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27 December 2017. The 10 Most Important U.S. Climate Stories in 2017 –
Following a year of weather extremes, disasters and policy clashes, we asked our readers to help us pick out the most important climate stories from the U.S. in 2017. Here's what you said.
This was a brutal year for hurricanes in the U.S. A trifecta of storms (Harvey, Irma and Maria) battered Florida, the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico, causing deaths and widespread destruction, driving many from their homes. Climate change is fueling hurricanes by increasing their rainfall, wind speeds, and storm surges. Our World Weather Attribution team was among the groups of scientists that found climate change increased the amount of flooding rainfall from Harvey.
SEA-LEVEL RISE SCIENCE
Sea-level rise projections got worse for U.S. coastal communities. New research factoring in the projected effects of warming on Antarctic ice outlined new scenarios for Gulf Coast and East Coast cities, where more than 10 feet of sea-level rise is possible in places this century. Sea-level rise could be kept to less than two feet if we aggressively curb our greenhouse gas emissions, reducing risks and impacts.
The Trump administration worked to reverse climate protections this year, seeking to replace the Clean Power Plan and eventually withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The administration has been removing the phrase “climate change” from government websites and it greenlighted construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. All the while, hundreds of thousands of people marched for science and the climate, and states and cities and nations abroad vowed to fight harder to slow global warming.
2017 was the year of Tesla co-founder Elon Musk. From a battery factory in Nevada, to South Australia where his batteries are helping a wind farm provide reliable power, to a new energy grid in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Tesla has taken the lead in producing batteries for energy storage and to power electric cars. And it has developed new all-electric semi trucks and solar shingles!
California is battling its largest wildfire on record right now, but this wildfire season wasn’t just bad for the Golden State. Wildfires burned more than 9.5 million acres across the U.S., destroying neighborhoods and releasing dangerous smoke pollution. The Western wildfire season is 105 days longer than it was 45 years ago as climate change fuels more and bigger blazes.
THIRD HOTTEST YEAR ON RECORD
2017 is likely to be the third-hottest year on record for the U.S., behind 2016 and 2012. This record heat is particularly astounding considering the absence of an El Niño, which usually boosts global temperatures. If the final data matches expectations, five of the 10 hottest years on record will have come since 2006.
SOCIAL INJUSTICE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
The homes of Americans were destroyed or threatened by extreme weather and rising seas, with the poor hit the hardest. Hundreds of thousands of people had to flee Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, relocating to Florida and other areas. Thousands more in New Jersey and Louisiana are hoping for federal help as they grapple with the ongoing effects of flooding linked to rising seas and climate change-fueled storms.
SOLAR ENERGY SHINES
Production of clean energy climbed as prices continued to come down. In March, 10 percent of all electricity generated in the U.S. came from wind and solar, with help from Texas (America’s number 1 wind provider) and California (the largest solar producer). Bloomberg New Energy Finance concluded in the summer that solar energy can now be as cheap as power from new coal plants in the U.S.
Your car is contributing to the biggest source of U.S. emissions. Transportation recently overtook electricity generation as the biggest source of greenhouse gases from the U.S., as coal power plants were retired and replaced with renewables and natural gas facilities.
It may be winter right now, but don’t forget about extreme heat, which is the number one weather-related killer. Climate change made a February heat wave across much of the eastern U.S. three times more likely. In June, another heat wave in the Southwest prevented planes in Arizona from taking off. Danger days are surging from Power, Montana to New York City, and a dramatic rise in dangerous heat and humidity will continue in the summertime.
13 December 2017. Antarctic Modeling Pushes Up Sea-Level Rise Projections –
Research Report by Climate Central
Antarctic ice sheet models double the sea-level rise expected this century if global emissions of heat-trapping pollution remain high, according to a new study led by Dr. Robert Kopp of Rutgers University and co-authored by scientists at Climate Central.
Global average sea level is expected to rise by one foot between 2000 and 2050 and by several more feet by the end of the century under a high-pollution scenario because of the effects of climate change, according to the projections in the new peer-reviewed study. It shows 21st century sea-level rise could be kept to less than two feet if greenhouse gas emissions are aggressively and immediately reduced, reflecting a larger gap in sea-level consequences between high and low emissions scenarios than previous research has indicated.
High-pollution projection for Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia in 2100. See interactive map here.
The study provides a median projection for sea-level rise of 146 cm (4’9”) during the 21st century under a high-pollution scenario known as RCP8.5 (see Table 1), when results from new modeling of Antarctic ice sheet behavior are included. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, published in 2014, which assumed the Antarctic ice sheet would remain stable, provided a median projection for the same scenario during a similar time period of 74 cm (2’5”).
Previous efforts to project future sea levels have combined projections for future levels of greenhouse gas pollution with findings from research into the effects of that pollution in warming oceans and melting glaciers. Those efforts have either excluded the possibility of ice sheet break-ups on the margins of Greenland and Antarctica, left out the consequential new mechanism of marine ice-cliff instability, or relied on experts’ opinions regarding these potential impacts.
Ice loss in Antarctica could do more to raise sea levels than all of the other factors combined, and recent ice sheet modeling developed by Robert DeConto of University of Massachusetts and David Pollard of Pennsylvania State University has indicated the continent’s ice reserves may be less stable than previously thought.
The new study, “Evolving understanding of Antarctic ice-sheet physics and ambiguity in probabilistic sea-level projections,” combined the results of the modeling by DeConto and Pollard with sea-level rise projections published in 2014 and since employed by multiple cities, states and federal agencies. The new study, led by Kopp, was published Dec. 13 in the journal Earth’s Future. Other scientists involved with the research are affiliated with Columbia University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Boston College and Climate Central.
The study projects a range of potential levels of sea rise under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Even the lowest levels of projected sea-level rise would require heavy investments in adaptation efforts and could require residents and businesses to relocate. Greater levels of sea-level rise increase economic and social impacts.
The median projection for sea-level rise from 2000 to 2050 in the study was roughly 30 cm (one foot) under RCP8.5. The research indicated that sea levels in 2050 will be affected little by the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that’s released during the coming years.
The new projections warn of runaway risks during the second half of the century, with those risks substantially higher if current levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue.
Under the high-pollution RCP8.5 scenario, the study’s median projection for the period 2000 to 2100 is for 146 cm (4’9”) of global average sea-level rise. According to the research, local rise would vary from region to region under the same scenario, and would exceed the global average for all U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coast locations, ranging up to 225 cm (7’5”) or more in Louisiana.
Two of the authors of the paper were Climate Central’s Benjamin Strauss and Scott Kulp. For the study, the pair mapped local sea level rise projections worldwide, and calculated that, unless new protections are built, water could permanently inundate land currently home to 153 million people (see Table 2). For perspective, that is nearly half of the U.S. population, and more than three times the estimated number of refugees worldwide at the end of 2016. This assessment used available global elevation data from NASA. As these elevation data are known to significantly underestimate coastal exposure to sea-level rise, the affected population could be substantially larger.
90 percent of the study’s simulations found that global sea-level rise will be between 93 cm (3’1”) and 243 cm (8’) during the 21st century under RCP8.5. Under the high-end 8-foot scenario, impacts would be particularly heavy in the continental U.S., where sea level would rise substantially more than the global average. Due to regional effects driven mainly by land subsidence and gravitational effects linked to ice mass loss from Antarctica, sea-level rise of 9 to 11 feet would be expected along densely populated Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
Under an alternative scenario, known as RCP2.6, in which emissions are aggressively and immediately reduced, the study projects a median sea-level rise of 56 cm (1’10”) during the 21st century.
The research cannot yet assign likelihoods to different sea-level outcomes, but it explores a wide range of possibilities, making the median (central) values relatively robust. The study represents an important early step at integrating Antarctic physics into sea-level projections.
For a further perspective, read Kopp's blog at the Climate Impact Lab.
9 December 2017. How Smoke From California’s Fires is Harming the Most Vulnerable –
David Ewing wore a bright white dust mask, his face behind it puffy and red, as he sat on a stone bench in downtown Santa Barbara, California. A fine layer of ash covered the pavement at his feet, dirty residue from wildfires ravaging the region.
“When I woke up yesterday I couldn't breathe,” said Ewing, who is homeless and has been diagnosed with cancer. He spent the previous night sleeping behind a Saks department store. “This stuff is just wiping me out.”
Smoke from the Thomas Fire, viewed from Santa Barbara on December 5, 2017.
Credit: Doc Searls/Flickr
Ewing is among the tens of thousands of homeless in Southern California who are struggling to escape the smoke as wildfires tear through the region. Experts caution against spending time outdoors when it’s smoky, but for many, staying inside isn't an option.
|This story was produced through a partnership with Pacific Standard. It's part of a Climate Central series on wildfire pollution, climate change and public health supported by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. Climate Central also published a research report on this topic.|
Wildfire seasons have been growing longer and more severe throughout the American West. Heat-trapping pollution and the effects of weather cycles have pushed up temperatures. Meanwhile, saplings and other fuel for fires has accumulated in forests. That’s stoking blazes that are undermining long-running efforts to clean the air using environmental regulations.
“When we have warm conditions, that tends to draw more moisture out of vegetation,” said John Abatzoglou, a geographer at the University of Idaho who studies climate change and wildfires. “It tends to accelerate the rate at which vegetation dries up and becomes receptive to igniting and carrying fire.”
Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds of miles and blanket valleys and regions, creating what scientists call smoke waves. Smoke waves are pulses of bad air caused by fires that linger stubbornly for days, similar to heat waves.
Smoke contains chemicals from burning rubber and homes. It can also worsen ozone pollution. And it’s filled with tiny particles known as PM2.5, which can lodge inside lungs, trigger coughing, worsen diseases like asthma, and lead to long-term damage including cancer.
Credit: Pabak Sarkar/Flickr
Climate change-focused research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters a year ago concluded smoke could send 30 more people to hospitals across the West each year during the late 2040s than was the case 40 years earlier as smoke waves become more frequent and severe, mostly in the late summer and early fall. Some counties were projected to see little or no change. Impacts could be heavy in parts of central Colorado and Washington — and in Southern California.
“The larger the fire, the more people are affected, and the worse the health impacts will be,” said Loretta Mickley, a Harvard University researcher who worked on the study. “It’s just one more consequence of our love of emitting these greenhouse gases. So it’s one more reason to think about, ‘OK, let’s cut these emissions back.’”
Even a state with some of America’s most rigorous and progressive pollution standards can do little to protect itself. “Our state laws and policies and local efforts are all working to drive down smog and soot pollution,” said William Barrett, a policy analyst in California at the non-profit American Lung Association, which has been providing masks to the Red Cross to give to the needy. “But now with our changing environment, we’re seeing longer and more severe fire seasons and, along with that, greater impacts to air quality.”
As with most pollution, the poorest and frailest are the most vulnerable to smoke waves. A U.S. EPA study of emergency room visits linked to a North Carolina wildfire that burned in 2008 showed health risks from PM2.5 increased in the counties with the poorest residents and with the greatest levels of income inequality.
