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Understanding the North's climate change trifecta

A wildfire burns outside Fairbanks, Alaska, after a lightning strike.

(Catherine Dieleman), Author provided

Catherine Dieleman, University of Guelph

The Arctic Circle became unbelievably hot on June 20. In the Russian community of Verkhoyansk, temperatures topped 38C, marking what may be the highest air temperature ever recorded within the Arctic.

The temperatures at Verkhoyansk are part of a larger trend across western Russia this summer, with small communities throughout the region reporting temperatures that are smashing local records that have stood for decades. During the latter half of June, surface temperatures throughout western Siberia were as much as 10C above historical norms, marking one of the hottest Junes on record despite relatively cool temperatures at the start of the month.

For scientists the world-over these record-breaking temperatures are alarm bells, demonstrating the kind of extreme weather events we can expect to see more often if climate change continues unchecked. However, it is the long-term fallout from modern heat waves that has many northern scientists deeply concerned, as they will affect our planet for decades to come.

The fires that follow

During heat waves surface temperatures soar, often triggering a chain of fire-promoting weather conditions including extreme thunderstorms. These thunderstorms have hundreds of lightning strikes that can ignite the dry soils and vegetation that serve as fuel for fire.

In northern regions like the boreal biome, these fire-promoting conditions can cause large-scale wildfires that burn millions of hectares of forest in a single summer.

Historically, humanity has considered wildfire a true disaster and spent considerable resources to suppress them. We now understand that despite the initial loss of established trees and soils, wildfires are a natural and integral part of the boreal biome.

Modern wildfires, however, are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity, covering a larger area due weather events like severe heat waves. In extreme fire years, these modern wildfires can burn deep into the organic soils that characterize boreal forests. These carbon-rich soils have been built up over thousands of years and hold approximately 30 per cent of the world's terrestrial carbon stocks.

When fires burn deep into soils or return too quickly to a forest, they lose their “ancient carbon" stocks. Instead of being held in the ground these ancient carbon reserves are combusted and released back into the atmosphere, increasing the carbon levels. The higher carbon dioxide levels generated by wildfires intensify climate change impacts like heat waves, which can lead to further wildfires, forming a powerful “positive feedback" loop with climate change.

While these trends alone are alarming, northern researchers warn that the fallout from heat waves won't stop when the fires burn out. In northern regions where the soils historically stay frozen year-round, a whole new set of changes are beginning to take form.

When permafrost perishes

Permafrost forms on the landscape when soil materials remain below freezing for two or more consecutive years. In some areas permafrost forms in direct response to a cold climate.

As one moves further south, however, permafrost becomes increasingly dependent on the presence of thick organic soils, surface vegetation and a shady overstorey to survive the warm summer months. In those cases, the ecosystem acts like a giant protective blanket, limiting the sun's heat that is able to reach the frozen permafrost materials below.

White smoke rises from the tundra with mountains in the background.

Carbon-rich peat burns readily, making it good fuel for lightning-caused fires.

(U.S. National Parks Service, Western Arctic National Parklands)

When permafrost ecosystems burn, the wildfire consumes these protective layers, often triggering permafrost thaw. This can occur gradually, with the thawed layer expanding slowly over decades, or abruptly, with the thawed layer expanding dramatically over years. The land may cave in or sink, plant communities may change completely and local water flows may be rerouted.

In both cases, the loss of permafrost makes the massive Arctic carbon reserves more vulnerable to loss. With gradual thaw microbes are able to break down and release the previously frozen carbon back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In contrast, abrupt thaw commonly occurs in ice-rich permafrost resulting in warmer but also wetter soils. Under these conditions decomposition still occurs but carbon is commonly returned to the atmosphere as methane, a greenhouse gas approximately 30 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

All this lost carbon may make the positive feedback with climate change even stronger. While scientists are working to understand if the vegetation that grows after permafrost thaw is able to offset all the carbon released during decomposition, most current models indicate that permafrost thaw will ultimately be a source of atmospheric carbon.

