In Yellowstone National Park, large crowds watch in awe as Old Faithful erupts with a roar, launching a spire of water about 150 feet in the air.
Old Faithful erupts at regular intervals throughout the day, but it was not always so predictable.
Fossilized wood found on Old Faithful's geyser mound suggests that the geyser once stopped erupting long enough for trees to grow there.
"Trees do not grow on active geyser mounds," says Shaul Hurwitz of the United States Geological Survey.
His team sent samples of the wood for radio carbon dating, and found that all were from the 13th and 14th centuries.
"So looking into it, we found out that that was probably one of the driest periods in the region for last 1,200 years," Hurwitz says.
He says that as climate change causes more severe droughts, something similar could happen again.
"There's a chance that some of the geysers will change their frequency of eruptions and maybe even stop erupting, depending on the availability of water," Hurwitz says.
A complete shut-off is not likely – it would take many years of continued drought. But Old Faithful could erupt less frequently, and eager tourists might have to wait longer to see the show.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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As extreme heat, drought, and wildfires spread across the state, Arizona is allocating funding to pay incarcerated people fighting those wildfires $1.50 per hour.
Incarcerated people clearing brush, in temperatures that hit 115°F in Phoenix for six days in a row last week, will make $1.00 per hour. The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits slavery, "except as a punishment for [a] crime" for which the person has been convicted.
For a deeper dive:
The majority of all Texas residents live in a deregulated energy market. This means every day, people have the freedom to switch to a different provider in their service area to save money. Competition helps keep prices down, and Texas energy rates are below the national average.
- The average Texas residential electricity bill is 13% lower than the national average.
- The average Texas commercial electricity bill is 4% lower than the national average.
- Texas leads the nation in wind and ranks fifth in the nation for solar electricity generation.
- Texas legislators, however, are actively campaigning against renewable energy solutions.
- Consumers in Texas can use their power of choice to demand smarter energy solutions.
- In this article we'll talk about energy options in your service area and discuss the pros and cons of energy deregulation.
But as we have discussed at EcoWatch, deregulation and a race to the bottom of prices also creates risk. Infrastructure falls into disrepair and when the grid fails, customers and legislators point fingers.
This article is designed to talk about the best energy companies in Texas, show how rates vary across the state, and give you some clarity on how Texas energy works. If you searched for other websites for info about "Texas energy" you probably encountered plenty of properties whose sole aim is to sell your information to an energy company. This is not one of those pages. This is meat to be informative. Our goal is to paint a picture of the landscape and talk in-depth about the green energy plans available in Texas.
Why Trust EcoWatch to Talk About Energy
An energy plan is something you have to have. Lights aren't optional for most people. For more than a decade we have written about the importance of renewables. Lately, through both legislation and media attacks, renewables have come under fire. We want to bring energy choice to the forefront, and center the conversation around renewables.
- Independent journalists. Our team of journalists covers renewable energy, solar power, and electricity rates to help consumers understand the energy landscape.
- Local perspective. We regularly source customer opinions, installation experts for quotes, and state-by-state data to better understand the energy landscape.
- Simple education process. Like all our product-focused content, our mission is to help people buy things they were already going to buy in a way that helps the planet.
What is "energy deregulation" in Texas?
In most states, consumers get their electricity from a local utility company. The Texas energy market is different. In Texas the market is deregulated, meaning people and businesses have the power to shop a marketplace of electricity providers.
Renewable and "green" electricity in Texas
Texas leads the nation in wind energy generation. It's also a top five states for solar power. This means, despite being closely associated with oil, Texas consumers can pick from green energy plans. The hard part is finding specifics on what makes a plan "green."
To find the specifics of your Texas electricity plan, you have to look at your Electricity Facts Label. If your local Texas electricity provider is unclear about their renewable energy sources, try looking at the green energy plans from Rhythm, Gexa Energy, Chariot Energy, and Green Mountain Energy.
Finding the right energy plan in a deregulated market is hard. You have to research each electric provider, their energy rates, and then pass a credit check. The most important things to consider are (1) am I lowering my monthly bill, and (2) am I moving my home toward a more renewable source of power.
Types of electric plans in Texas
You pay the same rate every month, regardless of season or changes in the energy market. A fixed-rate electricity plans may require a contract with an annual commitment. An early termination fee can be charged if you leave the contract early. This plan may be right for you if you don't plan to move for a while.
