Poor Alabama towns struggle under the stench of toxic landfills – “It smells like death”

Map of landfill sites in Alabama. Data: Alabama Department of Environmental Management; U.S. Census Bureau. Only municipal solid waste and permitted hazardous waste landfills are shown. Hazardous waste capacities are not represented. Graphic: The Guardian
Map of landfill sites in Alabama. Data: Alabama Department of Environmental Management; U.S. Census Bureau. Only municipal solid waste and permitted hazardous waste landfills are shown. Hazardous waste capacities are not represented. Graphic: The Guardian

By Oliver Milman
15 April 2019

SELMA, Alabama (The Guardian) – West Jefferson, Alabama, a somnolent town of around 420 people north-west of Birmingham, was an unlikely venue to seize the national imagination. Now, it has the misfortune to be forever associated with the “poop train”.

David Brasfield, a retired coalminer who has lived in West Jefferson for 45 years, thought at first the foul stench came from the carcass of a shot pig. By the time he realized that human feces was being transported from 1,000 miles away to a nearby landfill site, a scene of biblical pestilence was unfolding upon West Jefferson.

“The odor was unbearable, as were the flies and stink bugs,” said Brasfield, who sports a greying handlebar moustache and describes himself as a conservative Republican. “The flies were so bad that you couldn’t walk outside without being inundated by them. You’d be covered in all sorts of insects. People started getting headaches, they couldn’t breathe. You wouldn’t even go outside to put meat on the barbecue.”

The landfill, called Big Sky Environmental, sits on the fringes of West Jefferson and is permitted to accept waste from 48 US states. It used a nearby rail spur to import sewage from New York and New Jersey. This epic fecal odyssey was completed by trucks which took on the waste and rumbled through West Jefferson – sometimes spilling dark liquid on sharp turns – to the landfill.

Alabama has 35 landfill sites per million residents, compared with New York State which has just three for every million. Graphic: The Guardian
Alabama has 35 landfill sites per million residents, compared with New York State which has just three for every million. Graphic: The Guardian

Outrage at this arrangement reached a crescendo in April last year when Jefferson county, of which West Jefferson is part, barred the landfill operator from using the rail spur. Malodorous train carriages began backing up near several neighbouring towns.

“Oh my goodness, it’s just a nightmare here,” said Heather Hall, mayor of Parrish, where the unwanted cargo squatted for two months. “It smells like rotting corpses, or carcasses. It smells like death.” […]

Alabama has a total of 173 operational landfills, more than three times as many as New York, a state with a population four times greater but with just 54 dumps. California – three times larger than Alabama and containing eight people for every Alabamian – has just a handful more landfills than the southern state.

“You take a poor rural area, take advantage of the people and turn their farming land into a dumping ground so a few people can make a profit,” said Nelson Brooke, head of the Black River Riverkeeper organization. “Parts of our state have been turned into a toilet bowl and there isn’t the political spine to stop it.” [more]

‘We’re not a dump’ – poor Alabama towns struggle under the stench of toxic landfills

From ruined bridges to dirty air, EPA scientists price out the cost of climate change – “The cost of inaction is really high, and the cost of reducing emissions pales in comparison”

Geographic distribution of select projected climate impacts in the United States. Graphic: Martinich and Crimmins, 2019 / Nature Climate Change
Geographic distribution of select projected climate impacts in the United States. Graphic: Martinich and Crimmins, 2019 / Nature Climate Change

By Julia Rosen
8 April 2019

(Los Angeles Times) – By the end of the century, the manifold consequences of unchecked climate change will cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars per year, according to a new study by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those costs will come in multiple forms, including water shortages, crippled infrastructure and polluted air that shortens lives, according to the study in Monday’s edition of Nature Climate Change. No part of the country will be untouched, the EPA researchers warned.

However, they also found that cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and proactively adapting to a warming world, would prevent a lot of the damage, reducing the annual economic toll in some sectors by more than half.

Experts called the report the most comprehensive analysis yet of the staggering diversity of societal impacts that climate change will have on the American economy.

“It is an extraordinarily ambitious project,” said Solomon Hsiang, an economist at UC Berkeley who was not involved in the study.

The analysis is not the first to calculate the costs of global warming and the benefits of curtailing emissions. There have been numerous prior attempts, including a 2006 report commissioned by the British government that found unmitigated warming could reduce global gross domestic product by as much as 20%.

