Category Archives: Environment

Climate change fuels dramatic rise in forest fires


From The Conversation, a new open access journal which allows article reproduction under a Creative Commons license [Bravo! — esnl], a very important article from University of California, Merced, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering Anthony LeRoy Westerling:

Dramatic images of out-of-control wildfires in western North American forests have appeared on our television and computer screens with increasing regularity in recent decades, while costs of fire suppression have soared. In 2015, federal spending on suppression exceeded US$2 billion, just 15 years after first exceeding $1 billion. Something has been changing our fire seasons.

There are competing explanations for why wildfires have been increasing, particularly in our forests. I’ve been studying the science of climate and wildfires for more than 15 years and the take-home message from our research is that, while our management of the landscape can influence wildfire in many different ways, it is a warming climate that is drying out western U.S. forests and leading to more, larger wildfires and a longer wildfire season.

A look at the latest data

Ten years ago, several colleagues and I set out to see if we could quantify the changes in wildfire, particularly in mountain forests of the western U.S. We wanted to see if climate might be causing some of the increase in wildfire.

In our paper, we concluded that wildfire had indeed increased substantially in western U.S. forests beginning in the 1980s. We also found that most of this increase was from fires burning primarily in mid-elevation northern U.S. Rocky Mountain forests in years with an early snowmelt.

Our latest research shows that wildfire activity in western U.S. forests has continued to increase, decade by decade, since the 1980s.

We looked at federally managed forests in the Sierra Nevada, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and northern and southern Rockies. Over the decade through 2012, large fires (fires greater than 1,000 acres or 400 hectares) were 556 percent more frequent than in the 1970s and early 1980s. And the area affected increased even more dramatically: the forest area burned in large fires between 2003 and 2012 was more than 1,200 percent greater than in the period between 1973 and 1982.

BLOG Fires suppression

New “hot spots” for forest wildfire have also emerged.

The area burned in the northern U.S. Rockies has increased by 3,000 percent, accounting for half of the increase in the western U.S. But fire activity has recently accelerated in Southwest and Pacific Northwest forests as well. The area of burned forest in the Southwest increased over 1,200 percent, and in the Northwest by nearly 5,000 percent.

The only forest area where we could not robustly detect an increase in large fires and burned area was in coastal southern California. There, the largest fires are human-ignited, take place in the fall (driven by Santa Ana winds) and burn primarily in chaparral or shrubland. The small number of forest fires in southern California, combined with high variability from year to year, meant we could not detect trends there, nor attribute them to specific causes.

At the same time, the number of large fires in the West and the area they affect have been increasing in drier, lower elevation grass and shrublands, although to a much lesser extent. For example, the area burned in nonforest vegetation in lands managed by several federal agencies (the Forest Service, Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs) has been increasing about 65 percent per decade as compared to the 1970s average, for the past three decades.

Longer seasons

The sharp increase in the amount of land being burned in recent decades across all vegetation types is not just due to more wildfires.

In fact, the total number of reported wildfire ignitions does not appear to have gone up. However, the number of large (greater than 1,000 acres or 400 hectares) wildfires has been growing since the 1980s, and the area burned in these fires has grown even more. Wildfires, in other words, are growing in size.

The length of the fire season has also grown throughout the last four decades, with large fires igniting earlier in the spring and later in the autumn than previously, and burning for longer. In the period between 2003 and 2012, the average burn time for individual fires was 52 days. In the 1973-1982 period, it was just six days.

There’s a whole lot more, after the jump. . .

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Carcinogenic endocrine disruptor in most rivers


We posted a lot about triclosan [previously], a chemical capable of killing bacteria and fungi that’s a primary active ingredient in those “healthy” antibacterial hand soaps, as well as a host of other products.

Besides helping microorganisms evolve to become even more dangerous, the chemical has also been linked to liver cancer, malformation or heart and skeletal musculature, and its a powerful endocrine disruptor.

And now it’s been found in the waters of most of the streams in the United States, leaving scientists to worry about just what long-term effects the ubiquitous chemical might be having, and if it might be working its way into our food through those stream waters used to irrigate crops.

From the American Society of Agronomy:

Most U.S. homes are full of familiar household products with an ingredient that fights bacteria: triclosan. Triclosan seems to be everywhere. When we wash our hands, brush our teeth, or do our laundry, we are likely putting triclosan into our water sources.