In California, where a fast-growing population is fueling a housing crisis, officials and non-profits have been working to protect the homeless population, such as by providing masks. Non-profit workers have also been providing masks to farm workers. Homeless people and farm workers can be especially vulnerable because they often have limited access to health care and have trouble sheltering inside when the smoke outside is heavy.
Wildfires tore through Southern California this week fueled by hot and dry seasonal winds — called Santa Ana winds — blowing over landscapes left parched by an unusual absence of fall storms. The largest blaze, the Thomas Fire, which raced across the hills of Ventura, was stopped only by the Pacific Ocean after the flames hopped the 101 freeway. At least three others scorched the hills above Los Angeles.
Photos of the explosive Thomas Fire shown here on December 5, 2017 taken from the cockpit of NASA’s high-flying ER-2 aircraft.
Credit: Donald “Stu” Broce, provided courtesy of Armstrong Flight Research Center
“This is probably one of the worst times I've had to deal with it,” said Kevin Ellis, 49, a marijuana farm worker who was walking his gray pit bull next to eerily empty volleyball courts on Santa Barbara’s East Beach on Friday. “It bothers me, I've been working in it — I worked 13 hours yesterday — but I've got a mask.”
While California’s wildfire trends have in the past been linked to global warming, the fires ravaging Southern California this week have been driven largely by the whims of the weather. “Global warming is there and it’s having an influence,” said Park Williams, a climate and ecology researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “But there’s a bunch of other stuff going on too.”
Homes and palm trees burn in the Creek Fire outside of Los Angeles, California on December 5, 2017.
Credit: Los Angeles Fire Department/Flickr
The conditions stoking the blazes in Southern California are projected to become more common and severe in the years ahead as greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuel burning, deforestation, farming and other industrial practices accumulates in the atmosphere, changing temperatures and rainfall patterns.
As a thick yellow haze filled the air this week, air quality alerts went out warning residents outside of evacuation zones to seek shelter. Winds late in the week were pushing the smoke far up the California coast, over the Silicon Valley and into San Francisco, affecting millions.
“It’s been very difficult for outpatients to breathe,” said Laren Tan, a pulmonologist at Loma Linda University in San Bernardino County. He tells patients to stay inside as much as possible when smoke waves hit, and to close their windows and use air filters.
But even getting indoors can be a major challenge for the homeless in L.A., one of the only U.S. cities where homelessness is rising. In 2017, the number of homeless people climbed to over 55,000 — up more than 13,000 from the year prior. L.A. also has the largest unsheltered subpopulation of any big city, according to Colleen Murphy, an outreach coordinator for the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.
"In most big cities, there's at least shelters to go to at night. In Los Angeles, 75 percent of our homeless are unsheltered, so that means on any given night, they're sleeping outdoors or in their cars," she said. For comparison, 5 percent of New York City's 76,000 homeless are unsheltered. "It's very challenging even on a good day."
Since the fires began, outreach teams, which sometimes include medical and mental health professionals, have fanned out across the city to try to get people off the streets and into the city's shelters or a Red Cross facility.
The southern California wildfires could be seen by the International Space Station crew from their vantage point in low Earth orbit.
"We've mobilized our street teams, because we do get that extra bump of beds available during the winter months,” Murphy said. “We're trying to let people know, 'Hey the winter shelters are open, so please let us take you there.'”
In Ventura County, where as of Friday the Thomas Fire had burned 132,000 acres and more than 400 buildings, workers at the transitional living facility operated by county officials were handing out masks. Some of the homeless are turning up at evacuation shelters as well.
The fires have struck Southern California at an unusual time and with rare ferocity, bookending a deadly wildfire season that destroyed neighborhoods and killed dozens in wine country north of San Francisco and filled the sweeping Central Valley farming region with smoke from forest fires in mountains nearby.
The blazes are part of a years-long fiery crisis for the West — one that’s only expected to get worse.
“How much longer are we going to go through this?,” Ewing said, as he sat on the stone bench, his backpack and a large black garbage bag at his feet. “I'm homeless and I have to breathe it all day long.”
7 November 2017. Western Wildfires Undermining Progress on Air Pollution –
Research Report by Climate Central
|Read "Breathing Fire," our feature story on fire pollution|
Smoke pollution is leading to serious public health impacts as large wildfires across the American West become more frequent and destructive. These fires are undermining progress made during recent decades in reducing pollution from tailpipes, power plants, and other industrial sources. The increasing frequency and area burned by large fires is linked to human-caused climate change as well as other environmental changes.
Climate Central analyzed air quality trends from 2000 through 2016 in two large California air basins that are heavily affected by smoke pollution. The analysis focused on particulate matter (PM2.5), a dangerous air pollutant. We found that while the air is getting cleaner overall in recent years, it’s getting dirtier during the fire season — a season that research has shown is growing longer in the western United States.
California’s Central Valley — Climate Central Analysis
The Central Valley is a large, flat region that dominates California’s geographic center. The valley comprises some 11 percent of the state’s land area and includes population centers such as Sacramento and Fresno, but the majority of the region is made up of farmland — some of the most productive on the planet.
Central Valley air quality was analyzed because the region is heavily affected by air pollution that is produced within an even larger geographical area. Bounded by mountain ranges to both the east and the west, the valley’s geographical and meteorological features combine with industrial activity such as truck traffic to contribute to these high levels of pollution. Some of the pollution is generated within the valley, while other pollution sources include wildfires burning along the coast to the west and in the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east.
Wildfires are a source of an especially problematic type of air pollutant known as PM2.5 (“particulate matter” less than 2.5 microns in diameter), which can become lodged in lungs and cause or exacerbate a wide array of health problems such as asthma and heart disease. Emerging evidence suggests PM2.5 could also be linked to premature births. Other PM2.5 sources include a wide variety of industrial and agricultural activities. To protect human health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established both daily (24-hour) and annual standards for PM2.5 of 35 µg/m3 and 12 µg/m3, respectively.1
To examine the contribution of wildfires to levels of PM2.5 in the Central Valley, Climate Central compared the number of days PM2.5 exceeded federal standards at at least one station in each air basin for the entire year, with the number of days the pollutant exceeded federal standards during the summer wildfire season from June to September. The analysis covered the period 2000 to 2016 and was conducted separately for two air basins comprising the Central Valley — the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley. Together, these valleys cover 20,000 square miles2 and are home to nearly 6.7 million people.3
Between 2000 and 2016, air quality in both the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley improved, with the number of days per year with 24-hour PM2.5 exceedances falling by roughly 64 percent and 45 percent overall, respectively.
Amid this overall trend, a growing percentage of exceedances are occurring during peak fire season and when PM2.5 are typically low. That points to the increasing role of wildfires as a source of air pollution even as emissions from other sources continue to fall. The Sacramento Valley is now seeing some years with 50 to 60 percent of PM2.5 exceedances occurring during these months. In the earlier part of the period studied, summer exceedances typically accounted for less than 10 percent of the total. There has been a 31 percent increase in the number of exceedances during the summer fire season in the San Joaquin Valley compared to the number of exceedances during the summer fire season in 2000. The increase in proportion of summertime exceedances in the Sacramento Valley air basin has been even more dramatic with nearly a five-fold increase.
Air quality data for the Central Valley prior to 2000 is only partially available. Data prior to 2000 was excluded based on the criterion of having less than 5 percent of the data missing. The data analyzed does not include 2017 because not all winter months have yet occurred this year. Note that winter months historically have the most exceedances.
Because wildfire smoke can blow across county, state and national borders, the correlation between local PM2.5 and nearby wildfire activity is not exact. Comparing periods of exceedances at local levels with satellite images of smoke, however, provides another line of evidence connecting wildfires to PM2.5 pollution.
For example, exceedances in PM2.5 concentrations were detected by air quality monitors at three locations in the Central Valley at the beginning of September 2017, with these exceedances coinciding with an outbreak of wildfires. Just a few days later, widespread smoke was still apparent in satellite images of the region, and there is a visible relationship between air quality data and the smoke. Areas where the wildfires are located and smoke is present largely coincided with measurements showing the worst air quality.
Major wildfires broke out north of San Francisco in early October, 2017, killing more than 40 people.4 Smoke from these North Bay fires spread throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and reached the Central Valley and beyond. Air in the Bay Area air basin is usually cleaner than in the Central Valley, and it has also experienced an overall decline in the number of days each year that PM2.5 exceeds federal standards. Smoke from the October fires heavily polluted the air, with one day in the Bay Area air basin experiencing twice the level of PM2.5 of any day going back to 2001.
Wildfire seasons are projected to become worse due to climate change, expanding in length and increasing the number of large fires and acreage that burns each year. When compared with the 1970s, the average annual Western U.S. wildfire season is now 105 days longer, has three times as many large fires (larger than 1000 acres), and burns more than six times as many acres.5
According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, warming temperatures and drier conditions are major factors resulting in the increase in wildfires; both temperatures and reduced moisture are linked to human-caused climate change and affect the dryness and flammability of landscapes, measured by scientists as fuel aridity.6 High levels of fuel aridity can provide large areas conducive for the spread of wildfire once ignited.
According to one study that looked at eight fuel aridity metrics in the Western U.S. and modeled climate change’s effects on them, human-caused climate change accounted for about 55 percent of the observed increases in fuel aridity between 1979 and 2015 (Figure 6), and added an estimated 4.2 million hectares of forest fire area between 1984 and 2015.7 Based on all eight metrics, the Western U.S. experienced an average of 9 additional days per year of high fire potential due to climate change between 2000 and 2015, a 50 percent increase from the baseline of 17 days per year when looking back to 1979. The correlation between fuel aridity and forest fire area each year was found to be highly significant (R2 = 0.75) for 1984 to 2015.
One of the eight metrics analyzed by the study is the Keetch-Byram drought index (KBDI), a measure of the dryness of the top 8 inches of the forest floor on a scale from 0 to 800. Lower numbers on the scale indicate a higher moisture level on the forest floor and higher numbers on the scale indicate more severe drought and thus higher wildfire potential.
Previous Climate Central research found that under a high-pollution future scenario (i.e., RCP8.5), California would experience an additional 24 days per year with a KBDI value of 600 (the level at which the potential for wildfires is high) or above by 2050.5 The only state with a greater increase in the number of days with high KBDI values is Arizona, at 34 additional days.
