2020 was the largest wildfire season in California's modern history, according to state agency Cal Fire. And, as the climate crisis continues to increase fire risk, there are concerns that 2021 could be just as devastating.
To adapt to this new normal, California leaders Thursday announced a more-than half a billion dollar plan to prevent and prepare for wildfires.
"The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier. There's a new reality," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said as he announced the plan, as The Mercury News reported. "If you don't believe in climate change, if you don't believe in science, you believe your own damn eyes. Something is happening as it relates to the issue of climate that's exacerbating conditions and making the challenge of wildfire suppression and prevention that much more ominous."
CA isn't waiting until peak wildfire season to protect our communities. We proposed more than $1B for wildfire res… https://t.co/OBCLeb4DKN— Office of the Governor of California (@Office of the Governor of California)1617919919.0
The $536 million Wildfire Prevention and Resiliency package earmarks $350 million for forest management, including vegetation thinning, as well as $25 million to help homeowners pay for prevention measures on their properties, The Guardian reported. Newsom also touted the importance of adapting controlled burning techniques that were practiced for centuries by the state's first inhabitants. These smaller, necessary fires were suppressed by European settlers, contributing to the buildup of dried vegetation that has fueled historic blazes in recent years.
The new measure is an arrangement with California state lawmakers and has been introduced in both the House and Senate, according to The Mercury News. It is expected to pass Monday and be signed by Newsom next Tuesday. It builds on Newsom's pledge last week to hire around 1,400 new firefighters.
"For every dollar we spend on wildfire prevention, our state saves $6 to $7 in damage. But it's not just about saving money – this is about saving Californians' lives, their homes, and their livelihoods," Senate President Pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) said in a statement. "We've already had a wildfire break out in the San Gabriel mountains this month, and we're heading into a summer of hot, dry weather with another drought upon us."
Indeed, San Francisco is in the midst of its second driest two-year stretch in recorded history, according to The Mercury News. The state's rainy season this winter was the third driest on record and the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains was just 59 percent of its historic average as of April 1.
This leads experts to predict another devastating fire season. California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot warned reporters thursday that summer of 2021 promised "more of the same," as NBC News reported.
"The science is clear: Warming winter temperatures and warming summer temperatures are creating more dangerous and challenging wildfire conditions," he said. "Clearly much more needs to be done on a proactive, upfront basis to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire."
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The state's wildfire season got an early start thanks to an early snow melt, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. So far this year, more than 320 fires have scorched more than 1,500 acres, nearly reaching the total of 1,630.13 acres that were burned in all of 2020, according to the declaration.
"With nearly the entire state experiencing high or very high fire risk, protecting Wisconsinites from the destructive dangers of wildfires is a top priority," Evers said when announcing the order, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The emergency order gives the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which usually handles firefighting in the state, additional resources. It will now receive support from other state agencies, as well as the Wisconsin National Guard and their Black Hawk helicopters, the DNR noted in a press release.
The announcement comes three days after brush fire erupted in Menomonee Falls, forcing some people to evacuate their homes, WISN reported. The fires burned 400 acres of marshland, the largest single burn so far this year, but luckily all of the homes were spared. Only a deer stand burned down.
However, the dry and windy conditions that fueled those fires are expected to persist in the state, leading Evers to declare an emergency.
"[B]ased upon weather predictions from the National Weather Service, Wisconsin will experience a period of warmer temperatures, lower humidity, and high winds that can quickly ignite wildland and create rapidly spreading fires," the order read.
Dry leaves and grass are also fueling the flames, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The majority of counties are at high risk for fire, NBC News reported, and the DNR has suspended annual burning permits while asking people to avoid setting fires.
"To help us keep Wisconsinites safe, the DNR is asking you to avoid all outdoor burning including limiting the use of campfires and making sure to extinguish and dispose of cigarettes properly," the DNR said in its press release.
