The Top 10 Extreme Weather and Climate Events of 2020
By Jeff Masters, PhD and Dana Nuccitelli
Calendar year 2020 was an extreme and abnormal year, in so many ways. The global coronavirus pandemic altered people's lives around the world, as did extreme weather and climate events. Let's review the year's top 10 such events.
1. Hottest Year on Record?
The official rankings will not be released until January 14, but according to NASA, Earth's average surface temperature in 2020 is likely to tie with 2016 for the hottest year on record, making the last seven years the seven hottest on record.
Remarkably, the record warmth of 2020 occurred during a minimum in the solar cycle and in a year in which a moderate La Niña event formed. Surface cooling of the tropical Pacific during La Niña events typically causes a slight global cool-down, as does the minimum of the solar cycle, making it difficult to set all-time heat records. The record heat of 2020 in these circumstances is a demonstration of how powerful human causes of global warming have become.
Figure 1. The eye of category 5 Hurricane Iota on November 16, the strongest hurricane of the 2020 season, as seen by the Sentinel-2 satellite. Image credit: Pierre Markuse
2. The Wild 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season produced an extraordinary 30 named storms (highest on record), 13 hurricanes (second-highest on record), and six major hurricanes (tied for second-highest on record): more than double the activity of an average season (12 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 3 major hurricanes).
The 2020 season was notable not only for its record number of named storms (after breaking into the Greek alphabet by the ridiculously early date of September 18), but also for its record number of rapidly intensifying storms (10), record number of landfalling U.S. named storms (12), and record number of landfalling U.S. hurricanes (six). Every single mile of the mainland U.S. coast from Texas to Maine was under a watch or warning related to tropical cyclones at some point in 2020. U.S. hurricane damage exceeded $37 billion, according to insurance broker Aon, the eighth-highest annual total on record.
Two catastrophic category 4 hurricanes hit Central America in November: Hurricane Iota, the latest category 5 storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, and Hurricane Eta, the deadliest tropical cyclone worldwide in 2020, with at least 274 people listed as dead or missing. At least seven hurricanes from 2020 will be worthy of having their names retired: Iota, Eta, Zeta, Delta, Sally, Laura, and Isaias – although there is still no official mechanism for retiring storm names from the Greek alphabet. The record for most names retired in one Atlantic season was set in 2005, when five hurricanes had their names retired.
Figure 2. Global energy-related emissions (top) and annual change (bottom) in gigatons of carbon dioxide, with projected 2020 levels highlighted in red. Other major events are indicated to a give a sense of scale. Image credit: Carbon Brief, using data from the Global Energy Review
3. Record-High Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels Despite Record Emissions Drop
As a result of restrictions taken to curb the coronavirus pandemic, carbon emissions to the atmosphere in 2020 declined by 9 to 10% in the U.S. and 6 to 7% globally, although some of those reductions were offset by carbon released by wildfires. Those are the largest annual carbon emissions declines since World War II and far more than the 1% global and 6% U.S. emissions drops brought about by the 2008 Great Recession.
Nevertheless, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose by 2.6 parts per million from 2019 to 414 ppm in 2020. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere will not decline until human emissions reach net zero. Moreover, as coronavirus restrictions were lifted during 2020, global carbon pollution nearly rebounded to pre-COVID levels.
Figure 3. A wildfire in the Sakha Republic, Arctic Circle, Siberia, Russia creates smoke and pyrocumulus clouds on July 9, 2020. A record heat wave in Siberia during June led to the Arctic's first-ever 38.0°C (100.4°F) temperature and helped drive the Arctic's worst wildfire season on record. Image credit: Copernicus Sentinel data via Pierre Markuse
4. An Apocalyptic Wildfire Season
The year 2020 brought record levels of fire activity to the U.S. and Arctic, but unusually low levels in Canada and tropical Africa, resulting in a below-average year for global fire activity, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. According to Insurance broker Aon, the global direct cost of wildfires in 2020 was $17 billion, ranking as the fifth-costliest wildfire year, behind 2017, 2018, 2015 (major Indonesian fires), and 2010 (major Russian fires).
