By Kenny Stancil
Climate campaigners on Friday cautiously applauded California Gov. Gavin Newsom's moves to cut off new hydraulic fracturing permits by 2024 and evaluate phasing out oil production by 2045, while also stressing that the timeline still needs to be accelerated.
The embattled Democratic governor of the world's fifth-largest economy directed the state Department of Conservation's Geologic Energy Management (CalGEM) Division to initiate regulatory action to stop new fracking permits and requested that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) analyze how to stop extracting oil statewide.
"It's historic and globally significant that Gov. Newsom has committed California to phase out fossil fuel production and ban fracking, but we don't have time for studies and delays," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement.
"Californians living next to these dirty and dangerous drilling operations need protection from oil industry pollution today," she added. "Every fracking and drilling permit issued does more damage to our health and climate."
Food & Water Watch California director Alexandra Nagy agreed that the governor's steps were significant and shared Siegel's frustrations with Newsom's refusal to immediately ban fracking by executive action.
"This announcement is a half-measure as it allows continued drilling and fracking for the next two-and-a-half years," Nagy said. "Directing his regulatory agencies to do the work over two-and-a-half years that the governor can do today is more of the dodging we've seen from Newsom during his entire tenure."
Since taking office in January 2019, he has approved 8,610 oil and gas well permits, according to Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker's "Newsom Well Watch" website.
Thank you @GavinNewsom for listening to low-income residents and the communities of color who have been advocating… https://t.co/X3tlpvp8IC— Greenlining (@Greenlining)1619206042.0
Reporting on Newsom's announcement Friday, the Los Angeles Times noted that he's long been under pressure to outlaw fracking:
In September, Newsom called on lawmakers to send him legislation banning the oil extraction practice. That pronouncement was greeted with skepticism by lawmakers who said barring the controversial practice would require more from Newsom than just words.
Sweeping legislation to ban fracking and other "enhanced oil recovery" methods, as well as to mandate health and safety buffer zones around oil and gas wells, failed in the state Senate last week. R.L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party's environmental caucus, criticized Newsom for not doing more to support the bill, even though it went far beyond his request for solely a ban on fracking.
Climate, justice, labor, and public health groups in the state continue to call for not only cutting off new fossil fuel drilling permits immediately and phasing out existing extraction but also establishing a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer around oil wells that would—as Oil Change International (OCI) senior campaigner Collin Rees put it—"help Californians suffering from the deadly impacts of neighborhood drilling."
"Newsom's announcement shows the tide is turning swiftly against fossil fuel extraction," Rees also said. "California is the highest-producing jurisdiction in the world so far to commit to a phaseout of oil extraction, and other major producers need to join the state in committing to move beyond oil and gas. Our climate emergency demands bold action, and time is of the essence."
Following today's ban on fracking, @GavinNewsom now has the chance to do what no Governor in California has been ab… https://t.co/R24D72DtTo— Stacey Geis (@Stacey Geis)1619206541.0
While demanding bolder and more urgent climate action, campaigners did welcome Newsom's steps so far as inspirational for other elected officials.
"Stopping new permits for fracking and a plan for phasing out oil production are critical steps in the energy transition," said Matt Krogh, U.S. Oil & Gas Campaign director at Stand.earth, "and the governor should be applauded for that vision."
"This is a huge win for frontline communities and activists who have been fighting the oil industry in California, and an important statement for a world that must leave fossil fuels behind to have a chance at limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees," he added, referring to the more ambitious temperature target of the 2015 Paris agreement.
Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, said that "California's announcement today is the future of climate action: a clear commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground... This is exactly the type of commitment that we need to see from the Biden administration and other governments around the world."
Henn, of course, added that "the challenge now is to speed up the timeline so that it meets the urgency that science and justice demand. Drilling for fossil fuels is just as dangerous today as it will be in 2045."
The governor, whose state is bracing for another devastating wildfire season, said in a statement that "the climate crisis is real, and we continue to see the signs every day."
"As we move to swiftly decarbonize our transportation sector and create a healthier future for our children," Newsom added, "I've made it clear I don't see a role for fracking in that future and, similarly, believe that California needs to move beyond oil."
A great #EarthWeek announcement. CA must move beyond oil. TY Gov. @GavinNewsom for taking action to phase out #fracking in California. This will produce a healthier future for our planet and our communities. https://t.co/kPrkhrpkXu— Libby Schaaf (@LibbySchaaf) April 23, 2021
Greenpeace USA senior climate campaigner Amy Moas said Friday's announcement "signals an important first step by Gov. Newsom towards climate and environmental justice" but falls short of what's needed.
"California already faces the intensifying impacts of the climate crisis, which could get even worse just as the state aims to recover from the pandemic—and Gov. Newsom has a golden opportunity to lead the rest of the country in tackling the number one driver of the climate crisis," she said.
"For Gov. Newsom to reclaim California's title as an innovator and climate leader," Moas added, "he must take bold steps to protect people and the planet from dangerous fossil fuel expansion: by committing to a 2,500-foot buffer zone to protect communities living near drilling, jump-starting investments in a just transition so no workers and communities are left behind by the decline of the fossil fuel industry, and beginning a bold phaseout of fossil fuels today. These are the kinds of solutions we urgently need to address fossil fuel racism, public health disparities, and give workers and communities a chance to live safe, secure, and healthy lives."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
As the planet warms, mountain snowpack is increasingly melting. But "global warming isn't affecting everywhere the same," Climate Scientist Amato Evan told the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.
In a recent study, a team of researchers examined if snowpack melted faster in the Western U.S. than in other areas. Their findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Snowpack disappearance is occurring most rapidly in coastal regions and the south, according to scientists. This means that the Sierra Nevadas, Cascades and Southern Arizona mountains are at most risk for melting compared to the Rockies or Utah mountains.
"As you get closer to the ocean or further south in the U.S., the snowpack is more vulnerable, or more at-risk, due to increasing temperature, whereas in the interior of the continent, the snowpack seems much more impervious, or resilient to rising temperatures," Evan, the study's lead author, told Scripps Oceanography.
Funded by NOAA's Climate Program Office, the study analyzed regional variations in snowpack melt with temperature increases. Using four decades of observations, the scientists created a new model to understand the "discrepancy in the timing of snowpack disappearance," according to Scripps Oceanography.
They found shorter winters and early springs changed the amount of time snow had to accumulate and cover the ground. "Our theory tells us why that's happening, and it's basically showing that spring is coming a lot earlier in the year if you're in Oregon, California, Washington, and down south, but not if you're in Colorado or Utah," Evan told Scripps Oceanography.
