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SPARKS Plugs Gap in Caribbean Climate Research

by Zadie Neufville


The following was published by IPS on March 11, 2017

KINGSTON, Jamaica, Mar 11 2017 (IPS)
– On Nov. 30 last year, a new high-performance ‘Super Computer’ was installed at the University of the West Indies (UWI) during climate change week. Dubbed SPARKS – short for the Scientific Platform for Applied Research and Knowledge Sharing – the computer is already churning out the ‘big data’ Caribbean small island states (SIDS) need to accurately forecast and mitigate the effects of climate change on the region.

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Principal of UWI Mona,  Professor Archibald Gordon.

Experts are preparing the Caribbean to mitigate the devastating impacts – rising seas, longer dry spells, more extreme rainfall and potentially higher impact tropical cyclones – associated with climate change. The impacts are expected to decimate the economies of the developing states and many small island states, reversing progress and exacerbating poverty. Observers say the signs are already here.

The system will help scientists to “better evaluate potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure.” –UWI Professor Archibald Gordon

Before SPARKS, regional scientists struggled to produce the kinds of credible data needed for long-term climate projections. Only a few months ago, UWI’s lack of data processing capacity restricted researchers to a single data run at a time, said Jay Campbell, research fellow at the climate research group . Each data run would take up to six months due to the limited storage capacity and lack of redundancy, he said noting: “If anything went wrong, we simply had to start over.”

Immediately, SPARKS answered the need for the collection, analysis, modelling, storage, access and dissemination of climate information in the Caribbean. Over the long term, climate researchers will be able to produce even more accurate and reliable climate projections at higher spatial resolutions to facilitate among other things, the piloting and scaling up of innovative climate resilient initiatives.

Scientists in the region are using ‘big data’ to forecast drought and dry sells for farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

So, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces its next global assessment report in 2018, there will be much more information from the Caribbean, making SPARKS a critical tool in the region’s fight against climate change.

Not only has the new computer – described as one of the fastest in the Caribbean – boosted the region’s climate research capabilities by plugging the gaping hole in regional climate research, UWI Mona’s principal Professor Archibald Gordon said, “It should help regional leaders make better decisions in their responses and adaptation strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change”.

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Photo: Zadie Neufville: Caribbean scientists are using ‘big data’ to forecast drought and dry spells for farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

The expert underscore the need for “big data” to provide the information they need to improve climate forecasting in the short, medium and long term. Now, they have the capacity and the ability to complete data runs that usually take six months, in just two days.

The system will help scientists to better “evaluate potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure,” Gordon said.

As the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported in June 2016 as “the 14th consecutive month of record heat for land and oceans; and the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th century average,” regional scientists have committed to proving information to guide Caribbean governments on the actions they need to lessen the impact of climate change.

The region has consistently sought to build its capacity to provide accurate and consistent climate data. Efforts were ramped up after a September 2013 ‘rapid climate analysis’ in the Eastern Caribbean identified what was described as “a number of climate change vulnerabilities and constraints to effective adaptation”.

The USAID study identified among other things “the lack of accurate and consistent climate data to understand climate changes, predict impacts and plan adaptation measures”. To address the challenges, the WMO and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), with funding from USAID, established the Regional Climate Centre in Barbados.

The launch of the new computer is yet another step in overcoming the constraints. It took place during a meeting of the IPCC at UWI’s regional headquarters at Mona – significant because it signalled to the international grouping that the Caribbean was now ready and able to produce the big data needed for the upcoming 2018 report.

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UWI Mona Campus, Jamaica

Head of the Caribbean Climate Group Professor Michael Taylor explained in an interview that the credibility and accuracy of climate data require fast computer processing speeds, fast turn-around times as well as the ability to run multiple data sets at higher resolution to produce information that regional decision-makers need.

“Climate research and downscaling methods will no longer be limited to the hardware and software,” he said, trying but failing to contain his excitement.

SPARKS also puts Jamaica and the UWI way ahead of their counterparts in the English-speaking Caribbean and on par with some of the leading institutions in the developed world. This improvement in computing capacity is an asset for attracting more high-level staff and attracting students from outside the region. Crucially, it aids the university’s push to establish itself as a leading research-based institution and a world leader in medicinal marijuana research.