The Australian bushfire season ending in early 2020 (due to seasons in the Southern hemisphere being the reverse of those in the Northern hemisphere) was also a record-breaker, having burned more than 46 million acres and destroyed more than 3,500 homes.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported that U.S. wildfires burned 10.25 million acres as of December 18, 2020, the highest yearly total since accurate records began in 1983. The previous record was 10.13 million acres in 2015. The hottest August through October period in Western U.S. history, combined with severe drought and a once-in-a-generation offshore wind event, conspired to bring about an apocalyptic western U.S. wildfire season. Total U.S. wildfire damages in 2020 were $16.5 billion, said Aon, ranking as its third-costliest year on record, behind 2017 ($24 billion) and 2018 ($22 billion). Wildfires caused at least 43 direct U.S. deaths. But the indirect death toll among people 65 and older in California alone during the period August 1-September 10 – due to wildfire smoke inhalation – was likely between 1,200 and 3,000, researchers at Stanford University reported in a September 11 study. The 4.2 million acres burned in California in 2020 was more than double the previous record set in 2018.
5. Super Typhoon Goni: Strongest Landfalling Tropical Cyclone on Record
Super Typhoon Goni made landfall near Bato, Catanduanes Island, Philippines, on November 1 with sustained winds of 195 mph and a central pressure of 884 mb, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, or JTWC. Goni was the strongest landfalling tropical cyclone in world recorded history, using one-minute average wind speeds from the National Hurricane Center for the Atlantic/Northeast Pacific and one-minute average winds from JTWC for the rest of the planet's ocean basins.
Goni killed 31 people, damaged or destroyed 250,000 homes, and caused over $1 billion in damage, tying it with Typhoon Bopha in 2012 and Typhoon Vamco in 2020 as the Philippines' second-most expensive typhoon on record, adjusted for inflation. Only Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 ($11.1 billion) was more damaging.
Ominously, seven of the 10 strongest landfalls in recorded history have occurred since 2006.
6. Hottest Reliably Measured Temperature: 130°F in Death Valley
Death Valley, California, hit an astonishing 129.9 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4°C) at 3:41 p.m. PDT, August 16, 2020, at the Furnace Creek Visitor's Center. This reading was rounded to 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the daily summary from NOAA. According to weather records experts Christopher Burt, who wrote the comprehensive weather records book "Extreme Weather," and Maximiliano Herrera, who tweets under the Twitter handle, Extreme Temperatures Around the World, the observation may be the hottest reliably recorded temperature in world history, breaking the 129.2 degrees Fahrenheit readings at Death Valley in 2013 and in Kuwait in 2016.
The World Meteorological Organization is conducting a review of the site's observing equipment. "If the observation passes an investigation (instrument calibration, etc.) then, yes, this is a new reliably measured global extreme heat record," Burt wrote by email. However, the official world record will remain a 134 degrees Fahrenheit measurement taken at Death Valley on July 10, 1913, a record widely viewed as bogus.
7. Most Expensive 2020 Disaster: Flooding in China Causes $32 billion in Damage
Seasonal monsoon flooding in China in June through September killed 278 people, damaged or destroyed 1.4 million homes and businesses, and did $32 billion in damage, according to insurance broker Aon. EM-DAT, the international disaster database, ranks that total as the third-most expensive non-U.S. weather disaster since accurate records began in 1990 (adjusted for inflation), behind 1998 flooding in China ($48 billion) and 2011 flooding in Thailand ($47 billion).
In a September 2020 study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, "Each 0.5°C of Warming Increases Annual Flood Losses in China by More than US$60 Billion," researchers found that annual average flood losses in China during the period 1984-2018 were $19.2 billion (2015 dollars), which was 0.5% of China's GDP. Annual flood losses increased to $25.3 billion annually during the period 2006-2018. The study authors predicted that each additional 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming will increase China flood losses by $60 billion per year.