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US won’t be withdrawing from Afghanistan this year despite Trump's tweets: national security adviser

On October 7, President Donald Trump discussed the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan on Twitter and posted, "We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas." But National Security Adviser Robert C. O'Brien, on Friday, said that it is unrealistic to expect the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan that soon.

The 54-year-old O'Brien, according to the Associated Press, said, "I think what the president was doing is, he was expressing the same desire I think every president since the Revolutionary War has said. Whenever we're at war, whether it was the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I or World War II, all presidents.... want the troops home by Christmas."

On Friday, AP journalists Deb Riechmann and Lolita C. Baldor report that O'Brien "appeared to take a shot at Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley, in recent days, said that the U.S. is executing a plan to reduce the number of troops to 4,500 in November."

The U.S. has had a military presence in Afghanistan for many years. During the 1980s — following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — President Ronald Reagan was a supporter of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen. And after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. went to war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

O'Brien, discussing a possible reduction of U.S. troops in in Afghanistan, said, "We're on a path right now that looks like about 4,500 this fall and a smaller number in January and February, but if the conditions permitted, look, we'd love to get people out earlier…. In the early part of next year, we're going to be down to 2,500 troops."

Riechmann and Baldor note that Trump's October 7 tweet "alarmed Pentagon and State Department officials who fear that putting a definitive date on troop withdrawal could undercut negotiations to finalize ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and representatives of Afghan society, including the current Afghan government. They also worry that a hasty withdrawal could force the U.S. to leave behind sensitive military equipment — and they continue to stress that the Taliban have still not met requirements to reduce violence against the Afghans, a key element of the U.S. withdrawal plan."

The AP reporters explain that "exit from Afghanistan after 19 years was laid out in a February agreement Washington reached with the Taliban. That agreement said U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan in 18 months, provided the Taliban honored a commitment to fight terrorist groups, with most attention seemingly focused on the Islamic State group's affiliate in the country."

International elections experts sound the alarm about Trump’s rhetoric: ‘Violence could be quite serious’

President Donald Trump's rhetoric about Democrats stealing the 2020 presidential election is raising alarms among international elections observers who say that the president could inspire his supporters to commit acts of violence at polling places.

The New York Times reports that the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit based in Belgium that monitors political conflicts around the world, is for the first time warning about violence erupting the United States over the 2020 election.

"We would never predict civil war, but isolated incidents of violence could be quite serious," said Robert Malley, who is the group's president.

Janet Napolitano, who served as Secretary of Homeland Security under former President Barack Obama, said that Trump's reckless rhetoric about recruiting an "army" of poll watchers has significantly increased the risk of violence.

"It's so concerning the president just doesn't seem to have any kind of guard rails between what he thinks at the spur of the moment and what he says or writes," she said. "We've seen it in the rise of these right-wing militia groups and it's almost as if implicitly he's giving them permission to take whatever action they want up to and including kidnapping a sitting governor."

Michigan State Representative Sarah Anthony, a Black lawmaker who now travels with armed security guards due to threats from militia groups, told the Times that many Trump supporters are taking his rhetoric about the election being stolen from them very seriously.

"Hopefully it will be peaceful, but groups like this are causing fear in my community," she said. "This is Trump's army, the same ones who will show up at our polling places."

‘Never has American politics sunk so low’: US viewed as a country in serious decline

Americans weren't the only ones who watched the United States' chaotic presidential debate on Tuesday night, September 29. President Donald Trump's ranting during the debate has been a topic of discussion all over the world, and a question that many of the United States' democratic allies — from France to Australia to Japan — have been asking is: what is happening to the U.S.?

The fact that the United States' image is suffering so badly during the Trump era is the theme of articles for the BBC and Financial Times. While the BBC's report examines the reaction that other democracies have had to the September 29 presidential debate, journalist Edward Luce's piece (which is headlined "America's Bleeding Democratic Image") warns that other countries fear the U.S. is facing a "constitutional crisis."