For example, California's snowpack is not only melting faster but also accumulating less, threatening the state's water supply — one-third of which comes from the Sierras, NBC Bay Area reported. Rapid melting could also have "adverse societal effects because it contributes to a longer fire season," Scripps Oceanography wrote.
During a typical summer, gradual snowpack runoff keeps soil and plants moist. Yet in early spring 2020, the West experienced a warm and dry climate, The Washington Post reported.
"The magnitude we're seeing right now is pretty startling," Bryan Henry, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, told The Washington Post last spring. By September, wildfires had burned more than five million acres in California, Oregon and Washington, The New York Times reported.
Understanding the threats limited snowpack had on regions, researchers were also able to use their models to make global projections. Coastal regions, the Arctic, Central Europe and South America will experience rapid snowpack melts sooner than the northern interiors of North America and Eurasia, the scientists wrote.
While their findings offer a dire warning, they could also help climate leaders focus on areas where action is most needed.
"I was excited by the simplicity of the explanation that we ultimately arrived at," Climate Scientist Ian Eisenman told Scripps Oceanography. "Our theoretical model provides a mechanism to explain why the observed snowmelt dates change so much more at some locations than at others, and it also predicts how snowmelt dates will change in the future under further warming."
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Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Tara Lohan
Most of us know a bad drought when we see one: Lakes and rivers recede from their normal water lines, crops wither in fields, and lawns turn brown. Usually we think of these droughts as being triggered by a lack of rain, but scientists also track drought in other ways.
"The common ways to measure droughts are through precipitation, soil moisture and runoff," says Laurie S. Huning, an environmental engineer at the University of California, Irvine. Her most recent work adds another dimension to that by looking at water stored in snowpack.
Huning is the co-author of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with U.C. Irvine colleague Amir AghaKouchak, which developed a new framework for characterizing "snow droughts." These can occur when there's an abnormally low snowpack, which may be triggered by low precipitation, warm temperatures or both.
Their research is timely. This winter, southwestern states have received just a quarter to half of the average snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack — the key metric for determining a snow drought.
And that can have sweeping impacts. The water content of a snowpack can change the amount and timing of when runoff occurs, and that has implications for wildlife, ecosystems, water resources, flood control, hydropower and drought mitigation.
Snow droughts can also have far-reaching effects on agriculture — and economies. California's Central Valley, the heart of its agriculture industry, relies on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada. The state saw $2.7 billion in losses in the sector following low precipitation and warm temperatures during 2014-2015.
Frank Gehrke of the Calif. Dept. of Water Resources during the April 1, 2015 snow survey in the Sierra Nevada, which found zero snow for the first time since surveys began in 1942. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources
Snow droughts can also make conditions dire in regions that are already stressed by conflict and resource shortages. A snow drought in Afghanistan in 2017-2018 triggered crop failures and livestock loses that left 10 million people food insecure.
The concept of a "snow drought" has been around for several years, and it's been studied in certain key locations, but until now scientists and water managers lacked a worldwide method to assess them.
The study aims to solve that. Huning and AghaKouchak have developed a standardized snow-water equivalent index in an effort to better characterize and compare the duration and intensity of snow droughts around the world.
The results already reveal some areas of concern. Looking at data from 1980 to 2018, the researchers found a few hotspots where snow-droughts became longer and more intense during the 21st century.
The most notable area was the western United States, which saw a 28% increase in the length of periods of snow drought. Eastern Russia and Europe also saw increases, though less severe.
And on the flip side, some areas saw a decrease in snow drought duration, including the Hindu Kush, Central Asia, greater Himalayas, extratropical Andes and Patagonia.
"It's important to remember that not only does the snowpack vary but the impact that it has differs across the world," says Huning.
Huning hopes the framework developed for the study can help water managers better understand the amount and timing of snowmelt, and to integrate that with drought monitoring systems to recreate better resiliency and management of resources.
"We know that the snowpack is highly variable," she says. "Further development of this framework can improve our near real-time monitoring of drought."
The study didn't delve into the specifics of why snow droughts may be becoming more severe in certain places, but other studies have found that climate change is playing, and will play, a role in reducing snowpack in some areas — including western U.S. states.
A study by UCLA climate scientists published on Aug. 10 found that in California warmer temperatures will cause more rainfall and less snow during the winter in coming decades. This will likely increase flood risks and reduce the snowpack that usually melts slowly over the spring months.
Earlier research found that a decrease in Arctic sea ice leads to changes in atmospheric circulation that creates a high-pressure system, known as an atmospheric ridge, off the Pacific coast. These ridges deflect storms, pushing them northward and leaving the region high and dry. A particularly stubborn system that developed in 2013, nicknamed the "ridiculously resilient ridge," had a big hand in California's five-year drought, which extended until 2017.
Better understanding of how to measure and track snow droughts can give water managers another tool to help plan for similar droughts and to better manage this changing resource.
"Snow is a natural resource and, given the warming temperatures that some parts of the world will see, the amount of snow is changing," says Huning. "We need to recognize that there are so many different ways the environment and humans will be affected."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
The August Complex Fire in California has now burned more than 1 million acres, making the fire the state's first gigafire. For context, that means the Northern California inferno has now burned an area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island, as Vox reported.
An update on the fire posted Tuesday night by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) said the August Complex Fire has burned for 51 days, touched seven counties, and is 60 percent contained. It has consumed 1,008,590 acres.
The announcement that California now has the first gigafire on record came on the heels of the state announcing that this year's fires have set new records by burning more than 4 million acres so far, more than double the previous record, as EcoWatch reported on Monday.
So far, five of the six largest fires in the state have occurred this year, according to The Guardian. The August Complex Fire has burned through more than double the amount of land as the state's previous record holder, the Mendocino Complex Fire, which ravaged Northern California in 2018, as Gizmodo reported.
The August Complex Fire started when a series of dramatic lightning strikes caused several small fires that were increased by strong winds. The small fires joined together to form the gigafire that is still burning today, as CNN reported.
It was one of several fires that intensified from a series of bad luck as lightning strikes were followed by intense heat waves and high winds that ushered in dry winds. That combination allowed some fires to double overnight, as The Washington Post reported.
"We predicted last year that we were living with the chance of such an extreme event under our current climate," said Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, on Twitter, as The Guardian reported. "Don't need a crystal ball."
California's first gigafire is actually not the first one the world has seen this year. In January, Australia's saw a gigafire when lightning strikes caused a series of fires that, like the August Complex Fire, morphed into one in on the border of Victoria and New South Wales, as The Washington Post reported. That fire covered nearly 1.5 million acres.
Historically, the U.S. has seen several gigafires, too. The most recent was the Taylor Complex Fire in Alaska in 2004, which covered roughly 1.3 million acres. In 1988, the Yellowstone Fire in Montana and Idaho burned over 1.5 million acres, as CNN reported.