Triclosan is in antibacterial soaps, detergents, carpets, paints, toys, and toothpaste. These products can feel comforting to germ-wary consumers. However, these products are only slightly better at removing bacteria than regular soap and water. And in antibacterial soaps, triclosan may not add any benefit to removing bacteria compared to regular soap and water.

The problem with triclosan is that it kills both good and bad bacteria. Studies also show that it contributes to medically necessary antibiotics becoming less effective. Triclosan is also toxic to algae and disrupts hormones in animals. This can hamper normal animal development. The FDA is currently investigating its impact on humans.

Most of the triclosan is removed in waste water treatment plants. However, a U.S. Geological Survey found the antibacterial in nearly 58% of freshwater streams.

“What you use has an impact even though you’re probably not thinking about it,” says Monica Mendez. Mendez is an associate professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry at Texas A&M International University. She is interested in triclosan-contaminated streams and rivers. These streams often serve as the water source for crops.

“If a river happens to be a source of irrigation, could triclosan possibly get into our food?” Mendez wonders.

Mendez and her colleagues wanted to understand what happens to soils and plants watered with triclosan-contaminated water. They intentionally watered onions, tomatoes, and bare soils with triclosan-contaminated water in a long-term study.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

DroughtWatch: Only a little relief this week


Only one change to report this week, a reduction in the third worst category, Severe Drought, from 63.5 percent of the total area of California to 61 percent. Overall, 94.5 percent of the Golden State remains in drought conditions.

From the United States Drought Monitor:

BLOG Drought

Brazil coup regime guts environmental laws


And like good Thatcherite/Reaganite neoliberal governments everywhere, they also gutted science funding.

The big winners are land developers and land-grabbers.

From Science:

The new interim government, led by former Vice President Michel Temer, has set out to trim government spending and boost business. Days after taking power, it merged the science ministry with the communications ministry, leaving researchers fearing for what’s left of their already diminished budgets. Meanwhile, powerful political players are attempting to remove roadblocks to development. “We are very worried about these actions that represent the demoting of science and innovation in the country,” says Luiz Davidovich, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

Now, Brazil has a three-step licensing process for infrastructure and development projects. During each phase a project can be challenged or halted by lawsuits, and delays can last for years. The amendment, known as PEC 65, would eliminate all but the first step: the submission of a preliminary environmental impact statement. After that requirement is met—and regardless of how serious the impact seems to be—a project could not be delayed or canceled for environmental reasons, barring the introduction of substantially new facts.

“If this legislation is approved, it will probably be catastrophic for the environment and the people who depend on it,” says Hani Rocha El Bizri, an ecologist at the Federal Rural University of the Amazon in Belém. Representatives of several government agencies agree. In practice, PEC 65 “proposes the end of licensing,” says Thomaz Miazaki de Toledo, the director for environmental licensing at the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources in Brasília, an arm of the Ministry of the Environment. If the amendment passes, he says, “mitigation and compensation, now required and supervised by the licensing authority, would be voluntary.”

Absent changes, California faces a parched future


Land-use and land-cover change for the historical period (1992–2012) and the projected period (2012–2062) in California's Central Valley and Oak Woodlands regions under a business-as-usual scenario.

Land-use and land-cover change for the historical period (1992–2012) and the projected period (2012–2062) in California’s Central Valley and Oak Woodlands regions under a business-as-usual scenario.

Absent major changes in the way California uses its land and water, the Golden State is headed for a long dry future.

And that’s without factoring in any significant increase in temperatures or shifts in global climate patterns.

From the U.S. Geological Survey:

If past patterns of California land-use change continue, projected water needs by the year 2062 will increase beyond current supply. If historical trends of land use changes to or from urban, agricultural or other uses continue, the result will be increased water-use demand beyond what existing supplies can provide. Large uncertainties associated with weather and climate variability have the potential to exacerbate the problem.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nature Conservancy calculated historical trends of land-use change, urbanization, agriculture expansion and contraction from 1992 to 2012, and then used those trends to project future land-use patterns and water demand from 2012 to 2062 in California’s Central Valley and foothills, Central Coast and South Coast. These new projections are detailed in the paper, “Future land-use related water demand in California”  [open access] published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Assuming no new storage, efficiency or technology is created to improve California’s water supply, the study results indicate that the current 25 percent urban water-use restrictions called for in Governor Edmund G. Brown’s Executive Orders B-29-15 and B-37-16 would need to be maintained through 2062 for future water demand to remain at or below 2012 demand, unless restrictions were put in place on other water uses. Water use in 2012 was already proven unsustainable given the ongoing multi-year drought, which led to mandated statewide urban-use restrictions in 2015.

