Looks like water rationing is going to be the new reality in the Golden State. Four years into a major drought, California has only one year of water stores left in its reservoirs and the skies are offering little hope of relief. The state legislature has passed a $1 billion drought-relief package that includes spending on drinking water protection, water recycling programs, and desalination plants. Meanwhile, state water officials have introduced water-saving measures for homes and businesses, including prohibitions on lawn watering and limits on when restaurants can serve water.
This year the state barely had a winter to speak of – January was the driest on record since California started keeping records in 1895 – and groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. “Data from NASA satellites shows that the total amount of water stored in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins – that is, all of the snow, river and reservoir water, water in soils, and groundwater combined – was 34 million acre-feet below normal in 2014,” NASA senior water scientist Jay Famiglietti warned in a widely-read Los Angeles Times op-ed.
The problem, Famiglietti pointed out, started before the current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early twentieth century.
While cutting down the average Californian’s water use below the current usage of 150 gallons per day will help, the brunt of water rationing will be borne by farmers. Central Valley farms have been extracting more and more groundwater during the drought as their surface water allocations have been slashed 80 to 100 percent. As a result, wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.
“If the drought goes on like this, there are going to have to be [more] reductions in agriculture water use – state mandated or not,” Max Gomberg, a senior environmental scientist at the State Water Resources Control Board, told Wired magazine. That’s a big deal for a state that produces nearly half of the vegetables, fruits, and nuts consumed by Americans.
Last year, lack of water forced farmers to abandon 400,000 acres of cropland. This year, farmers may leave more than a million acres unplanted. There’s a strong chance that the government will have to take even more water away from farms and give it to the public for basic health and sanitation.
Further water restrictions will be more devastating for farmers today than they would have been in the past. That’s because most California farmers now grow perennial crops like pistachios, almonds, and wine grapes that require water every year, instead of annual crops such as cotton and wheat that could be fallowed during drought years.
“If the drought continues like this, there will be no more lush lawns in California, and there will be a lot fewer acres of crops grown,” Gomberg said.
The World Health Organization delivered a blow to Monsanto in late March when it declared that the company’s leading weed-killer, Roundup, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The finding marks the most high-profile critique of the herbicide that the agribusiness giant has long touted as a safe way to protect corn and soybean fields, as well as home lawns, from weeds.
In a new analysis published in The Lancet Oncology, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer says there is “limited evidence” that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung cancer in humans and “convincing evidence” that it can cause cancer in lab animals. The analysis is based on a review of existing research that dates back to 2001.
Use of glyphosate has spiked since the mid-1990s due to use of Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready crops, which account for most corn and soybeans grown in the United States. The US Environmental Protection Agency initially classified glyphosate as possibly causing cancer in 1985, but changed its opinion in 1991 after new studies suggested it does not cause cancer. The EPA has said that will consider IARC’s evaluation.
Monsanto, of course, is mighty displeased with WHO’s conclusions, which could hurt its sales and already beleaguered image. Mexico, The Netherlands, and Russia have put in place bans or restrictions on the sale of glyphosate. The company’s highly profitable herbicide division raked in about a third of the total $15.8 billion it made in sales last year. According to Reuters, Monsanto is now trying to push WHO to retract the assessment, which it says is based on cherry-picked data from old studies.
“We question the quality of the assessment,” Philip Miller, Monsanto vice president of global regulatory affairs, said in an interview. “The WHO has something to explain.”
Sixty years after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to summit Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain is beginning to resemble a garbage dump.
The Nepalese government is starting to crack down on mountaineers who make the attempt on the famed peak and fail to pack out their trash and feces. In 2014, Nepal instituted a $4,000 garbage disposal deposit among the 300 climbers who tackle the mountain each year, and this year, Nepalese officials say, they will be much tougher on enforcement. Any mountaineer who fails to return from the peak attempt with at least eight kilograms of trash and human waste will forfeit the deposit.
The slopes of the massive mountain are now cluttered with spent oxygen containers, torn tents, broken ladders, and plastic food wrappers. A bigger problem is human waste. In the absence of toilets, climbers must squat in the open or hunker behind rocks. “Discarded in ice pits, the human waste remains under the snow,” Ang Tshering Sherpa, chief of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told Reuters. “When washed down by glaciers [when the snow melts], it comes out in the open.” Sherpa says the waste that has piled up over the decades gives off an “unpleasant odor” and poses a health hazard to the communities that are dependent on the melting water from the mountain’s glaciers.
