The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may have saved Cairo, Ill., from devastating floods by blowing up 11,000 feet of Mississippi River levee, but Old Man River can't be tamed that easily. The danger is now simply shifting downstream, as the risk of historic flooding rises along the Lower Mississippi River in Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana, the New York Times and AccuWeather report. "We're going to fight this river all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico," says Col. Vernie L. Reichling Jr., who commands the Memphis District of the Corps. "I don't see this letting up."
The Corps saved Cairo on Monday by blasting a two-mile hole through the levee near Birds Point, Mo., letting floodwaters gush across 130,000 acres of farmland instead of through Cairo. (The river had reached a record 61.7 feet near Cairo before the breach, and was forecast to keep rising by more than a foot.) That's good news for the roughly 2,800 residents of the historic river town, but bad news for 200 farmers whose land was inundated (pictured above). And since the water can't just sit there on all that prime farmland, the Corps also blasted holes through another levee downstream, which will let the water re-enter the swollen Mississippi near New Madrid, Mo. From there, the river's record-breaking crest will continue rolling toward the Gulf, likely rivaling many more of its past heights along the way. "We're just at the beginning of the beginning," warns Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh.
As the floodwaters flow south, they don't just pose a threat along the Mississippi itself — the entire region has been battered for months by heavy snow and rain, creating swaths of saturated soil and surging tributaries. And as water backs up into those waterways, it will increasingly test their "non-federal" levees, explains NOAA's Jeff Graschel. "The water can't drain into the Mississippi because the river levels are so high," he says, adding that while federal levees can handle most of the forecast flooding, "anything that's non-federal is a different story." The Army Corps says it may have to breach more levees as "relief valves" for the river system, the AP reports, warning that water won't recede for weeks. "People don't understand how mighty this old Mississippi is," says George Grugett, executive vice president of the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association, "and how much damage it can do when it goes on a rampage like this."
Global sea levels could rise by as much as 5 feet this century, far higher and faster than previously predicted, according to a new report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. The rapid rise is due to accelerated melting of ice sheets in Greenland and throughout in the Arctic, which could translate to oceans that are anywhere from 35 to 63 inches taller than they are now, AMAP warns. The report will be presented to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other dignitaries from the eight-nation Arctic Council, which oversees AMAP, at a meeting May 12 in Greenland, the AP reports.
The prospect of a 5-foot rise in sea levels is a huge leap from the last forecast by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said in its 2007 report that global sea levels are likely to rise by between 7 and 23 inches over the next 90 years. That already would be disastrous for coastal areas around the world, inundating densely populated cities from Florida to the Philippines, completely swallowing some low-lying Pacific islands, and rendering tsunami barriers in Japan useless. A 5-foot rise would be several times worse, and would be due to a dramatic spike in the rate of warming seen around the Arctic in recent years. "The past six years [until 2010] have been the warmest period ever recorded in the Arctic," the AMAP report explains. "Arctic glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland ice sheet contributed over 40 percent of the global sea level rise of around 3 mm per year observed between 2003 and 2008." The report also warns of ice-free Arctic summers within 30 to 40 years, earlier than the IPCC has projected.
Given this new information, European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard says she hopes the AMAP report will spur world leaders to finally take decisive action to combat global warming. "It is worrying that the most recent science points to much higher sea level rise than we have been expecting until now," she tells Reuters. "The study is yet another reminder of how pressing it has become to tackle climate change, although this urgency is not always evident in the public debate [or] from the pace in the international negotiations."
If three's a crowd, what's 10.1 billion? We'll find out soon enough, according to a new U.N. report released Tuesday, which forecasts the global population of humans will continue rising rapidly throughout this century, possibly hitting 10.1 billion by 2100. That contradicts other, more hopeful predictions, the New York Times points out, which have suggested the world population will stabilize around 9 billion in the mid-2000s. And while 10.1 billion may not spur an apocalypse, it's a harrowing reminder of humanity's unsustainable reproductive habits.
"Every billion more people makes life more difficult for everybody — it's as simple as that," says John Bongaarts, a demographer at the New York-based Population Council. "Is it the end of the world? No. Can we feed 10 billion people? Probably. But we obviously would be better off with a smaller population." The report comes on the cusp of a major milestone for our species, as the global population is expected to reach 7 billion sometime in late October, a mere 12 years after it passed 6 billion. That's a 16 percent change in just over a decade, following a 293 percent increase that took place during the course of the 20th century. For comparison, the global population grew by an average of just 22 percent over the previous nine centuries.
The new estimates should force the world's fastest-growing countries to be decisive about their commitment to family-planning programs, the U.N. population division's director, Hania Zltonik, tells the Times. Such efforts were a priority of development policy in the 1970s and '80s, but they've since lost steam in many countries, under growing pressure from conservative and religious critics. Funding from Western nations has also faltered, Zlotnik notes — foreign money for contraceptives has remained stagnant over the past decade, and the U.S. Congress last month cut international family-planning programs by 5 percent. "The need has grown," says economist Rachel Nugent, "but the availability of family planning services has not."
Inspired by the success of the Facebook game Farmville, a farmer in the U.K. will turn over all his decision-making powers to Internet users, the Guardian reports, creating the first large-scale experiment in crowd-sourced farming, dubbed MyFarm. "I will put in here whatever the online farmers want to grow," says Richard Morris, manager of the 2,500-acre Wimpole Estate farm in Cambridgeshire, U.K. "Farming is always a compromise — there is never a right or a wrong answer. If I choose one thing, my neighbor will be leaning over the fence shaking his head."
Up to 10,000 amateur agrarians will not only be allowed to vote on which crops to plant, but on virtually every key decision that arises, ranging from how to spilt up rows of wheat to when sheep are sheared. There will be one big monthly vote, but that could necessitate smaller, more frequent votes, such as which type of wheat to plant, when to plant it, or how to arrange it in the fields. "I am making decisions every day," Morris says. "The first thing I do after getting up is look at the weather out of the window, and that sets the day going."
Aside from merely capitalizing on the success of Farmville, the idea is also to get people to care more about the farms that supply their food, says Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the U.K. National Trust, the country's top farm owner. "This is all about reconnecting people to where their food comes from. Our TNS poll showed that only 8 percent of mothers feel confident talking to their children about where their food comes from. That's really poignant." MyFarm users will have free reign over a wide variety of decisions, although there will be some limits, Morris says. "The online farmers will not be able to choose to grow cannabis or bananas, but undoubtedly there will be some strange decisions, some decisions I would not have made."
The Greenpeace Foundation is formed, the IPCC issues its landmark 2007 climate change report, and more
Photo (flooded Missouri farmhouse on May 3, 2011): ZUMA Press
Photo (ocean surface): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Photo (crowd of people in Thionville, France): Julio Palaez/ZUMA Press
Photo (man playing Farmville knockoff in Shanghai): ZUMA Press