Ecosystem changes and natural climatic variation can also have large influences on wildfire seasons. Even without human-caused climate change, wildfires would have increased in many regions due to other human activities and natural factors. In particular, although wildfires are a natural process in Western ecosystems, their roles in keeping forests in healthy condition have not been well understood, and so they are often extinguished as quickly as possible. As a result of strenuous efforts to suppress wildfire and other land-management practices such as livestock grazing, logging, and land-type conversion,8,9 many forests have experienced fire deficits, becoming overgrown and littered with flammable material such as leaf litter and saplings. Wildfires that break out during fire deficits can be unnaturally large and severe.10-12 In addition, the introduction of non-native species, especially invasive grasses, can have significant impacts on grassland wildfires as these plants can provide fuel for fires.13
Wildfire Smoke and Health
One of the greatest concerns with wildfires is their impact on air quality and associated health consequences; PM2.5 is just one of the pollutants in wildfire smoke, but its small size makes it a well-known threat to people’s health. Californians are at particular risk from wildfire-related health impacts, because the state has the largest population in the U.S. living in wildland-urban interface (inhabited areas approaching wildland areas) where there is an elevated risk of being exposed to wildfires.14 More than 11 million people, about 30 percent of the California population, live in these wildland-urban interfaces.5
To explore specific linkages between wildfire smoke and health, Liu et al. (2016) developed the concept of “smoke-wave” days, defined as two or more days in a row with wildfire-specific PM2.5 concentrations above 20µg/m3 (the 98th quantile of wildfire-specific PM2.5 concentrations in the study area).15 In Liu et al. 2017, smoke wave days matched satellite (MODIS) records of large wildfires and the researchers found that as smoke-wave day intensity increased, respiratory admissions to hospitals increased.16 In particular, smoke-wave days with PM2.5 concentrations above 37µg/m3 (the 99.5th quantile) were associated with a 7.2 percent increase in respiratory related admissions to hospitals compared to non-smoke wave days. Cardiovascular admissions tended to be highest during the first two days of a smoke-wave and then decrease, while respiratory admissions exhibited the opposite trend, increasing as the days go by.16
These findings are consistent with other studies, as highlighted in a critical review of the literature on the health impacts of wildfires published in 2016 by Reid et al.17 Various respiratory problems in asthmatics and non-asthmatics alike, measured by physician visits, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations were found to be strongly associated with wildfire smoke exposure as well as significant declines in lung function for those without asthma.17
Included in the review analysis is one study that looks at how measures of community health modified health outcomes from a wildfire in North Carolina. The study found that health effects of wildfire pollution are significantly associated with poverty and income inequality.18 The study first finds that per 100µg/m3 of PM2.5 exposure, there was a 66 percent increase for hospital visits related to asthma on the day of exposure, and a 42 percent increase in visits related to congestive heart failure (CHF) the day after exposure.
The study also finds that those counties ranked lowest on the 2010 County Health Rankings for North Carolina (a measure of overall community health based on specific determinants of community health, such as education, income, access to clinical care, diet and exercise) had significantly higher relative risks of asthma on the days of and immediately after wildfire-associated PM2.5 exposure than those counties ranked highest. Of the factors examined that combine to create the County Health Rankings, the counties ranked lowest for poverty, measured as the number of children below the poverty line, had twice the relative risk of asthma as an outcome from PM2.5 exposure than those counties ranked highest (the largest difference). Counties with the greatest income inequality had 223 percent higher risks of CHF as a health outcome from wildfire pollution.
Wildfire smoke can travel and affect communities hundreds of miles away from its source. The North Bay Fires affected air quality in the Central Valley and satellite images show it traveled more than 500 miles over the Pacific, reaching as far south as Mexico.19 In 2015, smoke from wildfires in central Canada resulted in multiple days of exceedances of EPA standards in Maryland.20 In 2002, wildfire smoke from fires in Quebec impacted populations all along the East Coast of the United States, and a nearly 50 percent increase in hospital admissions for respiratory diagnoses for the elderly was associated with the smoke plume and concurrent PM2.5 in counties in states between New York and Washington, DC.21
The decades of work that have gone into reducing PM2.5 through environmental regulations and technological improvements are being undermined by the West’s worsening wildfire seasons, with large wildfires being amplified by higher temperatures and drier conditions associated with human-caused climate change.
Air quality data was acquired from the California Air Resources Board’s query tool site. For the multiyear time series the following selections were made for the Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin Valley Air Basins: PM2.5, daily average, year-at-a-glance. The total number of exceedances, labeled on the site in red, were tallied for the yearly total exceedances. Then the number of exceedances during June, July, August, and September were tallied for peak wildfire season exceedances. The ratio of these two numbers gives the fraction of annual exceedances occurring during wildfire season. This was repeated for all available years for which >95% of the days in a year had a measurement available, which was 2000 to 2016. Linear regression fits to these data were calculated using the R Statistical Software package.22 The data for the San Francisco Bay air basin was queried in a similar manner as above, but instead of recording days above the federal standard the daily average concentrations at the highest monitoring site in the basin are reported by month through October 2017.
About this project
Climate Central is a nonpartisan and non-advocacy nonprofit based in New Jersey that researches and reports on the changing climate. This report was written by Research and Communications Fellow Julia Langer. Data analysis by Climate Scientist Todd Sanford, Ph.D. Additional research by Features Journalist John Upton. Graphics by Multimedia Designer Megan Martin.
Please direct queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Breathing Fire,” a feature article about wildfire pollution written by John Upton and produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News with support from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, can be read on Climate Central’s website and elsewhere.
We gratefully acknowledge John Abatzoglou (University of Idaho), Ana Rappold (EPA), and Jia Coco Liu (Yale University) for reviewing the analysis and providing helpful feedback on an earlier version of this report, and Loretta Mickley (Johns Hopkins) and Colleen Reid (University of Colorado, Boulder) for providing feedback on an earlier version of the report.
- NAAQS Table. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/criteria-air-pollutants/naaqs-table
- (2017, Mar. 20). California’s Central Valley. Retrieved from: https://ca.water.usgs.gov/projects/central-valley/about-central-valley.html
- U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). 2010 Census Data 2016 Population Estimates. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/2010census/data/
- Fimrite, Peter & Alexander, Kurtis. (2017). 17-year-old dies of burns, becomes 43rd victim of California wildfires. SFGate. Retrieved from: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/17-year-old-dies-of-burns-becomes-43rd-victim-of-12317178.php
- Climate Central, 2016: Western Wildfires: A Fiery Future. Princeton, NJ. http://assets.climatecentral.org/pdfs/westernwildfires2016v2.pdf
- Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds. (2014). Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2
- Abatzoglou, J. T. & Williams, A. P. (2016). Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests. PNAS, 113(42), 11770-11775. doi:10.1073/pnas.1607171113
- Parks, S. A., Miller, C., Parisien, M., Holsinger, L. M., Dobrowski, S. Z., & Abatzoglou, J. (2015). Wildland fire deficit and surplus in the western United States, 1984-2012. Ecosphere, 6(12). doi:10.1890/ES15-00294.1
- Marlon, J. R., Bartlein, P.J., Gavin, D. G., Long, C. J., Anderson, R. S., Briles, C. E., … Walsh, K. M. (2012). Long-term perspective on wildfires in the western USA. PNAS, 109(9), E535-543. doi:10.1073/pnas.1112839109
- Hessburg, P. F., Churchill, D. J., Larson, A. J., Haugo, R. D., Miller, C., Thomas, A. S., … Reeves, G. H. (2015). Restoring fire-prone Inland Pacific landscapes: seven core principles. Landscape Ecol. 30(10), 1805-1835. doi:10.1007/s10980-015-0218-0
- Stephens, S. L. (2005). Forest fire causes and extent on United States Forest Service lands. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 14, 213-222. doi:10.1071/WF04006
- Calkin, D. E., Thompson, M. P., & Finney, M. A. (2015) Negative consequences of positive feedbacks in US wildfire management. Forest Ecosystems, 2(9). doi:10.1186/s40663-015-0033-8
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7 November 2017. Breathing Fire –
As climate change fuels large wildfires, the pollution they're releasing is making Americans sick and undermining decades of progress in cleaning the air.
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — As the deadliest fires in California history swept through leafy neighborhoods here, Kathleen Sarmento fled her home in the dark, drove to an evacuation center and began setting up a medical triage unit. Patients with burns and other severe injuries were dispatched to hospitals. She set about treating many people whose symptoms resulted from exposure to polluted air and heavy smoke.
|This story was produced through a partnership between Climate Central and Kaiser Health News with support from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. Kaiser Health News/California Healthline senior correspondent Barbara Feder Ostrov contributed reporting from Santa Rosa.|
“People were coming in with headaches. I had one. My eyes were burning,” said Sarmento, the director of nursing at Santa Rosa Community Health, which provides health care for those who cannot afford it. But respiratory problems — coughs and shortness of breath — were among the biggest risks. “We made sure everyone had a mask.”
More than half of the evacuees at the shelter that October night were elderly, some from nursing homes who needed oxygen 24/7. Sarmento scrambled to find regulators for oxygen tanks that were otherwise useless. It was a chaotic night — but what came to worry her most were the weeks and months ahead.
“It looked like it was snowing for days,” Sarmento said of the falling ash. “People really need to take the smoke seriously. You’ve got cars exploding, tires burning. There has to be some long-term effect” on people’s health.
From Puget Sound to Disneyland and east over the Rockies, Americans have coughed and wheezed, rushed to emergency rooms and shut themselves indoors this year as pollution from wildfires darkened skies and rained soot across the landscape. Even to healthy people, it can make breathing a miserable, chest-heaving experience. To the elderly, the young and the frail, the pollution can be disabling or deadly.
Even though the nation has greatly improved air quality over the last 40 years through environmental regulations and technological improvements, the increasing frequency of large wildfires now undermines that progress, releasing copious pollutants that spread far and wide through the air and linger long after the fires are extinguished.
Views of San Francisco's skyline are smoke-filled on the morning of Oct. 9 as multiple wildfires burn in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
Credit: Amy Graff/SF Gate
Scientists say climate change, degraded ecosystems and the fickleness of the weather have been amplifying fires in forests, grasslands and neighborhoods throughout the West. Nine times more western forestland is burning in large fires each year on average now than 30 years ago, according to calculations by two leading scientists.
The blazes create smoke waves — pulses of pollution containing everything from charred plastic residue to soot to other small particles that lodge deep in the lungs. They can trigger short-term ailments, such as coughing; worsen chronic diseases, such as asthma; and lead to long-term damage, including cancer.
The effect of the fires in Northern California’s wine country, which destroyed thousands of homes and killed 43 people, went well beyond the burn zone. The smoke choked the San Francisco Bay Area, home to 7 million people in nine counties, for days.
Colette Hatch, 75, of Santa Rosa, who suffers from lung disease and uses a nebulizer daily, evacuated to her daughter’s home in Sunnyvale, in Silicon Valley, when the fires came. But even nearly 100 miles away, Hatch said she struggled to breathe, coughing so hard she couldn’t sleep.
Wafting beyond Oakland and Livermore in the East Bay, the smoke headed into California’s agricultural heartland, the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
Known collectively as the Central Valley, it stretches for hundreds of miles roughly north to south, bracketed by mountain ranges that trap some of the dirtiest air in America. Increasingly, wildfires like the ones in Northern California’s wine country funnel smoke into the chute, significantly raising the pollution levels in places as far away as Fresno.
Climate Central, a research and journalism nonprofit, examined air district data from California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. The analysis showed that while the number of heavily polluted days is falling overall each year on average — those days are occurring more frequently during the peak fire season. The researchers say wildfire smoke is to blame.
Monitors in the San Joaquin Valley and San Francisco Bay Area showed levels spiked in October as the wine country fires sullied skies.
With large wildfires on the rise, smoke and the attendant breathing ailments seemed everywhere this year. In September, smoke from fires burning in California, the Pacific Northwest and Montana pushed as far east as Pennsylvania. Smoke triggered emergency declarations in Washington state and California. The Evergreen State was experiencing few fires of its own in July when it was hit by smoke waves that poured across the Canadian border. And smoke returned to much of the northwest in August and September as fires broke out in the Cascades and the Columbia Gorge.