While wildfires can occur in Wisconsin any time of the year, the primary season runs from March until May, The New York Times reported. The state's wildfire risk may also be increasing because of the climate crisis. The group Climate Power 2020 told the Wisconsin Examiner that wildfires were becoming more common. While high humidity usually lessens fire risk, Wisconsin experienced two climate-related droughts between 2009 and 2016 that cost $45.9 billion in damages, and future droughts could increase fire danger.
Nationwide, the climate crisis is certainly driving fire risk; 2020 alone brought a devastating wildfire season to the Western U.S., NBC noted. However, this spring wildfires have taken off in the Upper Plains, Rockies, Great Lakes and Southwest.
"Fire season can be at any time," Bureau of Land Management Spokesperson Carrie Bilbao told NBC News. "We just don't really have those wet seasons consistently anymore."
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.
Wildfires burned across the Midwest and Great Plains over the weekend as dry, windy conditions induced 'Red Flag' warnings across the Central Continental U.S.
The entire western portion of North Dakota faces either 'severe' or 'extreme drought' and the entire state is under a statewide fire emergency. On Saturday, shifting winds there destroyed a fire truck near Willison, about 100 miles north of Medora, which was forced to evacuate due to a separate fire last week.
"We're just getting started into a tough fire season," North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum warned Friday. Climate change makes wildfires worse by heating air temperatures and worsening droughts. Firefighters also battled a wildfire in Menomonee Falls, northwest of Milwaukee on Friday. A wildfire also forced evacuations of two towns near Topeka, Kansas, and another burned more than 300 acres at Indiana Dunes National Park.
For a deeper dive:
Three wildfires raging in South Dakota have shuttered Mount Rushmore and forced hundreds to flee their homes.
The largest blaze is the Schroeder Fire, first reported at 9:22 a.m. Monday one mile west of Rapid City, according to a Facebook update. It has since spread to 1,900 acres and forced up to 500 people to flee their homes, the Rapid City Journal reported Monday evening. Authorities attributed the fire to human causes, but its spread to environmental factors.
"We are at record-dry conditions along with high winds playing a major factor in this fight," South Dakota Wildland Fire Division Director Jay Esperance said in the Facebook update.
Today's Schroeder Fire Pictures https://t.co/I4eMcpp8MU— penncofire (@penncofire)1617080041.0
As of the most recent update, there were 250 firefighters battling the flames. The fire has destroyed at least one home and two pole barns, the Pennington County Sheriff's Office confirmed on Facebook. No injuries have been reported, The Associated Press said.
Meanwhile, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was forced to close because of two other fires, the Keystone Fire and 244 Fire, CNN reported. The 244 fire is located 1.5 miles southwest of Keystone. It spread to around 75 acres as of Monday afternoon, according to the interagency website Great Plains Fire Information. The Keystone Fire has successfully been reduced from 30 to 15 acres as of 7 p.m. Monday, the website said.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said that the fires were not directly threatening Mount Rushmore, The New York Times reported. However, strong winds made the situation unstable.
"I do want to remind everybody that this is an incredibly fluid situation," CNN quoted Noem at a press conference. "That these winds are a major factor and that as they shift and change and we get those gusts, that's when the can jump and we're going to have to stay pretty mobile."
Parts of South Dakota are under a red flag warning for ideal fire conditions until 8 p.m. Tuesday, The New York Times reported. However, wind speeds are predicted to decrease on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Rapid City Journal reported.
"Humidity is going to be low so... we're going to stay dry, but the winds will be diminishing gradually so that's definitely good news," Matthew Bunkers, a National Weather Service Rapid City meteorologist, told the Rapid City Journal.
Wildfires are expected to become more frequent in South Dakota's Black Hills due to the climate crisis as temperatures rise and humidity declines, according to a study published in Ecology Evolution. South Dakota State Fire Meteorologist Darren Clabo told KOTA TV that this would have a profound impact on the state's landscape.