A long list of pundits at MSNBC and CNN have described Trump's debate performance as a total embarrassment, and the BBC reports that observers in Germany, Italy, the U.K. and other countries share that view. In France, the BBC notes, the debate was described as "chaotic, childish, grueling" by Libération and as a "terrible storm" by Le Monde. France's Le Figaro spoke highly of Trump's Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, saying that the former vice president was able to "put (Trump) on the defensive."

In the U.K., The Guardian said of the debate, "The rest of the world — and future historians — will presumably look at it and weep" and argued that Biden was the only one who looked "remotely presidential" on the debate stage. If Trump is reelected in November, according to The Guardian, "This dark, horrifying, unwatchable fever dream will surely be the first line of America's obituary."

Comments in major Italian publications were equally depressing. Il Corriere della Sera described Trump's refusal to condemn white nationalism during the debate as "a message for Black America"— and not a good one. And La Repubblica said of il dibattito, "Never had American politics sunk so low."

To hear Trump's supporters at Fox News tell it, the U.S. president is respected and revered all over the democratic world — which is absolute nonsense. Russian President and the Kremlin are hoping for a Trump victory in November, but in most of Europe, the U.S. is widely viewed as a country that is in serious decline.

In Financial Times, Luce (who is British but not lives in Washington, D.C.) explains, "Some of America's declining reputation can be measured. The Pew Research Center recently found that fewer than a third of French and Germans had a favorable view of America. At 41% favorable, Britain's view of the U.S. was a record low. Mr. Trump's impact is even more stark: just 16% of the world trusts America's president to do the right thing — even lower than the 19% who thought that about China's Xi Jinping. Germany's Angela Merkel got a 76% positive rating. The surveys were carried out well before this week's presidential debate."

Luce laments that "U.S. politics has degenerated into a macabre shadow of its former self," adding that the United States' "democratic brand is in freefall."

One of the main reasons why the United States' reputation has suffered so badly, Luce notes, is its response to the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed more than 1 million people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and more than 206,000 people in the U.S. Luce points out that the U.S. has a "28% higher death rate" than Europe during the pandemic.

The presidential debate, according to Luce, served as a grim reminder that the U.S. is at risk for a "constitutional crisis." Trump, Luce pointed out, refused to say that he will accept the election results if he loses to Biden.

"This week, the world witnessed a new low in America's political culture," Luce explains. "If the country is lucky, it will escape a constitutional crisis in November. Mr. Biden's poll lead has been sufficiently stable to explain why Mr. Trump was even more unpleasant than usual on Tuesday. His intemperate performance may even have cemented his defeat; post-debate polls suggest Mr. Trump's tactics backfired. But his worsening prospects make him even more dangerous."

Luce also laments that even if Biden wins, the U.S. is "likely to be consumed by divisions for the foreseeable future."

According to Luce, "Biden would be more predictable than Mr. Trump, while lacking the means to restore U.S. primacy. Mr. Biden could stop America's internal bleeding. That is ambitious enough. It would be a leap of faith to bet on more than that."

Trump admin’s proposed overhaul of VISA policy could leave many international students hanging in the balance

The international student community is on edge as President Donald Trump's latest proposed changes threaten to kneecap student VISAs.

Earlier this week, the Trump administration rolled out proposed rule changes that could ultimately derail the academic structure for many international students who have just begun the 2020-21 academic year, reports USA Today.

The 256-page document, which outlines Trump's proposed overhaul for student VISAs, includes directives and initiatives that have been met with opposition from many who have noted the long-term impacts of the proposed changes. Although Trump believes the changes may be economically beneficial where the job market is concerned, experts warn such changes could ultimately devastate scientific research and technological innovation.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell Law School professor and attorney specializing in immigration law, weighed in with his take on the proposed changes.

"The overall tone of the proposed rules sends a chilling message to current and prospective international students that we are no longer a welcoming nation," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor and attorney at Cornell Law School who specializes in immigration law. "It says we're more focused on national security threats, and that we suspect they could be coming here to do harm rather than help the U.S."

