. 1) All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.

Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.

Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Though some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women.

For the full story, see:

Damien Cave, Emma Bubola and Choe Sang-Hun. “World Is Facing First Long Slide in Its Population.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, May 23, 2021): 1 & 17.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 24, 2021, and has the title “Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications.”)

In North Equatorial Africa, Air Pollution Declines with Economic Growth

(p. A9) LAGOS, Nigeria — Rapidly growing countries generally see sharp increases in air pollution as their populations and economies expand. But a new study of air quality in Africa published on Monday [Feb. 8, 2021] has found the opposite: One of the continent’s most vibrant regions is becoming less polluted.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that levels of dangerous nitrogen oxides, a byproduct of combustion, in the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa have declined sharply as wealth and population in the area have increased.

. . .

The reason, according to researchers, is that an increase in pollution from industry and transportation in the area studied — from Senegal and Ivory Coast in the west to South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya in the east — appears to have been offset by a decline in the number of fires set by farmers.

For the full story, see:

Shola Lawal. “As Economies Get Bigger, Air Pollution Falls in Africa.” The New York Times (Tues., February 9, 2021): A9.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 8, 2021, and has the title “A Surprise in Africa: Air Pollution Falls as Economies Rise.”)

The National Academy of Sciences study mentioned above is:

Hickman, Jonathan E., Niels Andela, Kostas Tsigaridis, Corinne Galy-Lacaux, Money Ossohou, and Susanne E. Bauer. “Reductions in No≪Sub≫2≪/Sub≫ Burden over North Equatorial Africa from Decline in Biomass Burning in Spite of Growing Fossil Fuel Use, 2005 to 2017.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 7 (2021): e2002579118.

Dictator Rawlings Transformed Ghana from Dictatorship to Democracy

I heard a plausible plenary lecture a few years ago at an APEE meeting where the African speaker argued that African autocrats would never voluntarily give up power, because doing so would mean they would trade personal riches for personal poverty. It was a sad but plausible argument, though one that makes Jerry Rawlings’s life especially intriguing.

(p. A22) Jerry Rawlings, a former Ghanaian Air Force officer who led two military coups before steering his country toward democracy with an authoritarian hand, died on Thursday in the nation’s capital, Accra.

. . .

By the time he left office voluntarily 22 years later, he had served two presidential terms brought about by free elections and had established Ghana as a rare democratic example on the continent. Today, peaceful handovers of power are routine in the country, hardly the case with the country’s neighbors.

Mr. Rawlings’ contradictory legacy — brutal beginnings, uncompromising military rule, then free elections — underscores the difficult path to democratic governance still faced by many African nations. But in Ghana at least, where Mr. Rawlings is regarded as something of a founding father after the country’s difficult first steps, democracy is an assumption.

Given Ghana’s first experiences of him, that outcome would not have been predicted. He appeared at first to have all the makings of one of the continent’s classic military autocrats.

For the full obituary, see:

Adam Nossiter. “Jerry Rawlings, Strongman Turned Statesman Who Steered Ghana to Democracy, Dies at 73.” The New York Times (Friday, November 13, 2020): A22.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Nov. 12, 2020, and has the title “Jerry Rawlings, From Coup-Plotter to Ghanaian Statesman, Dies at 73.”)

Even Chimps Seek Cool Comfort

Some humans reject air conditioning. Chimps are unable to create air conditioning. But when they discover a cool cave in a hot summer, they spend time in the cave.

(p. D2) Everyone needs to cool off on a scorching summer day, even chimpanzees. Where do the primates go on sizzling days when woodlands and forests don’t provide respite from the heat?

Caves.

. . .

In southeastern Senegal, temperatures spike to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and fires burn large parts of the landscape over a seven-month dry season. Several natural cave formations pock the terrain, and they can be up to 55 degrees cooler than the surrounding grasslands.

For the full story, see:

Priyanka Runwal. “Why Chimp Moms Flock to Caves on the Savanna.” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 11, 2020): D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated on August 6, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

See also:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “Keeping Our Cool: In Defense of Air Conditioning.” Economics & Business Journal: Inquiries & Perspectives 8, no. 1 (Oct. 2017): 1-36.

600-Year-Old Ginkgo Trees Are as Vigorous as 20-Year-Old Ginkgo Trees

(p. D2) . . . a January [2020] study on ginkgo trees, which can live for over a thousand years . . . found that 600-year-old ginkgos are as reproductively and photosynthetically vigorous as their 20-year-old peers. Genetic analysis of the trees’ vascular cambium — a thin layer of cells that lies just underneath the bark, and creates new living tissue — showed “no evidence of senescence,” or cell death, the authors wrote.

For the full story, see:

Cara Giaimo. “Holding On; Can Trees Live Forever? A New Study Adds Kindling to the Debate.” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 4, 2020): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 27, 2020, and has the title “Can Trees Live Forever? New Kindling for an Immortal Debate.”)

The January 2020 study mentioned above is:

Wang, Li, Jiawen Cui, Biao Jin, Jianguo Zhao, Huimin Xu, Zhaogeng Lu, Weixing Li, Xiaoxia Li, Linling Li, Eryuan Liang, Xiaolan Rao, Shufang Wang, Chunxiang Fu, Fuliang Cao, Richard A. Dixon, and Jinxing Lin. “Multifeature Analyses of Vascular Cambial Cells Reveal Longevity Mechanisms in Old Ginkgo biloba Trees.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 4 (Jan. 28, 2020): 2201-10.