Cleanup expeditions led by a group called Eco-Everest have collected 15,000 kilograms of trash since 2008. In 2012, Nepali artists created artworks out of 1.5 metric tons of trash taken from Mount Everest as part of a public education campaign.
There is another, more macabre, human leftover underneath the mountain’s ice and snow that few people want to touch: the unrecovered remains of at least 260 people who have died trying to reach the summit.
Big score for animal rights advocates. After years of mounting pressure from activist groups, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has finally caved in and agreed to stop its elephant performances. In March, the company, which has been featuring captive elephant acts for more than 130 years, announced that it would retire its 13 traveling Asian elephants to the 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, says it is “adapting” to growing awareness about animal consciousness and the shift in public attitude toward how animals, especially ones as cognitively complex as elephants, are treated.
Biologists have long understood that forest fragmentation – especially due to road-building – reduces biodiversity. Now, a new study demonstrates exactly how badly fragmentation impacts ecological health, and it’s not a pretty picture.
Working with a grant from the National Science Foundation, North Carolina State biology professor Nick Haddad gathered forest data collected over the course of 35 years on five different continents. The results, he says, were “astounding.”
“Nearly 20 percent of the world’s remaining forest is the distance of a football field – or about 100 meters – away from a forest edge,” Haddad said in announcing his conclusions, which were published in the journal Science Advances. “Seventy percent of forest lands are within a half-mile of a forest edge. That means almost no forest can really be considered wilderness.”
The so-called edge-effect caused by humans’ steady encroachment into forests – via agricultural clearing, urban development, and road construction – reduces the diversity of plants and animals in those wooded areas. Fragmented habitats experience anywhere from a 13 percent to 75 percent reduction in biodiversity. In general, the smaller and more isolated a forest patch becomes, the more impoverished its biodiversity. And the negative impacts grow worse over time. A fragmented forest typically loses about half of its original species within 20 years, and from there losses continue to mount. “The effects of current fragmentation will continue to emerge for decades,” Haddad and his co-authors write.
But Haddad and his colleagues remind us, there are least two massive intact forests left on Earth – the Amazon and the Congo – and it’s not too late to preserve them.
The Amazonian rainforest is losing much of its ability to absorb excess greenhouse gases and – get this – the culprit might actually be excess greenhouse gases.
For years scientists and environmentalists have heralded intact forest ecosystems for their abilities to act as “carbon sinks” – that is, suck up some of the CO2 our civilization is constantly belching. Forest researchers have long understood that droughts and higher than average temperatures can reduce the ability of forests to capture and store CO2. Now, it appears that too much CO2 can itself be a problem for forest health.
Since CO2 is an essential part of tree physiology, more of the gas should spur tree growth. But a new study published in Nature suggests that elevated levels of CO2 may be contributing to a worrying surge in the rate of tree death across the Amazon.
“Tree mortality rates have increased by more than a third since the mid-1980s, and this is affecting the Amazon’s capacity to store carbon,” Roel Brienen of the University of Leeds told Reuters. His study was based on a 30-year survey that brought together nearly 100 researchers working in eight countries.
While more atmospheric CO2 is contributing to faster tree growth, it also appears to drive faster tree death. “With time, the growth stimulation feeds through the system, causing trees to live faster, and so to die younger,” says Oliver Phillips, a study co-author. If confirmed, this hypothesis would undermine one the key strategies of climate change mitigation – trusting that intact forests can help offset greenhouse gas emissions.
“All across the world, even intact forests are changing,” Phillips said. “Forests are doing us a huge favor, but we can’t rely on them solely to solve the climate problem. Instead, deeper cuts in emissions will be required to stabilize our climate.”
Imagine: the world’s largest nature preserve, an expanse of protected land more than four times the size of Germany. That’s the vision of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is calling on the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments to join with Colombia in creating a massive environmental corridor that would stretch across the top of South America.
“We would call it the ‘Triple A’ corridor, because it would go from the Andes to the Amazon to the Atlantic,” Santos told the German news agency Deutsche Welle in early March.
Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela are among the most biodiverse countries on the planet, with Colombia alone home to more than 300 different types of ecosystems ranging from vast grasslands to tropical rainforests to high-elevation, alpine landscapes. The proposed multinational reserve would cross dozens of different ecosystems, making the project unique not only in size, but also in the diversity of plants and animals protected. If Santos’s plan comes to fruition, the reserve would protect some 135 million hectares, making it the biggest reserve on the planet.