Many more have followed, but all reach the same general conclusion, said Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists: “The cost of inaction is really high, and [the cost of] reducing emissions pales in comparison.”

What sets the new study apart, she said, is its astonishing level of detail. It explores how 22 different impacts of climate change — from rising sea levels to longer pollen seasons to the economic prospects of ski resorts — will play out across the nation.

“There are no regions that escape some mix of adverse impacts,” wrote authors Jeremy Martinich and Allison Crimmins.

The findings clash with the views of President Trump and many of his appointees, who have repeatedly downplayed the risks of climate change. The EPA did not make the study authors available for interviews.

The report summarizes years of work by scores of scientists as part of the EPA’s Climate Change Impact and Risk Analysis. […]

“The climate may be one of the largest economic assets this nation holds,” Hsiang said. “We should manage it with the seriousness and clarity of thought that we would apply to managing any asset that generates trillions of dollars in value.” [more]

From ruined bridges to dirty air, EPA scientists price out the cost of climate change


ABSTRACT: There is a growing capability to project the impacts and economic effects of climate change across multiple sectors. This information is needed to inform decisions regarding the diversity and magnitude of future climate impacts and explore how mitigation and adaptation actions might affect these risks. Here, we summarize results from sectoral impact models applied within a consistent modelling framework to project how climate change will affect 22 impact sectors of the United States, including effects on human health, infrastructure and agriculture. The results show complex patterns of projected changes across the country, with damages in some sectors (for example, labour, extreme temperature mortality and coastal property) estimated to range in the hundreds of billions of US dollars annually by the end of the century under high emissions. Inclusion of a large number of sectors shows that there are no regions that escape some mix of adverse impacts. Lower emissions, and adaptation in relevant sectors, would result in substantial economic benefits.

Climate damages and adaptation potential across diverse sectors of the United States

Advocates hoped U.S. census would find diversity in agriculture, but it found old white people – “We have seen a 30-year decline in almost every single metric”

Share of U.S. agricultural producers under age 35 in 2017. Data: USDA. Graphic: The Washington Post
Share of U.S. agricultural producers under age 35 in 2017. Data: USDA. Graphic: The Washington Post

By Laura Reiley and Andrew Van Dam
13 April 2019

(The Washington Post) – The Agriculture Department’s newly released 2017 Census of Agriculture is 820 pages of graphs, tables and puzzling shifts (half as many llamas but the number of minks rose toward 1 million). This census comes out every five years and is the most accurate and detailed look at America’s vast, complicated and shrinking agricultural sector.

Its data is used by those who serve farmers and rural communities — but it also shows who farms and what challenges they face. Those challenges, farmers and their advocates say, are legion.

A central theme of this census appears to be a hollowing out of the middle: All categories of midsize farms declined over the past five years. Farmer’s ages skewed older, leaving questions about what happens when they age out.

“We’re not going to suddenly attract 40-year-olds,” said Jeff Tripician, president of Perdue Premium Meat, the parent company of beef, lamb and pork producer Niman Ranch. “We have seen a 30-year decline in almost every single metric. They’re all bad. The number of jobs lost, the average net income down 45 percent since 2013. There’s no news here. It’s an acceleration of bad. What have we done to fix this?” […]

“As farmers age out and retire,” Sophie Ackoff of the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for young farmers, “we’re not adding enough new farmers to make up for it. That’s why we need to focus on technical service and loans and grant programs. We need younger farmers to succeed because there aren’t enough of them.” [more]

Advocates hoped census would find diversity in agriculture. It found old white people.

Last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle dies in China

A female Yangtze giant softshell turtle, one of four remaining in the world, is seen at Suzhou Zoo in China in 2015. She died on 13 April 2019, following an attempt to artificially inseminate her. Photo: Gerald Kuchling
A female Yangtze giant softshell turtle, one of four remaining in the world, is seen at Suzhou Zoo in China in 2015. She died on 13 April 2019, following an attempt to artificially inseminate her. Photo: Gerald Kuchling

By Shreya Dasgupta
16 April 2019

(Mongabay) – Until recently, there were just four known Yangtze giant softshell turtles in the world. On 13 April 2019, the only known female among them died in China’s Suzhou Shangfangshan Forest Zoo following an attempt to artificially inseminate her, according to local media. She was more than 90 years old.