Experts say the increased frequency and intensity of the fires will be the new normal in the West as the climate crisis intensifies. According to an analysis by Climate Central, the increased heat coupled with prolonged drought have made today's wildfire seasons three months longer than it was in the 70s and wildfires are three times more common, as The Guardian reported.
A CNN meteorologist said that California's wildfires are eight times larger than they were in the 70s and the amount of land burned every year has increased by 500 percent.
The good news for Northern California in the immediate future is that temperatures are supposed to drop 15 degrees Fahrenheit at the end of the week and rain will move in to help the firefighting efforts, as The Guardian reported. However, it will not be enough rain to put an end to the 2020 fire season.
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By Richard Wilk and Beatriz Barros
Tesla's Elon Musk and Amazon's Jeff Bezos have been vying for the world's richest person ranking all year after the former's wealth soared a staggering US$160 billion in 2020, putting him briefly in the top spot.
Musk isn't alone in seeing a significant increase in wealth during a year of pandemic, recession and death. Altogether, the world's billionaires saw their wealth surge over $1.9 trillion in 2020, according to Forbes.
Those are astronomical numbers, and it's hard to get one's head around them without some context. As anthropologists who study energy and consumer culture, we wanted to examine how all that wealth translated into consumption and the resulting carbon footprint.
Walking in a Billionaire's Shoes
We found that billionaires have carbon footprints that can be thousands of times higher than those of average Americans.
The wealthy own yachts, planes and multiple mansions, all of which contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. For example, a superyacht with a permanent crew, helicopter pad, submarines and pools emits about 7,020 tons of CO2 a year, according to our calculations, making it by the far worst asset to own from an environmental standpoint. Transportation and real estate make up the lion's share of most people's carbon footprint, so we focused on calculating those categories for each billionaire.
To pick a sample of billionaires, we started with the 2020 Forbes List of 2,095 billionaires. A random or representative sample of billionaire carbon footprints is impossible because most wealthy people shy away from publicity, so we had to focus on those whose consumption is public knowledge. This excluded most of the superrich in Asia and the Middle East.
We combed 82 databases of public records to document billionaires' houses, vehicles, aircraft and yachts. After an exhaustive search, we started with 20 well-known billionaires whose possessions we were able to ascertain, while trying to include some diversity in gender and geography. We have submitted our paper for peer review but plan to continue adding to our list.
We then used a wide range of sources, such as the U.S. Energy Information Administration and Carbon Footprint, to estimate the annual CO2 emissions of each house, aircraft, vehicle and yacht. In some cases we had to estimate the size of houses from satellite images or photos and the use of private aircraft and yachts by searching the popular press and drawing on other studies. Our results are based on analyzing typical use of each asset given its size and everything else we could learn.
We did not try to calculate each asset's "embodied carbon" emissions – that is, how much CO2 is burned throughout the supply chain in making the product – or the emissions produced by their family, household employees or entourage. We also didn't include the emissions of companies of which they own part or all, because that would have added another significant degree of complexity. For example, we didn't calculate the emissions of Tesla or Amazon when calculating Musk's or Bezos' footprints.
In other words, these are all likely conservative estimates of how much they emit.
Your Carbon Footprint
To get a sense of perspective, let's start with the carbon footprint of the average person.
Residents of the U.S., including billionaires, emitted about 15 tons of CO2 per person in 2018. The global average footprint is smaller, at just about 5 tons per person.
In contrast, the 20 people in our sample contributed an average of about 8,190 tons of CO2 in 2018. But some produced far more greenhouse gases than others.
Some of the biggest polluters have relatively little wealth, while the two richest – Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – have relatively small carbon footprints. Yachts make up most of the emissions of those who have one. Mansions and other dwellings make up a very minor share of their carbon footprints. Values are in terms of tons of CO2 equivalent.
The Jet-Setting Billionaire
Roman Abramovich, who made most of his $19 billion fortune trading oil and gas, was the biggest polluter on our list. Outside of Russia, he is probably best known as the headline-grabbing owner of London's Chelsea Football Club.
Abramovich cruises the Mediterranean in his superyacht, named the Eclipse, which at 162.5 meters bow to stern is the second-biggest in the world, rivaling some cruise ships. And he hops the globe on a custom-designed Boeing 767, which boasts a 30-seat dining room. He takes shorter trips in his Gulfstream G650 jet, one of his two helicopters or the submarine on his yacht.
He maintains homes in many countries, including a mansion in London's Kensington Park Gardens, a chateau in Cap D'Antibes in France and a 28-hectare estate in St. Barts that once belonged to David Rockefeller. In 2018, he left the U.K. and settled in Israel, where he became a dual citizen and bought a home in 2020 for $64.5 million.
We estimate that he was responsible for at least 33,859 metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2018 – more than two-thirds from his yacht, which is always ready to use at a moment's notice year-round.
Massive Mansions and Private Jets
Bill Gates, currently the world's fourth-richest person with $124 billion, is a "modest" polluter – by billionaire standards – and is typical of those who may not own a giant yacht but make up for it with private jets.
Co-founder of Microsoft, he retired in 2020 to manage the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest charity, with an endowment of $50 billion.
In the 1990s, Gates built Xanadu – named after the vast fictional estate in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" – at a cost of $127 million in Medina, Washington. The giant home covers 6,131 square meters, with a 23-car garage, a 20-person cinema and 24 bathrooms. He also owns at least five other dwellings in Southern California, the San Juan Islands in Washington state, North Salem, New York, and New York City, as well as a horse farm, four private jets, a seaplane and "a collection" of helicopters.
We estimated his annual footprint at 7,493 metric tons of carbon, mostly from a lot of flying.
The Environmentally Minded Tech CEO
South African-born Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has a surprisingly low carbon footprint despite being the world's second-richest person, with $177 billion – and he seems intent on setting an example for other billionaires.
He doesn't own a superyacht and says he doesn't even take vacations.
We calculated a relatively modest carbon footprint for him in 2018, thanks to his eight houses and one private jet. This year, his carbon footprint would be even lower because in 2020 he sold all of his houses and promised to divest the rest of his worldly possessions.
While his personal carbon footprint is still hundreds of times higher than that of an average person, he demonstrates that the superrich still have choices to make and can indeed lower their environmental impact if they so choose.
His estimated footprint from the assets we looked at was 2,084 tons in 2018.
The Value of Naming and Shaming
The aim of our ongoing research is to get people to think about the environmental burden of wealth.
While plenty of research has shown that rich countries and wealthy people produce far more than their share of greenhouse gas emissions, these studies can feel abstract and academic, making it harder to change this behavior.
We believe "shaming" – for lack of a better word – superrich people for their energy-intensive spending habits can have an important impact, revealing them as models of overconsumption that people shouldn't emulate.