“I remember waking up one morning and the sky was orangey-red and there was ash falling out of the sky,” said Jeremy Hess, a researcher and physician at the University of Washington in Seattle. “This summer was very busy for us in the emergency department and we were often over capacity. If it wasn’t the smoke, it was the heat,” Hess said.
As World Warms, Environment And Health Suffer
The blazes came after record-breaking late summer heat dried out grass that had flourished following record-breaking winter rains — both forms of extreme weather that are worsened by global warming. In addition, a high pressure system over the Pacific fanned the flames by driving unusually hot and powerful seasonal winds into Northern California from the dry highlands of Nevada.
The immediate precipitant may have been sparks from power lines, although investigations into the causes are ongoing. But a changing climate helped fuel the blazes.
“Climate change was not the cause but it’s definitely an ingredient,” said Park Williams, a climate and ecology researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. And that means worse is to come.
Williams said there was a clear connection between the nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit overall increase in global temperature since the late 1800s and the severity of these and other fires. (Warming in the West has been outpacing the global average in recent decades because of natural cycles.)
“Fire really responds strongly to even that small of a change of temperature,” said Williams, whose assessment of global warming’s role in the wine country fires is shared by other experts.
Environmentally, the fires are a double whammy: They destroy trees that help to slow global warming by absorbing heat-trapping carbon dioxide as they grow. They also release carbon dioxide stored within, as well as black carbon that melts snow and ice.
Research indicated in 2015 that large fires had helped turn California’s forests and other lands into polluters, releasing more carbon to the atmosphere than they suck back in. The state’s wildlands released more heat-trapping pollution from 2001 through 2010 than Vermont’s entire economy. Rising temperatures aren’t the only cause — the forests are overloaded with fuel following more than a century of aggressive firefighting.
While public attention has tended to focus on other health risks from climate change such as heat stroke in summer and the spread of mosquito-borne diseases northward, the effects of smoke pollution have been gaining more attention following dramatic and widespread wildfires.
The most dangerous pollution from wildfires is fine soot — “really small particles that we know can get into the lungs,” said Colleen Reid, a geographer at the University of Colorado who researches climate change and human health. It’s known as PM2.5, meaning “particulate matter” that’s less than 2.5 microns wide, only visible using microscopes.
It can nestle into lung tissue and pass into the bloodstream, contributing to an array of health problems including infections and, potentially, heart attacks.
Ed Corn sifts through the ashes of his former home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood. “I can definitely taste the toxins in my throat and the back of my tongue,” he said.
Credit: Heidi de Marco/Kaiser Health News
Symptoms related to smoke waves may not be diagnosed right away, making it hard to recognize the role a fire may have played in an illness or death. Reid led an analysis published a year ago based on hundreds of studies into fire pollution’s health effects. The clearest links shown in the studies were between PM2.5 and asthma and other breathing problems; links to heart disease were less conclusive.
Researchers from leading American universities examined fire pollution across the West, finding that two of every three counties in the region suffered at least one smoke wave from 2004 through 2009. When they correlated those findings with medical data, they found a 7 percent jump in breathing-related hospitalizations after smoke levels were most extreme.
“An acute fire lasting, for example, days to weeks, may not show up as an immediate problem but as health problems that may occur over a time span of weeks or months,” said Loretta Mickley, a Harvard researcher who worked on the study.
This Summer In California
Elva Hernandez, 51, has lived in the San Joaquin Valley most of her life. She’s suffered from asthma since she was 10. This summer she was stuck inside her house for several weeks as smoke waves suffocated her neighborhood in the small town of Kerman, Calif., near Fresno.
“The smell, all the dust, the smoke, the smog, everything, it’s just — you can’t breathe,” said Hernandez, a stay-at-home mom whose husband analyzes lab samples at a hospital. “You can’t live your life normally.”
The San Joaquin Valley is home to 4 million people, many of them poor. One in six children suffers from asthma. Poor people often are most affected by air pollution, partly because they tend to live in more drafty housing in more polluted neighborhoods.
But enforcement of federal regulations dating to the Nixon administration has been reducing air pollution from fossil fuels and fertilizers in the valley, requiring cleaner engines for trucks and the replacement of outdated equipment on farms.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of positive trends,” said Jon Klassen, manager of the air monitoring team at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. At the same time, “there’s a lot more emissions coming from these fires. They’re uncontrollable. They’re very difficult to deal with.”
Research looking at air pollution levels helps explain why people like Hernandez are suffering more during fire seasons. The Climate Central analysis of San Joaquin Valley air data showed that while the number of days each year on which levels of PM2.5 exceeded federal standards declined by about 45 percent overall from 2000 to 2016, they increased by almost a third during the peak summer fire season.
In the Sacramento Valley to the north, summer fire season pollution has been responsible for about 40 percent of the days when federal standards for PM2.5 pollution were exceeded in recent years. That’s up from less than a tenth of them earlier this century, the researchers found.
Wildfires also release toxic material and chemicals that react in the atmosphere to form ozone pollution, which can hang over neighborhoods as haze. Ozone irritates lungs and throats, triggers shortness of breath and aggravates diseases like bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.
Hernandez’s asthma doctor, Praveen Buddiga, who operates his own practice in nearby Fresno, treated patients with oxygen and medicine during September fires in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which straddle California and Nevada. He did so again following the wine country fires in October. For asthmatics, the onslaughts of fire pollution are “like pouring a little salt into the wounds,” he said.
Buddiga suggests his patients limit their time outside, drive with windows rolled up and wear masks when smoke waves hit. Better yet, he advises them to leave the area if possible until the smoke clears.
But risks can be difficult to gauge for patients and experts who want to offer precautions. Scientists who sampled pollution from wildfires using a NASA jet reported in June that fire pollution is being “significantly underestimated” by the federal government. While fleets of mobile air monitors are deployed near fires to help government agencies project the movement of smoke waves, the network of permanent monitors is sparse.
“We have no real good way of communicating to people, ‘Hey, the wildfire smoke is really bad in these spots, and this is where you take precautions,’” said Rob Carlmark, a weathercaster with ABC10 in Sacramento whose audience stretches from Bay Area cities to Lake Tahoe at the Nevada border.
Absent local smoke pollution data, he tells viewers, “The best smoke detector is your nose.”
Lighting Up To Protect Lungs — and the Planet
Josh Bien wore a heavy pack and held a hoe in one hand. Using the other, the firefighter dripped a burning mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline on the forest floor from a spouted canister. Saplings and beds of pine needles sizzled and burned around him in a national forest in the Sierra Nevada, an hour’s drive east of Fresno.
Like smoke from suburban fires in the San Francisco Bay Area, that from large wildfires in the forest of this 600-mile mountain range can travel into the Central Valley. A spate of large fires in August and September created heavy smoke that suffocated foothills towns and drove people like Elva Hernandez indoors.
Firefighter Josh Biel igniting the forest floor during a prescribed burn in the Sierra National Forest
Credit: John Upton/Climate Central
Devastating forest fire seasons in recent years have prompted research pointing to the need for more prescribed burns like this one. They’re set and managed by firefighters and foresters and guided by computer models that predict the spread of fires and their smoke. They’re aimed at removing highly flammable undergrowth and spare the mature trees.
“You can either do it on your terms,” said Adam Hernandez, a prescribed fire and fuels management officer with the U.S. Forest Service, as gray smoke billowed around, “or you wait for that wildfire to come and it does it on its terms — and then you’re in a bad way.”
Small fires used to burn regularly through the understories of the Sierra Nevada’s forests, started by lightning and native tribes. That changed after the Native Americans were forced from the mountain range, followed by more than a century of logging and aggressive firefighting. Those activities replaced stands of large, fire-resistant trees with thickets of smaller ones, building up fuel for enormous blazes.
“When you have some of these extreme wildfires, you’re creating more harmful emissions,” said Jonathan Long, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. Extreme fires burn larger areas and their flames jump from forest floors to incinerate canopies, producing heavy black smoke and killing mature trees. “We think taking the medicine in small doses is a lot healthier.”
The excessive undergrowth amplified the impact of California’s recent drought — there was too little water for so many trees. More than 100 million trees may have died across the Sierra Nevada in recent years. The dead trees can provide nesting cavities and their logs create important habitat for wildlife, but some scientists fear they may also intensify fires after they topple into desiccated piles.
Trees killed by the effects of drought in the Sierra National Forest
Credit: John Upton/Climate Central
The federal government has been striking agreements with state agencies to use more prescribed burns and take other steps to better manage forests. In January, California released an ambitious draft plan to restore forests over the decades to come — through a focus on prescribed burns — with the goal of reducing pollution from wildfires.
“We’re trying to ensure that we have healthy, resilient forests that are net sinks of carbon so that they’re storing more carbon than they’re releasing,” said Russ Henly, a California Natural Resources Agency official who helped draft the plan. By 2020, the plan seeks to double the amount of land treated using prescribed burns to 35,000 acres a year.
With so many local, state and federal agencies overseeing environmental rules and owning land in California, the state says coordination will be key. For example, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District can prevent national parks and other landowners from conducting prescribed burns when pollution levels will be affected — which is most of the time.
Mindful of the growing danger of big blazes, the air district has become more accommodating of prescribed fires. Still, finding the money to pay for the work remains a challenge.
Some members of Congress have pushed logging as a way to ease forest fires, though that approach could have the opposite effect: Trees valued by loggers tend to be the largest and most fire-resistant. Troublesome small trees and dead ones have little value other than as fuel for power plants, and even then they’re generally too expensive to gather. Low natural gas prices have been forcing the closure of biomass power plants, which are fueled with wood.
Even if the money is found to improve forest management, climate change will likely limit the progress from improved forest management, said Christopher Field, an ecology professor at Stanford University. The fire season will continue to lengthen. Landscapes will continue to dry out. “The challenge we still face is how to get out of decades of managing forests in ways that increase, rather than decrease, fire risk,” he said.
Field oversaw a survey dealing with Sierra Nevada forests completed by 75 academics, government officials and nonprofit and industry employees. While most agreed that prescribed burns and other approaches can lock carbon into the mountain’s ecosystems, they warned it will be difficult to overcome the losses from wildfires as temperatures rise.
California doesn’t include carbon losses from forest fires when it tallies its progress toward reducing climate pollution. But amid the burning, logging and clearing of forests from Indonesia to the Amazon and the Congo, destructive fires in the forestlands of a U.S. state that has some of the world’s most ambitious climate goals are contributing to the problem.
And, in the process, they are making people sick.
Research Report by Climate Central
In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy took a sharp left turn into the coasts of New Jersey and New York, leading to 157 deaths, 51 square miles of flooding in New York City alone, and an estimated $50+ billion in damage (Bloomberg 2013; Kemp and Horton 2013). The name “Sandy” was retired, but risks to coastal cities for Sandy-like flooding remain. On the five-year anniversary of the storm, Climate Central has ranked the U.S. cities most vulnerable to major coastal floods using three different metrics:
1. The total population within the FEMA 100-year floodplain
2. The total population within the FEMA 100-year floodplain as augmented by sea level rise projections for the year 2050
3. The total high social vulnerability population within the same areas as group #2
Each analysis examined coastal cities with overall populations greater than 20,000. For the first one, we tabulated “at risk” population by overlaying 2010 Census block population counts against FEMA’s 100-year coastal floodplains (Crowell et al 2013) using methods adapted from Strauss et al (2012). FEMA 100-year coastal floodplains factor in storm surge, tides, and waves, and include all areas determined to have an at least one percent annual chance of flooding. Based on locations meeting these criteria and population density, New York City ranked first, with over 245,000 people at risk, followed by Miami and then Pembroke Pines, also in South Florida.