“This opens up the research capability, an area the university has not done in the past. Before now, the processing of big data could only be done with partners overseas,” Professor Taylor said.

Aside from its importance to crunching climate data for the IPCC reports, SPARKS is revolutionising DNA sequencing, medicinal, biological and other data driven research being undertaken at the University. More importantly, UWI researchers agree that a supercomputer is bringing together the agencies at the forefront of the regional climate fight.

What is clear, SPARKS is a “game-changer and a big deal” for climate research at the regional level and for UWI’s research community.

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SPARKS Launches UWI as a “Big Deal” in Climate Data Computing

UWI Photo

KINGSTON Dec 12, 2016: A new ‘high performance’ or ‘Super Computer’ launched on Nov 30, during climate change week, will help produce the ‘Big Data’ Caribbean small island states (SIDS) need to accurately project and mitigate the effects of climate change on the region.

Effectively, the new system, described as “one of the fastest in the Caribbean,” by Dell’s Peter Chan, gives the Caribbean a massive boost in its climate research capabilities. It has also catapulted The UWI, Mona Campus to ‘computing heavyweight’ status.

Launched in the midst of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) meeting at the Regional Headquarters of The UWI, the Scientific Platform for Applied Research and Knowledge Sharing or SPARKS as it is called, was acquired as part of the Investment Plan for the five-year Caribbean Regional Track of the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR). SPARKS not only provides much needed computing capacity for climate researchers at The UWI; it also plugs a gaping hole.

At the launch, principal of the UWI’s Mona Campus Professor Archibald McDonald said SPARKS will enhance the region’s standing and recognition for research and as leaders in Climate Research. He noted: “The system will facilitate our scientists to provide climate projection models and high resolution maps for the Caribbean thus giving the region a firmer grasp to understand and manage the impacts of climate change… to evaluate for potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure”.

Increased processing speeds, faster turnaround times and the ability to run multiple data sets at higher resolution will improve the decision-making process in Jamaica and the Caribbean, Head of the Climate Group Professor Michael Taylor explained in an interview with Mona Magazine.

His excitement is infectious as he outlined the advantages SPARKS brings to The UWI in terms of “faster simulations at higher resolutions, providing more accurate and credible data, and information that will improve climate projections in the short, medium and long term”.

“Climate research and downscaling methods will no longer be limited by the available hardware and software,” he said.

SPARKS is filling the research gap that prevented regional scientists from making more of the kinds of credible long term climate projections which their counter parts in the developed world are able to produce easily and quickly. So when the IPPC produces its next global assessment report there will be much more information from the Caribbean, making SPARKS a critical tool in the regional fight against climate change.

Immediately, SPARKS, answers the need for the collection, analysis, modeling, storage, access and dissemination of climate information in the Caribbean. Long-term: SPARKS will allow climate researchers to produce even more accurate and reliable climate projections at higher spatial resolutions and facilitate the piloting and scaling up of innovative climate resilient initiatives, including the development of information products and services for use at the regional and national levels.

Aside, Jamaica and The UWI, Mona are now way ahead of their counterparts in the English-speaking Caribbean and on par with some of the leading institutions in the developed world. This improvement in computing capacity is an asset for attracting more high-level staff and students from outside the region. “This significantly opens up the research capabilities of the University to include research computing – an area we have not delved in on a wide scale in the past as the processing of big data could only be done with partners overseas,” Professor Taylor said.

Before SPARKS, the University’s data processing capacity restricted climate researchers to a single data run at a time, each taking up to six months; there was limited storage and no redundancy. “If anything went wrong, we simply had to start over,” Jay Campbell, research fellow with the Climate Studies Group at Mona told the distinguished guests at the launch.

In an interview, he noted that aside from the usual specifications, of the computer that sits in Mona Information Technology Services (MITS) building, SPARKS has a capacity equivalent to more of 5,000 CDs and is expandable; it is also able to complete a run that usually takes six months in just over two days.

Aside from its importance to crunching climate data for the IPPC reports, SPARKS will provide support for countless research ranging from the social sciences to botany and mathematics. It is set to revolutionise the DNA sequencing, medicinal, biological and other data driven research now being undertaken at the UWI. And with the impending start of the Mona’s clinical trials of medical marijuana products, Taylor believes the super computer will make for a more exciting time for UWI researchers.