Three known Yangtze giant softshell turtles (Rafetus swinhoei) are now left behind: a geriatric male living in Suzhou Zoo, a wild individual in Vietnam’s Dong Mo Lake, and another wild turtle discovered recently in Vietnam’s Xuan Khanh Lake.

To protect the incredibly rare turtle species, Chinese zoos along with experts from international conservation groups, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), made a “desperate move” by relocating the female Yangtze giant softshell turtle more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from Changsha Zoo to Suzhou Zoo in 2008. The experts hoped that she would mate and produce offspring with the 100-year old male turtle that also lived in captivity at Suzhou. Over the next few years, the two turtles did produce several clutches of eggs, but none were viable.

Since 2015, experts have been attempting to artificially inseminate the female softshell turtle. Again, while the female did lay eggs, none hatched.

On April 13, after the fifth attempt at artificial insemination, the female died during recovery from anesthesia. The male recovered from the procedure.

“The male and female turtles, which have failed to produce offspring naturally since they were brought together in 2008, were determined to be healthy for the procedure, and similar anesthesia procedures had previously been performed without incident,” WCS said in a statement. “Sadly, this time the female turtle did not recover normally as she had in the past and she died despite 24 hours of nonstop emergency care. A necropsy will be performed and ovarian tissue has been frozen for potential future work.” [more]

Last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle dies in China

Turtles’ absence from Nicaragua stronghold raises alarm for future – “It is heartbreaking to think that all of the conservation efforts could be in vain”

A leatherback sea turtle arrives on the secluded shores of the Río Escalante Chacocente wildlife reserve in Nicaragua. Photo: Róger Solórzano Canales / ViaNica.com
A leatherback sea turtle arrives on the secluded shores of the Río Escalante Chacocente wildlife reserve in Nicaragua. Photo: Róger Solórzano Canales / ViaNica.com

By Lindsay Fendt
15 April 2019

(The Guardian) – Every year, from November through March, leatherback sea turtles arrive to the secluded shores of the Río Escalante Chacocente wildlife reserve on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast to lay their eggs.

Though leatherback nesting habits vary, Chacocente has been a reliable egg-laying site for as long as conservationists have collected nesting data.

But this year, not a single leatherback came to Chacocente, and conservation groups in Costa Rica and Mexico, have recorded declines in sightings of the huge turtles.

“This is the first time it’s happened and the chances are that it will happen again,” said Alison Gunn, the Americas and Caribbean program manager for Fauna & Flora International, which tags all female leatherbacks that nest in Chacocente. “I do view it as an indicator that we should really sit up and take notice of.”

The largest of all sea turtles, leatherbacks can weigh up to 1,500lb (680kg) and reach over 6ft (2 meters) in length, placing them among the largest reptiles in the world.

But despite their enormous size, leatherback populations face threats from human activity, and the eastern Pacific population of leatherbacks is classified as critically endangered.

Both legal and illegal fishing have helped drive the decline, as well as egg poaching. In Central America sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy and in some communities are held to be an aphrodisiac.

In 2018, Velkis Gadea, director of Flora & Fauna International’s turtle conservation programme in Nicaragua, said that whereas in the past 30 to 40 leatherbacks would nest in a season, that number had more recently dropped to five to 10. […]

“The reports that we have from the elders in the community say that back in the 80s, prior to a boom in poaching, there were turtles nesting in the hundreds at [Chacocente] ,and now there is a very discrete number of leatherbacks there,” she said. “We know that whilst we are doing all that we can to increase the recruitment of hatchling sea turtles there are still other factors.” […]

“It is heartbreaking to think that all of the conservation efforts could be in vain if we do not address the human-made threats to turtles once they reach the sea,” Gunn said. “Sea turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs – we must not let them die out on our watch.” [more]

Turtles’ absence from Nicaraguan stronghold raises alarm for future

Natural climate solutions aren’t enough – “There is still an emissions gap that requires decarbonizing energy and industry”

By Rob Jordan
28 February 2019

(Stanford Report) – In the fight to slow climate change, nature is a powerful weapon. In fact, natural climate solutions, such as reducing deforestation and changing farming practices, can soak up excess carbon in the atmosphere and prevent certain emissions so effectively that it might be tempting to think they can buy us time while we figure out how to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we produce.