Variable-rate plans change based on the energy market. If demand goes up, so do your prices. We saw the consequences of variable-rate plans in the recent Texas energy crisis. When demand shot up, so did prices for energy customers.
Green energy plans
A green energy plan will rely on wind, solar, and other renewable resources. This is the plan for you if you want to offset 100 percent of your home or office emissions
Your credit score has an impact on how much you pay—as it's supposed to be a predictor of how likely you are to pay your bills. Prepaid energy plans allow people with poor credit to acquire power on a prepaid basis.
Texas electricity rates chart
Texas deregulated its energy market in 2002. Since then, consumers have been able to shop for the best rate in their area. It has also brought about a steady increase in competition since the marketplace opened. This means more choices and more for consumers to learn about the process of switching providers.
Best Green Energy Plans in Texas
Here's a chart outlining some of the 100% renewable energy plans available in Texas. We're currently sourcing customer reviews for each company plan and will update this page regularly with new information.
|Plan||Term (months)||Rate (¢/kWh)|
|Gexa Saver Deluxe 12||12||6.9|
|Gexa Saver Supreme 12||12||7.3|
|Gexa Saver 12||12||7.8|
|Gexa Saver Save Select 12||12||9.0|
|Gexa Saver Value 12||12||12.1|
|Gexa Saver Freedom 12||12||12.2|
|Gexa Saver Freedom 36||36||12.2|
|Gexa Saver Premium 12||12||13.5|
|Gexa Saver Premium 24||24||13.5|
|Gexa Superb Saver 12||12||14.8|
|Green Mountain Pollution Free e-Plus 12||12||11.1|
|Green Mountain Pollution Free e-Plus 24||24||11.3|
|Lone Star Green 12||12||11.9|
|Lone Star Green 24||24||11.6|
|Lone Star Green 36||36||11.2|
|Rhythm Texas Breeze 12||12||11.3|
|Rhythm Texas Breeze 24||24||10.6|
|Rhythm Texas Breeze 36||36||10.2|
Energy shopping checklist
- Download the Electricity Facts Label before signing any contract to be sure you understand the price you're paying for power; the percent of your power coming from renewable sources; and any fees (like early termination fees) attached to moving or changing your plan.
Texas Electric Companies FAQs
What if I own a business in Texas?
Texas commercial energy rates were the third-lowest in the nation in 2020. Texans who own companies can shop the same electricity market for their best electricity plan. Pricing info is available with each provider. Cheap electricity rates are also available for companies who work off-hours, and may include some free nights.
Is there a cheap energy rate in my area?
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) tracks average retail electric rates in Texas. The season, your energy usage, and your provider may impact your rate.
When you use the power can also effect your rate. Customers who use power at an off-peak time can get a lower rate.
What is the difference between a Utility and an Energy Provider?
Utilities are in charge of the operation and maintenance of the energy grid. Utilities are focused on the hardware and infrastructure that runs the grid. Texas utilities include Oncor and Centerpoint Energy.
How do I switch energy plans in Texas?
All a consumer has to do is (1) compare Texas electric providers, (2) switch your electric provider using an online service or form, and (3) verify your lower rate and green energy plan details using the Electricity Facts Label before completing the necessary paperwork.
What is Power to Choose Texas?
Power to Choose is the website managed by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC). It lists energy plans for consumers to compare. It does not list commercial electricity rates.
How do I find the best Texas energy plan?
Most of the searchable energy rates are attached to a zip code, so you'll need to find the best rate for your area. A Texas energy plan can vary dramatically—so the most important thing is, again, the Energy Facts Label.
You have the power, as a Texan, to push your state toward more renewable energy consumption by switching your home to a green energy plan.
How much can I lower my electric bill?
Find the right plan for your home and lifestyle is key to controlling your energy costs. Electricity companies are competing for customers, which is an advantage for the homeowners.
Deregulation also means there are power outages related to mismanagement and lack of oversight. Every time you look to lower your electric bill, think of the quality of electricity company you are partnering with. How will they impact your wallet, your power supply, and the planet?
What is the best energy provider in Texas?
The top providers in Texas are TXU Energy, Reliant Energy, Direct Energy, and TriEagle Energy.
Electricity companies focused on renewable energy sources and green energy plans include Gexa Energy, Chariot Energy, Green Mountain Energy, and Rhythm.