Figure 5. Arctic sea ice age near the time of the annual minimum in 1985 (left) and in 2020 (right). There is very little old, thick ice left in the Arctic, increasing the chances of a late-summer ice-free Arctic by the 2030s. Image credit: Zack Labe
8. Near-Record Low Arctic Sea Ice
Arctic sea ice reached its annual minimum on September 15, 2020, bottoming out at its second-lowest extent and volume ever recorded, behind 2012. A new study suggests that the 2012 record hasn't been broken despite ever-rising temperatures because the rapidly-warming Arctic has altered the jet stream, leading to cloudy summer Arctic conditions that have acted to temporarily preserve some of the sea ice. However, long-term global warming will inevitably win out, and scientists expect the Arctic to be ice-free in the summer beginning sometime between 2030 and 2050. Overall, three-quarters of the volume of summer sea ice in the Arctic has melted over the past 40 years.
The Northern Sea Route along the northern coast of Russia finally froze shut on November 3, after being open a record 112 days, and 2020 was the busiest shipping season ever for natural gas tankers in the Arctic, according to Bloomberg.
9. U.S. Withdrawal From Paris Climate Accord and Election of Joe Biden
The U.S. officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement the day after the November 3, 2020 election. But Joe Biden, who won that presidential election, has announced his intent to immediately rejoin the Paris agreement on the day of his inauguration: January 20, 2021.
President-elect Biden considers tackling climate change a top priority and has proposed a plan to invest $2 trillion over four years in deploying climate solutions. He has assembled a team tasked with carrying out that plan, including several climate-focused cabinet member-nominees and the first national adviser on climate change.
It's a dramatic change from the previous administration's record of climate and environmental protection rollbacks.
10. A Near-Record Number of Global Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters
Through the end of November, 44 billion-dollar weather disasters had occurred globally in 2020, according to the November 2020 Catastrophe Report from insurance broker Aon. The record in the Aon database is 47, set in 2010, and 2020 could challenge that record when the final tallies are announced on January 25, 2021.
The United States suffered 25 billion-dollar weather disasters in 2020, surpassing Aon's previous U.S. record of 20 in 2017. The record number of U.S. disasters led to the American Red Cross's providing record levels of disaster sheltering in 2020, according to a December 2 article by E&E News.
An October 13 report by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction found a "staggering" rise in climate-related disasters, including extreme weather events: those nearly doubled, from 3,656 in 1980-1999 to 6,681 in 2000-2019. The number of major floods more than doubled, from 1,389 to 3,254, and the incidence of destructive storms increased from 1,457 to 2,034.
The report blamed human-caused climate change as a significant factor in the increased disasters. It warned: "It is baffling that we willingly and knowingly continue to sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people." The U.N. report authors called attention to "industrial nations that are failing miserably on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels commensurate with the desired goal of keeping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius as set out in the Paris Agreement."
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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By Frank La Sorte and Kyle Horton
Millions of birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds during spring and autumn migration, creating one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. These journeys often span incredible distances. For example, the Blackpoll warbler, which weighs less than half an ounce, may travel up to 1,500 miles between its nesting grounds in Canada and its wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.