"It feels terrible," Lewis-Nicol said. "The stigma is that if you're from Africa, you're not wanted and that your dreams are not as valid."

According to the Yale-Loehr's analysis, there are three distinctly problematic changes Trump's proposed directives could:

  • Require most international students to complete their degree programs in four years. Based on statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse, most first-time college students spend more than five years earning a bachelor's degree, and many doctoral degree programs also take more than four years to complete;
  • Limit stays in the United States to just two years for some international students;
  • Require many international students to apply for extensions to their visas after their initial two-year stay with no guarantee that extension would be granted, especially if the immigration agency makes a determination that suggests the student is not making substantial progress toward earning their degree.

With the level of uncertainty that surrounds Trump's proposed rule changes, Students have also expressed concern as their futures hang in the balance.

Briana Quintenz, director of the Center for International Education at Millikin University revealed they are "sending things out almost constantly trying to calm the fears of our international students" in the wake of these possible changes.

"It's so unfair to them that they can't just enjoy their college experience," Quintenz said. "They have to continually dissect these very confusing regulations that seem to be coming out all the time. My biggest concern is that the already very rigid restrictions are going to become even more complicated, and international students are just going to stop trying to come to the U.S."

However, the Trump administration has a different take on the situation. According to Ken Cuccinelli, a senior immigration official in the Department of Homeland Security, they believe enforcing stricter requirements would ensure only legitimate students are given the opportunity to attend collegiate institutions in the United States.

Cuccinelli said, "Amending the relevant regulations is critical in improving program oversight mechanisms; preventing foreign adversaries from exploiting the country's education environment; and properly enforcing and strengthening U.S. immigration laws."

‘I feel sorry for Americans’ — The world grieves for the US because of Trump’s disastrous presidency

Reading non-U.S. publications is an excellent way to gauge what other countries are thinking about life in the United States under the Trump Administration. But U.S. publications sometimes address that subject as well, and New York Times reporter Hannah Beech — in an article published this week —  takes an in-depth look at non-U.S. reactions to the effects that the coronavirus pandemic and other crises are having in the U.S.

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Journalist lost award for criticizing Trump -- despite administration claims to the contrary: officials

In January 2019, Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro was notified by the U.S. State Department that she would be receiving its International Women of Courage Award. But the offer was later rescinded after it came to light that Aro had been vehemently critical of President Donald Trump on social media. The State Department and allies of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have denied that Aro’s anti-Trump posts had anything to do with that decision, but a new report by the State Department Inspector General’s Office says otherwise.

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Trump and the threat of annihilation take the world to the edge of a nightmare

Whether you’re reading this with your morning coffee, just after lunch, or on the late shift in the wee small hours of the morning, it’s 100 seconds to midnight. That’s just over a minute and a half. And that should be completely unnerving. It’s the closest to that witching hour we’ve ever been.

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Democrats say the GOP's attempt to smear Biden accidentally exposed a Trump official's 'corrupt scheme'

The Republican report aimed at raising questions about the dealings of Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine appears to have accidentally implicated former Energy Secretary Rick Perry in an energy scheme in the foreign nation, according to the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

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Why Modi’s government is not up to the task

A striking aspect of the 24 percent decline in India’s GDP in the first quarter of 2020-21 compared to the previous year’s first quarter is the decline by 10.3 percent in public administration, defense, and other public services. This is a sector where the GDP is estimated not by the “output” of the sector but by the government expenditure incurred under these heads. The decline in the GDP originating in this sector therefore means a decline in public expenditure. This is surprising for two reasons: first, it shows that government expenditure, instead of being “counter-contractionary” has been “pro-contractionary”; second, during the lockdown caused by the pandemic, one would expect government spending on health care to go up, and thereby raise the overall government expenditure, instead of the fall we are actually observing.

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We now know the reason for Mueller's biggest mistake

After Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his investigation into ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, the big question still loomed: Was the president guilty of a serious crime?

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