“We are going to propose this environmental corridor as a contribution to stop climate change,” Santos said. The Colombian president intends to float the idea at the UN climate talks scheduled to occur in Paris in December. As envisioned by Santos, about two-thirds of the protected area would be in northern Brazil, the other third in Colombia, with a sliver of land in Venezuela.
A great many details still must be worked out, among them: Who would get to live within the park? What level of development would be acceptable? And who would have ultimate authority over the preserve? Still, conservationists applauded the idea, and said the proposed mega-reserve would protect not only biodiversity, but also guard Indigenous peoples’ forest-based livelihoods. “Right now we have a mosaic of parks, Indigenous areas, and protected areas,” Martin von Hildebrand, the founding director of the Gaia Amazonas foundation, said. “It could be just the right moment for something like this to happen.”
Our Summer 2014 cover story (“Highly Flammable,” by EIJ contributing editor Adam Federman) reported on the risks posed by shipping huge amounts of oil by rail. Since that investigation was published, the oil-by-rail accidents have continued, and while federal officials belatedly have begun to address the threat, environmental groups say the new regulations are inadequate.
In just the first few months of 2015 five trains carrying crude oil derailed in North America. On February 14, a 100-car Canadian National Railway train derailed in Northern Ontario and spilled more than 264,000 gallons of crude and petroleum distillate into surrounding woodlands. The fires burned for nearly a week. Two days later, on February 16, a 109-car CSX oil train derailed near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, spilling oil into the Kanawha River and forcing the evacuation of close to 2,500 people. On March 5, a 105-car BNSF train hauling Bakken crude derailed outside of Galena, Illinois. On March 7, a 94-car Canadian National Railway crude oil train derailed near the town of Gogama, Ontario. The derailment destroyed a steel rail bridge and dumped oil into the Makami River.
On May 1, the US Department of Transportation issued new safety standards for rail tank cars, including a ten-year phase out of much-criticized DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars. Then, less than a week later, a BNSF oil train carrying fuel from the Bakken fields of North Dakota derailed and six cars caught fire, forcing the evacuation of the tiny town of Heimdal.
Environmentalists said the accident proved the inadequacy of the new federal regulations. “The oil train rules released by the administration … are obsolete before the ink is even dry,” Todd Paglia of ForestEthics said. “It is luck, and only luck, that has kept rail workers, responders, and bystanders out of harm’s way. But we are averaging a major oil train accident a month, how long will our luck hold out?”
As we reported in our Spring 2013 special issue (“Manmade”), many scientists believe we have reached a whole new planetary epoch – the “Anthropocene.” For stratigraphers to declare a new epoch requires that they indentify geologic-scale changes to Earth, and are able to pinpoint a date at which those changes occurred. Many researchers are in consensus that we’ve reached the first milestone. Human activities – from the sixth mass extinction, to climate change, to transformations of landscapes and oceans – will be noticeable millennia from now. The question then becomes: When to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene?
Writing in the journal Nature, Dr. Simon Lewis, a geographer at the University of Leeds, suggests two possibilities: 1610, when the effects of the Columbian Exchange became noticeable; or 1964, when the fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests began to appear in the geologic record. Of these two possible dates, Lewis says 1610 is the best place to set a golden spike between the Holocene and the Anthropocene.
By 1610, the collision between Eurasia-Africa and the Americas had become obvious on a global scale. The trade in plants and animals resulted in an unprecedented reordering of life on Earth. Also, by 1610 there was a noticeable dip in global CO2 levels. The drop in carbon dioxide was the result of the pandemics that swept the Americas as some 50 million people succumbed to European diseases. The abrupt near-cessation of farming across the continent and the re-growth of forests sucked up huge amounts of CO2, leading to a drop in global temperatures and the so-called Little Ice Age in Europe.
Scientists with the International Commission on Stratigraphy are expected to formally declare the arrival of the Anthropocene at a meeting in 2016.
In our last issue we reported on two tourism mega-developments planned for the Grand Canyon (“Grand Folly”). Since that story was published, there has been a mix of good news and bad.
First, the good news. In an April special election, members of the Navajo Nation elected Russell Begaye to be their new tribal president. Begaye is on the record expressing skepticism about the planned Escalade development on Navajo territory. Speaking at a community meeting after his election, he said: “When you talk about Escalade or any projects out there, we need to involve … the voice of the local people, rather than allowing big corporations to make those decisions.”