In our second analysis, we re-ranked cities based on which have the largest populations in the expanded areas that could be threatened in the year 2050 — due to sea level rise driven by climate change, plus nonclimatic factors such as local land subsidence. We determined these areas by using median local sea level rise projections for midcentury (Kopp et al 2014) under an unrestricted emissions scenario (“Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5”) to additively elevate the FEMA 100-year floodplain, and accordingly extend it as topography allows, following methods detailed in States at Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card Technical Methodology. After this adjustment, New York City still had the greatest number of people on threatened land, followed by Hialeah, Florida and Miami. 36 cities in Florida placed in the top 50.
The top five cities with the greatest increase in population on land at risk when adding on sea level projections were New York City, with a difference exceeding 181,000, plus Hialeah, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, and The Hammocks, Florida.
The yellow, orange and red show areas at or below Sandy's peak flood elevation at The Battery.
Finally, we also ranked coastal cities by their “high social vulnerability” population within the areas delineated by our second analysis. High social vulnerability was determined using the Social Vulnerability Index developed by the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, which incorporates 29 different socioeconomic variables to evaluate the ability of communities to prepare and respond to environmental hazards such as floods. New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, Baltimore, and Miami were ranked as the top five cities with the largest high social vulnerability populations within the future FEMA 100-year floodplain — and thus face a difficult double jeopardy over time.
Sea level rise is a key indicator and consequence of climate change.
Analysis by Scott Kulp, PhD and Benjamin Strauss, PhD. Dyonishia Nieves, Shari Bell, and Dan Rizza contributed to this report
Bloomberg, Michael. 2013. "A stronger, more resilient New York." City of New York, PlaNYC Report.
Crowell, Mark, Jonathan Westcott, Susan Phelps, Tucker Mahoney, Kevin Coulton, and Doug Bellomo. 2013. “Estimating the United States Population at Risk from Coastal Flood-Related Hazards.” In Coastal Hazards, edited by Charles W Finkl, 245–66. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5234-4.
Kemp, Andrew C., and Benjamin P. Horton. 2013. "Contribution of relative sea‐level rise to historical hurricane flooding in New York City." Journal of Quaternary Science 28.6: 537-541.
Kopp, Robert E., Radley M. Horton, Christopher M. Little, Jerry X. Mitrovica, Michael Oppenheimer, D. J. Rasmussen, Benjamin H. Strauss, and Claudia Tebaldi. 2014. “Probabilistic 21st and 22nd Century Sea-Level Projections at a Global Network of Tide-Gauge Sites.” Earth’s Future 2 (8): 383–406. doi:10.1002/2014EF000239.
Strauss, Benjamin H, Remik Ziemlinski, Jeremy L Weiss, and Jonathan T Overpeck. 2012. “Tidally Adjusted Estimates of Topographic Vulnerability to Sea Level Rise and Flooding for the Contiguous United States.” Environmental Research Letters 7 (1). IOP Publishing: 014033. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/1/014033.
3 October 2017. Brazil’s Worst Month Ever for Forest Fires Blamed on Human Activity –
By Sam Cowie, The Guardian
Brazil has seen more forest fires in September than in any single month since records began, and authorities have warned that 2017 could surpass the worst year on record if action is not taken soon.
Experts say that the blazes are almost exclusively due to human activity, and they attribute the uptick to the expansion of agriculture and a reduction of oversight and surveillance. Lower than average rainfall in this year’s dry season is also an exacerbating factor.
A volunteer works to put out a forest fire in the northern area of Brasilia's National Park, in Brasilia, Brazil, August 30, 2017.
Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
The National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has detected 106,000 fires destroying natural vegetation so far this month — the highest number in a single month since records began in 1998, said Alberto Setzer, coordinator of INPE’s fire monitoring satellite program.
“It is fundamental to understand that these are not natural fires. They are manmade,” Setzer said.
Fires are commonly used during Brazil’s dry period to deforest land and clear it for raising cattle or other agricultural or extraction purposes.
The total number of blazes since 1 January was 196,000, and Seltzer expressed concern that — with the dry season continuing in Brazil’s Amazon — 2017 could surpass the worst year on record, 2004, when there were 270,000 fires.
According to INPE, deforestation has risen continuously since 2012, when a new forest code that gave amnesty to deforesters was introduced. The last available data for 2016 showed a 29 percent rise since the previous year.
Burning is illegal and carries heavy fines, but fire is often used to clear land for pasture or crops and hunting or results from land conflicts.
The problem was compounded, Setzer said, by a lack of oversight and manpower to contain the blazes.
“When there is a reduction in checks and surveillance, we see an increase in the number of fires,” he said.
View of the devastation caused by a forest fire in front of Brasilia's National Park, in Brasilia, Brazil, September 19, 2017.
Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
The government of president Michel Temer has been heavily criticised by environmentalists for making deep cuts to the country’s environmental budget, which have affected the ability of Brazil’s environmental police to perform inspections and raids.
In September, after a month-long battle, firefighters gave up on a fire in Tocantins state park, believed to have been lit by local fishermen and carried by strong winds during an intense dry period. An area three times the size of São Paulo was destroyed, according to local media.
“The Temer government’s policies signal for those in the countryside that the doors are open for more deforestation and more fires,” said Cristiane Mazzetti, a Greenpeace Brazil campaigner, listing a series of measures by the Temer government including reducing protected Amazon forest areas and giving amnesty to land grabbers.
Critics say Temer is acting at the behest of powerful ranching and mining interests inside congress. Recently, the government was highly criticized for opening up a vast Amazon reserve for international mining, a decree that was later revoked.
The states most affected by fires this year have been in the Amazon, increasingly targeted by ranchers and miners, with the Amazon biome accounting for 49 percent of the burnings.
The Amazonian state of Pará was the worst affected, with a 229 percent increase in fires from last year. It is home to the two hardest hit municipalities, São Félix de Xingu and Altamira, home of Brazil’s controversial Belo Monte dam project.
Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.
27 September 2017. The Sixth Mass Extinction of Wildlife Also Threatens Global Food Supplies –
By Damian Carrington, The Guardian
The sixth mass extinction of global wildlife already under way is seriously threatening the world’s food supplies, according to experts.
Farmers evaluating traits of wheat varieties in Ethiopia.
Credit: Biodiversity International
“Huge proportions of the plant and animal species that form the foundation of our food supply are just as endangered [as wildlife] and are getting almost no attention,” said Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, a research group that published a new report.
“If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the seven billion people on our planet,” she said in an article for the Guardian. “This ‘agrobiodiversity’ is a precious resource that we are losing, and yet it can also help solve or mitigate many challenges the world is facing. It has a critical yet overlooked role in helping us improve global nutrition, reduce our impact on the environment and adapt to climate change.”
Three-quarters of the world’s food today comes from just 12 crops and five animal species and this leaves supplies very vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of monocultures, as happened in the Irish potato famine when a million people starved to death. Reliance on only a few strains also means the world’s fast changing climate will cut yields just as the demand from a growing global population is rising.
There are tens of thousands of wild or rarely cultivated species that could provide a richly varied range of nutritious foods, resistant to disease and tolerant of the changing environment. But the destruction of wild areas, pollution and overhunting has started a mass extinction of species on Earth. The focus to date has been on wild animals — half of which have been lost in the last 40 years — but the new report reveals that the same pressures are endangering humanity’s food supply, with at least 1,000 cultivated species already endangered.
Tutwiler said saving the world’s agrobiodiversity is also vital in tackling the number one cause of human death and disability in the world — poor diet, which includes both too much and too little food. “We are not winning the battle against obesity and undernutrition,” she said. “Poor diets are in large part because we have very unified diets based on a narrow set of commodities and we are not consuming enough diversity.”
The new report sets out how both governments and companies can protect, enhance and use the huge variety of little-known food crops. It highlights examples including the gac, a fiery red fruit from Vietnam, and the orange-fleshed Asupina banana. Both have extremely high levels of beta-carotene that the body converts to vitamin A and could help the many millions of people suffering deficiency of that vitamin.
Training cows to walk in groups to extract wheat in Koka villge, Ethiopia.
Quinoa has become popular in some rich nations but only a few of the thousands of varieties native to South America are cultivated. The report shows how support has enabled farmers in Peru to grow a tough, nutritious variety that will protect them from future diseases or extreme weather.
Mainstream crops can also benefit from diversity and earlier in 2017 in Ethiopia researchers found two varieties of durum wheat that produce excellent yields even in dry areas. Fish diversity is also very valuable, with a local Bangladeshi species now shown to be extremely nutritious.
“Food biodiversity is full of superfoods but perhaps even more important is the fact these foods are also readily available and adapted to local farming conditions,” said Tutwiler.
Bioversity International is working with both companies and governments to ramp up investment in agrobiodiversity. The supermarket Sainsbury’s is one, and its head of agriculture, Beth Hart, said: “The world is changing — global warming, extreme weather and volatile prices are making it harder for farmers and growers to produce the foods our customers love. Which is why we are committed to working with our suppliers, farmers and growers around the world to optimise the health benefits, address the impact and biodiversity of these products and secure a sustainable supply.”
Pierfrancesco Sacco, Italy’s permanent representative to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said: “The latest OECD report rates Italy third lowest in the world for levels of obesity after Japan and Korea. Is it a coincidence that all three countries have long traditions of healthy diets based on local food biodiversity, short food supply chains and celebration of local varieties and dishes?”
He said finding and cultivating a wider range of food is the key: “Unlike conserving pandas or rhinos, the more you use agrobiodiversity and the more you eat it, the better you conserve it.”
Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.
20 September 2017. Arctic Sea Ice Just Hit Its Eighth-Lowest Minimum Ever Recorded –
By Damian Carrington, The Guardian
The Arctic ice cap melted to hundreds of thousands of square miles below average this summer.
Sunset in the Arctic Ocean over melting sea ice.
Climate change is pushing temperatures up most rapidly in the polar regions and left the extent of Arctic sea ice at 1.79 million square miles at the end of the summer melt season.
This is the time when it reaches its lowest area for the year, before starting to grow again as winter approaches. The 2017 minimum was 610,000 square miles below the 1981-2010 average and the eighth lowest year in the 38-year satellite record.
Scientists from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) said the rate of ice loss this summer had been slowed by cool mid-summer weather over the central Arctic Ocean. The record minimum came in 2012, when the ice area fell to 483,000 square miles below the 2017 extent.
Arctic sea ice extent in 2017.
Ted Scambos at NSIDC said the Arctic sea ice had set a record for the smallest winter extent earlier in 2017 and was on track to be close to the 2012 record minimum until July. But a cloudy and cooler than normal August slowed the melting.