Newspapers, cities and local residents made an impact during the California droughts of 2014 and 2015 by "drought shaming" celebrities and others who were wasting water, seen in their continually green lawns. And the Swedes came up with a new term – "flygskam" or flying shame – to raise awareness about the climate impact of air travel.
Climate experts say that to have any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, countries must cut their emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050.
Asking average Americans to adopt less carbon-intensive lifestyles to achieve this goal can be galling and ineffective when it would take about 550 of their lifetimes to equal the carbon footprint of the average billionaire on our list.
Richard Wilk is a Distinguished Professor and Provost's Professor of Anthropology; Director of the Open Anthropology Institute, Indiana University.
Beatriz Barros is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology, Indiana University.
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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An "explosive" wildfire ignited in Los Angeles county Wednesday, growing to 10,000 acres in a little less than three hours.
The so-called Lake Fire, which prompted evacuations and road closures, is remarkable for spreading so fast so early in the fire season without strong winds to drive it.
"It's pretty explosive fire behavior," Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Robert Garcia told CBS Los Angeles. "It's typically what we see a little bit later in the season and often driven by wind. The fuel, moisture conditions and the fire at this particular location with the slope, it really created the recipe for rapid fire growth."
|Update| The #LakeFire has grown to 10,000 acres and is 0% contained. https://t.co/gNuygunYX4— Angeles_NF (@Angeles_NF)1597282476.0
The fire ignited around 3:40 p.m. Wednesday and is still zero percent contained, according to the most recent information from the U.S. Forest Service's InciWeb. It is burning about 65 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the Angeles National Forest, between Lake Hughes and Lake Castaic, USA TODAY reported.
Evacuations were ordered for the entire Lake Hughes area Wednesday night. All told, residents of around 100 homes and buildings were told to flee.
Evacuees were directed to the Highland High School, but, because of the coronavirus pandemic, will have to remain in their cars, CBS LA reported.
In addition to its early start and rapid spread, the fire is notable because it is burning vegetation that hasn't been set ablaze since 1968.
"Portions of the forest [haven't] had a significant amount of fire in a very long time, 1968, for a large portion of that area, it hasn't burned since then," Garcia told ABC 7.
I have never seen anything like this. The #LakeFire is moving fast toward Lake Hughes. It created a fire tornado on… https://t.co/7DZeWe2rVS— Veronica Miracle (@Veronica Miracle)1597289834.0
There have been no reports of injuries and no official tally of structural damage, according to ABC 7. However, the fire was seen burning several homes.
Reporter Veronica Miracle tweeted that she had spoken to a man who had fled his home as a wall of flames approached.
"He thinks his house is gone," she said.
Just spoke to a man who lives up the street from this road block. He says when he left his home there was a wall of… https://t.co/cW3pLDSWLm— Veronica Miracle (@Veronica Miracle)1597286040.0
Television footage early Thursday showed buildings burned to the ground, The Associated Press reported, but it was not clear if they were homes or not. Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief David Richardson said Wednesday night the flames might have burned some outbuildings.
More than 500 firefighters are combating the blaze, according to InciWeb. The area is expected to record temperatures in the 90s this afternoon.
Smoke from the fire could be seen from as far as Venice Beach Wednesday.
#LakeFire view from Venice Beach provided by @LACoLifeguards. #LACoFD https://t.co/84jv0gSoVU— L.A. County Fire Department (@L.A. County Fire Department)1597274994.0
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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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By Tara Lohan
When longtime environmental journalist Ben Raines started writing a book about the biodiversity in Alabama, the state had 354 fish species known to science. When he finished writing 10 years later, that number had jumped to 450 thanks to a bounty of new discoveries. Crawfish species leaped from 84 to 97 during the same time.
It's indicative of a larger trend: Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but few people know it. And even scientists are still discovering the rich diversity of life that exists there, particularly in the Mobile River basin.
All this newly discovered biodiversity is also gravely at risk from centuries of exploitation, which is what prompted Raines to write his new book, Saving America's Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation's Most Biodiverse River System.
The Revelator talked with Raines about why this region is so biodiverse, why it's been overlooked, and what efforts are being made to protect it.
What makes Alabama, and particularly the Mobile River system, so biodiverse?
The past kind of defines the present in Alabama.
During the ice ages, when much of the nation was frozen under these giant glaciers, Alabama wasn't. The glaciers petered out by the time they hit Tennessee. It was much colder but things here didn't die.
Everything that had evolved in Alabama over successive ice ages is still here. We have a salamander, the Red Hills salamander, that branched off from all other salamander trees 50 million years ago. So this is an ancient salamander, but it's still here because it never died out.
The other thing you have here, in addition to not freezing, is that it's really warm. Where I am in Mobile, we're on the same latitude as Cairo. So the same sun that bakes the Sahara Desert is baking here.
But we also have the rainiest climate in the United States along Alabama's coast. It actually rains about 70 inches a year here. By comparison, Seattle gets about 55 inches. It makes for a sort of greenhouse effect where we have this intense sun and then plenty of water. Alabama has more miles of rivers and streams than any other state.
Things just grow here.
The pitcher plant bogs of Alabama, for example, are literally among the most diverse places on the planet. In the 1960s a scientist went out and counted every species of flowering plant in an Alabama pitcher plant bog. He came up with 63. That was the highest total found on Earth in a square meter for a decade or more.
For a long time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was thought to be the center of oak tree diversity in the world because they have about 15 species of oaks in the confines of the park. Well, two years ago scientists working in this area called the Red Hills along the Alabama River found 20 species of oak trees on a single hillside. It's just staggering.
Why is Alabama's rich biodiversity not well known or studied?
The state was never known for being a biodiverse place until the early 2000s, when NatureServe came out with this big survey of all the states. It surprised everyone because it showed Alabama leading in aquatic diversity in all the categories — more species of fish, turtles, salamanders, mussels, snails.
This blew everybody away because Alabama in everybody's mind is the civil rights protests of the 1960s, the KKK, steel mills and cotton fields. But that's not what's in Alabama, that's what we've done to Alabama since we've been here.
I think part of it also has to do with being a long way from Harvard and Yale and Stanford and the great research institutions that were sending biologists all over the world. Alabama just wasn't really studied or explored.
Again and again, the story in Alabama is that nobody has ever looked.
That's one of E.O. Wilson's big messages about Alabama. He is our most famous living scientist, I would say, or certainly biologist. He grew up here, and now in his twilight years his big mission has become trying to save Alabama. And he describes it as less explored than Borneo and says we have no idea what miracle cures and things we may find in the Mobile River system, which is what I call "America's Amazon."
