Category Archives: Peer Reviewed Article Review

200,000 annual deaths from air pollution in the U.S.

A 2013 study estimated the number of annual premature deaths due to air pollution in the U.S. at about 200,000. That’s kind of a shocking number considering it is more than deaths from other preventable causes like car accidents and suicides. An interesting (not in a good way) finding is that road transportation causes more deaths (~53,000/yr) from air pollution than from crashes. On the other hand, it means you can kill two birds with one stone when you institute policies and technologies that reduce vehicle emissions, driving, or both. Of course, a shift to electric cars just shifts the emissions to power plants in the short term, but that means many fewer centralized sources of emissions, which might be easier to deal with. A shift to more muscle-powered transportation in our cities is a huge win in terms of health (less violent death and injuries, less death from dirty air, more exercise in all that clean fresh air, probably better mental health), and a win in terms of land use and vibrancy and getting to know one another in our cities.

Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005

Combustion emissions adversely impact air quality and human health. A multiscale air quality model is applied to assess the health impacts of major emissions sectors in United States. Emissions are classified according to six different sources: electric power generation, industry, commercial and residential sources, road transportation, marine transportation and rail transportation. Epidemiological evidence is used to relate long-term population exposure to sector-induced changes in the concentrations of PM2.5 and ozone to incidences of premature death. Total combustion emissions in the U.S. account for about 200,000 (90% CI: 90,000–362,000) premature deaths per year in the U.S. due to changes in PM2.5 concentrations, and about 10,000 (90% CI: −1000 to 21,000) deaths due to changes in ozone concentrations. The largest contributors for both pollutant-related mortalities are road transportation, causing ∼53,000 (90% CI: 24,000–95,000) PM2.5-related deaths and ∼5000 (90% CI: −900 to 11,000) ozone-related early deaths per year, and power generation, causing ∼52,000 (90% CI: 23,000–94,000) PM2.5-related and ∼2000 (90% CI: −300 to 4000) ozone-related premature mortalities per year. Industrial emissions contribute to ∼41,000 (90% CI: 18,000–74,000) early deaths from PM2.5 and ∼2000 (90% CI: 0–4000) early deaths from ozone. The results are indicative of the extent to which policy measures could be undertaken in order to mitigate the impact of specific emissions from different sectors — in particular black carbon emissions from road transportation and sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation.

eyes on the street

A group at the University of Pennsylvania looked for statistical evidence that “eyes on the street” are a deterrent to crime. The results are a bit puzzling, as real world data often can be.

ANALYSIS OF URBAN VIBRANCY AND SAFETY IN PHILADELPHIA

Statistical analyses of urban environments have been recently improved through publicly available high resolution data and mapping technologies that have adopted across industries. These technologies allow us to create metrics to empirically investigate urban design principles of the past half-century. Philadelphia is an interesting case study for this work, with its rapid urban development and population increase in the last decade. We focus on features of what urban planners call vibrancy: measures of positive, healthy activity or energy in an area. Historically, vibrancy has been very challenging to measure empirically. We explore the association between safety (violent and non-violent crime) and features of local neighborhood vibrancy such as population, economic measures and land use zoning. Despite rhetoric about the negative effects of population density in the 1960s and 70s, we find very little association between crime and population density. Measures based on land use zoning are not an adequate description of local vibrancy and so we construct a database and set of measures of business activity in each neighborhood. We employ several matching analyses within census block groups to explore the relationship between neighborhood vibrancy and safety at a higher resolution. We fi nd that neighborhoods with more vacancy have higher crime but within neighborhoods, crimes tend not to be located near vacant properties. We also find that more crimes occur near business locations but businesses that are active (open) for longer periods are associated with fewer crimes.

This is particularly fascinating to me because I live my life in the middle of this particular data set and am part of it. So it is very interesting to compare what the data seem to be saying with my own experiences and impressions.