Gexa Energy is also one of the cheapest electricity providers in the marketplace. They offer a number of affordable electricity plans that are all 100% green.
The hot, dry weather baking the U.S. West is causing another problem for the beleaguered region: an overabundance of grasshoppers.
The crop-devouring insects are native to the region, and normally their population is too small to cause alarm, The Guardian explained. But warmer, drier winters beginning in 2020 created the ideal conditions for more of them to survive to adulthood. Now, their population is swelling, and ranchers fear that they will gobble up the vegetation their cattle rely on for food, according to CNN.
"Climate change is a concern to all of us, and when we see extreme events such as a very bad drought, we see natural phenomenon increase such as grasshopper outbreaks," former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Sharon Selvaggio told CNN. "It's very concerning."
There are currently 13 states experiencing a grasshopper outbreak, according to a hazard map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska there are as many as 15 grasshoppers per square yard of land.
Grasshoppers are a problem for ranchers and farmers because of how much they eat, The Guardian explained. They compete with cattle for forage, strip the leaves off of fruit trees and settle in the dry areas around crops, eventually eating their way to the grain. Oregon Department of Agriculture entomologist and agricultural scientist Helmuth Rogg told The Guardian that can lead to losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"The biggest biomass consumer in the country are not cattle, are not bison. They are grasshoppers," Rogg said. "They eat and eat from the day they get born until the day they die. That's all they do."
While the grasshoppers emerge during drought, they also compound its effects on agriculture.
"Ranchers are already short of forage because of the drought," Lassen County Director of the University of California Cooperative Extension David Lile told LAist. "They can't afford to lose more."
One rancher dealing with the infestation first hand is 70-year-old Deborah Jones of Northern California. Jones said she normally fed her cattle on summer grass, but that the grasshoppers made that impossible this year.
"I've already had to start feeding hay," Jones told LAist. "The animals won't go out and graze because the grasshoppers drive them insane."
Officials are working to suppress the insects with pesticides, but Selvaggio argued to CNN that this is not an effective long-term solution. One reason is that pesticides can harm grasshoppers' predators and competitors. Another factor in their proliferation, for example, is the decline of grassland bird species that would keep them in check.
"Climate change may bring us more grasshoppers in the future in increased frequency, duration or severity," Selvaggio told CNN. "We need those long-term solutions to address grasshoppers for the long-term because we do know that we may be facing more of this in the future if we don't really take this seriously."
- Billions of Cicadas May Soon Be Coming to Trees Near You ... ›
- Pikas Are Adapting Surprisingly Well to Climate Change - EcoWatch ›
That's the conclusion of the Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment, a collaboration between university and government researchers published Wednesday that assessed how warming temperatures have already impacted the iconic park and its surroundings, and may continue to do so in the future.
"Greater Yellowstone is valued for its forests, rivers, fish and wildlife," U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist and report co-lead author Steve Hostetler said in a USGS statement. "The trend towards a warmer, drier climate described in this study will likely affect ecosystems in the region and the communities that depend on them."
The scientists — who hailed from the USGS, Montana State University and the University of Wyoming — first studied how the park and its surroundings had changed between 1950 and 2018. They then used models to predict how it would change through the end of the century depending on how many more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.
One key finding is that Yellowstone is getting hotter. In fact, average temperatures today are as high or higher than they have been at any point in the past 20,000 years, and likely the past 800,000 years as well. Average temperatures have increased by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit so far and could climb a further 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 depending on future emissions. If nothing is done to curb carbon pollution, surrounding towns and cities could see 40 to 60 more days hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit each year.
The rising temperatures are already having an impact on the park's snowpack. Since 1950, the average snowfall has declined by 23 inches, and significant snowfall in June and September is now rare.
This is already impacting park visitors, Superintendent Cam Sholly told The AP. People like to visit the park beginning in November and December to snowmobile, but in recent years, there hasn't been enough snow on the ground for winter sports until January.
The high temperatures and reduced snow increase the risk of drought. In fact, Yellowstone's snowpack feeds cities as far away as Los Angeles, The Guardian pointed out. Snow is already melting earlier, which has bumped up peak streamflow by eight days since 1925 and led to drier summers, which in turn increase wildfire risk, according to the USGS.