“Weather patterns in August saved the day,” Scambos said. The fast shrinking Arctic ice cap is increasingly thought to have major impacts on extreme weather patterns much further south, due to its influence on the jet stream. Floods, heatwaves and severe winters in Europe, Asia and North America have all been linked to the Arctic meltdown. “It’s bound to have an impact on global climate,” Scambos said.
The 2017 sea ice level fits with an overall steady decline over the decades, but one that varies from year to year, Scambos said. “It’s not going to be a staircase heading down to zero every year,” he said. “[But] the Arctic will continue to evolve towards less ice. There’s no dodging that.”
Rod Downie, head of polar program at WWF, said: “From space, the loss of Arctic sea ice is the clearest and most visible sign of climate change, and human beings are responsible for most of it. We are engineering our planet and its climate.”
“That’s not good for the people of the Arctic who depend upon sea ice for their traditional way of life and for people across the world who depend on a stable climate,” he said. The Arctic could be virtually free of ice in summer within people’s lifetimes, he warned, and called for more action on climate change by reducing carbon emissions.
Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.
12 September 2017. Here Are Three Ways Nanomaterials Could Help Combat Climate Change –
By Bhavya Khullar, Ensia
The list of environmental problems that the world faces may be huge, but some strategies for solving them are remarkably small. First explored for applications in microscopy and computing, nanomaterials — materials made up of units that are each thousands of times smaller than the thickness of a human hair — are emerging as useful for tackling threats to our planet’s well-being.
Scientists across the globe are developing nanomaterials that can efficiently use carbon dioxide from the air, capture toxic pollutants from water and degrade solid waste into useful products.
Credit: Rice University News
“Nanomaterials could help us mitigate pollution. They are efficient catalysts and mostly recyclable. Now, they have to become economical for commercialization and better to replace present-day technologies completely,” says Arun Chattopadhyay, a member of the chemistry faculty at the Center for Nanotechnology, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati.
To help slow the climate-changing rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, researchers have developed nano-carbon dioxide harvesters that can suck atmospheric carbon dioxide and deploy it for industrial purposes.
“Nanomaterials can convert carbon dioxide into useful products like alcohol. The materials could be simple chemical catalysts or photochemical in nature that work in the presence of sunlight,” says Chattopadhyay, who has been working with nanomaterials to tackle environmental pollutants for more than a decade.
Ion beam “slice and view” showing the interior porous structure of the entangled nanotube network.
Credit: Science Reports
Many research groups are working to address a problem that, if solved, could be a holy grail in combating climate change: how to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into useful products. Chattopadhyay isn’t alone. Many research groups are working to address a problem that, if solved, could be a holy grail in combating climate change: how to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into useful products. Nanoparticles offer a promising approach to this because they have a large surface-area-to-volume ratio for interacting with carbon dioxide and properties that allow them to facilitate the conversion of carbon dioxide into other things. The challenge is to make them economically viable. Researchers have tried everything from metallic to carbon-based nanoparticles to reduce the cost, but so far they haven’t become efficient enough for industrial-scale application.
One of the most recent points of progress in this area is work by scientists at the CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum and the Lille University of Science and Technology in France. The researchers developed a nano-carbon dioxide harvester that uses water and sunlight to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into methanol, which can be employed as an engine fuel, a solvent, an antifreeze agent and a diluent of ethanol. Made by wrapping a layer of modified graphene oxide around spheres of copper zinc oxide and magnetite, the material looks like a miniature golf ball, captures carbon dioxide more efficiently than conventional catalysts and can be readily reused, according to Suman Jain, senior scientist of the Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun in India, who developed the nano-carbon dioxide harvester.
Jain says that the nano-carbon dioxide harvester has a large molecular surface area and captures more carbon dioxide than a conventional catalyst with similar surface area would, which makes the conversion more efficient. But due to their small size, the nanoparticles have a tendency to clump up, making them inactive with prolonged use. Jain adds that synthesizing useful nanoparticle-based materials is also challenging because it’s hard to make the particles a consistent size. Chattopadhyay says the efficiency of such materials can be improved further, providing hope for useful application in the future.
Most toxic dyes used in textile and leather industries can be captured with nanoparticles. “Water pollutants such as dyes from human-created waste like those from tanneries could get to natural sources of water like deep tube wells or groundwater if wastewater from these industries is left untreated,” says Chattopadhyay. “This problem is rather difficult to solve.”
An international group of researchers led by professor Elzbieta Megiel of the University of Warsaw in Poland reports that nanomaterials have been widely studied for removing heavy metals and dyes from wastewater. According to the research team, adsorption processes using materials containing magnetic nanoparticles are highly effective and can be easily performed because such nanoparticles have a large number of sites on their surface that can capture pollutants and don’t readily degrade in water.
Chattopadhyay adds that appropriately designed magnetic nanomaterials can be used to separate pollutants such as arsenic, lead, chromium and mercury from water. However, the nanotech-based approach has to be more efficient than conventional water purification technology to make it worthwhile.
In addition to removing dyes and metals, nanomaterials can also be used to clean up oil spills. Researchers led by Pulickel Ajayan at Rice University in Houston, Texas, have developed a reusable nanosponge that can remove oil from contaminated seawater.
The technology shows promise, but it’s not yet ready for prime time.
“While the nanosponge is a good material to deal with oil spills, these results are confined to the laboratory,” says Ashok Ganguli, director of the Institute of Nano Science and Technology in Mohali, Punjab, India. “Large-scale synthesis is required if we have to remove oil from seawater which is spread over several miles.” Although scientists have yet to successfully synthesize nanomaterials for cleaning oil spills at a scale large enough for practical application, “this may become possible with more research and industry partnerships,” Chattopadhyay says.
Another area being explored for application of nanomaterials is in managing organic waste, which can pollute land and water if not handled properly. “Farms and food industry generate humongous amounts of biodegradable waste, and we must find ways to manage it efficiently,” says Debjyoti Sahu, a professor of engineering at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Karnataka in India.
One of the oldest methods to treat biodegradable waste is to dump it into tanks called digesters. These are full of anaerobic microbes that consume the material, converting it into biogas fuel and solids that can be used as fertilizers. But anaerobic digestion is slow.
Recent research showed that adding metal oxide nanoparticles to a food waste digester doubled the amount of biogas fuel produced compared to the digester without it.“Nanoparticles can accelerate the anaerobic digestion of the sludge, thus making it more efficient in terms of duration and enhanced production of the biogas,” says Kamalakannan Kailasam, scientist with the Institute of Nano Science and Technology, in Mohali, India.
Recent research showed that adding metal oxide nanoparticles to a food waste digester doubled the amount of biogas fuel produced compared to the digester without it.
“Iron oxide nanoparticles are nontoxic, and they should be added to sludge waste to enhance the rate of its degradation,” says Sahu.
While nanoparticles have potential to solve environmental problems, the small size that makes them useful for environmental cleanup also raises special concerns about health and persistence in the environment.
“The long-term effects of using nanomaterials have not been evaluated yet,” says Chattopadhyay.
The U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and others are funding research to evaluate the potential effects of engineered nanoparticles on health and the environment. Researchers are also creating models to predict nanomaterials’ transport and fate in the environment as well as their potential effects on humans. If concerns that have been raised can be adequately dealt with, nanomaterials could play a big role in helping us cope with environmental challenges in the years ahead.
Reprinter with permission from Ensia.
5 September 2017. Here’s How Climate Change Could Turn U.S. Real Estate Prices Upside Down –
By Richard Luscombe, The Guardian
If Florida gleaned anything from Hurricane Andrew, the intensely powerful storm that tore a deadly trail of destruction across Miami-Dade County almost exactly 25 years to the day that Hurricane Harvey barreled into the Texas coastline, it was that living in areas exposed to the wrath of Mother Nature can come at a substantial cost.
At the time the most expensive natural disaster ever to hit the U.S., Andrew caused an estimated $15 billion in insured losses in the state and changed the way insurance companies assessed their exposure to risk for weather-related events.
South Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team Delta points to a someone who may need help on August 31, 2017 in Port Arthur, Texas after flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
Credit: The National Guard/flickr
Many of the lessons that Florida has learned since 1992 have parallels in the unfolding disaster in Texas, experts say, and what was already a trend toward factoring in environmental threats and climate change to land and property values looks certain to become the standard nationwide as Houston begins to mop up from the misery of Harvey.
“The question is whether people are going to be basing their real estate decisions on climate change futures,” said Hugh Gladwin, professor of anthropology at Florida International University, who says his research suggests higher-standing areas of Miami are becoming increasingly gentrified as a result of sea level rise.
“In any coastal area there’s extra value in property, [but] climate change, insofar as it increases risks for those properties from any specific set of hazards — like flooding and storm surge — will decrease value.”
Miami Beach in particular has become a poster child for the effects of climate change, with some studies making grim predictions of a 5 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century and others suggesting that up to $23 billion of existing property statewide could be underwater by 2050.
To counter those effects and preserve property values, Miami Beach has embarked on an ambitious and costly defensive program that includes raising roads and installing powerful new pumps to shift the ever more regular floodwaters.
Even so, there are indications that investors are already looking to higher ground elsewhere in the city, such as the traditionally poor, black neighbourhoods of Little Haiti and Liberty City. “The older urban core was settled on the coastal ridge and anything below that was flooded. The coastal ridge we’re talking about is clearly gentrifying,” Gladwin said.
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.
Credit: The National Guard/flickr
Or, as the journal Scientific American put it in its own investigation in May: “Real estate investment may no longer be just about the next hot neighbourhood, it may also now be about the next dry neighbourhood.”
Other analysts cite recent storms including Harvey, as well as Sandy, which wrecked areas of New Jersey and New York in 2012, as evidence.
“You have folks in south Florida buying houses in North Carolina and Tennessee, because they like the scenery but also because it’s high ground. If south Florida drops off into the ocean, they’ll have a place to go,” said Andrew Frey, vice-chairman of the south-east Florida/Caribbean Urban Land Institute and a Miami real estate developer.
“The more frequent these volatile superstorms become, the more people will look to build in safer places. If seas are rising three millimeters a year that’s one thing, but if we’re getting superstorms every couple of years with greater frequency and intensity, things can change a lot faster.”
Such concerns have fueled demand for data-driven analysis and climate aggregation services that offer real estate advice to clients ranging from large corporations, state and local governments to farmers and individual house buyers.
One such number-crunching company, the San Francisco-based Climate Corporation, which collates and analyses National Weather Service data mostly for clients in agriculture, has previously warned that it would take only “a few climatic events in a row” for a collapse in property values “that will make the housing crisis [of 2008] look small."
Its assessment is backed by Albert Slap, president and co-founder of Coastal Risk Consulting, a Florida firm that provides flood risk analysis reports. Slap said Harvey was only the latest natural disaster to expose flaws in the national flood insurance programme allowing property owners in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s so-called Zone X — areas at risk of a once-in-500-years flood event — not to carry coverage or fully disclose their flood risk when they sell.
“With storm surge and heavy rainfall increasing and climate and sea level rise, the system is just not working,” he said. “Millions more people need flood insurance than have it and the crazy thing about Houston was only 15 percent of those who were flooded had flood insurance. The risk communication is not enough.