Iris bloom play a significant role in the swamp ecosystem helping to hold the mud in place. © Ben Raines
As you write about in your book, all this newly discovered biodiversity is at risk. What's happening?
Alabama is in a very precarious situation. We have the worst environmental laws in the country and the state environmental agency has been the lowest funded of any state going back decades. So there's very little enforcement. Maybe that's because nobody realized how rich this place was in terms of diversity, so there was no move to protect it.
But Alabama's early history, from the discovery of coal, which happened in the 1800s, has been one of exploitation. Massive amounts of forests were taken down in the 1800s for cotton fields. This state produced more cotton than any other back then, and that took a huge natural toll. And typically it's people from other places, or even other countries, coming here to harvest the natural resources.
When I was born in Alabama in 1970, there were 15 steel mills in Birmingham going full blast. The air and water pollution from the steel mills and the coal mines were on a scale that's almost unbelievable.
So even when we talk about the biodiversity we have now, we can't even imagine what we've already lost. And this history of exploitation is still going on today. The largest factory built in the United States in the last 25 years was built in Alabama.
Alabama is inviting industry — and industry is coming because you can get a permit here in 30 to 60 days from the state environmental agency. That same permit in California would probably take 10 to 20 years to secure.
One example is the way Alabama does water permits: There's no limit on how much water industries can take, no matter what environmental havoc may occur.
A couple of years ago we had droughts so bad we actually saw some of the state's major rivers run dry. The Cahaba River is 150 miles long and it has 120 fish species — more than in the entire state of California.
And during this drought, the industries and golf courses were allowed to suck so much water out of the river it went dry. It only started flowing again downstream from a sewage plant. The entire flow of one of the most diverse rivers in America was the outfall from a sewage plant. It's the kind of thing you can't imagine happening in the United States, but it happened here and there were no laws to stop it.
Are there forces pushing back against this, and are people beginning to see the value of Alabama's biodiversity?
Environmental groups here are having an amazing growth spurt. Twenty years ago our Baykeeper group, which is part of the Riverkeeper alliance, was a one-woman show.
Now it has about a dozen employees and a huge membership. There are many other environmental groups now that have appeared and are doing good work all over the state.
That's a big change.
As ecotourism is spreading across the country, it's starting to happen here, too. The state is quickly catching up. There was great outrage among the populace when I wrote a story about the rivers running dry and now there's an effort at the state level to make a water plan and to actually limit how much water industry can take.
A red-wing blackbird atop the stalk of a lotus blossom. © Ben Raines
It sounds like there's still a long way to go for Alabama to catch up with environmental regulations — what else would you like to see happen?
I write a lot in the book about wetlands because so much of our diversity is in these edges where water and land meet. I would like to see the edges protected, but of course the problem is that's where people want to be. They want to live on the river, on the bay, on the beach. When you couple that with rising sea levels, there's a collision that's coming between people and the edges.
We have to protect that intertidal habitat now and then buy the uplands behind it to get ready for sea-level rise because otherwise our coastal habitats will have nowhere to go.
I would also really like to see Alabama adopt the pollution standards that you see in the surrounding states. For reasons that escape me, the levels of PCBs in fish we allow people to consume before we issue a warning is 10 times higher than any other state. There's no scientific reason why we would be so far out of step with our neighboring states.
And then there's the extinction issue. The rate of extinctions in Alabama is roughly double that seen anywhere else in the continental United States. It has more extinctions than Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee put together.
We're going to go from being the king of diversity to the king of extinctions. And that'll be a terrible thing not just for Alabama, but for what we know about nature. Alabama has more than twice as many species per square mile as any other state. And if we start losing that diversity, we're going to have no idea what we've lost.
What do you hope people do after reading your book?
I would hope they come to Alabama to see some of these things, because that's what will make the powers that be care — when ecotourism becomes an industry that can rival industrial manufacturing, then ecotourism will carry as much weight among the lawmakers.
I've been here about 20 years, much of that time as the environment reporter for the state's three biggest newspapers. Those papers were the environment's best friend. But they've been basically destroyed. The papers are just too anemic. In Mobile, we had a newsroom with 90 people in it, and now they have three reporters. The last thing you're going to see is an in-depth environmental story anymore.
So the book is a love letter and it's a call to arms, and it's saying, "love this place, but help."
I guess at the end of the day, the story in Alabama about the natural world has been a story of taking and never giving back or appreciating what was here in the first place. That's what has to change. Because if you just keep taking, you know how it will end. There'll be nothing left.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Tara Lohan
Aerial photos of the Sierra Nevada — the long mountain range stretching down the spine of California — showed rust-colored swathes following the state's record-breaking five-year drought that ended in 2016. The 100 million dead trees were one of the most visible examples of the ecological toll the drought had wrought.
Now, a few years later, we're starting to learn about how smaller, less noticeable species were affected.
One of those is the California newt (Taricha torosa). These large, colorful amphibians live across the state, from Mendocino County to San Diego County, but newts living in Southern California fared worse during the drought, according to a new study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. And worse, anticipated future changes to the climate are likely to put northern newts in the same boat in coming decades.
Researchers have been surveying populations of these amphibians for decades. By tagging them with transponders and following their movements, they've learned that the newts can live for more than 30 years and return to the same spots year after year as they migrate between freshwater and land.
But as the drought began in 2012, the researchers noticed a change in the Southern Californian populations. There were fewer newts from the tagged population coming back to dozens of breeding sites monitored across the region each year. The researchers also observed fewer egg masses, tadpoles and larvae.
"Here's a long-lived species that we're not seeing individuals that we've seen for the last 10 or 15 years coming back to the sites where they usually breed," says Gary Bucciarelli, the lead author of the report and an assistant adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA.
And there was one more piece of bad news: Most of the adult newts that did return in Southern California were in poorer body condition than before the drought began. This negative trend, the researchers concluded, was linked to drier and warmer conditions that were far outside the 100-year average.
At the time the state was experiencing drought conditions not seen there for 1,200 years. You'd expect drought to hurt amphibians, which rely on access to water, but Bucciarelli says the research shows that similarly record-high air temperatures may have played an even greater role than precipitation.
Warmer temperatures remove necessary moisture from the terrestrial environment. But they could also affect food — a shifting climate may mean less prey, says Bucciarelli. Or it could mean that newts spend more time wandering around, burning calories, and less time hunkered down as they normally would.
Whatever exactly happened in this case, "It all was strongly correlated with the extreme deviation in climate," he adds.
Amphibians spend part of the year on land, and we know far less about how they spend their terrestrial days. "When they're on land we don't know if they're underground, moving around, in a deep sleep, or what they're feeding on," he says. "This research suggests there are things happening on land that are impacted by temperature that we don't really understand."