The lack of correlation between population density and crime is not surprising. Two neighborhoods with identical density can be drastically different. The correlation between poverty and crime is not surprising – people who are not succeeding in the formal economy and who are not mobile turn to the informal economy, in other words drug dealing, loan sharking and other illegal ways of trying to earn an income. If they are successful at earning an income, they tend to have a lot of cash around, and other people who know about the cash will take advantage of them, knowing they will not go to the police. Other than going to the police, the remaining options are to be taken advantage of repeatedly, or to retaliate. This is how violence escalates, I believe, and it goes hand in hand with development of a culture that tolerates and even celebrates violence, in a never-ending feedback loop.

The puzzling part comes when they try to drill down and look at explanatory factors at a very fine spatial scale. They found a correlation between crime and mixed use zoning, which appears to contradict the idea that eyes on the street around the clock will help to deter crime. And they found more crime around businesses like cafes, restaurants, bars and retail shops. They found that longer open hours seemed to have some deterrent effect on crime relative to shorter open hours.

I think they have made an excellent effort to do this, and I am not sure it can be done a lot better, but I will point out one idea I have. They talk about some limitations and nuances of their data, but one they do not mention is the idea that they are looking at reported crimes, most likely police reports or 911 calls. It could be that business owners, staff and patrons are much more likely to call 911 and report a crime than are residential neighbors. The business staff and patrons may see this as being in the economic interest, increasing the safety of their families, and the (alleged) criminals they are reporting are generally strangers. In quieter all-residential neighborhoods, people may not observe as many of the crimes that do occur (fewer “eyes on the street”), they may prefer not to report crimes either through a sense of loyalty to one’s neighbors, minding one’s own business, quid pro quo, or in some cases a fear of retaliation. There is also the factor of some demographic groups trusting the police more than others, although the authors’ statistical attempts to control for demographics may tend to factor this out.

 

“automated curation of wild places”

This is a fascinating idea, could even be attempted on other planets, and provides limitless ideas for dystopian science fiction about what could go wrong and/or whether we could all be experiencing some form of “automated curation” right now.

Designing Autonomy: Opportunities for New Wildness in the Anthropocene
Bradley Cantrell, Laura J. Martin, and Erle C. Ellis

Maintaining wild places increasingly involves intensive human interventions. Several recent projects use semi-automated mediating technologies to enact conservation and restoration actions, including re-seeding and invasive species eradication. Could a deep-learning system sustain the autonomy of nonhuman ecological processes at designated sites without direct human interventions? We explore here the prospects for automated curation of wild places, as well as the technical and ethical questions that such co-creation poses for ecologists, conservationists, and designers. Our goal is to foster innovative approaches to creating and maintaining the autonomy of evolving ecological systems.

After rooting around just a bit I was able to find an open source proof of this paper here.

R and differential equations

Here’s a new R package for solving differential equations. Sounds like something that might be of interest to only a few ivory tower mathematicians, right? But solving differential equations numerically is the critical core of almost any dynamic simulation model, whether it is simulating water, energy, money, ecology, social systems, or the intertwinings of all of these. So if we are going to understand our systems well enough to solve their problems, we have to have some people around who understand these things on a practical level.

inequality and carbon emissions

A paper in Ecological Economics explores the links between inequality and carbon emissions.

The Trade-off Between Income Inequality and Carbon Dioxide Emissions

We investigate the theoretically ambiguous link between income inequality and per capita carbon dioxide emissions using a panel data set that is substantially larger (in both regional and temporal coverage) than those used in the existing literature. Using an arguably superior group fixed effects estimator, we find that the relationship between income inequality and per capita emissions depends on the level of income. We show that for low and middle-income economies, higher income inequality is associated with lower carbon emissions while in upper middle-income and high-income economies, higher income inequality increases per capita emissions. The result is robust to the inclusion of plausible transmission variables.