“You have thousands of properties in Norfolk, Annapolis, Atlantic City, Savannah, Charleston and Miami Beach where part of the property goes underwater with seawater for days at a time. When you have fish swimming in your driveway, it’s not an amenity, like a swimming pool. It means you’re driving through saltwater to get your kids to school, get to the supermarket, whatever you’re going to do.
“Will there be a massive decline in the property values of the flooded areas in Houston? Common sense would say yes. And if that’s combined with new legislation that’s going to require full disclosure, then wow.”
Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.
By Sune Engel Rasmussen, The Guardian
The central highlands of Afghanistan are a world away from the congested chaos of the country’s cities. Hills roll across colossal, uninhabited spaces fringed by snow-flecked mountains, set against blistering blue skies.
In this spectacular, harsh landscape, one can pinpoint more or less where human settlement becomes impossible: at an altitude of 3,000 meters (9,840 feet).
This is where Aziza’s family lives, in the village of Borghason. In a good year, they just about survive by cultivating wheat and potatoes for food and a small income. However, when the rains fail, as they increasingly do, the family is plunged into debt, unable to reimburse merchants for that year’s seeds. “Last year, we had to borrow money from the bazaar,” Aziza says.
Things are about to get tougher. The precariousness of life in Bamiyan, one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces, leaves villages like Borghason at the mercy of climate change.
At 9,840 feet, farmers in Shah Foladi can grow wheat and potatoes. Above that altitude, the terrain becomes uninhabitable.
Credit: Tracy Hunter/flickr
On a recent visit, the Guardian trekked from freshwater lakes surrounded by jagged massifs at 4,500 meters (14,760 feet) down to villages at the receiving end of erratic weather, a common result of global warming. Warmer temperatures melt the mountain snow earlier, resulting in an increased flow of water before farmers need it.
These are irregularities that farmers living at the margins of economic sustainability cannot afford. “People are surviving,” says Andrew Scanlon, country director for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “[But] their ability to bounce back is almost zilch.”
Farmers say unanimously that temperatures have risen over the past decades. Rain is scarcer and more unpredictable. “People know about climate change even if they don’t call it that,” says Fatima Akbari, the UNEP’s country assistant. “They know all about change in water and weather.”
Despite 15 years as one of the world’s biggest receivers of international aid, much of it to agriculture, Afghanistan remains woefully underdeveloped and largely defenceless against jolts from nature. Western donors primarily poured money into short-sighted programmes such as heavy engineering and cash-for-work schemes, designed for “quick impact”, Scanlon says.
“Soldiers and engineers were on six-month contracts and needed to quickly win hearts and minds,” he adds. Governments and engineers got accustomed to short time frames. Meanwhile, little was done to build long-term resilience. Winning hearts and minds was meant to win the war, yet climate change endangers that elusive victory.
Although research on the topic in Afghanistan is limited to small-scale anthropological analyses, studies from Iraq and elsewhere link global warming and security. According to the UNEP, about 80 percent of conflicts in Afghanistan are related to resources like land and water — and to food insecurity, an immediate consequence of global warming.
According to a report by the UNEP, the World Food Programme and the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), the biggest climate hazards to Afghan livelihoods are drought and floods, caused by irregular snowmelt or rainfall.
Bamiyan is the epicentre. The mountains in Shah Foladi, one of four recognised national parks, feed both the Kabul basin and the Helmand river, which runs south for 700 miles. In Helmand, water has instigated conflict for decades and been central to foreign intervention since the early cold war, when the U.S. got involved in irrigation projects.
The mountains in Shah Foladi, in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, feed both the Kabul basin and the Helmand river.
Credit: Carlos Ugarte/flickr
Despite fighting a worsening war against insurgents, the Afghan government seems, to an extent, aware of the need to address the risks of global warming. “In the region, Afghanistan is the most vulnerable country facing the ravages of climate change,” says Prince Mostapha Zaher, grandson of the former king Mohammad Zahir Shah and director general of the NEPA.
Zaher, a trained microbiologist and a forceful presence, has entered Afghanistan into 14 international environmental conventions since 2005. Still, the government’s priorities appear to fall short of his ambitions. Zaher describes the NEPA, which is not an actual ministry, as a “fledgling agency on a shoestring budget”.
He has spearheaded efforts to protect Afghanistan’s extraordinary biodiversity by helping to name four areas as national parks. In June, marking World Environment Day, a wetlands site inside the city of Kabul became the latest. Kol-e-Hashmat Khan is a stopover for migratory birds of “world-class importance” and is visited by 150 species each year, according to the UNEP.
Threats to the site come not just from the climate but from humans, too. Garbage is piled high on the water’s edge. One-fourth of the site’s nearly 200 hectares have been grabbed by “strongmen”, who burn reeds and erect cream-coloured villas jutting from the banks. “Afghanistan is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world,” says Scanlon, adding that the country boasts about 3,000 endemic plants, almost four times more than Europe.
National biodiversity is another victim of international donors, such as USAid, that subsidise fertiliser and pesticides to Afghan farmers, and have used pesticides to eradicate poppies. Scanlon says international agencies generally have a “poor understanding” of Afghanistan’s natural riches. “I still speak to high-ranking officials from the World Bank, EU and other UN agencies who think Afghanistan is a desert, absolutely devoid of ecological value,” he adds.
In Bamiyan, the UNEP works to promote sustainable farming. In the village of Khoshgak, farmers used to cultivate the hills to take advantage of rainfall, but that drained them of all nourishment. Now, by collecting water in concrete basins fed by underground pipes, they grow apricots, barley and potatoes in the valley.
“Before, there was nothing here. It was scorched,” says Haji Qadir, a village elder, from his neatly manicured garden. Still, he remembers the valley of his childhood being more fertile. “The air used to be cleaner, not full of dust like now.”
Women are particularly affected by erratic weather. In Borghason, when the rains fail, farmers switch crops from barley to wheat, which is less ideal as livestock feed, says Chaman, an older woman in the village. As a result, women — who are tasked with fetching water and tending livestock ‚ have longer distances to hike.
Villages in Bamiyan exemplify how climate change can hamper the ability of families to sustain themselves. According to Prince Zaher, they show why global warming should be taken as seriously as fighting insurgents. “Terrorism is not going to be lingering here for ever,” he says. “But climate change is an ongoing death sentence.”
Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.
22 August 2017. Can Business Save the World from Climate Change? –
By Bianca Nogrady, Ensia
“We are still in.” On June 5, 2017, with these four words a group of U.S. businesses and investors with a combined annual revenue of $1.4 trillion sent a powerful message to the world: U.S. president Donald Trump may have withdrawn from the Paris agreement on climate change four days earlier, but corporate America was not following suit.
“We Are Still In” launched with more than 20 Fortune 500 companies on board, including Google, Apple, Nike and Microsoft, as well as a host of smaller companies. The statement was coordinated by a large collective of organizations including World Wildlife Fund, Rocky Mountain Institute, Climate Mayors, Ceres and Bloomberg Philanthropies. It has now grown to include more than 1,500 businesses and investors, as well as nine U.S. states, more than 200 cities and counties, and more than 300 colleges and universities.
In recent years, a number of initiatives and collaborations have sprung up around the world focused on private sector action on climate change. And it’s not alone. In recent years, a number of initiatives and collaborations have sprung up around the world focused on private sector action on climate change. With Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, these initiatives have raised an intriguing question: In the absence of political action, can business save the world from devastating climate change?
City lights in Chicago.
Credit: Luis José Da Silva G/flickr
“The simple answer is there’s no saving the world without business, but business can’t do it on its own,” says Nigel Topping, CEO of We Mean Business. “The reason we need these kinds of coalitions is so that both business leaders and political leaders hear loud and clear that actually the majority of businesses understand that we’ve got to change, and actually are on board and already in motion.”
We Mean Business is a global coalition of many of the same NGOs that initiated We Are Still In — CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), The B Team, The Climate Group, and others — and the two initiatives are closely connected. We Mean Business’s role is to provide a framework for corporate commitments on climate change and a platform from which to make those commitments public.
One such commitment is to adopt science-based greenhouse gas emissions targets. This is where Science Based Targets comes in. This global collaboration among CDP, World Resources Institute, the World Wide Fund and the United Nations Global Compact encourages and helps corporations to align their climate change policies with scientific evidence.
“What we could observe is a majority of companies were setting targets, but at least from a CDP perspective, we had many challenges to understand what targets were best,” says Pedro Faria, technical director of CDP and member of the Science Based Targets steering committee. “Talking with companies and other NGOs, we realized there was no method, so companies were setting targets based on what was feasible and not what was needed.”
“It has been extremely important to just make people aware of this concept: Set your ambition according to what the best available science tells you.”
Science Based Targets helps companies determine what actions they need to take to contribute meaningfully to the global target of remaining below 2°C (3.6°F) warming, a level above which experts say irreversible changes become locked in. These actions will vary across industries, so targets must be tailored to individual companies while still meeting global needs. Nearly 300 companies have signed on from every continent except Antarctica.
“It has been extremely important to just make people aware of this concept: Set your ambition according to what the best available science tells you,” Faria says. “Our mission is to make science-based targets a new norm.” Sixty-two companies have now set approved science-based targets for emissions reductions. For example, Coca-Cola HBC — a leading bottler of The Coca-Cola Company — has committed to a science-based target of reducing its emissions by 50 percent per liter of drink by 2020.
Energy For Renewables
Another corporate commitment We Mean Business advocates is the goal of 100 percent renewable power. More than 100 companies, including Ikea, Walmart, Nestle and Unilever have committed to this, but in a complex energy market like that in the U.S., buying this much renewable energy isn’t always easy. So in May 2016, Business for Social Responsibility, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund started the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, or REBA, which helps steer corporations through the energy market maze. The end goal is facilitating the deployment of 60 gigawatts of new renewable energy in the U.S. corporate sector by 2025.
The alliance first made its mark with the World Wildlife Fund and World Resources Institute’s Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles, a set of six criteria developed in partnership with a group of large energy buyers to assist utilities in helping companies who want to buy renewable energy.
Microsoft has stated that it is committed to working with the network and new partners to bring more renewable energy onto the grid.
But more was needed, says Lily Donge, a principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute. “We realized that the buyers need a trusted space to learn about renewable energy and also find ways to interact with each other and the service providers on the sale side in a more transparent and seamless fashion.” Thus was born the Business Renewables Center, which Donge heads. The center convenes, educates and assists corporations around purchasing off-site, large-scale wind and solar energy. It also hopes to facilitate collective buying, although that aspect is still in development. Donge envisages a scenario in which a city — for example, Seattle — its universities, its utilities and a locally based company such as Microsoft might come together to pool their renewable energy buying power. As one of the first to join the REBA network, Microsoft has stated that it is committed to working with the network and new partners to bring more renewable energy onto the grid. It is just one of the 60 percent of Fortune 100 companies that have now set emissions reductions targets or committed to clean energy.
Turning Words Into Action
If We Are Still In is the sentiment, We Mean Business is the statement of intent, and initiatives such as Science Based Targets and the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance are the enablers of action, then America’s Pledge will be the scorekeeper.