Not so, says a group of scientists who published a related perspective piece today in the journal Science. They point out that some groups promoting natural solutions fail to adequately emphasize the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels if we are going to meet global climate goals and avoid the worst effects of a warming planet. This can sow confusion and misunderstanding in the ongoing public conversation.

Stanford Report spoke with Earth scientists Christa Anderson and Chris Field, co-authors of the perspective. Anderson, now a research fellow at the World Wildlife Fund, recently completed her PhD in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.

SR: Is there still time to make a meaningful impact to stabilize the climate and slow temperature increases?

Field: Yes, definitely. The world has clearly passed the point where we can avoid all of the damages from climate change, but every ton of carbon dioxide not emitted decreases future damages. With each passing week, stabilizing warming at well under 2 degrees Celsius, the goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, looks increasingly unlikely. But a path of ambitious mitigation can still keep the world in a zone where adaptation can help us cope effectively with the impacts of climate change. If we continue on the present trajectory, we risk warming so great that we lose all options for effective adaptation.

SR: Can natural climate solutions buy us time in terms of reducing our emissions?

Anderson: No. The science has long been consistent that even if we maximize our use of natural climate solutions, there is still an emissions gap that requires decarbonizing energy and industry.

Field: I agree with Christa that natural climate solutions can’t be viewed as decreasing the urgency of decarbonizing energy and industry. Natural climate solutions make a substantial contribution to solving the climate challenge. They can accelerate the pace of decarbonization and help move the world more quickly to zero greenhouse gas emissions. But they don’t buy time in the sense that they allow a go-slow approach to decarbonizing energy and industry. Every indication is that we need to increase the pace of decarbonizing energy and industry at the same time we take full advantage of natural climate solutions. The latter can decrease the damages from climate change and increase the scope for effective adaptation. One could legitimately ask if this isn’t the same as buying more time. My response is that trading off increased damages against more time is a bad deal. The focus should be on the mix of solutions that minimizes the damages.

SR: Do natural climate solutions have any upsides that other approaches to decarbonization may not?

Field: An especially attractive feature is that natural climate solutions can provide important benefits beyond their contribution to reducing climate forcing. These approaches can improve forest habitat, increase agricultural yields and even help improve air and water quality at the same time they provide climate benefits.

SR: If natural climate solutions offer so many benefits, why aren’t we already making maximum use of them?

Anderson: While we technically know how to deploy many natural climate solutions, such as planting and growing trees, there are other nontechnical barriers, such as institutional and political challenges, to address. There are also land constraints to consider, including where natural climate solutions can reasonably deployed amid many possible uses for a piece of land.

SR: How can we maximize the effectiveness of natural climate solutions? Any specific examples?

Anderson: There are lot of things we can do now. Stopping deforestation is a good example. Technically, we know how to do it, and we have seen some exemplary models, such as Brazil, where deforestation has decreased dramatically through a combination of interventions including policy incentives and stricter governance. Even though deforestation has increased some in recent years, the overall rate is still much reduced in Brazil.

Field: The main things we need to do are providing positive incentives for deploying these approaches and eliminating the negative incentives that discourage people from using them. California has a number of greenhouse gas offset programs that incentivize natural climate solutions. These include offset programs for forests, urban forests, livestock management and rice cultivation. For all of these, the magnitude of the positive incentive is linked to the value of carbon credits under California’s cap-and-trade system. Higher carbon price will provide a stronger incentive to deploy natural climate solutions. Negative incentives, such as land concessions for expansion of oil palm cultivation in areas of primary rain forest, will discourage action.

Field is the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, a professor of biology and of Earth system science; the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

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Stanford researchers discuss imperative to combine natural and industrial approaches to global decarbonization


ABSTRACT: Stabilizing Earth’s climate and limiting temperature increase to well below 2°C per the Paris Agreement requires a dramatic uptick in the rate of progress on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Natural climate solutions (NCS) can be a substantial contributor, while also providing valuable cobenefits for people and ecosystems. Although analyses of NCS have some differences in the GHG fluxes they consider, all include emissions sources (such as deforestation, land-use change, and agricultural practices), emissions sinks (such as reforestation and restoring degraded lands), and non–carbon dioxide (CO2) agricultural emissions (such as methane from livestock). Some of us have contributed to among the most optimistic assessments of the potential of NCS, whereas others have been more pessimistic. But one thing on which we agree, and which technical literature generally acknowledges, is that the benefits of NCS do not decrease the imperative for mitigation from the energy and industrial sectors. Yet this point sometimes gets lost in public-facing conversations [for example, are forests “our best weapon for fighting carbon emissions” or, more realistically, just one “piece of the puzzle”? (6)]. Strategies for incorporating NCS with energy and industrial mitigation in the climate portfolio should not be “either/or” but “yes, and.”