In the long term, drought, highly variable rainfall from year to year, and the real possibility of future warming and drying of climate combine to create potential water supply limitations. Coupled with population increases and shifting agricultural practices (from annual crops to orchards and vineyards) there can be enormous uncertainty in planning for future water supply and demand.

There’s lots more after the jump. . . Continue reading

Drought devastates Sierra foothill forest growth


Map of change in live vegetation cover from Landsat image comparisons between 2011 and 2015 for the southern Sierra mountain region and National Parks. The darkest red shades outside of the wildfires labeled with arrows were verified as forest stands with the highest levels of tree die-back. Credits: NASA

Map of change in live vegetation cover from Landsat image comparisons between 2011 and 2015 for the southern Sierra mountain region and National Parks. The darkest red shades outside of the wildfires labeled with arrows were verified as forest stands with the highest levels of tree die-back. Credits: NASA

California’s 2013-2015 devastating drought proved lethal to a fifth of the trees in the foothills of Sierra Madre.

That’s the grim assessment from NASA’s Earth Observatory:

Aerial Images Show Decades of Foothill Forest Growth Erased Due to California’s Extreme Drought

During the summer of 2015, survey flights conducted by the United States Forest Service (USFS) showed vast areas of dead and dying trees in the Sierra Nevada foothills and lower-elevation mountain areas of California. Aircraft flew over four million acres of forested land and found that roughly 20 percent of stands had a distinct reddish-brownish coloration instead of a bright green, healthy leaf canopy. The toll was more than 10 million dead trees, region-wide.

To put this pattern of forest decline into historical perspective, investigators at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley published a study in April 2016 in the Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change. The paper documented NASA’s unique three-decade record of vegetation cover change from the Landsat satellite and analyzed a series of detailed yearly maps to compare previous controls on forest growth rates and effects of recent fluctuations in water availability since the mid-1980s. Operating since the 1970s, the Landsat Earth-observing mission is operated jointly by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“NASA’s satellite record offers abundant evidence that extensive tree die-back from the historically low water years of 2013 to 2015, combined with numerous large stand-replacing wildfires in the Sierra region, has essentially reversed the impressive accumulation of live tree density state-wide that we were tracking since the early 1980s,” said the study’s lead author, Christopher Potter of Ames.

Three decades of forest growth was erased by the drought’s impacts over much of the lower-elevation Sierra Nevada mountain region in the past couple years.

There’s more after the jump. . . Continue reading

Despite her rhetoric, Hillary hustled for fracking


While she promised upstate voters in New York that she’d oppose fracking as president, her television ad concealed a dirty little secret,

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton aggressively hustled other countries to adopt the controversial water-hogging and polluting practice.

Another takedown from the Intercept:

[E]mails obtained by The Intercept from the Department of State reveal new details of behind-the-scenes efforts by Clinton and her close aides to export American-style hydraulic fracturing — the horizontal drilling technique best known as fracking — to countries all over the world.

Far from challenging fossil fuel companies, the emails obtained by The Intercept show that State Department officials worked closely with private sector oil and gas companies, pressed other agencies within the Obama administration to commit federal government resources including technical assistance for locating shale reserves, and distributed agreements with partner nations pledging to help secure investments for new fracking projects.

The documents also reveal the department’s role in bringing foreign dignitaries to a fracking site in Pennsylvania, and its plans to make Poland a “laboratory for testing whether U.S. success in developing shale gas can be repeated in a different country,” particularly in Europe, where local governments had expressed opposition and in some cases even banned fracking.

The campaign included plans to spread the drilling technique to China, South Africa, Romania, Morocco, Bulgaria, Chile, India, Pakistan, Argentina, Indonesia, and Ukraine.