Launched on July 12, America’s Pledge will compile and quantify the steps taken by businesses, cities, states and others to address climate change.
Looking across these initiatives, it’s clear which industries are leading the pack. “If you’re one of the IT majors and you haven’t committed to 100 percent renewable electricity, you’re a laggard, you’re a dinosaur, and you really start to stand out,” Topping says. But other industries face more existential challenges around climate change action, particularly in the fossil fuel space.
“While many of the oil majors are publicly supportive of climate action and the Paris agreement, some of them are still proposing future energy and emissions scenarios in which there are very high levels of carbon capture and storage deployment — levels way higher than the current level of investment suggests is plausible,” Topping says.
“There’s no sector where there’s a sectoral climate denial or sectoral resistance to Paris.”
But even those industries are publicly engaged. The Climate Leadership Council, which launched June 20, features big oil companies BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total among its founding corporate members.
“There’s no sector where there’s a sectoral climate denial or sectoral resistance to Paris,” Topping says. “It’s just a question of what is the economic pathway of survival.”
WWF’s senior vice president of Climate Change and Energy Lou Leonard says the challenge ahead for all these initiatives and collaborations is to continue to demonstrate the credibility of the voice of these sub-national actors to the rest of the world, particularly in the lead-up to 2020 when all countries are supposed to return to the table with even more stringent targets than were committed to in 2016, in accordance with the Paris agreement.
“There’s going to have to be a continual injection of confidence and support from non-state actors and sub-nationals in the U.S. if you want those countries to keep [working toward goals],” he says. “This is where the future is, this is where we are going, and we want the rest of the world to know it.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Ensia.
15 August 2017. Alaska Towns At Risk from Rising Seas Sound Alarm –
By Oliver Milman, The Guardian
The U.S. government’s withdrawal from dealing with, or even acknowledging, climate change may have provoked widespread opprobrium, but for Alaskan communities at risk of toppling into the sea, the risks are rather more personal.
The Trump administration has moved to dismantle climate adaptation programs including the Denali Commission, an Anchorage-based agency that is crafting a plan to safeguard or relocate dozens of towns at risk from rising sea levels, storms and the winnowing away of sea ice.
Federal assistance for these towns has been ponderous but could now grind to a halt, with even those working on the issue seemingly targeted by the administration. In July, Joel Clement, an interior department official who worked with Alaskan communities on climate adaptation, claimed he had been moved to a completely unrelated position because of the administration’s ideological hostility to the issue.
Shismaref, a village in Alaska that voted to relocate to the mainland in the face of sea level rise.
Credit: Bering Land Bridge National Park/flickr
“We were getting down to the brass tacks of relocation [of towns at risk] and now work has just stopped,” Clement told the Guardian. He has lodged an official complaint over his reassignment.“Without federal coordination from Washington D.C., there isn’t much hope. This will take millions of dollars and will take years, and these people don’t have years. I think it’s clear I was moved because of my climate work. It feels like a complete abdication of responsibility on climate change.”
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, 31 Alaskan communities face “imminent” existential threats from coastline erosion, flooding and other consequences of temperatures that are rising twice as quickly in the state as the global average. A handful — Kivalina, Newtok, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik — are considered in particularly perilous positions and will need to be moved.
“It was clear from the start of the Trump administration that there was no interest in helping Alaskan communities, particularly coastal communities, adapt to climate change,” said Victoria Hermann, president of the Arctic Institute.
“There’s now no liaison from Washington on the issue. The biggest loss has been momentum. It feels like the Obama administration was kickstarting something useful but now it has dropped dead.”
Shishmaref, like Shaktoolik and Kivalina, is a town with several hundred inhabitants located on a barrier island. Last August, Shishmaref residents voted to relocate to the mainland but, in common with other Alaskan towns, there is no clear source of funding to do this. Meanwhile, Newtok, which sits on the banks of a river and is losing about 70 ft of land a year to erosion, appealed in January for disaster funding to relocate.
The coastal communities are threatened by a confluence of conditions that are making life difficult even for the flinty residents, who are used to dealing with an inhospitable, remote environment.
As the coastal buffer of sea ice retreats, towns are more vulnerable to storms and coastline erosion. Many key structures are built on permafrost, which is also melting, causing the buildings to subside or even crumple completely. And a succession of mild years — 2016 was nearly 6F warmer than the long-term average — is disrupting the patterns of wildlife in an environment where people rely upon the animals they catch for sustenance.
“People are coping with the loss of their history, places where they could reliably hunt and gather food, their burial sites,” said Mike Brubaker, of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “It causes a lot of distress. Before you see the physical impacts of climate change, you see the mental impacts.”
The Leo Network, which Brubaker is involved with, has documented a number of recent unusual events linked to climate change, including the sighting of baby squid far outside their normal range by a group of Alaskan school children, altered salmon migration patterns and a lake near the peninsula town of Port Heiden that is on the brink of overflowing due to erosion.
Kivalina, an Alaskan village facing coastal erosion.
These environmental shifts are placing strain on the viability of several towns that have found both the state and federal government unwilling to fully commit to the cost of moving them — in Shishmaref’s case, it will take $180m to relocate a town of 600 people to safer ground.
The Denali Commission is working on a strategy to save the towns once disaster finally hits and has already helped fund upgrades to vulnerable infrastructure. But the agency has been earmarked by the White House for elimination, which would further complicate communities’ years-long quest for relocation.
“We have communities here at threat and my peers in D.C. know this and are asking how they can help,” said Joel Neimeyer, federal co-chair of the commission, who said work would continue at the agency until Congress decided on its future. “At the moment there isn’t a mechanism to fund an entire village location. It’s done in dribs and drabs. We don’t know yet if Congress wants to fund a village relocation.
“This is about how to put a blueprint in place to fund [re]location when disaster hits. If Hurricane Katrina was going to hit you and you had a year to prepare, could you come up with a plan that would shorten the pain and suffering? I believe the answer is yes.”
Port Heiden has already gone through the process of relocation, moving to higher ground to escape a rapidly eroding shoreline. The last resident of the “old” Port Heiden moved away a decade ago and now all but four of the original structures have washed away.
The threat hasn’t completely passed, however. The fuel tankers that supply the town have to sidle alongside a ragged coastline — it’s no longer a port — and use long pipes to dispense their cargo. Further erosion could make this impossible. Port Heiden’s school is also in a vulnerable spot and may have to be relocated.
“I thought at one time it wouldn’t be a problem for us, but we are real flat,” said Scott Anderson, a former commercial fisherman who moved to Port Heiden in 1994. “The change has been rapid. It’s a lot wetter. The caribou have gone away. There used to be a dog and sled team but you don’t see that anymore because it’s rare to have a winter where everything freezes up.
“I imagine these things go in cycles but it concerns the locals. People in Port Heiden definitely think climate change is a real and serious threat.”
Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.
A suicide epidemic among India’s farmers has shaken the country and contributed to a doubling of the nation’s suicide rate since 1980.
It’s a widespread and intensely personal issue, one that has been difficult to tease out the root source. Debt, mental health, lack of social services, weather vagaries and even media coverage have all been put forward as part of the problem. Now, recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that climate change could also be playing a role.
An Indian farmer plows his field.
Credit: Kannan Muthuraman/flickr
The findings attribute more than 59,000 suicides in India to rising temperatures since 1980. With the world expected to warm further, the results suggest that adaptation could play a key role in helping farmers.
“Suicide is a heartbreaking indicator of human hardship, and I felt that if this phenomenon were in fact affected by a changing climate, it would be essential to quantify its effect and consider this relationship as we build climate policy for the future,” Tamma Carleton, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley who authored the new study, said.
Agriculture makes up 14 percent of India’s GDP, but employs 230 million people or 32 percent of the rural population. Roughly two-thirds of those farmers have poor access to irrigation and rely on rainfed agriculture, itself a crapshoot tied to the Indian monsoon. That leaves them vulnerable to not just drought but other climate shocks like rising temperatures.
“These farmers and agricultural workers face extremely stressful and difficult conditions,” Carleton said. “In this risky environment where families are very poor, any additional shock can lead to extreme economic destitution, and some individuals may cope with that hardship by committing suicide. I find that the climate, and temperature in particular, causes crop losses while also elevating the risk of suicide.”
The study shows that there’s a strong link between high temperatures in the growing season and suicide rates. Carleton found that degree days above 68°F (20°C) was a key threshold for suicide rates in India. By looking at the increase in degree days above 68°F since 1980, she was able to tease out how many additional suicides across India have likely been due to rising temperatures. Her results show the additional heat is responsible for 59,300 suicides since 1980, accounting for about 7 percent of the overall increase.
Rising temperatures essentially act as a threat multiplier, similar to how the military views climate change. Rather than directly causing suicides just because it’s hot out, Carleton’s work suggests that hotter weather can have knock-on effects like reducing crop yields and increasing financial hardship.
A graph shows the total number of deaths annually that can be attributed to warming trends, using the estimated marginal effects of degree days on suicide rates according to new research.
Credit: Carleton, 2017
Future warming will only further increase these risks. A World Bank report suggests that India may have to double its grain imports in order to cope with a 3.6°F (2°C) warming that could reduce yields 12 percent even as the population swells. With 7.2°F (4°C) of warming, agricultural production could be severely curtailed in parts of south India, the region Carleton’s research shows has had the biggest uptick in suicides in response to hot weather.
Outside researchers called the results a provocative addition to the discussion while also saying they’re in need of refinement.
“The notion that (climate change) will increase the rates of self-harm in India is likely correct,” Andrew Paul Gutierrez, a retired researcher who has studied farmer suicides extensively, said. “Climate change will affect crops production and may increase economic distress, and hence it is not unexpected that suicides would increase, especially in a society like India with its webbed nuance of social ecological, and economic factors of Indian agricultural society . . . but the situation is considerably more nuanced than climate warming.”
Gutierrez’s work has pointed to seven factors that influence farmer suicides in India. Chief among them is the arrival of Bt cotton, a genetically modified cotton, in India in 2002.The cotton costs more and requires different pesticides that increased the risk of farmers falling into bankruptcy.
While Bt cotton isn’t necessarily the main driver of farmer suicides, Gutierrez said the new study’s focus on temperature misses some of these important economics and social factors.
Anoop Sadanandan, a social scientist at Syracuse, called the findings “striking.” He noted, though, that the findings cover suicides across India and not just farmers, who account for for roughly 10 percent of all suicides in India.
“One has to be very careful when drawing conclusions,” he said. “It is plausible that the lower crop yields affect not merely the people directly engaged in the farm sector, but also the wider Indian population.”
Despite the criticism, he said the study showed a new pathway for research into the nuances of suicide not just among farmers but the population as a whole in India.
Carleton herself is well aware of the limitations of her approach. She said the study isn’t meant to be a panacea or suggest climate adaptation is the only way to address India’s farmer suicides.
“Suicide is an incredibly complex phenomenon, and any individual suicide is likely to have many causes,” she said. “This study shows that climate events elevate the risk of suicide in India, acting as a threat multiplier to all existing suicide drivers. This means that addressing climate change impacts is by no means the only focus one should have when seeking to reduce the number of suicides.”