"I think the long-term effects of all these fires are there's going to be some places that have fundamental ecological shifts," Clabo said. "Which basically means that the ecosystems that are there currently aren't going to exist in those areas anymore, our climates shifted too far away from where those ecosystems can naturally exist and so I think we are going to start seeing some very large broad landscape-level changes out there."
A megadrought worsened by climate change is creating and exacerbating problems across the Western U.S. as NOAA predicts precipitation levels below historical norms through June.
NOAA's official spring outlook, released late last week, predicts expanding and worsening drought from Louisiana to Oregon and unusually warm temperatures in almost the entire country — which in turn make drought worse. "We are predicting prolonged and widespread drought," National Weather Service Deputy Director Mary Erickson told the AP. "It's definitely something we're watching and very concerned about."
Shrinking snowpack means even less water will be available for everything from drinking water to hydropower to irrigation, and reservoirs such as Lakes Mead and Powell are already at below-normal levels. Climate change exacerbates drought in multiple ways, including by creating weather patterns that, "leav[e] the southwestern states mostly warm, dry, and prone to wildfires,'' Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, told Bloomberg.
As reported by CNN:
The greatest area of snow drought expansion has been in the Sierra Nevada where no large storms have occurred since the strong atmospheric river in late January. This has left almost all of the Sierra Nevada weather stations below the 30th percentile of snow water equivalent, and a few locations in the Southern Sierra are even below the 10th percentile.
But what is bad for some can be good for others in terms of snowpack. It's the ultimate dichotomy.
That's because unlike in some previous years, that lack of snowmelt means flooding will be less severe across the Plains and Midwest, but it also means lack of necessary water for the western states that rely on it to keep drought conditions in check.
For a deeper dive:
- 12 New Books Explore Fresh Approaches to Act on Climate Change ... ›
- NOAA Updates Extreme Weather Forecasting Model ›
About 6,200 years ago, 41 people were killed and buried in a mass grave in what is now modern-day Croatia. According to Live Science, DNA analysis has now revealed that members of their own community may have murdered them, and some researchers suggest that a sudden population boom or shift in climate conditions could have prompted the mass murder.
The grave was discovered in 2007 in a small village in the hills of Potočani, Croatia. Heavy rains exposed a pit containing dozens of skeletons, Live Science reported. The mass grave was small, about 6.5-feet across and three-feet deep, with at least 41 bodies dumped together.
Archeologists first thought it was a modern grave from World War I or the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s, but no contemporary objects were found with the bones, according to Live Science. Radiocarbon dating of bones, soil and pottery fragments confirmed a burial date around 4200 B.C.E.
"This makes Potočani one of the first and earliest cases of systematic killing on a large scale in Europe proven by genetic data," said Mario Novak, the study's lead author and head of the Laboratory for Evolutionary Anthropology and Bioarchaeology at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia.
Further inspection of the bones and DNA data revealed "random killing without any concern for age or sex," Novak told Live Science. Men, women and children were killed in relatively equal numbers. Many of the killing blows were strikes to the skull from behind, and there were no indications that the victims tried to defend themselves.
Genetic analysis also revealed that the victims were not a targeted family group, because 70 percent of the deceased were not closely related, Novak explained. But, because the victims' shared homogenic genetic ancestry that was almost identical to other contemporary populations from the region, Novak and his team were able to eliminate the hypothesis that the massacre was related to the arrival of new immigrants. Rather, they believe that the victims were a smaller part of the local, stable population.
These factors led the researchers to suspect a massacre.
"Basically, [all this] means that the perpetrators did not target a certain age or sex category within this community or even a certain family, as we could see in some similar prehistoric examples from continental Europe," Novak said. "The indiscriminate killing recorded in Potočani shows that this was a pre-planned act, most probably with a goal to completely exterminate this community without any consideration or remorse for their victims."
The Potočani mass grave is similar to others found in modern-day Germany and Austria dating to around 5000 B.C.E., Novak said. In total, scientists have found five or six similar cases from continental Europe so far.