Blackpoll warbler. PJTurgeon / Wikipedia<p>We used this information to determine how the number of migratory bird species varies based on each city's level of <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/light-pollution" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light pollution</a> – brightening of the night sky caused by artificial light sources, such as buildings and streetlights. We also explored how species numbers vary based on the quantity of tree canopy cover and impervious surface, such as concrete and asphalt, within each city. Our findings show that cities can help migrating birds by planting more trees and reducing light pollution, especially during spring and autumn migration.</p>
Declining Bird Populations<p>Urban areas contain numerous dangers for migratory birds. The biggest threat is the risk of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1" target="_blank">colliding with buildings or communication towers</a>. Many migratory bird populations have <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1313" target="_blank">declined over the past 50 years</a>, and it is possible that light pollution from cities is contributing to these losses.</p><p>Scientists widely agree that light pollution can <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708574114" target="_blank">severely disorient migratory birds</a> and make it hard for them to navigate. Studies have shown that birds will cluster around brightly lit structures, much like insects flying around a porch light at night. Cities are the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2029" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">primary source of light pollution for migratory birds</a>, and these species tend to be more abundant within cities <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13792" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during migration</a>, especially in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">city parks</a>.</p>
Composite image of the continental U.S. at night from satellite photos. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The Power of Citizen Science<p>It's not easy to observe and document bird migration, especially for species that migrate at night. The main challenge is that many of these species are very small, which limits scientists' ability to use electronic tracking devices.</p><p>With the growth of the internet and other information technologies, new data resources are becoming available that are making it possible to overcome some of these challenges. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5" target="_blank">Citizen science initiatives</a> in which volunteers use online portals to enter their observations of the natural world have become an important resource for researchers.</p><p>One such initiative, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird</a>, allows bird-watchers around the globe to share their observations from any location and time. This has produced one of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04632" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest ecological citizen-science databases in the world</a>. To date, eBird contains over 922 million bird observations compiled by over 617,000 participants.</p>
Light Pollution Both Attracts and Repels Migratory Birds<p>Migratory bird species have evolved to use certain migration routes and types of habitat, such as forests, grasslands or marshes. While humans may enjoy seeing migratory birds appear in urban areas, it's generally not good for bird populations. In addition to the many hazards that exist in urban areas, cities typically lack the food resources and cover that birds need during migration or when raising their young. As scientists, we're concerned when we see evidence that migratory birds are being drawn away from their traditional migration routes and natural habitats.</p><p>Through our analysis of eBird data, we found that cities contained the greatest numbers of migratory bird species during spring and autumn migration. Higher levels of light pollution were associated with more species during migration – evidence that light pollution attracts migratory birds to cities across the U.S. This is cause for concern, as it shows that the influence of light pollution on migratory behavior is strong enough to increase the number of species that would normally be found in urban areas.</p><p>In contrast, we found that higher levels of light pollution were associated with fewer migratory bird species during the summer and winter. This is likely due to the scarcity of suitable habitat in cities, such as large forest patches, in combination with the adverse affects of light pollution on bird behavior and health. In addition, during these seasons, migratory birds are active only during the day and their populations are largely stationary, creating few opportunities for light pollution to attract them to urban areas.</p>
Trees and Pavement<p>We found that tree canopy cover was associated with more migratory bird species during spring migration and the summer. Trees provide important habitat for migratory birds during migration and the breeding season, so the presence of trees can have a strong effect on the number of migratory bird species that occur in cities.</p><p>Finally, we found that higher levels of impervious surface were associated with more migratory bird species during the winter. This result is somewhat surprising. It could be a product of the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/heatislands" target="_blank">urban heat island effect</a> – the fact that structures and paved surfaces in cities absorb and reemit more of the sun's heat than natural surfaces. Replacing vegetation with buildings, roads and parking lots can therefore make cities significantly warmer than surrounding lands. This effect could reduce cold stress on birds and increase food resources, such as insect populations, during the winter.</p><p>Our research adds to our understanding of how conditions in cities can both help and hurt migratory bird populations. We hope that our findings will inform urban planning initiatives and strategies to reduce the harmful effects of cities on migratory birds through such measures as <a href="https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">planting more trees</a> and initiating <a href="https://aeroecolab.com/uslights" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lights-out programs</a>. Efforts to make it easier for migratory birds to complete their incredible journeys will help maintain their populations into the future.</p><p><em><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/frank-la-sorte-1191494" target="_blank">Frank La Sorte</a> is a r</span>esearch associate at the </em><em>Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kyle-horton-1191498" target="_blank">Kyle Horton</a> is an assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the Colorado State University.</em></p><p><em></em><em>Disclosure statement: Frank La Sorte receives funding from The Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DBI-1939187). K</em><em>yle Horton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/cities-can-help-migrating-birds-on-their-way-by-planting-more-trees-and-turning-lights-off-at-night-152573" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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