One thing is certain, though: Climate change will bring more severe droughts and higher temperatures to California, and that could push newts in Southern California, which are already a species of conservation concern, closer to extinction.
And in the next 50 years, the northern populations are likely to experience the same change in body condition. That means that the northern range "likely will not provide climate refuge for numerous amphibian communities," the researchers conclude.
That's particularly bad news considering that globally, an estimated 40% of amphibians face extinction. A disease caused by chytrid fungus has devastated many amphibian populations, especially in Australia, Central and South America, and wiped out 90 species already.
But amphibians face other threats, too. And the California newt is no exception.
The species is adapted to drought, but "they haven't dealt with drought coupled with temperature changes that are this rapid and this severe, in conjunction with habitat fragmentation, land use changes and fire frequency changes," Bucciarelli says. "Now we're beginning to see how these combined stressors are acting out ecologically."
So what do we do?
Collecting more data is a good start. Land managers need to begin long-term monitoring surveys of populations of amphibians now, even if the species aren't currently a major concern. "You never know what's going to happen and having baseline data is super important," he says.
Proactively improving habitat is also critical. We can start by ensuring that habitats are free of non-native species, says Bucciarelli, who has also tracked the negative effects of introduced fish and invasive crayfish on amphibians.
Suitable habitat is key, but so is connection. Many newt populations in Southern California have become islands, separated by development that limits their genetic diversity — and in the long run, their capacity to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions. Ensuring habitat connectivity could help strengthen their resilience.
Even if all of that happens, climate change will continue to be a threat, and Bucciarelli says we may need to develop contingency plans for worsening conditions if we hope to save these newts.
"We'll have to think of different and more creative management strategies to help in years when temperature and precipitation are not in line with the norm."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Jeff Berardelli
This story was originally published on CBS News on September 9, 2020. All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication.
Right on the heels of arguably the West Coast's most intense heat wave in modern history comes the most ferocious flare-up of catastrophic wildfires in recent memory. Meanwhile, just a few hundred miles east, a 60-degree temperature drop over just 18 hours in Wyoming and Colorado was accompanied by an extremely rare late-summer dumping of up to 2 feet of snow.
It's not coincidence, it's climate change.
These kinds of dystopian weather events, happening often at the same time, are exactly what scientists have been warning about for decades. While extreme weather is a part of the natural cycle, the recent uptick in the ferocity and frequency of these extremes, scientists say, is evidence of an acceleration of climate impacts, some of which were underestimated by climate computer models.
"This is yet another example of where uncertainty is not our friend," says Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. "As we learn more, we are finding that many climate change impacts, including these sorts of extreme weather events, are playing out faster and with greater magnitude than our models predicted."
On Wednesday NOAA released its latest State of the Climate Report, which finds that just during the month of August the U.S. was hit by four different billion-dollar disasters: two hurricanes, huge wildfires and an extraordinary Midwest derecho.
Just one such extreme event can strain emergency resources — a situation West Coast firefighters find themselves in now. However, in two dramatic cases this summer, the nation was hit simultaneously with concurrent catastrophes, some of which had no precedent in modern history. It's a concept scientists call compound events, and it is necessary to factor these confluences into future projections to properly estimate risk, response and resources.
In mid-August the West suffered through an extended heat wave which saw Death Valley surge to 130 degrees, the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth. The tinderbox conditions caused by the heat, along with a rare lightning outbreak, sparked the first round of major wildfires in California this season, escalating into three of the four largest fires in state history. At about the same time a powerful derecho caused billions of dollars in damage in Iowa and Illinois, and Hurricane Laura plowed into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana as a Category 4 with 150 mph winds and 16 feet of storm surge.
Just three weeks later, and here we are again. This past weekend California experienced an even more intense heat wave, with the southern part of the state hitting 121 degrees west of the mountains for the first time in record-keeping history. Predictably, fires flared back up due to the severe heating and drying, and then went into overdrive as a wicked early-season cold front — which is also bringing heavy snow to the Rockies — brought a wind event through the mountains and valleys of the intermountain west.
In Washington state, an estimated 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday, more than the total in each of the last 12 fire seasons. California has seen a record 2.3 million acres burn so far this year — more than 3 times the normal for an entire season (typically July through November), and 7 times the normal year to date.
If it were just this fire season, one could chalk the extremity up to mere coincidence. But scientists say this is part of an ongoing upward trend, made clear by the data and well understood by science.
"There is little doubt that we're witnessing an acceleration of fire activity in the West - be it in terms of burned area, number of large fires, fire growth, and of course direct and indirect impacts to people," explains Dr. John Abatzoglou, climate professor at the University of California Merced.
The acceleration has been dramatic. Fire season is now two to three months longer than it was just a few decades ago across much of the West. Since the 1970s, California has experienced a five-fold increase in annual burned area and an eight-fold increase in summer forest fire extent. At least 17 of California's top 20 largest wildfires have burned since 2000.
Increase in California areas burned by wildfires, 1975 to 2015. WILLIAMS, ABATZOGLOU ET AL., EARTH'S FUTURE
Abatzoglou makes clear that there are many factors — not just climate change — that contribute to the escalation of fire activity. These include the increased settlement of people in fire-prone lands and a legacy of fire suppression in many lower-elevation forests, which led to years of heavy growth of trees and brush.
"We can focus on the bad fortune of the lightning siege around the San Francisco Bay Area, or the multitude of stupid human tricks that materialized in large wildfires, but the confluence of long-term and short-term environmental factors set the table for the 2020 fire season," he said.
In other words, though climate change does not cause the heat waves or fires, it sets the stage so that when conditions are ripe, like the summer and fall of 2020, heat waves are more intense and fires burn more fiercely.
This summer has been extremely hot and dry in the West. According to NOAA, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah each had their warmest August on record. Research has found that heat waves are now larger, getting more intense and lasting longer than decades ago. Specifically in California, extreme heat waves — like the ones of recent weeks — are now 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer due to climate change. By 2080, that same study finds such heat waves will intensify by another 3 to 5 degrees.
This week's NOAA report also finds that the same general area in the West also experienced one of its driest Augusts on record. This short-term dry and hot pattern is mainly due to natural cycles in weather, and from season to season has the biggest impact on the amount of area burned because it determines how dry the forests and brush are.
"Across the Western U.S. forests, we find that climatic measures of fuel dryness explain about ¾ of the year-to-year variability in the burned area — highlighting that climate very strongly enables big fire seasons in warm-dry summers and inhibits widespread fire activity in cool-wet summers," explains Abatzoglou.
But over the long term, human-caused climate change has been gradually drying out the atmosphere and the fuel. "The observed changes in fuel dryness [plus the] number of days of high fire danger have been particularly stark in the American West over the past half-century," says Abatzoglou.