More importantly, UWI climate researchers agree that a supercomputer will pull in additional revenues, and bring together the foremost agencies at the forefront of the regional climate fight.

SPARKS, the result of a partnership between Dell and Fujitsu is valued at US$742,376 or and is funded by Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) through its US$10.39 million grant funding to implement the PPCR). The project is managed through Mona Office for Research and Innovation.

What is clear, SPARKS is a “game-changer” for climate research at the regional level and for the University’s research community
.- Zadie Neufville

WUI Mona Magazine

FactChecking, Lunacy and the White House: Am I Dreaming?

January 28, 2017
You know, these days I fact check anything that comes from the White House- even a photo.
Before this past January 20, 2017, I just accepted that information from the Office of POTUS, was by and large the truth- expected that, actually. I’m one of those who believe that any information that is released- more so from the leader of the ‘Free World –  should be accurate, factual and above the fray (of course I expect omissions and spins- I’m a journalist afterall).fact_check_2

But it seems I’ve been trapped in a nightmare and its only been a week- maybe two. Now I have to check the foreign news and several local US news sources to verify that the White House information is correct, and that my friends is a sad state of affairs. No matter how much of a supporter you are, you’d be lying if you said you’re not concerned- unless you don’t care, or you don’t mind being lied to.

These days I expect the POTUS (not Russia, not Erdoğan or even Duturte) to do and say the most outrageous, shocking, awful (not to mention ignorant) things. Frankly, I believe that pretty soon, a Tweet from the Tweeter-In-Chief will start a war, or at least get somebody killed.

Lesson From China’s Sparrow Eradication Experiment
I am convinced there is a deranged man on the loose in the White House, so with the expected changes to the EPA, an article I recently read about Chairman Mao’s decree in 1958 (which called for the death of all sparrows) came to mind The story resonates, because it illustrates how destructive a leader that creates his own facts can be (and I think seven (7) bankruptcies  is an indicator).

Mao thought sparrows ate too much grain, and was therefore hampering China’s development, so he ordered them killed. The sparrow eradication programme caused an environmental catastrophe, because (and as we all now know) every living thing as a role in this circle of life. In the three years following the decree, 45 million people died in a famine caused by out-of-control pests. You see, sparrows feed on insect pests and were critical to their control.  Read the story here

Catastrophes happen when ‘ignorant’ leaders plough ahead with their plans above all else, and history is ‘paved’ with ‘gems’ like these, -teaching moments. In fact, several unique and vulnerable species are about to meet their demise with this border wall obsession and actions POTUS promised to take so that farmers can get the water they need, and in the process destroy California’s aquifers and surface water systems. However, it is the price one pays when an illiterate (his reading and speech say so much), insufferable gas bag with a ‘god’ complex is given too much power.

Beware, The Bully Re-Awakens
Far worse, I see that old bully  re-emerging in the Americas, as an antagonist, lyingTrump and the GOP try to “Make America Great Again”. What’s even more scary? Small, Latin and South American countries acquiescing before the fight has even begun- my utmost respect to Mexico and its president Enrique Peña Nieto who had signalled their intention to back out of the January 31 meeting a day prior to the dim-wit’s tweet.  The liar implied, via Twitter ( the new bully pulpit) that he initiated the cancellation, now he says it is mutual (ofcourse I digress).gty_trump_nieto_as_160831_31x13_1600

Threats are already in the air: “Mexico is going to pay for the wall”; If you build abroad and sell in the US we will impose tariffs; “we’re taking names”, said Nikki Haley a few days ago. For small nations, targeting niche markets where people don’t mind the higher prices; selling directly to the small man and looking to nations where there is likely to be a fair price could be the advantages to break the bully.

So folks, it’s time for southern lands to look South! Looking north is no longer an option- do anything, so something, just down roll over.The boats that take food from Haiti and the Dominican Republic to their Caribbean neighbours seem to be doing well, in other words  tighten your belts and fight the bully. I remain steadfast in my belief, that anti-China sentiments in the Bush years led to the crash of the US economy and the mortgage melt-down- looking inward won’t stop it happening again. This time, be prepared.

Impose your own tariffs and rebuild your industries, form your own trading groups; stand up and fight back. Immediately after Trump announces tariffs, impose your own. Have you forgotten that it was the US who came to you with a plan, because they needed to grow their economy? Your replacement for NAFTA should already be in place. Do you know how many cars are imported to the Caribbean, Central and South America from the European Union, Japan, India and China each year? Have you seen the potential for the supply of food, other goods to go East?

