Category Archives: environment

Through the Rubble

By Diego Salvatierra

SANTIAGO—When natural disasters only affect a few, their appearance in national memory is fleeting.

A massive earthquake, 8.8 on the Richter scale, struck south-central Chile on Saturday, February 27th, close to 3 am in the morning local time.  The disaster left vast parts of the country devastated, with hundreds of lives lost, coastal towns swallowed up by tsunamis, and hundreds of thousands left without food, water, power, or shelter.  Widespread looting occurred in several cities, notably Concepcion, the nation’s second largest, and the historic colonial-era cores of several cities have utterly collapsed.

As a Chilean myself, I understand how this earthquake changed the lives of all Chileans.  But seeing all this destruction from New Haven, so far away, felt almost surreal to me.  Watching the videos and looking at the photos made it seem like something out of a post-apocalyptic scenario.  I’ve been here in Chile for the summer, and beyond some cracks on buildings and highways under repair, I haven’t really seen much destruction, since I’m far away from the most affected areas, and most shattered buildings had been cleared away or rebuilt in the months before I arrived.  But I’ve heard some shocking stories from friends about the night of the quake and the chaotic days that followed.

Andrés Ibañez, a young law student, noted that in the morning following the quake, the beachside apartment he had been staying at had become an “apocalyptic scene,” with the “floor literally broken in two,” shattered glass, and rubble from the upper stories strewn all over the ground outside.  His escape from the building the night before (they later returned for some of their belongings) portrays the uncertainty felt by many that night.  With cell phone lines down, nobody was really sure what was going on.  Rumors of a tsunami warning led him and his friends to leave the coast. Upon arriving in Santiago the following day, the situation was not much better. “We tried to buy bread, but everything was closed,” and there were “unending lines for gasoline.” Andrés described how on the way to downtown Santiago, “many houses were on the ground, people crying, crumbled churches… rubble from buildings lay on the streets,” leading him to realize that “luckily the earthquake had been at night…or else the deaths would have been in the thousands.”

Sleeping in his grandparents’ house in the countryside south of Santiago, Cristobal Gomez, another university student, awoke when a wooden beam from the ceiling hit his head.  The house was built of adobe, and though it had withstood a hundred years of earthquakes, rubble and dust started to fall everywhere.  Unable to reach the door due to falling furniture, Cristobal was only able to get out of his room once the shaking stopped, allowing him to search for his family.

A cloud of very dense dust had begun to spread throughout the shattered home, making him cough hard. “I found my uncle barely breathing,” said Cristobal, “and my grandmother up to her waist in rubble” in her room, whose roof had collapsed, making the night sky visible.   His father, at his side by this point, also began fainting from the dust cloud.  Cristobal knew that if he waited too long, he would faint as well, and with a burst of adrenaline began to kick open doors and windows, attempting to clear out the choking cloud.  It worked, and with the help of his dad and uncle, Cristobal managed to liberate his grandmother.  Getting out with only minor injuries, they saw the full extent of the damage, the house now left uninhabitable, with broken walls and a caved-in roof.

A few days later, walking around the stunned city, Nicolas, another friend of mine, saw a somber icon of the disaster.   The University of Chile Law School, where he studies, has a tall clock tower, and it lay still, marking 3:34, the time of the tragedy that shut down a nation.

Chile will probably need years to recover.  For some people, especially the better-off, life has returned to normal. But hundreds of thousands saw their lives changed irrevocably, their homes and livelihoods destroyed in a matter of minutes.  The psychological aftermath was also significant – I heard stories of the panic in people’s eyes when aftershocks struck, for weeks after the big quake.  I know Chile will rise to the challenge – it has done so before, and it stands united.   There is a sense of optimism about the future, about not simply rebuilding, but improving what we had before. The painful memories of that late summer night, however, will serve as a stern reminder of the power of nature, of how everything can change in a mere three minutes.


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The End of the World

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

CÓRDOBA, Argentina — Running and walking are terrific ways to get to know a place. The ground-level approach allows for the assimilation of sights and sounds into one’s impression of a city or region. I’ve had a few unique running-based experiences these past few weeks that stood out and I thought I’d share two of them.

