HAMNET Report 6th February 2022

From Popular Science, we learn that over the past week, ships from Australia and New Zealand have delivered hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to the Pacific archipelago of Tonga, which quickly ran out of drinking water in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption on January 15. According to Tonga’s speaker of the house Fatafehi Fakafānua, many of the country’s 100,000-plus residents still have no access to water after ash contaminated its drinking supplies.

According to a report from the United Nations, relief organizations have set up 16 water stations around the island to meet that need. But the process of digging out wells and rooftop tanks has been slow-going, in part because to avoid introducing COVID to the largely disease-free islands, relief teams have remained in quarantine.

An underwater volcanic eruption is, clearly, different from climate-related storms, fires, and floods. But it highlights the vulnerability of global water systems to withstand such events, creating humanitarian disasters that linger for months. “This is really just a classic textbook case of what happens when you have one disaster on top of another,” says Craig Colten, a senior adviser at the Water Institute, a Louisiana-based water policy organization, and an expert on coastal disasters.

Tonga gets its water from two sources. Rural areas generally rely on rainwater gathered from rooftops, while urban areas tap a shallow freshwater aquifer that sits in the porous limestone that makes up the islands. This aquifer, which also forms from pooled rainfall, sits on top of saltwater, like a drop of oil on a bowl of water.

Experts studying the conditions in Tonga think it should be okay for people to drink from water tanks, as long as they wait for the ash to settle. But it’s harder to predict how the particles will affect the aquifer. When seawater boils from volcanic activity, all kinds of new chemicals can form, says Esteban Gazel, a volcanologist at Cornell University. Some of them can be acidic.

An analysis of the ash blanketing Tonga shows that is has a similar pH to drinking water, Carol Stewart, co-director of the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network, told PopSci on February 4. The islands’ limestone base is also alkaline, which means it could neutralize any acidic compounds that make their way into the groundwater. But the reserves are also close to the surface, which is why Gazel says it’s impossible to know the end result without more careful analysis of the aquifer.

And, sadly, CNN is now reporting that 5 cases of community-acquired COVID have been picked up on the main island of Tonga, so I’m afraid Omicron will probably rip through there in no time at all. May its effects remain as mild in Tonga as elsewhere in the world.

By Monday of this week, the next Tropical Storm on its way towards the East coast of Africa, called BATSIRAI-22, was being mentioned, out in the central Indian Ocean, and threatening Madagascar, and eventually, the North-eastern coast of South Africa and Mozambique. Maximum wind-speeds of 200 km/h were forecast, and scores of people in Madagascar were in the line of fire.

GDACS raised its Alert Level Warning to RED on Tuesday, and issued maps showing the Cyclone predicted to hit the country of Madagascar amidships by the weekend. By Thursday, the population threatened by 231 km/h winds had grown to 4.4 million.

The storm is expected to cross the East Coast of Madagascar on Saturday the fifth, whereafter it will get into the Mozambique channel and turn a bit Southwards, travelling down the coast of Mozambique and Kwazulu-Natal. Forecasts after that are too limited at present. We hold thumbs for the citizens of the affected countries.

Nine years after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, scientists are left wondering how dangerous the surrounding area still is.

To investigate, a team of researchers enlisted unlikely help: nine Japanese rat snakes that live in the region. The scientists, using some handy duct tape and superglue, attached GPS trackers and radiation dosimeters to the varmints, according to The Guardian, which allowed them to measure radioactivity exposure levels while the snakes slithered around.

Most of the people who initially fled the disaster have since returned home, but the snake study, which was published in the journal Ichthyology and Herpetology, could help officials come up with a plan for how to handle the remaining 444 square miles that remain fenced off as the Fukushima Exclusion Zone.

Snakes may seem like an odd choice. But it was actually a deliberate move.

“Snakes are often understudied when it comes to other animals, but they are actually a vital part of many ecosystems,” lead study author and University of Georgia researcher Hannah Gerke told Earther. “They can act as both predator and prey in the food web, which means they have the potential to accumulate contaminants from prey they eat and also be a source of contaminants for other animals that eat them.”

Basically, if snakes are exposed to high levels of radioactivity, the rest of the ecosystem is too — and that gives the researchers a better idea of the area’s overall ecological health.

The findings varied substantially from area to area, the scientists learned. That suggests that radioactive isotopes didn’t fall over the region in a uniform way, and depended in some way on the underlying terrain, according to the study. Snakes that selected different habitats reported different levels of radiation even within the same area, suggesting that the Fukushima Exclusion Zone is a bit more complex than scientists initially assumed.

Regardless, the scientists determined that monitoring snakes and other wildlife will be a useful proxy for radioactivity levels going forward, so their continued work could help identify which, if any, areas will become safe for human habitation sooner than others.

Thank you to Dan Robitzski, writing rather appropriately in an online journal called “The byte”, (spelled b-y-t-e) which has more to do with digital bits than reptilian bites, it seems!

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.