According to Live Science, the "most likely explanation" for the Potočani killings and the older ones in Germany and Austria are prolonged climate changes in Central Europe that caused floods or droughts. These, along with unexpected population booms, possibly led to food shortages and violent competition for resources.
Novak's study called the reasons behind the upsurge of extreme mass violence and massacres during these eras "complex and multifactoral," and agreed that climate-induced drops in agricultural production most likely played a part.
"Human nature hasn't changed much (if at all) since those times," he told EcoWatch. "By studying such ancient massacres, we might try to get a glimpse into the psychology of these people, and maybe try to prevent similar events today," Novak told Live Science.
Novak also said it was obvious that the climate crisis profoundly impacted our distant ancestors as much as today's modern world. He warned, "If we cannot change ourselves and our attitude toward the environment drastically, I'm afraid soon the things will start resembling these ancient massacres, but on a more global scale."
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By Andrea Germanos
A recent series of summer droughts in Europe, which brought devastating ecological, agricultural, and economic impacts, were more severe than any over the past 2,100 years, new research out Monday finds.
"Our results show that what we have experienced over the past five summers is extraordinary for central Europe, in terms of how dry it has been consecutively," dendrochronology specialist and lead author Professor Ulf Büntgen of Cambridge's Department of Geography said in a statement.
Büntgen and the team of international researchers linked the recent droughts to the climate crisis, including its impacts on the jet stream.
The chemical fingerprints in European oak trees show that in 2015, #drought conditions in Europe suddenly intensifi… https://t.co/hdOGC6CZD2— Cambridge University (@Cambridge University)1615828862.0
The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Analyzing more than 27,000 measurements of carbon and oxygen isotopic ratios from European oak trees — 21 living and 126 dead — the scientists got a picture of past climates, including summer droughts, spanning the years 75 BC to 2018.
Co-author Paolo Cherubini of the Federal Research Institute WSL in Birmensdorf, Switzerland, explained that "carbon values depend on the photosynthetic activity" and "oxygen values are affected by the source water."
And the "insights before medieval times," said Büntgen, "are particularly vital, because they enable us to get a more complete picture of past drought variations, which were essential for the functioning and productivity of ecosystems and societies."
The reconstruction showed an overall drying trend. But the samples showed that the droughts from 2015-2018 were "unprecedented" over the massive time span.
But the runaway climate crisis portends more worrisome parched periods to come.
"Climate change does not mean that it will get drier everywhere: some places may get wetter or colder, but extreme conditions will become more frequent, which could be devastating for agriculture, ecosystems, and societies as a whole," said Büntgen.
The U.K. Green Party shared The Guardian's reporting on the new study with a tweet declaring, "Climate change is here."
"If we don't cut carbon emissions, it will get worse," they said. "Let's fight this while it's still fixable."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
A massive storm dropped feet of snow across Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska over the weekend, knocking out power for tens of thousands of customers and grinding air and ground transportation to a halt.
Cheyenne, Wyo., saw nearly 26 inches by noon Sunday, breaking its record for two-day snowfall, and Denver saw its fourth-most snow since 1881 — more than 27 inches at Denver International Airport, and approximately two corgis in Lincoln Park. In Aspen Park, nearly 20 inches of snow fell in just four hours.
Human-caused climate change increases air and sea surface temperatures, creating more favorable conditions for extreme precipitations events. Unlike the mass blackouts in Texas last month which caused catastrophic failures across the grid and gas system, the outages caused by the wet, heavy snow are primarily caused by downed transmission lines and power is expected to be restored much more quickly. The storm will not be sufficient to alleviate the drought affecting nearly all of the state.
As reported by The Denver Post:
People who still have power should make preparations in case they lose it, said Jennifer Finch, Weld County spokeswoman. Keep medical devices and phones charged, she said, and if food must be cooked before eating it, cook it now.
"Be prepared," she said. "Pull out the blankets and hunker down in one interior room in the house."