Seek Alternative Markets, Trading Partners
People, there are 196 countries in the world (depending on who you ask), areas that are and continue to grow; areas that lack investments but which are brimming to overflowing with human resources and potential. Africans are leaving their countries in droves due a lack of investment, yet the educated populations on the content are growing super fast. It is time to strike while the iron is hot, as the saying goes.

China's Freight Train leaves for London

China’s Freight Train leaves for London

Lets face it, at this juncture, the US needs Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America perhaps more than they need the United States. As the world grows smaller, it becomes easier for small producers to find markets elsewhere and perhaps better prices too. Did you see that freight train from China arriving in London last week? Large, medium and small companies can make more by investing in Central and South America, China or India that they can in the US where production prices are higher and sales volume risk stagnation. Imagine the potential for growth in populations of 1.4 billion people that is China, 1.2 billion in India, compared to 318 million in the US.

US Remains The Biggest Beneficiary of Free Trade Agreements
Mexico and other trading partners have been made the scapegoat by a blowhard who has no understanding of the manufacturing trade, he is after all a vendor and one that at best, cheats his suppliers.

After all that is being said, everybody (besides POTUS that is) knows that the North American Free Trade  Agreement’s (NAFTA) biggest beneficiary is the US, where authorities continue to impose rules that prevent smaller nations from entering their protected markets. But suddenly, because Mexico has managed to get some benefit from which should be a reciprocal agreement, they are out of style. I’m sure many African and Caribbean nations haven’t forgotten that its was the US that used the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to destroy the commodity trades with their former colonial rulers in the EU. They destroyed livelihoods and lives and made nations poorer.cargo2

The peoples of the Caribbean, Latin and South America can and must work together to build strong relationships that will rival any region, we can feed ourselves, educate our people and be independent of the bully-ism that is once again coming from America.

When all is said and done, I am still scratching my head that this is the man that Christians in America voted into the White House. They rebuke people for judging the morally deficient serial liar, while they sit in judgement and cast to hell those who oppose their points of view.

Zadie is a journalist and Communications Specialist.

Air Pollution Leaves Traces In The Brain

by Zadie Neufville

The following was published in Spanish by SciDev.com
Researchers at UK’s University of Lancaster have found toxic nanoparticles similar to that associated with Alzheimer’s disease could come from industrial air pollution which may enter the brain by the nasal passage, suggesting a new environmental risk factor in neurodegenerative diseases.

Traces of magnetite, a magnetic iron oxide compound and a very common air pollutant, are known to be present naturally in human brain and derived from the iron used in normal brain function.

According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Sept 5, researchers measured magnetic samples and examined their sizes and shape to determine the source of the particles.

In analysing brain tissues from 37 people in Manchester, England, and Mexico City, aged between 3 years old and 92, the researchers observed that most of the magnetite particles were rounded small nonosphere (ranged from less than 5 nanometers to more than 100 nanometers), while biological magnetite are angular crystals and with a diameter from 50 to 150 nanometers.

The shape responds to the origin of the particles, “because they were formed as molten droplets of material from combustion sources, such as car exhausts, industrial processes, open fires,” Barbara Maher, lead author of the study, told SciDev.Net.

In the study, researchers also detected other metal particles like platinum, cobalt and nickel, and since none of them occurs naturally in the brain, their findings suggest that those particles could come from motor vehicle exhaust.

“Scientists have always believed the metal was formed in the body. The surprise is finding that they can enter the brain via inhalation,” Maher said.

Earlier studies suggested possible links between high levels of toxic magnetite in the brains of people who lived in highly polluted areas and Alzheimers disease and dementia. She noted: “These findings do not particularly prove that air pollution will cause brain diseases”.

“We need to do more work to see if this is a cause of brain disease,” Maher added.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) air pollution kills 1.3 million people globally each year.

Denise Eldemire-Shearer, a professor at the University of the West Indies, said the study raised the need for critical research given the “ageing populations and the increased importance of dementia research, the cost and the possible associated social costs”.

“We look forward to the wider study”, she said noting that the numbers of the individuals involved in the study were small.

Link to PNAS study