Tucumán, Argentina. Tucumán, located in northwestern Argentina, is one of the country’s more forlorn provinces. Sure, the statistics will tell you as much — per capita GDP, unemployment, blah, blah, blah. But so does an experience I had while running the perimeter of the central park of the province’s eponymous capital.

Runners, at least the ones I know, are renowned for peeing in public places — after all, nature is not a call one lets go unanswered. To their credit, however, they generally take pride in discreetness. But the runners from Tucumán, or at least one runner from Tucumán, are in an entirely different league when it comes to audacity for public urination.

One evening a guy running in front of me abruptly stopped, directed himself towards a tree adjacent the sidewalk, dropped trou, lost some water weight, and returned to his workout without so much a glance at the passing rush-hour traffic on one of the heaviest used thoroughfares in Argentina’s fifth biggest city. From the reaction, or lack thereof, of perambulating passers-by, using public parks as a very public toilet is just as normal as the odor that wafts from Tucumán’s public waterways (perhaps not unrelated), the litter on the street, or the countless poor who traverse the city in horse-drawn carts scavenging for recyclables.

Fiambalá, Argentina. Fiambalá is ground zero for organizing this little mountain-measuring excursion into the mountains. It’s a modest pueblito at “the end of the world,” as its residents like to say. It feels the part. Surrounded by desert and near-constantly assailed by howling, sand-laden winds, Fiambalá nonetheless manages to take advantage of its location.

There are two attractions: hot springs and the Andean cordillera. I was there for the latter, but one night I ventured on a run to the former. After departing just a few kilometers beyond the town limits I was stopped in my tracks by the visually arresting clarity of the night sky. When in this part of the world last (two years ago) I made a similar observation in my journal — it is rather hard not to notice. Neither has this escaped the attention of the international astronomical community, which has sited the highest density of high-performance telescopes in the world in the Chilean-Argentinean altiplano region which Fiambalá abuts.

Looking into the sky, I practically felt my own eyes were telescopes. It was all there. The celestial dust of galaxy smeared from horizon to horizon in one shimmering longitudinal stripe, a fallow-yellow crescent moon, and a twinkling firmament stars everywhere else. When the night sky is this clear, this unadulterated, it’s the best show there is.

As fortune had it, the night sky was not the only entertainment on the evening. After reaching the hot springs I took a break to enjoy the lesser twinkling cluster of lights of Fiambalá in the valley below, and of course the greater twinkling mass of lights above. That’s when the guardrails on the side of the road started rattling. Earthquake!

Aftershocks still echo in this part of the Andes from the catastrophic 8.8 Chilean earthquake of late February. Whether this comparatively quaint 5.3 was an aftershock I am unsure, but it was a fun ride and an impressive second act to the sublime display of natural beauty and power to which I was fortunate to bear witness. Fiambalá may seem to be the end of the human world, but it one of the final, increasingly scarce frontiers to the truly natural world as well.

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I (Try To) Measure Mountains

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

This is the “who am I, what am I doing, and where am I doing it” post. I’ll attack it sequentially. Firstly, I’m a rising junior in Branford who enjoys studying public policy. But that doesn’t mean I’m without “avocational academic interests.” In fact, this summer is all about avocational academic interests — specifically, a field of geophysics called geodesy (study of measurement of the earth), and more specifically, a field of geodesy called hypsometry (study of altitude).

In general, hypsometry is an antiquated field of study, if one can even call it a field of study in the first place. Remote sensing has done to altitude-measuring mountaineering expeditions what video did to the radio star. But there are exceptions here and there. Mountains that indicate tectonic change, for instance, are of particular interest to geologists, and mountains that represent superlatives, such as Everest, capture the public’s attention. Both require a degree of precision that remote sensing cannot offer.

The summer project that brings me to South America falls more into the latter category; I am working with a mountain of superlatives. Ojos del Salado is the second highest mountain in the world outside the Central Asia cordillera and the highest volcano in the world. It is also in an extremely remote region of the world — the northern Argentine-Chilean border — and has been climbed by very few people and been measured by even fewer. I am in South America to try to measure it.