Since the 1970s the warm season in the West has heated up by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This extra heat has increased the evaporation of moisture from the surface. While atmospheric moisture has also increased some, it has not increased nearly as fast as the temperature. That has caused a long-term "moisture deficit" and has accelerated the rate of foliage drying. This is part of the reason why, according to research, the West has entered into one of the worst megadroughts in the past 1,200 years.
A recent study, co-authored by Abatzoglou, found a direct link with nearly all of the increase in summer forest-fire area during the period from 1972–2018 driven by the increased moisture deficit. To illustrate just how impactful the moisture deficit is, right now, as unprecedented wildfires burn out of control, the deficit is at record low levels in the majority of the Western U.S.
Absurd atmospheric aridity (+ other factors) is enabling the ongoing fire outbreak – synchronized downslope winds… https://t.co/ohibdi2X5x— John Abatzoglou (@John Abatzoglou)1599605014.0
Another recent study from this spring found that the frequency of autumn days with extreme fire weather conditions has more than doubled since the 1980s, fueled by a combination of less rainfall and warmer temperatures.
But many scientists believe that there is more at play contributing to this extreme weather than simply the direct effects of warming and drying. One of those mechanisms is the indirect impacts of global warming on the most influential weather-maker on day-to-day conditions: the jet stream.
The speed and orientation of the jet stream — a river of fast-moving air currents in the atmosphere — determines the track, intensity and forward speed of most storm systems and also how cold or hot the weather is. The attributes of the jet stream at any given moment are determined largely by the placement of hot and cold air masses and the strength of the gradient between them. Because the Arctic has been warming at three times the rate of the rest of the globe, climate scientists know human-caused climate change is throwing the jet stream off-kilter. But how and to what extent is not totally understood.
A number of climate scientists believe that a warmer Arctic is slowing down the jet stream during certain times of year, resulting in a more wavy jet stream. As shown below, a wavy jet stream can catapult warm air northward into the Arctic and drive cold air far southward. This is exactly what happened during the catastrophic Midwest floods in 2019 and is also the kind of pattern we have right now, which is causing record low temperatures and extremely early season snow in the Rockies and Plains. A wavy jet stream is a normal part of nature, but climate change may be making it more amplified, resulting in more extremes.
"I think it's a triple whammy — heat and drought, which are favored by climate change, and the extra added ingredient is the slower, wavier jet stream," explains Mann. But he says the wavier jet stream isn't well resolved by current models, thus they underestimate the extremity of weather events enhanced by climate change.
As a result, when scientists dig into the causes of an extreme event, Mann says the studies underestimate the influence of human-caused climate change. "So if anything, climate attribution studies are likely to under-attribute the role that climate change is playing with these persistent extreme weather events," he said.
As for future fire seasons, Abatzoglou says we should expect extreme fires seasons like 2020's to become the rule rather than the exception.
"While the extent of the ongoing fire siege is beyond what most have seen in the West, the alignment of ingredients for such fire seasons is becoming more favorable as a result of climate change and land-use practices," he said. "We should expect, adapt, and prepare for similar years moving forward."
This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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The U.S., like much of the world, has the compounding problem of a growing population and an increased likelihood of drought due to the climate crisis. In fact, the Southwest is already in the throes of its worst drought in 1,200 years while Colorado and California are seeing how drought has turned their forests into tinder boxes. Now, a new study has identified ways to revamp how water is utilized to thrive in a time of water scarcity.
The study, titled "Reducing water scarcity by improving water productivity in the United States" was published Tuesday in Environmental Research Letters. The authors say that some of the most water-stressed areas in the West and Southwest have the greatest potential for water savings. The paper attributes nearly half the potential to simply improving how water is used in agriculture, specifically in growing the commodity crops, corn, cotton and alfalfa.
The researchers, led by a team from Virginia Tech, looked at realistic water usage benchmarks for more than 400 products and industries. The team of scientists pinpointed unrealized water savings in various river basins across the country.
"Nearly one-sixth of U.S. river basins cannot consistently meet society's water demands while also providing sufficient water for the environment," said Landon Marston, a Civil & Environmental Engineering professor at Virginia Tech University, in a statement. "Water scarcity is expected to intensify and spread as populations increase, new water demands emerge, and climate changes.
"However, improving water productivity by meeting realistic benchmarks for all water users could enable U.S. communities to expand economic activity and improve environmental flows. We asked ourselves the questions: if water productivity is improved across the U.S. economy, how much water can be saved and in which industries and locations?' Our study is the first attempt to answer this question on a nationwide scale, and develop benchmarks to inform future action."
The process of setting benchmarks provides various industries with a basket of options to make their water use more efficient. That makes the findings of the study less prescriptive and more amenable to how industry and populations can realistically adapt to decreased water availability, according to the researchers.
In fact, the range of options has the potential to improve water productivity so much that it could decrease the loss of water flowing through rivers in the West by six to 23 percent on average, according to the study.
"The agriculture and manufacturing sectors have the largest indirect water footprint, due to their reliance on water-intensive inputs, but these sectors also show the greatest capacity to reduce water consumption throughout their supply chains," said Marson, in a statement.
The demand for innovative ways to conserve water without sacrificing economic growth is peaking. In just 50 years, nearly half of the country's 204 water basins may fall short of meeting monthly demand, according to Harvard University. Since irrigation of crops accounts for nearly three-fourths of water use, a simple 2 percent reduction in consumption could prevent water shortages in several basins.
For that reason, activist organizations like The Nature Conservancy are teaming up with farmers to figure out how to improve infrastructure to reduce water consumption on all levels of the agricultural supply chain.
While the demand for water continues to grow despite its depletion, innovative solutions are possible, according to The Nature Conservancy.
The new study reaffirms that assessment.
"The agriculture and manufacturing sectors have the largest indirect water footprint due to their reliance on water-intensive inputs but these sectors also show the greatest capacity to reduce water consumption throughout their supply chains," the study authors wrote in their paper.
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By Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida
The immediate emergency of COVID-19 has been a powerful reminder that the most valuable things in our lives are our families, friends, and the welfare of our communities.
The current pandemic is a threat to those closest to us today in a way that presages what we will experience on an accelerating basis due to the climate emergency. In a place like California's San Joaquin Valley (SJV), Latinos account for 70 percent of COVID-19 cases, even though they represent 42 percent of the population. Improving access to clean and affordable water even as the pandemic grows more urgent, is critical to reducing the types of burdens worsened by the COVID-19 crisis. Continuing the hard work on groundwater sustainability required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) could lessen the impact of future crises in the valley. The low level of preparation communities have experienced around the pandemic, echos what these same communities face for water management on a daily basis and will face with future climate change threats unless fundamental changes are made locally.
Thousands of People in the SJV Live Without Reliable Access to Water.