Natural climate solutions are not enough

Battle of Waterloo Bridge: a week of Extinction Rebellion protests – “Are we the the last generation?”

Yoga session on Waterloo Bridge in an Extinction Rebellion protest during the week of 15 April 2019. Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP / Getty Images
Yoga session on Waterloo Bridge in an Extinction Rebellion protest during the week of 15 April 2019. Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP / Getty Images

By Matthew Taylor and Damien Gayle
20 April 2019

(The Guardian) – On Monday morning a strange sight appeared, edging its way through the buses, taxis and shoppers on Oxford Street in London.

A bright pink boat, named Berta Cáceres after the murdered Honduran environmental activist, was being pulled carefully through the traffic, eventually coming to a halt in the middle of one of London’s busiest thoroughfares.

Bemused onlookers watched as activists secured Berta to the road, while others glued themselves to its garish hull. And with this act of flamboyant defiance, Extinction Rebellion’s climate protests had begun.

In the five days that followed, thousand of people, from pensioners to young parents with toddlers, scientists to city workers, teenagers to teachers, have occupied four landmarks in the capital, defying repeated police attempts to remove them and causing widespread disruption. Smaller disruptive events have taken place across the UK and in 33 other countries.

By late Friday evening police were saying that 682 people had been arrested in London. Three supporters who glued themselves to a train on Wednesday have been imprisoned. That same day four more attached themselves to the fence outside Jeremy Corbyn’s house, declaring the Labour leader “the best hope this country has got” to meet the challenges of the unfolding climate crisis.

And on Friday about 20 young protesters, all born after 1990, unfurled a banner on a road outside Heathrow airport, asking: “Are we the the last generation?”

But perhaps the protesters’ biggest achievement is that millions of people have heard their message that the world is in a spiralling climate emergency that demands transformative change to avoid catastrophe. [more]

Battle of Waterloo Bridge: a week of Extinction Rebellion protests


Extinction Rebellion activists stop coal train in Brisbane

19 April 2019 (Australian Associated Press) – One protester is in custody and another was taken to hospital after Extinction Rebellion activists stepped in front of a moving coal train headed for the Port of Brisbane.

The train driver was forced to slam on the emergency brakes after a group of protesters climbed on to the freight tracks in Wynnum on Thursday afternoon, police said.

“Then three men approached the carriages [and] one of them got up on to the carriage … the man wouldn’t come down,” a police spokesman said on Friday.

Officers coaxed him down about 7.45pm and he was charged with obstructing the railway, trespass and obstructing police. He remains in custody and will appear in the Cleveland magistrates court on Saturday. […]

An Extinction Rebellion activist, Emma Dorge, said the group was protesting against the lack of action in Australia in response to the global climate crisis.

“We can’t wait any more, we’re taking direct action so people understand the danger the planet is in,” she said. [more]

Extinction Rebellion activists stop coal train in Brisbane

Hurricane Michael upgraded to rare Category 5 status, only the fourth storm on record to have hit the U.S. as a Category 5 hurricane

This 9 October 2018 satellite image provided by NOAA shows Hurricane Michael, center, in the Gulf of Mexico. Weather forecasters have posthumously upgraded last fall’s Hurricane Michael from a Category 4 storm to a Category 5. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the storm’s upgraded status on 19 April 2019, making Michael only the fourth storm on record to have hit the U.S. as a Category 5 hurricane. Photo: NOAA / AP
This 9 October 2018 satellite image provided by NOAA shows Hurricane Michael, center, in the Gulf of Mexico. Weather forecasters have posthumously upgraded last fall’s Hurricane Michael from a Category 4 storm to a Category 5. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the storm’s upgraded status on 19 April 2019, making Michael only the fourth storm on record to have hit the U.S. as a Category 5 hurricane. Photo: NOAA / AP

By Freida Frisaro and David Fischer
19 April 2019

MIAMI (AP) – Hurricane Michael, which devastated a swath of the Florida Panhandle last fall, has been upgraded to a Category 5 storm, only the fourth to make recorded landfall in the United States and the first since 1992.

The announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Friday came as no surprise to those still struggling to recover from the storm’s destruction.

“My thought is simply that most of us thought we were dealing with a (Category) 5 anyway,” said Al Cathey, mayor of Mexico Beach, which bore the brunt of the storm when it hit.

National Hurricane Center scientists conducted a detailed post-storm analysis for Hurricane Michael, which made landfall near Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base on Oct. 10, 2018. They’ve determined that its estimated intensity at landfall was 160 mph (257 kph), a 5 mph (8 kph) increase over the operational estimate used last fall, NOAA said in a news release. That puts Michael just barely over the 157 mph (252 kph) threshold for a category 5 hurricane.

Just 36 hours before hitting Florida’s coast, Michael was making its way through the Gulf of Mexico as a 90 mph (145 kph) Category 1 storm.

But the reclassification doesn’t come with the much-needed state and federal funding Cathey said is necessary to rebuild. “Whether it was a 5 or a 4, it really isn’t relative to anything for most of us who are here. It’s just another number,” Cathey said Friday.

And the numbers tell the story in Mexico Beach, where Cathey said there were about 1,200 residents and 2,700 housing units before Hurricane Michael hit. Today, the population has dipped to about 400 people and there are less than 500 structures standing. And many of those suffered catastrophic damage. […]

In addition to Hurricanes Michael and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the only other Category 5 storms known to have made landfall in the U.S. are the Labor Day Hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935 and Hurricane Camille, which ravaged the Mississippi coast in 1969. Michael is also the strongest hurricane landfall on record in the Florida Panhandle and only the second known Category 5 landfall on the northern Gulf coast. [more]

Hurricane Michael gets an upgrade to rare Category 5 status

Recording reveals oil industry execs laughing at Trump access – “We have unprecedented access to people that are in these positions who are trying to help us, which is great”

In this  11 Decemver 2018 file photo, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke speaks after an order withdrawing federal protections for countless waterways and wetland was signed, at EPA headquarters in Washington. Trump said on Saturday, 15  December 2018, Zinke was leaving the administration at the end of the year Photo: Cliff Owen / AP Photo
In this 11 Decemver 2018 file photo, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke speaks after an order withdrawing federal protections for countless waterways and wetland was signed, at EPA headquarters in Washington. Trump said on Saturday, 15 December 2018, Zinke was leaving the administration at the end of the year Photo: Cliff Owen / AP Photo

By Lance Williams
23 March 2019

(Reveal) – Gathered for a private meeting at a beachside Ritz–Carlton in Southern California, the oil executives were celebrating a colleague’s sudden rise. David Bernhardt, their former lawyer, had been appointed by President Donald Trump to the powerful No. 2 spot at the Department of the Interior.

Just five months into the Trump era, the energy developers who make up the Independent Petroleum Association of America, or IPAA, already had watched the new president order a sweeping overhaul of environmental regulations that were cutting into their bottom lines – rules concerning smog, hydraulic fracturing, and endangered species protection.

Dan Naatz, the association’s political director, told the audience of about 100 executives that Bernhardt’s new role meant their priorities would be heard at the highest levels of the department.

“We know him very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues,” Naatz said, according to an hourlong recording of the June 2017 event in Laguna Niguel provided to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

The recording gives a rare look behind the curtain of an influential oil industry lobbying group that spends more than $1 million per year to push its agenda in Congress and federal regulatory agencies. The previous eight years had been dispiriting for the industry: As IPAA vice president Jeff Eshelman told the group, it had seemed as though the Obama administration and environmental groups had put together “their target list of everything that they wanted done to shut down the oil and gas industry.”

But now, the oil executives were almost giddy at the prospect of high-level executive branch access of the sort they hadn’t enjoyed since Dick Cheney, a fellow oilman, was vice president.