It could be that as developing countries develop, greener technologies become available to the working and middle classes faster than their household incomes actually increase. I am thinking of a switch from biomass and coal to electricity and natural gas, for example. These will lower people’s ecological footprint without necessarily costing them a lot more money. Once they start to get more money, they may start to transition to higher-impact behaviors, like driving instead of bicycling, and eating more meat and less grain.

You certainly wouldn’t want to promote income inequality as a policy measure to help the environment. There are social and tax policies that could be pursued instead, for example keeping communities walkable and mixed use even as incomes rise, and pricing meat at its true cost to the environment. These aren’t easy things to do politically in developing countries or anywhere else, of course, because they would require a political system willing to take on corporate power such as the oil, automobile, highway, and agriculture industries which tend to be immensely powerful and intertwined with political, bureaucratic and military elites.

synergy, uniqueness, and redundancy in interacting environmental variables

This is a bit over my head, but one thing I am interested in is analyzing and making sense of a large number of simultaneous time series, whether measured in the environment, the economy, or output of a computer model. This can easily be overwhelming, so one place people often start is trying to figure out which time series are telling essentially the same story, or directly opposite stories. Understanding this allows you to reduce the number of variables you need to analyze to a more manageable number. Time series make this more complicated though, because two variables could be telling the same or opposite stories, but if the signals are offset in time, simple ways of looking at correlation may not lead to the right conclusions. With simulations you have yet another set of complicating factors, which is the implicit links between your variables, intended or not, and whether they exist in the real world or not.

Temporal information partitioning: Characterizing synergy, uniqueness, and redundancy in interacting environmental variables

Information theoretic measures can be used to identify non-linear interactions between source and target variables through reductions in uncertainty. In information partitioning, multivariate mutual information is decomposed into synergistic, unique, and redundant components. Synergy is information shared only when sources influence a target together, uniqueness is information only provided by one source, and redundancy is overlapping shared information from multiple sources. While this partitioning has been applied to provide insights into complex dependencies, several proposed partitioning methods overestimate redundant information and omit a component of unique information because they do not account for source dependencies. Additionally, information partitioning has only been applied to time-series data in a limited context, using basic pdf estimation techniques or a Gaussian assumption. We develop a Rescaled Redundancy measure (Rs) to solve the source dependency issue, and present Gaussian, autoregressive, and chaotic test cases to demonstrate its advantages over existing techniques in the presence of noise, various source correlations, and different types of interactions. This study constitutes the first rigorous application of information partitioning to environmental time-series data, and addresses how noise, pdf estimation technique, or source dependencies can influence detected measures. We illustrate how our techniques can unravel the complex nature of forcing and feedback within an ecohydrologic system with an application to 1-minute environmental signals of air temperature, relative humidity, and windspeed. The methods presented here are applicable to the study of a broad range of complex systems composed of interacting variables.

wildlife resilience and urban parks

This article suggests that urban parks are not as good as rural reserves for supporting biodiversity, but they can still play a role in improving the resilience of species. Of particular interest to me are some the measures ecologists are coming up with to try to define and measure resilience.

Urban parks can maintain minimal resilience for Neotropical bird communities

Birds may use urban parks as shelter and refuge, contributing with numerous ecosystem services upon which humans and other organisms depend on. To safeguard these services, it is important that bird communities of urban environments hold some degree of resilience, which refers to the capacity of a system to absorb disturbances and changes, while maintaining its functions and structures. Here we assessed the resilience of the bird community inhabiting an urban park in the Southeast region of Brazil. We classified birds in feeding guilds and identified discontinuities and aggregations of body masses (i.e., scales) using hierarchical cluster analysis. We then calculated five resilience indices for our urban park and for a preserved continuous forest (reference area): the average richness of functions, diversity of functions, evenness of functions, and redundancy of functions within- and cross-scale. The urban park had less species, lower feeding guild richness, and lower within-scale redundancy than the reference area. However, they had similar proportion of species in each function, diversity of functions, evenness of functions, and cross-scale redundancy. The lower species richness and, consequently, the lack of some species performing some ecological functions may be responsible for the overall lower resilience in the urban park. Our results suggest that the bird community of the urban park is in part resilient, as it maintained many biological functions, indicating some environmental quality despite the high anthropogenic impacts of this area. We believe that urban forest remnants with more complex and diverse vegetation are possibly more likely to maintain higher resilience in the landscape than open field parks or parks with suppressed or altered vegetation. We propose that raising resilience in the urban park would possibly involve increasing vegetation complexity and heterogeneity, which could increase biodiversity in a large scale.