Now, the less-good news. The second planned development is slowly moving forward. In April, the US Forest Service began a permit review process to consider allowing the Grupo Stilo developers to begin road construction for their resort at Tusayan. Environmental groups have promised to take the issue to court.
One of the world’s most iconic monuments to the power of popular revolt is embracing another kind of revolution: the green energy one. The 126-year-old Eiffel Tower in Paris, build on the centennial of the French Revolution, has installed a set of wind turbines. The turbines will produce 10,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power the tower’s first floor, which houses restaurants, a souvenir shop, and exhibits about the history of the tower.
Urban Green Energy (UGE), the US-based company that installed the turbines inside the structure’s metal scaffolding in February, says they are “virtually silent” due to their lower blade tip speed and low number of revolutions per minute. The site for the turbines, 400 feet above the ground, has been strategically chosen to maximize energy production and allow the turbines to take advantage of relatively steady winds, according to a BusinessGreen report.
The project represents something of a publicity coup for the global renewables industry, says UGE Chief Executive Nick Blitterswyk. “The Eiffel Tower is arguably the most renowned architectural icon in the world, and we are proud that our advanced technology was chosen as the Tower commits to a more sustainable future,” he said in a statement. “When visitors from around the world see the wind turbines, we get one step closer to a world powered by clean and reliable renewable energy.”
The turbines are part of a major green retrofit project to improve the tower’s environmental performance. Along with these, Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel, the group that runs the tower, is installing LED lights, as well as rainwater collection systems and solar panels that will provide around half of the hot water needs of the site’s two pavilions.
In March, officials with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute announced that the tiny Central American country had achieved something of a clean energy milestone: During the first 75 days of 2015, the country didn’t burn any fossil fuels for electricity generation. Not a single molecule of oil or gas was burned to keep the lights on.
While the achievement is impressive, it’s not entirely surprising given Costa Rica’s already-strong showing on clean energy. The country of about five million people gets 88 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2021. This year, especially heavy rains boosted electricity generation at its hydropower plants, allowing officials to shut down its diesel generators.
But Costa Rica’s heavy reliance on hydropower could become a liability as global climate change accelerates. Climate models suggest that climate change will concentrate rainfall patterns, leading to years of deluge offset by years of drought that could cripple hydropower plants.
Costa Rican officials, however, are already making plans for coping with what could be a drier “new normal.” The country is home to six active volcanoes and dozens of inactive ones, and geothermal energy accounts for 15 percent of electricity generation today. Costa Rica is making investments to increase the amount of renewable energy it gets from geothermal – an energy source that’s not dependent on the weather.
As geothermal energy ramps up even further, Costa Rica will be in a strong position to maintain its clean energy streak.
When it comes to the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions, sometimes it can seem as if the proverbial right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.
In late March, the White House announced a bold plan to cut the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent (from 2008 levels) within the next decade. The move is part of the administration’s larger second term agenda of using executive authority to tackle climate change even as Congress remains in the grip of climate change deniers and fossil fuel industry sock-puppets. The White House promises that by 2025 the government’s 360,000 buildings will get one-quarter of their energy from renewable projects. And between now and 2025, the government’s 650,000 fleet vehicles will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. The executive order will also have a ripple effect among the government’s thousands of suppliers, including huge corporations such as GE, Honeywell, and IBM.
The new initiatives are all well and good, some environmental groups say, but they overlook one of the government’s largest sources of heat-trapping emissions: fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. According to a new report from The Wilderness Society and the Center for American Progress, coal, oil, and gas leases on federal land comprise nearly quarter of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The federally owned coal mined from the Power River Basin alone is responsible for 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Yet these emissions are unaccounted for in the government’s carbon footprint, leading to what environmental groups say is a “blind spot” in government policy.
Both The Wilderness Society and the Center for American Progress say it is critical that the administration account for and then act to reduce these emissions. Among other things, that would include reducing fugitive emissions from methane and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that royalty rates for fossil fuel projects on public lands include the full external costs of carbon pollution.
It appears that the Obama administration is slowly, belatedly, beginning to address the disconnect between its climate policies and fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. In her first major speech on energy, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell promised that “carbon pollution should inform our decisions about where we develop, how we develop and what we develop,” and said the government will be putting new emphasis on permitting utility-scale renewable energy projects on federal lands. Also in March, the Bureau of Land Management announced new rules for gas fracking. While industry officials complained about new regulations that will require disclosure of fracking fluid ingredients and tighter well casings to prevent groundwater contamination, many environmental groups expressed dismay that the rule change didn’t simply ban fracking altogether.