There is a primary and secondary goal. Primary: Ojos del Salado has two summits of approximately equal altitude and no one knows which is taller. So, using rather precise GPS units (precision<1 cm) that are worth about as much as I am, myself and my climbing partner will try to get to the top of both of Ojos’ summits and record data that can definitively determine the “true”summit.

Secondary: Using altitude data from Ojos’ “true” summit, we’ll compare and corroborate it with data from Aconcagua and Monte Pissis, ostensibly the highest and third highest mountains on the continent, respectively. Through the twentieth century and up until the advent of the GPS, there was a protracted kerfuffle among mountaineers and geodesists concerning the order of the three highest peaks of South America. While that debate has effectively been settled (the accepted order, from first to third, is Aconcagua, Ojos del Salado, and Monte Pissis) it doesn’t hurt to throw additional data of nearly incontrovertible quality at the matter.

Obviously, though, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with this whole endeavor (for one, the weather’s awful — it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere). And in fact, something already has gone quite wrong: a major bureaucratic obstacle from the Argentine Federal Police that has set everything back four weeks. So if you see my posts from locations that are not northwestern Argentina, it’s because I’m piddling around, killing time, and visiting friends before getting back to work. Fortunately, there are worse parts of the world to be “stuck” in!

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A Journalist’s Journey at COP15, But Not Without Bruises

by Erin Schutte

Journalists descend upon protesters chanting "Save Indigenous People's Rights!" in the main corridor of the Copenhagen conference center. (Schutte/TYG)

I spent last week in Copenhagen, Denmark at the Bella Center as world leaders made an attempt at coming to an agreement on climate change.  Each day, eight Yale undergraduates and I excitedly joined the masses of people and wore our COP15 badges printed with our name, photo, “YSEC” (the Yale group that we were affiliated with), and a very clear “NGO” across the bottom (the status of the Yale Delegation).  As an official COP15 observer inside the Bella Center, I rubbed shoulders with thousands of diplomats and journalists as the world watched on in curiosity about the evolving issue of climate change.  I was quite skeptical about the way the hoards of media would portray this politically and scientifically challenging issue to the public back home, but my expectations were exceeded as I saw extraordinary efforts by the press to urgently and clearly convey the difficult matter to people who might not have understood before.

Anyone who has watched the news lately knows that COP15 made news headlines comparable to those of the Olympics, War on Terror, or elections in Iran.  This was due to the magnitude of accredited press from all over the world inside the Bella Center—by November 30, the UN had already received over five thousand press requests and then suspended registration after that point.  It was hard to miss the frenzy of cameramen, broadcasters, and reporters rushing to and from events, trying to capture any shot, quote, or footage they possibly could.  Every minute there would be uproar of voices, flashes of cameras, and an entourage of delegates, mostly likely a president or minister leading the way through the main hall of the center.  It was like paparazzi on the red carpet at the Oscars.

I was amidst the mob of press awaiting Al Gore’s exit after he gave a speech in the conference center, and it was a vicious scenario as distinguished publications and news stations elbowed their way towards the front of the pack and encompassed Gore in hopes of hearing any comments he would make.  Some figureheads attempted to avoid this situation with the press, but I was surprised by how many leaders were open to giving updates about progress in negotiations, as well as general perspectives about the future of our world.

These politicians, diplomats, and scientists realize that the press is the important link between their actions at the conference and their constituencies.  Without journalists and broadcasters reporting from Copenhagen, public knowledge would be at a minimum, and any actions taken would have no sway on population.  Climate change is a complex issue for scientists and politicians to understand, let alone the average citizen.  Yet the press is responsible for raising the awareness and knowledge about climate change.  In my opinion, the media gave an accurate representation of the missions, challenges, and outcomes of the conference, and as a result it brought climate change to the forefront of discussion and debate at the local level. Some of my favorite coverage of the conference came from The Economist and Brian Walsh of Time Magazine.

I believe that the thorough coverage by the press of this conference will be the biggest contributor to how the outcome of the conference will be interpreted.  The pushing and shoving amongst reporters to cover every aspect of the conference directly results in more informed constituencies, which in turn creates a stronger call for action in small communities as well as at a national level.

Erin Schutte is a sophomore Political Science and Modern Middle East Studies double major.

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