News developments didn’t completely stop during the year-end holiday season and that exotic trip to distant beaches you took (or wish you had taken) that kept you apart from your 24/7 tablet, laptop, Droid, iPhone, and e-mail.

A few examples of some recent somewhat under-the-radar, but no less interesting, things you might have missed:

2011 Natural Disasters: Costliest Toll in History

When Science News talks, and when it does so through the writings of respected veteran science journalist Janet Raloff, other science reporters listen.

On January 4, they heard — make that read — Raloff report in her blog on “a whopping $380 billion worth of losses” from natural disasters in 2011, one-third of those expenses covered by insurance. And not including costs stemming from illnesses or injuries brought about by the disasters.

No surprise to any sentient being that Japan’s magnitude 9 earthquake and resulting tsunami topped the prize list at an estimated $210 billion … and, no doubt, counting. New Zealand settled for second place with a comparatively paltry $16 billion as a result of a series of earthquakes.

The data Raloff pointed to generally come from Munich Reinsurance Munich, Germany, headquarters, which, she reported, maintains a natural catastrophes database dating to 1980 globally and, for the U.S. and some European events, to 1970.

Based on interviews she conducted, Raloff reported that the disasters and their impacts represent no “huge up-tick in geological activity.” Rather, they proved especially costly because they occurred amidst densely populated sites in well-to-do countries, many well-indemnified.

But “what hasn’t maintained a constant pace over time have been the number of storms, droughts, and wildfires,” she reported, based on comments from Munich Re executive Ernst Rauch. Those “weather and climate-related events have been climbing steadily since 1980, increasing in number, severity (such as average wind intensity) and often in life costs. She reported Rauch as saying that trend “provides strong evidence” of climate change impacts.

Raloff reported also that the company exec indicated Munich Re may soon be unable to back flood insurance for waterfront properties in much of Florida as a result of sea level rise and susceptibility to hurricanes. She reported that in Rauch’s mind, “for much of his industry, global change issues have moved to the front and center of its radar screen.”

$$ For Skeptical ‘Himalayan Meltdown’ Questions

It’s not so much the screening of a Discovery Channel (Asia) hour-long documentary on the Himalayas and melting that makes this piece of interest.

More interesting is that the Washington, D.C., screening of “Revealed: Himilayan Meltdown” prompted a contrarian website to offer $500 to attendees who would provide a video of themselves asking an antagonistic question.

You can’t make this stuff up, as they say.

In this case, climate contrarian blogger Steve Milloy posted the “Himilayan Glacier Melt Challenge” for all to see: “Glacier-hard cash in your pocket … all you have to do is attend a movie screening, ask a question and send us a video,” he wrote. His offer:

We will pay $500 to anyone who submits a video of themselves attending the State Department event and asking either the question:

How long will it take for the 3 x 1023 drops of water in the Himalayan glaciers to disappear?

… or some similar question that aims to debunk the notion that global warming is causing the Himalayan glaciers to “disappear.”

The screening of the Discovery Asia piece was organized under the initiative of the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs & Democracy, Maria Otero. Promoters said the melting of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau and across the Himalayan mountain range “is among the greatest environmental security threats facing Asia today, affecting communities across the Tibetan Plateau, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and China.”

The film itself was produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Arrowhead Films, and Discovery Channel Asia. It points to the Himilayas as “the water towers of Asia” and says that warming-induced melting threatens nine or 10 major water systems Asians depend on for their drinking water and other water needs.

Academies’ Research Council Comments on USGCRP Plan

The National Academies’ National Research Council pointed to a need to “more carefully define” education and communication initiatives outlined in the draft 10-year strategic plan of the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

While noting that the plan is “evolving in the right direction,” the analysis questioned whether adequate resources will be available to achieve some of the outlined objectives. It supported plans aimed at, for instance, “broadening the program to better integrate the social and ecological sciences, inform climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, and emphasize decision support.” But it said “incremental solutions” might be key, particularly given insufficient resources and inadequate expertise in member agencies. The report suggested a need to better distinguish which communication and education initiatives “would be best organized by entities outside the program.”

Scientist Peter Gleick’s Annual ‘B.S.’* of Year Award

MacArthur Genius Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, pulled no punches — well, wait there, maybe he did — in again naming his annual “B.S.” (Bad Science) awards.

Those dubious honors go for “particularly egregious, notorious, or well-publicized examples of bad climate science … used to try to influence or confuse the public and policymakers.”

Working from “nearly 20 nominations” that he said were reviewed by a panel of un-named climate scientists and climate communicators, he said his second annual compilation goes to “all of the Republican candidates for President.” He also named second- through fifth-place winners and a number of “runners-up.” Gleick bylined a number of individual articles highlighting the B.S. awards at sympathetic online outlets. Full details are available from his Pacific Institute website.

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