In the future, higher temperatures could dry out the soil, which could in turn create ideal conditions for wildfires and drought. Such changes could have a profound impact on the park's ecosystems, according to The Guardian. Fires, for example, could burn down forests that may transition into grasslands instead of recovering.
The drought conditions could lead to a future in which Old Faithful fails to live up to its name, The AP reported.
In the past, droughts have interrupted the geyser's ability to shoot water into the air at regular intervals. This could happen again if droughts become more common.
Because Yellowstone National Park draws millions of visitors every year, it is also vital to the economy of the surrounding region. Anything that alters the park therefore has the potential to impact local and regional economies, Sholly pointed out in the report.
Further, changes to its plant and animal life would have repercussions for the Indigenous communities who have lived in and around it for thousands of years.
"Climate change has the potential to fundamentally change the ecological processes that have defined and supported the tribes' unique life ways," Chad Colter, director of the fish and wildlife department of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, told The AP. "This creates an urgent need to build climate resilience to protect and preserve those resources for future generations."
Creating that kind of resilience is one reason the report was written, according to Sholly.
"To mitigate the impacts, Yellowstone National Park and its partners are developing climate response strategies that better incorporate climate data and projections into planning, operations, and program management efforts," he said in the report's foreword. "We continue to develop new tools to provide realistic assessments of climate vulnerabilities and coordinate actions needed to better understand and respond to these changes."
- Severe Drought Could Impact Yellowstone's Old Faithful Geyser ... ›
- Wolverine Caught on Yellowstone Trail Cam for First Time - EcoWatch ›
A heat wave scorched the U.S. West just before the official start of summer, bringing record-breaking temperatures, worsening a dangerous drought and offering yet another example of how the climate crisis has upended our idea of normal.
The immediate cause of the hot weather was a high pressure system over the U.S. West, combined with the fact that soils are already parched from an ongoing drought, as The AP reported. However, these kinds of high pressure systems, or "heat domes," are unusual so early in the year, and this year's is particularly severe, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told NPR.
"It's not only unusual for June, but it is pretty extreme even in absolute terms," Swain told NPR. "It would be a pretty extreme event for August."
Burning Through the Records
The heat wave broke records from California to the Great Plains, including records for the hottest day during any month within 100 to 150 years. Here are some of the highpoints, as CNN reported:
- Palm Springs, California tied its all-time high temperature of 123 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday.
- Salt Lake City, Utah tied its all-time high of 107 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday.
- Colorado Springs, Colorado hit 100 degrees on the earliest date on record Thursday.
- Phoenix, Arizona broke a record by experiencing temperatures of more than 115 degrees for five days in a row as of Saturday, as AZ Central reported.
[5:43 PM] 107°F. We have now tied the highest temperature EVER recorded at Salt Lake City in any month of the year, in the last 147 years of records. It has only happened twice before: July 2002 and July 1960. #utwx pic.twitter.com/lySLjV748q
— NWS Salt Lake City (@NWSSaltLakeCity) June 15, 2021
The high temperatures continued across the U.S. West on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service (NWS), but were expected to fall again at the start of this week, as CNN reported.
Even when relief comes from the heat, however, the U.S. West is still in the midst of a dangerous drought that at once fueled and was fueled by the heat wave.
"The drought is leading to extremely low soil moisture, which is making it easier for these high pressure systems to generate extreme heat waves because more of the sun's energy is going into heating the atmosphere rather than evaporating nonexistent water in the soil," Swain told NPR.
At the same time, the high temperatures further dry out the soil.
The drought, known as the megadrought, has lasted for two decades and about half of it can be blamed on greenhouse gas emissions, according to The AP. And there are chances it could get even worse.
"This current drought is potentially on track to become the worst that we've seen in at least 1,200 years," University of California, Irvine Earth system scientist Kathleen Johnson told The Guardian.
It isn't just the drought that has been linked to climate change. The high temperatures themselves were also predicted by climate models.
"Climate change is loading the weather dice against us," Nature Conservancy chief scientist Katharine Hayhoe told The Guardian. "We always have a chance of rolling a double six naturally, and getting an intense record breaking summer heatwave. But decade by decade as the world warms, it's as if climate change is sneaking in and taking one of those numbers on the dice and turning it into another six, and then another six. And maybe even a seven. So we are seeing that heatwaves are coming earlier in the year, they are longer, they are stronger."
