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Another Oil Bomb Train Explodes, Third in Last Three Weeks
Yet another train carrying volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota derailed yesterday, this time in northwestern Illinois near the historic tourist area of Galena overlooking the Mississippi River. It follows recent derailments in West Virginia and Ontario. The area in which it occurred was not as remote as the Ontario derailment. However, it did not require as extensive evacuation as the one in West Virginia in which hundreds were forced from their homes in the bitter cold. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, firefighters were allowing the fireball to burn itself out.
Picture from @scandbq of most recent explosion from the @BNSFRailway derailment fire south of Galena pic.twitter.com/KJWoPb2jow
— KCRG (@KCRG) March 5, 2015
The 105-car train included 103 cars loaded with the crude oil, with eight derailing. It's not known yet if any oil spilled into the Mississippi River.
Residents of the Galena area might be especially uneasy about trains rolling through their area. A month ago, a train carrying ethanol derailed in Dubuque, Iowa 15 miles away, with a dozen cars going off the tracks and several landing on the frozen Mississippi River. That fire burned for a day before it went out.
So far this year, these derailments, followed by explosions and fires, have happened only in unpopulated and sparsely populated areas. But their frequency is alarming to more densely populated communities on the rail paths of these trains with many saying it's only a matter of time until a derailment causes a disaster like the one that killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013—or worse.
“Rail transport of crude oil has increased 4000% in the past six years,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “Many of these trains travel along and over our waterways, putting our communities, first responders and drinking-water sources directly in harm’s way. This latest derailment shows yet again how explosive this practice can be. Urgent action is needed by the federal Department of Transportation to put the brakes on the unsafe transport of crude oil.”
The train that derailed yesterday had passed earlier through the Minneapolis-St. Paul area as well as the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge.
— Matt (@mzt1504) March 5, 2015
In 2008, railroads carried 9,500 carloads of crude oil; in 2013, they carried more than 435,000 carloads. In the first half of 2014, 258,541 carloads were delivered. Rail imports of Canadian crude oil to the U.S. have increased 20 times since 2011. And as carloads skyrocketed so did accidents. As a result, more oil was spilled from railroad cars in 2013 than the entire period from 1975-2012. Bakken crude, with its exceptional volatility, caused some of the most spectacular derailments, including the one in West Virginia. But there's evidence that Alberta tar sands oil, the cargo involved in the Ontario derailment, could be just as dangerous.
Center for Biological Diversity, which has been tracking the derailments, said more aggressive action is needed to prevent these disasters.
"The only thing more mind-boggling than three such accidents in three weeks is the continued lack of action by the Obama administration to protect us from these dangerous oil trains,” said Center for Biological Diversity senior scientist Mollie Matteson. “The government has the authority to take immediate action to address this crisis which puts homes, waters and wildlife at risk–and yet it has sat back and watched. The fact that these trains are still moving on the rails is a national travesty. The next explosive wreck—and there will be more, so long as nothing changes—may take lives, burn up a town or level a city business district and pollute the drinking water of thousands of people. Enough is enough.”
While the U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed new rules for trains carrying dangerous cargo, they would allow the easily ruptured DOT-111 tankers to remain in use for another two-and-a-half years and the industry continues to lobby for a longer phase-out period. However, the cars that derailed and burned yesterday were the supposedly safer newer CPC-1232 tankers.
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?