The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
How Climate Change Could Lead to More Oil Train Derailments
Fossil fuels contribute to climate change when they are produced and emitted, and, now, a report shows that rising temperatures are making the railway transportation of them riskier than ever.
With temperatures in the U.S. rising by as much as 9 degrees, the rails that oil-carrying trains travel on are vulnerable to "sun kinks," or buckling as a result of extreme heat, according to a report from Climate Central.
When a railway gets a sun kink, heat expands its metal, causing rails to curve and making travel dangerous for trains, particularly ones that are carrying oil. More sun kinks could mean more derailments, leading to more hazardous materials in the air and our drinking supplies.
“Yes, you would anticipate more widespread or frequent incidents of track buckling as the temperature rises," said Virginia Burkett, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist.
More than 2,100 U.S. train derailments over the past four decades have been attributable to sun kinks. Each incident typically costs about $1 million, said Andrew Kish, an independent railroad track stability consultant and rail buckling expert formerly with the Volpe National Transportation System Center at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Four derailments took place in two weeks of summer 2012, the hottest year in U.S. history. They caused the the Federal Railroad Administration [FRA] to issue a safety advisory for the remainder of that summer.
The FRA is taking credit for kink-caused derailments dropping each year since 2011, but they remain unpredictable in nature, particularly in warmer weather. Trains are also increasing the amount of oil they carry. Crude oil shipments grew from 9,500 carloads in 2009 to nearly 400,000 last year.
“Look, if a train derails carrying coal, no big deal,” Kish said. “But if you dump a train with hazmat (hazardous materials) or liquid nitrogen or crude oil, it starts burning.
"It’s a more catastrophic event.”
YOU ALSO MIGHT LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Julia Conley
Climate campaigners on Friday expressed hope that policymakers who are stalling on taking decisive climate action would reconsider their stance in light of new warnings from an unlikely source: two economists at J.P. Morgan Chase.
Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
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."
- Is California heading for another drought? - Los Angeles Times ›
- CA wildfire season: Will rain, snow weather forecast end risk? | The ... ›
- California Fires Now Rage All Year as Drought Creates Tinderbox ... ›
- California weather stays dry as rain and snow come up short | The ... ›
- California Emerged From Drought and Is Still Catching Fire - The ... ›