Power outages are possible all along the Front Range, the National Weather Service say[s], because heavy snow can bring down tree branches onto power lines or accumulate on the lines themselves.
Energy providers warned people to stay away from downed power lines and to assume any downed line is energized.
For a deeper dive:
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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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California faces another "critically dry year" according to state officials, and a destructive wildfire season looms on its horizon. But in a state that welcomes innovation, water efficacy approaches and drought management could replenish California, increasingly threatened by the climate's new extremes.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack supplies the state with 30 percent of its water supply. But on Tuesday, California's Department of Water Resources recorded a snow depth of 56 inches and water content of 21 inches at Phillips Station – 61 percent of the average for March 2 and 54 percent of the average for April 1, when it's at its maximum, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The state's largest reservoirs – responsible for maintaining the state's water supply throughout the year – also experienced low levels this year, storing only about 38 percent and 68 percent of their capacity, according to The Guardian.
"With below-average precipitation across the state, California's reservoirs are starting to see the impacts of a second consecutive dry year," said Sean de Guzman, the department's chief of snow surveys and water supply forecasting, according to The Guardian.
These effects are being felt across the state. During the city's wettest months of December, January and February, L.A. received just 2.44 inches of the expected 3.12 inches of rain, the Los Angeles Times reported. At the same time Northern California remains in one of the worst two-year rain deficient since the Gold Rush of 1849 – its precipitation at only 30 percent to 70 percent of a normal year, The Guardian reported.
Three to five winter storms supply California's snowpack and reservoirs with water. But the state's dependency on these few winter storms makes it especially vulnerable when they occur less frequently, The Guardian reported.
"In years where you miss out on one or two of those, you're probably going to struggle to get close to normal," John Abatzoglou, a climatology researcher at the University of California, Merced, told The Guardian, who added that the state is increasingly living in extremes – either experiencing abnormally heavy rain or no rain at all. "We're banking on a miracle March or awesome April to dig out of this hole... In all likelihood, we're going to end the water year with another dry year."
The dry winter not only invites a destructive wildfire season but comes with a heavy price tag for the state's agricultural industry. Between 2012-2016, for example, the state experienced a drought that cost $2.7 billion in losses for the industry, and more than 18,000 lost jobs, The Guardian reported. This drought also killed about 102 million forest trees.
"Our state's water future remains uncertain due to the variability in precipitation and changing climate," Guzman said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Now more than ever, new approaches to water efficacy are necessary. Fortunately, new ideas are plentiful in a state that is often celebrated for its sustainable policy.
One solution, for example, could include paying Californians to conserve water as a cost-effective way to reduce energy consumption, Sammy Roth, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times wrote in the newsletter Boiling Point.
Water and electricity go hand-in-hand in California. "Nearly one-fifth of electricity use in California goes to transporting and treating water. And nearly one-third of non-power plant natural gas use is water-related, primarily water heating," Roth wrote, mentioning the state's complex water projects that include systems "of reservoirs, aqueducts, power plants and pumping plants extending more than 700 miles."
Based on research that looked at what happened if the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power paid people to use less electricity rather than less water, the researchers concluded "that paying for water conservation can actually be a more cost-effective way to slash energy consumption than paying for energy conservation," Roth added.
In a drier, hotter and rapidly changing climate, that brings new weather extremes to the state each year, water conservation is imperative for California and the nearly 40 million that call it home. "It's more critical than ever that Californians adopt sustainability, embrace new approaches and emerging technologies and work together to save water for a secure future," Guzman added, according to The Guardian.
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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 Jeremy Deaton
Shreya Ramachandran, 17, remembers witnessing California's water crisis firsthand on a visit to Tulare County in 2014, when she was still a preteen. Tulare spans a large swath of farmland in California's Central Valley, and at that time, locals were facing dire water shortages amid an ongoing drought made worse by climate change.
"I was talking to some of the people in the area whose wells completely ran dry, and they were left without water because they weren't connected to the central water grid. They were trucking water in for even basic needs," she said. "I was really affected by their stories, and I wanted to do something to help."