California is the wealthiest state in the most prosperous country in the world, and yet, there are close to one million people living without reliable access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. Most of these people are concentrated in disadvantaged communities in the SJV. California identifies disadvantaged communities as areas that experience disproportionate levels of a combination of poverty, air and water pollution, high unemployment, and high rates of cardiovascular diseases and asthma. According to a report from the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, residents in these communities are over 60% Hispanic.
The SJV is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, producing more than half of California's agricultural output with over 200 different crops and annual revenue of about 20 billion US dollars. The astonishing volume of water that agriculture requires has led to over-exploitation of groundwater and the continuous lowering of groundwater levels that has impacted water quality and quantity.
Groundwater is the primary source for household water needs and agricultural water supply. Yet, thousands of people are unable to drink and use the water in the SJV, because there are multiple contaminants in it. Some of the water pollution comes from natural sources and includes substances like arsenic, but most of it has emerged due to agricultural practices. These contaminants include pesticides and nitrates, which are linked to cancer, birth defects, and blue baby syndrome.
In years with average precipitation, water flowing in California's rivers from rain and melted snowpack meets about 60 percent of the state's water demand and groundwater meets the remainder. However, during dry years water supply sources shift and put severe stress on groundwater levels. During the California drought from 2012 to 2016, groundwater use, mostly from agricultural water pumping, grew to 80 percent in some regions of the SJV increasing overdraft. Groundwater overdraft occurs when water extractions exceed recharge into an aquifer. An analogy is your bank account; extract more money than is put in, and your account will go dry. Aquifers are like a shared account, with some people taking out more than others. Consequently, thousands of domestic wells ran dry, unable to reach water due to lowered groundwater levels, in large part due to increased agricultural water pumping, and affecting thousands of people across the valley.
We think about drought as standalone events, but in reality, human actions triggered by droughts can have effects that continue long after the drought has ended, like permanently lowering the water table. In the SJV, the last drought has permanently reduced the capacity of some aquifers because overdraft left air in between soil particles instead of water, and the soils subsided eliminating the space for water storage. Overdraft also leads to infrastructure damage from land subsidence, that is when the ground levels drop, plus reduction of surface water, and an increase in water quality problems. That range of concerns brought by overdraft formed the basis of SGMA.
Groundwater Sustainability Plans Could Fix Part of the Problem but Are Currently Inadequate.
SGMA passed in 2014 and is the first legislation in California to mandate sustainable management of groundwater resources. SGMA is intended to bring about groundwater sustainability by the year 2040. Local water agencies describe the means to achieve this goal in their Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs). For those interested in the details of SGMA, here is a thorough description of it. The focus of this post is on the latest developments.
The 21 most critically over-drafted groundwater basins submitted their GSPs at the beginning of the year and are now under review by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). External reviews of these plans argue that some of them do not sufficiently address current and future impacts on disadvantaged communities. For example, the Groundwater Leadership Forum (a group of organizations funded by the Water Foundation focused on ensuring the success of SGMA and of which UCS is part) also reviewed several GPSs and found gaps in how drinking water, climate change, stakeholder involvement, managed wetlands, and groundwater-dependent ecosystems were addressed in the plans. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reviewed 36 plans submitted for basins overlapping the SJV. They found Kings Basin (surrounding Fresno) stands out for having the highest number of domestic wells that may go dry, about 600 of them, under the proposed water level sustainable thresholds and yet the local groundwater plan considers that an insignificant impact from continued overdraft. This is concerning and unacceptable. Public comments can be consulted in the SGMA portal from DWR.
I, and many others are concerned that multiple GSPs have questionable integrations of climate change projections. GSPs are considering numerous projects to tackle their local overdraft, yet they are not planning for the uncertain future that climate change is bringing. To reduce some of the vulnerabilities that we see now, GSPs need to integrate climate change and show benefits on the range of future scenarios.
Another concern is that on May 14, the Governor announced a $40 million cut on funding for SGMA. Part of the money was expected to support 37 new staff positions at DWR to uphold its statutory obligation on reviewing GSPs. While the budget still allocated $26 million of existing Proposition 68 bond funds to help with implementation projects in critically overdraft basin, it is unlikely that DWR will have the capacity to review the GSPs thoroughly. However, the governor's budget did prioritize safe and affordable drinking water and the State Water Board approved $130 million for 2020-2021 to projects that support such objective on vulnerable communities.
Without Bold Action and Preparation, Climate Change Threats May Bring Similar Impacts to Those of COVID-19.
The lack of drinking water causes many residents in the valley to rely on bottled water as their primary source for drinking and cooking. Panic buying at the beginning of the pandemic left stores across the valley without bottled water. In the case of COVID-19, unsafe and unreliable access to water has endangered a multitude of low-income communities by preventing them from performing protective, hygienic acts, handwashing, in particular, and forcing them to go to public water supply kiosks. As we've all learned, hand washing is one of the most necessary measures needed to slow and stop the spread of a virus. Without a correct implementation of groundwater sustainability plans under SGMA, many of these risks will continue.
Shelter in place orders resulted in people losing their jobs and hence, their source of income and being unable to pay utility services. Small utility services were also impacted because of low economic margins of operations in which small drops in income translate to being unable to provide service. Fortunately, many organizations and individuals wrote a letter to Governor Newsom that prompted him to issue an executive order protecting homes and small businesses from water shutoffs.
We now have the opportunity to give meaning to these current hardships by learning from them to prevent hardships from climate change. Climate change is a threat intensifier. In this case, the threat is a virus, and historical inequities and water vulnerabilities increased its impact on the most vulnerable among us. An example of the unpreparedness of the system to support our vulnerabilities during times of crisis is seen in the case of school children who rely on school lunches as their main meal of the day but are now unable to access this resource due to school closures. Some farmworkers, while cataloged as 'essential' by the federal government during this crisis, are undocumented and were not part of the stimulus package. The height of irony is farmworkers struggled with access to food distribution when they needed it.
There Is No Scenario Where Water Is Not Absolutely Necessary to Lessen the Impacts During a Crisis.
One of my colleagues wrote that moments of crisis often expose the weak points of a system. In the SJV, the weak points of the water system have been exposed for years and won't be strengthened without managing water resources sustainably. This is evidenced by the number of people in the SJV without access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. Considering that about 95% of valley residents depend on groundwater for at least part of their water, it is critical that GSPs explicitly include strategies for addressing some of the current and future water issues in the SJV.
Numerous, various kinds of climate threats will come, whether they develop as floods, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, or other climate hazards, we need to be prepared and do everything possible to improve sustainable water management for all. While future climate-change-derived crises most likely will be different than COVID-19, there is no scenario where water is not absolutely necessary to lessen the impacts.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.