“To fight global warming and protect this country’s wild places, the Obama administration has to ban fracking on public lands,” the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.
Parts of Antarctica are melting so rapidly that scientists now believe that, in a worst case scenario, the melting would push sea levels up ten feet worldwide in a century or two. Such a sea level rise would reshape coastlines across the world, threatening the existence of heavily populated coastal cities such as New York and Guangzhou.
Antarctic ice had been melting at the rate of about 130 billion tons per year for the past decade, according to NASA estimates. That’s the weight of more than 356,000 Empire State Buildings, enough ice melt to fill more than 1.3 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Scientists now say that warming ocean waters are speeding up the melt in some parts of the continent, especially in the peninsula. Antarctica has become “ground zero of global climate change without a doubt,” Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica told the Associated Press.
Until recently, scientists believed Antarctica as a whole was in balance, neither gaining nor losing ice. They worried more about Greenland, where melting was more noticeable. But once researchers got a better look at the bottom of the world, the focus of their fears shifted. Now scientists in two different studies use the words “irreversible” and “unstoppable” to talk about the melting in West Antarctica.
“Before, Antarctica was more of a wild card,” says Ian Joughin, an ice scientist at the University of Washington. “Now I would say it’s less of a wild card and more scary than we thought before.”
Earlier this year, scientists studying satellite images noticed a giant crack in an ice shelf on the peninsula called Larsen C. The split had grown by about 12 miles in 2014, breaking through a type of ice band that usually stops such cracks. If it keeps going, it could cause the release of a giant iceberg somewhere between the size of Rhode Island and Delaware, about 1,700 to 2,500 square miles, says British Antarctic Survey scientist Paul Holland. And there’s a small chance it could cause the entire Scotland-sized Larsen C ice shelf to collapse like its sister shelf, Larsen B, did in a dramatic way in 2002.
The melting “is going way faster than anyone had thought. It’s kind of a red flag,” NASA ice scientist Eric Rignot says.
Much depends on how fast the ice melts. At its current rate, the rise of the world’s oceans from Antarctica’s ice melt would be barely noticeable, about one-third of a millimeter a year. But if the entire West Antarctic ice sheet were to crumble quickly, as several experts predict, there would be little time to prepare.
“A” is for Acorn, “B” is for Buttercup, and “C” is for Clover … until they aren’t any longer. Children who pick up the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary will find a new set of words to learn by. Now, “A” is for Analogue, “B” is for Blog, and “C” is for Chatroom.
The substitutions have some leading writers worried that, when it comes to young people’s emerging vocabularies, the natural world is being replaced by the virtual one. Earlier this year, writers including Margaret Atwood, Robert McFarlane, and Tony Juniper wrote a letter to the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries complaining that the removal of many nature-related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (designed for seven-year-olds) is “shocking and poorly considered.”
The authors say their concern about the removal of words such as “chestnut” and “cauliflower” is “not just a romantic desire to reflect the rosy memories of our own childhoods onto today’s youngsters.” Rather, the changes threaten to exacerbate the problem of what has been dubbed Nature Deficit Disorder. “There is a … proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing,” the literary luminaries say.
The deletion of nature words in the new edition is the continuation of a steady reduction in terms having to do with plants and animals. In its previous 2007 edition, the Oxford Junior Dictionary struck “almond,” “blackberry,” and “crocus” to make space for terms such as “block graph” and “celebrity.”
“The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life,” the authors wrote in their protest letter. “We believe the OJD should address these issues [of Nature Deficit Disorder] and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just mirror its trends.”
But the Oxford editors are holding firm. A spokesperson for the Oxford University Press told the UK’s The Guardian: “All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages.” The editors say they have no plans to revise the new dictionary, but that they “welcome feedback on all of our dictionaries.”
Other writers have come to the Oxford Dictionaries’ defense. Writing in The Guardian this spring, columnist Martin Robbins said, “Attacking a dictionary for removing [archaic] words is like punching your thermometer when it’s too cold.” The Oxford editors’ decision simply reflects the fact that today many children have few – if any – connections to wild nature. The Internet is a more present reality for kids than are oak trees and wildflowers.
Sir Andrew Morton, a former British poet laureate, remains concerned. “By discarding so many country and landscape-words from their Junior Dictionary, the [Oxford editors] deny children a store of words that is marvelous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connecting and understanding.”
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