In fact, the West could see another heat wave within the next 10 days, according to NPR. And more frequent and extreme heat waves are on forecast for the future if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Kristie L. Ebi, a professor at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington, told The AP.
"Climate change is harming us now," Ebi said. "It's a future problem, but it's also a current problem."
- Extreme Weather Suggests Future Climate Crisis Is Already Here ... ›
- Records Break and Fires Rage as U.S. West Sees Third Heat Wave This Summer ›
- Climate Scientists' Heat Wave Warning 20 Years Ago Was Tragically Prescient ›
- 17 States Under Heat Alerts as Fifth Summer Heat Wave in the U.S. Begins ›
By Brett Wilkins
Researchers at the University of Leeds in Britain published new research Tuesday — World Rainforest Day — showing that massive swaths of the eastern Amazon are at risk of severe drying by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.
Analyzing the results of 38 known Amazon climate models, researchers found that large quantities of carbon dioxide would be released from the forest into the atmosphere as a result of drying, exacerbating the greenhouse gas effect and further fueling climate change.
Severe droughts in the Amazon would also adversely affect the rainforest's water cycle, biodiversity, and Indigenous peoples who live there.
"People in Brazil and across the globe are rightly concerned about what the future holds for the Amazon, and its valuable store of carbon and biodiversity," said study lead author Jessica Baker of the School of Earth and the Environment at Leeds University. "The Amazon is at risk from the twin threats of deforestation and climate change."
"This new study sheds light on how the Amazon climate is likely to change under an extreme warming scenario," Baker continued. "It should ring alarm bells for governments around the world that this vital global resource must not be taken for granted. Protecting and expanding existing forests — which absorb and store carbon — is of paramount importance to combating climate change."
Our paper analysing Amazon climate projections is now out, and on 🌳🌳🌳#WorldRainforestDay! 🌳🌳🌳 We show that unchecke… https://t.co/DDII4OXdJI— Jess Baker (@Jess Baker)1624373209.0
Caio Coelho, co-author of the study and a researcher at the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil — which is home to over half of the rainforest — said that "it's important to understand how the climate of the Amazon might change in the future."
"This study shows that dry season rainfall reductions in parts of the Amazon could be similar to the drying seen during the major Amazon droughts of 2005 and 2010, which caused widespread tree mortality and had major impacts for Amazon communities," Coelho added.
A 2019 study by researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California revealed that the atmosphere above the Amazon rainforest has been drying out over the past two decades, primarily as the result of human activity, leaving critical ecosystems increasingly vulnerable to fires and drought.
The eco-advocacy group Greenpeace has accused the climate emergency-denying administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — the self-proclaimed "Captain Chainsaw" and champion of Amazon "development" — of "systematically" dismantling environmental protections.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
- Amazon Rainforest Will Collapse by 2064, New Study Predicts ... ›
- Amazon Rainforest on the Brink of Turning Into a Net Carbon Emitter ... ›
- Study: Amazon Droughts Can Be Predicted in Advance - EcoWatch ›
- Amazon Rainforest Fires in Brazil Surge in July - EcoWatch ›
- Deforestation in Brazilian Amazon Increases for 13th Consecutive ... ›
Doctors Warn of Third-Degree Burns From Touching Pavement as Temperatures Soar and Grids Strain in West
Mutually worsening heat and drought, both fueled by climate change, are stifling the American West, stoking wildfire fears and straining electrical grids — and the worst is far from over.
"We could have two, three, four, five of these heat waves before the end of the summer," Park Williams, a UCLA climate and fire scientist, told the AP. A record-breaking heatwave trapped by an area of high atmospheric pressure, known as a heat dome, is pushing temperatures as much as 30°F above normal and subjecting 40 million people to temperatures over 100°F.
Doctors in Arizona and Nevada warned touching pavement could cause third degree burns. The extreme heat is also straining electrical grids. California grid operators called for voluntary demand reduction and, for the second time in four months, Texas grid operators are asking their customers to reduce their energy usage — including using less air conditioning and putting off cooking and washing their clothes — prompting jokes that Sen. Ted Cruz would soon be flying to Alaska.
The intense heat and drought are fueling wildfires across the region and stoking fears that more will come as the season is just starting. And so is the warming. "We're still a long way out from the peak of the wildfire season and the peak of the dry season," Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist, told The New York Times. "Things are likely to get worse before they get better."
Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, agreed. "As bad as it might seem today," he told the Times, "this is about as good as it's going to get if we don't get global warming under control."
As reported by The Associated Press:
In the Southwest, the problem of burns from hot surfaces is growing as temperatures rise due to climate change and increasing urbanization.
And it shows up in emergency rooms like the one at the Arizona Burn Center in Phoenix, where director Dr. Kevin Foster said 104 people were admitted in June, July and August 2020 with serious burn injuries due to contact with scorching surfaces. Seven people died.
Many more received outpatient treatment.
"It doesn't take much time to get a full thickness or third degree burn when exposed to hot pavement," Foster said in a press briefing last week. "Because if you look at hot pavement or asphalt at two o'clock in the afternoon in direct sunlight, the temperature is usually somewhere around 170 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit."
For a deeper dive:
Heatwave: The New York Times, AP, The Washington Post, Reuters, CNN, San Francisco Chronicle, Bloomberg, Axios; Burns: AP; Grid crunch: The Guardian, Bloomberg, Reuters; Ted Cruz memes: Buzzfeed; Fires in: North Dakota: AP; Montana: AP; Idaho: AP; Nevada: AP; Arizona: AP; Climate Signals background: Extreme heat and heatwaves; Drought; Wildfires
- Dangerously High Temperatures in West Expected to Threaten ... ›
- Climate-Fueled Drought Puts American West in Peril Ahead of ... ›
- Wildfires and Weather Extremes Result of Climate Change - EcoWatch ›
- Marine Heatwaves Destroy Ocean Ecosystems Like Wildfires ... ›
- Records Break and Fires Rage as U.S. West Sees Third Heat Wave This Summer ›
- 17 States Under Heat Alerts as Fifth Summer Heat Wave in the U.S. Begins ›
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.
By Tara Lohan
In early May scientists discovered a plume of smoke wafting from a smoldering sequoia that ignited during 2020's Castle fire, which set California's Sequoia National Forest alight last August.
The fiery remnant is the result of another too-dry winter in California and an ominous marker for the beginning of the 2021 fire season, which experts say looks "grim" for California and across much of the West.
March and April were the driest in more than 126 years for Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, and the third and fourth driest for California and Colorado. Oregon, meanwhile, had its driest April ever. Things are predicted to continue to be both hotter and drier than normal across the West and Plains, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
That combination, driven by climate change, caused record-breaking wildfires last year. And this year could be similar.
"More frequent drought, hotter summers and warmer and drier autumns, tied to climate change, are stacking the deck for large and destructive fires during the heart of the fire season," The Washington Post reported. "And this year, a lack of rain in spring could mean fires arrive early in some areas."
An increase in the size and number of fires is also driving more research. Here's what scientists have found recently about how wildfires are affecting ecology and communities:
1. California's Troubling Trends
If it seems like wildfire danger is getting worse in California, that's on target.
A new study published in Nature Scientific Reports found that the frequency and total area burned by wildfires in California have both increased significantly in the past 20 years. Wildfire season is now longer, and the yearly peak comes a month earlier.
The researchers also found geographic changes. "Hotspots" with severe fire risk — once limited to Los Angeles County — are now found in other parts of Southern California and across northern parts of the state. "Natural wildfires became more concentrated in Northern California," the researchers found. But "human-caused wildfires have even emerged [in] new hot spots… along the west coast and the Sierra Nevada mountain range."
Climate change and human land-use activities are the major drivers of these increases, but the expansion of the "wildland-urban interface" and continued development now also put more people and property in the way, according to the study.
2. Midwest Flames
The West isn't the only part of the country battling increasing blazes. A state of emergency was declared in Wisconsin on April 5 as wildfire season there arrived two weeks early.
"Between 2016 and 2020, Wisconsin averaged 742 fires per year and lost 1,200 acres to fires," The Guardian reported. But just four months into this year, there were already 365 fires, totaling 1,518 acres.
The state is expected to see its biggest fire season in five years.
3. Learning From Australia
Of course, everything is relative.
Last year 4 million acres burned in California wildfires. That's dwarfed by the 46 million acres consumed in Australia's 2019-2020 bushfires.
Wildfire is a natural part of many ecosystems in Australia and beneficial for some species. But research is beginning to show some of the short-term effects of Australia's recent fires on plants and wildlife.