The experience spurred Ramachandran, who lives in Fremont, California, to find ways to reuse water from sinks, showers and laundry machines, what's known as grey water, to help people better cope with intense drought. She has won numerous awards for her research, was named a global finalist in the 2019 Google Science Fair, and is featured in the forthcoming PBS Peril and Promise climate change documentary, The Power of Us.
Ramachandran said that after she returned home from Tulare she made every effort to conserve water in her life. She took shorter showers and turned off the tap when brushing her teeth, but it had little effect on how much her house consumed.
Around that time, Ramachandran's grandmother was visiting from India, and she had brought with her a handful of soap nuts. A soap nut, also known as a soap berry, is a small yellow or brown fruit encased in a hard, brown shell. Soap nuts are native to India, where they are used for bathing. Massage one in a bowl of water, and it will begin to lather and smell of apples, Ramachandran said.
"I was using them as a shampoo, and I was thinking, 'Okay, if they can be used for this purpose, maybe soap nuts can be used as an alternative laundry detergent as well. And then we can reuse the water because soap nuts are all-natural,'" she said. "The best ideas come to you when you're in the shower."
Ramachandran said that soap nuts, which are often sold as a detergent, make for an effective cleaning agent. One only needs to put four or five nuts in a cloth bag and toss it in with their laundry, and they can reuse that bag of nuts as many as 10 times, making soap nuts significantly cheaper than organic detergent. Ramachandran wanted to see if the leftover water could be used to nourish plants.
"I read a ton of papers. I developed a project plan. And I contacted universities up and down in California. I sent so many cold emails, did so many cold calls until, finally, a really wonderful professor at UC Berkeley agreed to look over my project plan and greenlight it," she said.
That professor was environmental scientist Céline Pallud, who studies soil. She said that Ramachandran's experiments were comparable to the work of a college student, which she said was "extremely impressive," given that she was only 12 when she undertook the research.
Ramachandran tested the laundry water on tall fescue, a type of turfgrass, and an assortment of vegetables, comparing the effect of soap nuts with organic and conventional soaps and detergents. That would mean setting up dozens of pots in a highly controlled space.
"I kicked my parents out of the master bedroom because I needed a space that was as close to a greenhouse as possible, and the master bedroom had ideal—and I mean, seriously, ideal—lighting and temperature conditions," she said. Fortunately, her parents, both computer engineers, were willing to accommodate her.
"I didn't take her seriously at first and tried to talk her into considering alternate places," said her mother, Hiran Rajagopalan. "Ultimately, I didn't want to disappoint her. After all, she was only trying to do science."
Ramachandran tracked nutrients and bacteria in the soil and kept a close eye on the health of the grass. She looked for traces of E. coli, which can make people severely ill if consumed. She worked continuously, even on Christmas and New Year's Day, and she took advanced classes in statistics to learn how to analyze all the data collected.
"I found that grey water from soap nuts, as well as several organic detergents, could be reused safely for non-potable uses," she said. "But grey water that was generated from [conventional] soaps that had things like soluble salts and boron, that became very detrimental because those ingredients accumulated in the grey water and then made it unusable for crop irrigation."
Ramachandran went on to found her own nonprofit, The Grey Water Project, which teaches people how to recycle grey water in their own homes. She does workshops at schools, libraries and corporate events, and she developed a grey water science curriculum that has been implemented in more than 90 schools so far.
"I tell people what the best practices are for grey water reuse. And I let them know, 'These are the detergents you should be using," she said. "My ultimate goal is essentially for grey water reuse to be just as common as paper or plastic recycling."
Ramachandran, now a senior in high school, is applying to colleges and has already been accepted to Stanford. She wants to study biology and environmental science to continue the kind of work she is already doing. But she also wants to study public policy to help make use of good science.
"I've learned a lot about what it means to be a scientist," she said. "You can use science to develop the solutions, but it's equally important to implement them."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.