Sentinel minutes for week #22/2024


Forecasters did not anticipate events spiraling into global catastrophes this week.


U.S. concerned about Ukraine strikes on Russian nuclear radar stations, which could diminish Russia’s ability to detect a nuclear strike early, which might lead to miscommunication and an accidental nuclear exchange. Ukraine says that these sites help Russia track Ukrainian movements in Southern Ukraine.

The US and Germany have given Ukraine permission to strike targets in parts of Russia (particularly close to the border), and there were Ukrainian attacks on Belgorod (close to Kharkiv) last night (though it’s unclear whether these were with US-made weapons.

Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev responded that this could be seen as an act of war: “Russia regards all long-range weapons used by Ukraine as already being directly controlled by servicemen from NATO countries. This is no military assistance, this is participation in a war against us”, “such actions could well become a casus belli”. Mendelev stressed that Russia could be ready to use nuclear weapons, and that it was not “bluffing”. This US Congress report gives a review of Russia military doctrine, which includes use of nuclear weapons if Russia feels sufficiently threatened.

Poland’s Foreign Minister claims that the US has told Russia that if it explodes a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, it will target and destroy Russia’s positions with conventional weapons, even if the nuclear device doesn’t kill anyone. Forecasters thought the risk of Russia detonating a nuclear weapon in Ukraine was very low, partly because it does not look as though Ukraine will make substantial gains of control of territory this year.

Iran has further increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to near weapons-grade levels (60%, which is a short, technical step away from 90%, which is the threshold generally needed).

Forecasters had a wide range of estimates for when Iran might get nuclear weapons, reflecting the trickiness of the topic:

Forecaster Probability Iran gets nuclear weapons by the end of 2024 Probability Iran gets nuclear weapons by the end of 2025
#1 1% 3%
#2 7% 11%
#3 12% 22%
#4 25% 50%

Forecasters thought that with weapons-grade uranium, it would not be particularly difficult for Iran to build a bomb. However, they noted Israel’s recent strikes on an air defense facility in Isfahan, a region where Iran has nuclear facilities, along with the joint US-Israeli Stuxnet cyberweapon, and the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in the last 14 years. That is to say, it seems to be the case that Israel and the United States have very good intelligence on Iran, and that if it is believed that Iran is close to building a bomb, it seems likely that Israel would seek to prevent that through military or other actions. Conversely, some informative comments by an Irani official suggest that Iran might change its nuclear doctrine if Israel attacks its nuclear facilities.

A joint declaration after a China/Japan/South Korea summit contained the somewhat ambiguous sentence “We reiterated positions on regional peace and stability, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”. North Korea condemned the statement and continued with various missile tests.

An Egyptian soldier was killed in an incident involving Egyptian and Israeli troops at the Rafah border. The two countries have had a peace agreement since 1979. Forecasters agreed that it is very unlikely (<1%) that this causes the agreement to dissolve.

President Biden has announced a peace plan for Israel-Gaza. Hamas and Israel have responded positively, though a Netanyahu advisor reiterated that “there will not be a permanent ceasefire until all our objectives are met”, and two right-wing coalition partners threatened to boycott a deal which spared Hamas. Forecasters thought that a deal to end the war would substantially lower the chances of a US-Iran war.

Biological risk

H5N1 risks continue to grow in the US, with ongoing spread among dairy herds, additional sporadic human cases being identified among dairy farm workers, H5N1 detected in more feral cats, and spillover from cattle to alpacas on a farm with an infected dairy herd. As H5N1 becomes entrenched in domesticated animals, the risks of spillover into new species, including humans, and of spread to additional countries, increase.

Another human H5N1 case has been reported in Michigan, in a dairy farm worker.

H5N1 bird flu has been detected in four alpacas on a dairy farm with an infected dairy cattle herd in Idaho. The alpaca infections were confirmed on May 16 but were only reported on May 28.

H5N1 has been detected in feral cats in New Mexico, US, with no known connection to dairy or poultry farms with known infections. One of our team members believes that it’s most likely that these infections resulted from contact with other infected species rather than from transmission among cats.

Researchers in Canada launched a program for testing milk for H5N1 a month ago and have so far not seen any bird flu in the Canadian milk supply.

Mexico has been increasing surveillance since early April, but H5N1 has not been reported in any cattle in Mexico to date.

Natural disasters

Solar news: Active Region (AR) 3664 – now called AR 3697 – is back. After weakening as it transited the far side of the sun, AR 3664/3697 has rotated back into view. It released a remarkably long-lasting X2.8 solar flare just after coming into view, an X1.4 flare a couple days later, and an X1.1 flare on May 31. We can still expect some substantial solar flares from this region, but the risk of a dangerous coronal mass ejection emerging from the region is lower than it was two weeks ago. But the risk from this region – and from others – is not gone.

Heat and storms are posing increasing risks thanks to global warming. As the Northern Hemisphere heads towards summer, risks to communities and individuals from heat, drought, cyclones and hurricanes are paramount.

Mexico is experiencing heat waves and severe drought. Mexico City may run out of water in late June.

New Delhi recorded its hottest temperature ever, 52.3°C (126°F), amid scorching temperatures in the region. Temperatures have reached over 43°C (110°F) for weeks in several northern Indian states, and the number of cases of heatstroke has been climbing. While temperatures are forecast to fall slightly over the coming week, more heat waves can be expected over the summer – and in coming years, impacting the survivability of the region.

Cyclone Remal hit Bangladesh and India, killing over 100 people, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, and leaving millions without power. UNICEF reports that the cyclone has left “over 8.4 million people, including 3.2 million children, facing severe health, nutrition, sanitation, and safety risks.” This cyclone was the first major cyclone of the season to strike India.

The North Atlantic hurricane season begins on Saturday, June 1. The US National Hurricane Center expects an “above-average season” with 17-25 named storms, 8-13 hurricanes, and of those hurricanes, 4-7 major hurricanes. These higher-than-usual numbers are attributed to near-record and record ocean temperatures in the Atlantic and around Florida, and to the return of La Niña, which is expected to favor hurricane development particularly in the Gulf and Caribbean.

Phoenix, US is expected to see increasing numbers of heat-related deaths over time. The city is adapting by increasing the availability of cool shelters for the population. More generally, we can expect increasing numbers of heat-related deaths in the US desert southwest this summer and with each passing year, as the earth warms.

Europe is bracing for an extra-hot summer, which is expected to have a substantial impact on human health.

PS: Due to the insistence of the effort which inspired this version of Alert, this project will be changing its name over the next few weeks, probably to Sentinel or Sentry. In due time, this webpage will redirect to the new domain.

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