A Koala in a tree near the Tambo Complex bushfire in Australia, Jan. 2020. BLMIdaho / CC BY 2.0
Recent research found that the critical habitat of more than 830 native vertebrate species was affected. Seventy species lost nearly one third of their range, with 21 of those species already at risk of extinction before the fires.
Another study found that more than 800 vascular plant species were "highly impacted." The ranges for 116 species were entirely burned and another 173 lost 90% of their habitat.
"The megafires occurred within globally significant biodiversity hotspots with high richness and endemism across important plant groups," the researchers wrote.
The good news is that many of the affected plants are resilient to fire, although the researchers say that some areas may not be able to recover. "The massive biogeographic, demographic and taxonomic breadth of impacts of the 2019–2020 fires may leave some ecosystems, particularly relictual Gondwanan rainforests, susceptible to regeneration failure and landscape-scale decline," they wrote.
4. Landscapes Shifting
Landscape-scale changes as a result of climate change and wildfires are happening elsewhere, too. A study published in Ecosphere found that when a wildfire in southwest Colorado's Rocky Mountains follows a severe bark beetle outbreak, Engelmann spruce trees are unable to recover.
The loss of conifers following that one-two punch is likely to lead to more quaking aspens taking root, and a possible shift in forest type — and the species that depend on those trees.
Changes are afoot in California too, particularly in chaparral. That ecosystem is made up of assemblages of native woody shrubs found along many of the state's coastal foothills and inland mountain slopes. The natural interval for fire return to chaparral is between 30 and 150 years, but in some places that's been shortened to just 10 years.
Not all species are able to adapt to that change. Some chaparral shrubs are being replaced by weedy annual grasses, which in turn drive more fires in an unfortunate feedback loop.
An increase in the frequency and severity of fires in chaparral also threatens an oft-overlooked part of the ecosystem: lichen, which play a key role in retaining moisture in the soil and providing food for wildlife.
A new study found that while most lichen don't survive wildfires in chaparral, they can recolonize in the decades following. However, with fires happening more frequently, we're likely to see "substantial lichen biodiversity losses in chaparral shrublands."
5. Fighting Fire With Fire
Parts of California's chaparral may be seeing too much fire, but other areas are still in fire deficits after a century of fire suppression policies. Land managers are beginning to see that bringing fire back to the landscape can be an important tool, though.
Aja Conrad (Karuk Tribe Environmental Workforce Development & Internships Division Coordinator) uses a drip torch to light a prescribed burn in Orleans, CA. Jenny Staats
Of course, Indigenous communities already knew that and have employed cultural burning practices for millennia. Some of that Indigenous environmental knowledge is being shared by tribes like the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk in Northern California.
But there are still many barriers to prescribed burns, including air-quality regulations and the capacity and funding to implement projects.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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Research published Wednesday in Nature found zombie fires — wildfires in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, so-called because they continue to smolder under winter snows and reignite once the snow melts — are becoming more common as global temperatures rise due to humans' extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. Making matters worse, the Arctic is heating faster than the rest of the planet.
The fires and warming fuel a vicious cycle: Higher temperatures enable longer fire seasons and more zombie fires, which lead to the release of more methane and CO2 from carbon-rich peatlands — just 10% of CO2 from Alaskan fires comes from burning trees — which further accelerates global warming.
"Ten years ago, someone asked me, 'How often do these happen?' And I said, 'Ehhh, they're interesting but they don't happen very often,'" Randi Jandt, a fire ecologist with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, told National Geographic. But, she added, "We definitely seem to be seeing them more, in my 30 years of observation and asking people up there about [overwintering fires] before that."
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Though giant sequoias have historically been resilient to wildfire, the Castle Fire was so severe it likely killed more than 1,000 of the trees including many that had stood for more than 1,000 years. Climate change is making droughts more likely to occur, and more severe when they do, and thus makes wildfires more extreme as forests and other fuels sources are turned into proverbial tinder boxes.
"The fact areas are still smoldering and smoking from the 2020 Castle Fire demonstrates how dry the park is," Leif Mathiesen, assistant fire management officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, told The Associated Press. California's current severe and extreme drought conditions covering the Sierra Nevada mountains set a dire stage for the upcoming wildfire season.