water-related risks to economic growth

From Water Resources Research:

Water and growth: An econometric analysis of climate and policy impacts

Water-related hazards such as floods, droughts and disease cause damage to an economy through the destruction of physical capital including property and infrastructure, the loss of human capital and the interruption of economic activities, like trade and education. The question for policy makers is whether the impacts of water-related risk accrue to manifest as a drag on economic growth at a scale suggesting policy intervention. In this study, the average drag on economic growth from water-related hazards faced by society at a global level is estimated. We use panel regressions with various specifications to investigate the relationship between economic growth and hydroclimatic variables at the country-river basin level. In doing so, we make use of surface water runoff variables never used before. The analysis of the climate variables shows that water availability and water hazards have significant effects on economic growth, providing further evidence beyond earlier studies finding that precipitation extremes were at least as important or likely more important than temperature effects. We then incorporate a broad set of variables representing the areas of infrastructure, institutions and information to identify the characteristics of a region that determine its vulnerability to water-related risks. The results identify water scarcity, governance and agricultural intensity as the most relevant measures affecting vulnerabilities to climate variability effects.

getting out of a burning building

There’s no perfect way to get people out of a burning high rise quickly.

Fire evacuation in high-rise buildings: a review of human behaviour and modelling research

A review of literature related to fire evacuation in high-rise buildings was carried out with the following objectives, (1) to identify the key behavioural factors affecting the performance of people during a fire in a high-rise building, the singularities associated to this type of buildings and areas of future research; (2) to review the procedures and strategies currently adopted in high-rise buildings; (3) to review and analyse the capabilities of evacuation models by reviewing their current characteristics and applications in the context of high-rise building evacuations. The review included both findings on human behaviour in high-rise buildings and modelling techniques and tools. Different categories of building use were taken into account, namely office buildings, residential buildings and health care facilities. The individual or combined use of different egress components was analysed. Egress components include the use of stairs, elevators as well as alternative means of escape (e.g., sky-bridges, helicopters, etc.). The effectiveness of the egress components is strongly affected by the building use and the population involved. The review shows that evacuation models can be effectively employed to study relocation strategies and safety issues associated with high-rise buildings. The suitability of egress models for high-rise building evacuations is associated with their flexibility in representing different egress components and complex behavioural processes. The review highlights that there is not a definitive model to be used but that the predictive capabilities of evacuation modelling techniques would be enhanced if more than one model is employed to study different egress aspects. Future research and model developments should focus on the study of the impact of staff actions, group dynamics and people with disabilities. Given the increasing height of buildings and the gradual reduction in the physical abilities of the population, the effects of fatigue on evacuation need further studies.

music and the brain

Evidence continues to mount that musical training is good for the brain:

According to a new Canadian study led by the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) at Baycrest Health Sciences, older adults who had musical training in their youth were 20% faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musician peers on speech identification tests, a benefit that has already been observed in young people with musical training…

Among the different cognitive functions that can diminish with age is the ability to comprehend speech. Interestingly, this difficulty can persist in the absence of any measurable hearing loss. Previous research has confirmed that the brain’s central auditory system which supports the ability to parse, sequence and identify acoustic features of speech – weakens in later years.

Starting formal lessons on a musical instrument prior to age 14 and continuing intense training for up to a decade appears to enhance key areas in the brain that support speech recognition. The Rotman study found “robust” evidence that this brain benefit is maintained even in the older population.