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It’s raining junk: Weather service dumping balloons and e-waste across the landscape

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Environment Canada has for years encouraged Canadians to reuse, recycle and reduce, but its weather service routinely dumps electronic waste — including batteries — across the landscape, making no efforts to recover the material.

Every day, 62 weather balloons carrying battery-powered circuit boards burst at high altitudes and drop their loads to the ground, discarded and forgotten.

That works out to 22,630 dumps of ‘e-waste’ each year, distributed widely, with each balloon carrying either six AA alkaline batteries or two potentially toxic lithium-ion batteries.

The Meteorological Service of Canada, which runs the program, launches the balloons to gather vital weather data from the upper atmosphere. It shares that data with many other countries that also release their own balloons carrying these instrument packages, called radiosondes.

A radiosonde package, to be carried aloft by a weather balloon. In Canada, these packages are almost never recovered after they fall back to Earth, (ingeniumcanada.org)

The electronic devices monitor high-altitude weather conditions, such as temperature, humidity and air pressure, and transmit the results by radio to 31 ground stations as far afield as Eureka, Nunavut, and Sable Island, N.S. The newest versions weigh about 100 grams each.

But unlike the United States, which attempts to recover and re-use some of these devices, Canada simply leaves the balloons and their radiosondes wherever they happen to fall — which is often in remote and pristine wilderness areas and in waterways.

“They should at least try to recover as much as they can,” said Vancouver-based Amit Kumar, who is writing his PhD thesis at the University of British Columbia on the fate of electronic waste in Canada.

“The U.S. is also a big country. If it can be done in the U.S., it can be done in Canada. As an organization, they [Environment Canada] should have a responsibility for recycling.”

Too costly?

But a spokesperson for Environment Canada said recovering the delicate circuit boards would sharply drive up the cost of the $17-million-per-year Upper Air Observation program.

“Even if this simple concept was feasible, it would not work in a large area without local populations or road access, as it would be prohibitively expensive,” Gabrielle Lamontagne said in an email, saying the abandoned e-waste is the price of obtaining accurate forecasts.

“The environmental and safety benefits of high-quality forecasts are significant.”

The twice-a-day launches from 31 stations use helium- or hydrogen-filled balloons made of biodegradable, natural latex, which the department says will disappear harmlessly over time after the burst remains fall back to Earth.

Environment Canada is gradually replacing its inventory of heavier, AA-battery-powered Finnish radiosondes with lighter, lithium-battery-powered radiosondes made in Germany, at a current cost of between $100 and $130 each.

… if it can be done in the U.S., it can be done in Canada– E-waste specialist Amit Kumar on Environment Canada’s policy of discarding electronic weather packages 

An information sticker on each device asks the finder to contact Environment Canada, but the department receives only a few calls each year, said spokesperson Samantha Bayard.

She added that the department has only rarely paid compensation for damage caused by a radiosonde falling back to Earth, but did not provide details.

Toxic mercury has been eliminated from the batteries, and the AA alkalines are considered relatively benign. Lithium-ion batteries, however, often are toxic and can pose a fire hazard.

“The batteries do pose some environmental risk,” said Bayard. “However, the data obtained [from the radiosondes] has great importance both globally and to Canada.”

Kumar said the e-waste problem posed by radiosondes extends beyond the direct hazards from their batteries.

“It takes a lot of resources to manufacture these things,” he said, citing the work of mining the minerals and the energy and water used in their construction. “All these things add up.”

Environment Canada says it is examining alternatives, such as using ground-based instruments to monitor upper-air conditions, but insists nothing available now can replace the accuracy and precision of weather balloon data.

Imported e-waste, including TVs, computers and monitors, that can’t be sold at the Alaba Market in Lagos, Nigeria, is piled up in a nearby swamp. ((Basel Action Network))

Cost-benefit analysis

France has experimented with a parachute-based system to recover its radiosondes. Switzerland recovers and re-uses more than 60 per cent of the devices that it launches. It has been estimated that the United States reuses about 18 per cent of its radiosondes.

Kumar said Environment Canada should at least perform a cost-benefit analysis to support its decision not to recover, noting that the electronics in a radiosonde can be recycled easily.

“The good thing about a radiosonde is most of the things that can be recycled from it. There are already recycling facilities doing it,” he said.

Christine Best, director of the Radar and Upper Air section at the Meteorological Service of Canada, said recovering radiosondes “in the middle of nowhere” using helicopters and snowmobiles would be prohibitively expensive.

“It’s a concern, and we’ve been working with industry, everyone’s been working with industry globally, to minimize the battery, minimize the plastic.”

Using data from 2014, Kumar estimates that only about 20 per cent of the 725,000 tonnes of e-waste generated in Canada that year was collected for proper disposal or recycling. Much of the remainder ended up in landfills, where there is a risk of toxins seeping into groundwater and contaminating soil.

“E-waste is a growing concern, not just in Canada but across the world,” says a paper Kumar co-authored.

“The e-waste collection in Canada has increased in recent years; however, the overall e-waste collection rate is very low compared to the e-waste generation rate.”

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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