As reported by The Associated Press:
According to AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dave Samuhel, fires are projected to burn 14,844 square miles (38,445 square kilometers) of land across the Western U.S.
"Unfortunately, in a nutshell, it looks like it's going to be another busy season," he said in a statement. "We're seeing a lot of drought. Almost half of the country is experiencing drought, and the bulk of that is to the West."
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Aptly called, "Earth's lungs," the planet's two largest swaths of rainforest, in Amazonia and Africa, suck up 15 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions produced by humans. These ecosystems are essential for carbon sequestration and therefore curbing climate change, and while the Amazon rainforest has been the subject of mountains of research, scientists are just now beginning to understand how rainforests in Central and Western Africa respond to small changes in climate — and it's good news.
African rainforests naturally thrive in drier conditions than rainforests in Amazonia and Southeast Asia. According to new research, these conditions appear to have made African rainforests more resistant to drought and warmer-than-normal temperatures compared to rainforests in Amazonia, the world's largest rainforest, and Borneo.
"This is the first on-the-ground evidence of what happens when you heat and drought an intact African rainforest," Leeds' School of Geography professor and senior author of the new research, Simon Lewis, said in a press release. "What we found surprised me."
Despite more severe droughts and hotter weather, 100 plots of intact tropical rainforests spread across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia and the Republic of the Congo still absorbed a significant amount of Earth-warming CO2 compared to non-drought years.
To test this, the team used the 2015-2016 El Niño climate pattern as a model for what conditions may look like consistently in the near future. Exasperated by climate change, the temporary cycle brought a temperature increase of nearly 1 degree Celsius above the 1980-2010 average and the most severe drought on record.
According to lead author Amy Bennett, a professor at the Leeds' School of Geography, the extreme weather conditions brought by El Niño in 2015 and 2016 reduced the amount of carbon dioxide the forest pulled from the atmosphere by about 36 percent. However, the ecosystems continued to function as a huge carbon sink. Despite the crippling conditions, the plots indicated that rainforests in Central and Western Africa still absorbed 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year — three times the amount emitted by the United Kingdom in 2019.
"African tropical forests play an important role in the global carbon cycle, absorbing 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year since the turn of the last century. To discover that they will be able to tolerate the predicted conditions of the near future is an unusual source of optimism in climate change science," Bennett said in a press release.
In particular, larger trees were mostly unaffected, which the researchers speculated was due to the fact that larger root systems have more stable access to water. Smaller tree species, however, had less growth and higher death rates during drought years.
In contrast, research published in Nature in 2018 found that the Amazon rainforest's canopy shrunk during spells of El Niño drought. The Amazon rainforest, the largest of its kind in the world, is expected to collapse by 2046 and scientists believe it's already on the brink of emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs.
Taken together, research on Earth's lungs emphasizes the importance of keeping rainforests intact while drastically reducing carbon emissions. Central Africa houses the world's second-largest tropical rainforest. Like all rainforests, the 240 million hectares of forest are threatened by logging, mining, expanding agriculture and wildfires.
"The resistance of intact African tropical forests to a bit more heat and drought than they have experienced in the past is welcome news, but we still need to cut carbon dioxide emissions fast, as our forests will probably only resist limited further rises in air temperature," said Bonaventure Sonké, a professor at University of Yaoundé in Cameroon, who co-authored the new study.
Gabon recently received $150 million in international funds from the United Nations Central African Forest Initiative to preserve its rainforests, 10 percent of which are already protected. Cameroon, its neighbor to the north, committed in 2017 to restoring more than 12 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported. But on its own, preserving rainforests will not be enough to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The authors stress that humans also need to commit to emitting fewer greenhouse gases.
"Our results provide a further incentive to keep global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, as these forests look to be able to withstand limited increases in temperature and drought," Sonké said in a press release.
Kaitlin Sullivan covers the environment, science and health beats. Her work has appeared in NBC News, Popular Science, NPR, VICE and Inverse, among others. Before becoming a journalist, she worked on a farm in Western Colorado, at a hostel in Brazil and as an editor for the American Alpine Club. She grew up in Minnesota, which is probably why she's so obsessed with water, and has a master's degree in health and science reporting from CUNY. When she isn't reporting, you'll probably find her outside hiking, rock climbing, sailing, camping, growing food or petting someone's dog. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitsulliva
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