“It’s really a new thing for us,” said Barry Russell, the association’s CEO, boasting of his meetings with the Environmental Protection Agency chief at the time, Scott Pruitt, and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “For example, next week, I’m invited to the White House to talk about tax code. Last week, we were talking to Secretary Pruitt, and in about two weeks, we have a meeting with Secretary Zinke. So we have unprecedented access to people that are in these positions who are trying to help us, which is great.”

In that Ritz-Carlton conference room, Russell also spoke of his ties to Bernhardt, recalling the lawyer’s role as point man on an association legal team set up to challenge federal endangered species rules.

“Well, the guy that actually headed up that group is now the No. 2 at Interior,” he said, referring to Bernhardt. “So that’s worked out well.” [more]

Recording reveals oil industry execs laughing at Trump access

Jet stream change driving California’s floods and wildfires – “Recent California fires during wet North Pacific Jet extremes may be early evidence of this change”

Projected California hydroclimate in the 21st century. Annual California spatial means of (a) precipitation, (b) soil moisture, (c) near-surface air temperature, and (d) percentage of total precipitation occurring as snow, simulated by the MPI-ESM-P model, and driven by two scenarios of atmospheric concentration of anthropogenic greenhouse gases according to two Representative Concentration Paths (RCPs) (21): RCP4.5 (blue) and RPC8.5 (red). Graphic: Wahl, et al., 2019 / PNAS
Projected California hydroclimate in the 21st century. Annual California spatial means of (a) precipitation, (b) soil moisture, (c) near-surface air temperature, and (d) percentage of total precipitation occurring as snow, simulated by the MPI-ESM-P model, and driven by two scenarios of atmospheric concentration of anthropogenic greenhouse gases according to two Representative Concentration Paths (RCPs) (21): RCP4.5 (blue) and RPC8.5 (red). Graphic: Wahl, et al., 2019 / PNAS

4 March 2019 (NCEI) – Deadly severe wildfires in California have scientists scrutinizing the underlying factors that could influence future extreme events. Using climate simulations and paleoclimate data dating back to the 16th century, a recent study looks closely at long-term upper-level wind and related moisture patterns to find clues.

The new research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA examines jet stream and moisture patterns in California over a centuries-long time period—1571 to 2013—which is nearly four times longer than the instrumental period of record that begins in the latter part of the 19th century. The length of the study enhances the understanding of dynamics that may contribute to extreme impacts from wildfires, as well as precipitation extremes. The work provides a stronger foundation and a longer-term perspective for evaluating regional natural hazards within California and the economic risks to one of the world’s largest economies.

Between 2012 and 2018, several deadly and costly extreme wildfire events impacted California, including some of the state’s largest and most destructive wildfires on record. In 2018, California experienced several of its costliest, deadliest, and largest wildfires to date, according to records that date back to 1933. Such extreme events, which are tracked by NCEI in its Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters reports, prompt concern for the future.

Each scientist on the research team brought different perspectives and necessary knowledge to the study. These included expertise in paleoclimatology and paleoecology as well as wildfire research. The international, multi-disciplinary approach needed to execute the research underscored the many factors that can contribute to extreme weather and climate events.

The Jet Stream and Moisture

Moisture in California is largely regulated by the strength and position of the North Pacific Jet (NPJ) stream, high-altitude winds that sweep into the state from the west during the cooler wet season. The study evaluated the NPJ between December and February. The strength and position of the winds influence regional conditions that carry over into the warmer dry season, when wildfires are more prone to occur. The wet-season NPJ thus becomes an important precursor of summer fire conditions.

To build a better understanding of the influence of the NPJ over time, scientists focused on winter NPJ variability in a period of over 400 years. Using paleoclimatological and historical data, such as tree rings and historical fire records, past conditions were reconstructed to show connections between the NPJ and moisture and forest fire extremes.

The team wanted to gain a greater sense of conditions before and after fire suppression methods became more standard in 1904. The researchers constructed a list of low- and high-fire years in the Sierra Nevada for 1600–1903 from the paleo records. Extreme instances from both pre- and post-suppression period were then evaluated.

Very recently, 2017 bucked a pattern seen in the longer record. The severe Tubbs and Thomas fires of 2017, a high-precipitation year, overrode the NPJ’s historical relationship with low-fire extremes after cool seasons of very high moisture. Extreme precipitation had compromised the Oroville Spillway earlier that year in addition to bringing about dangerous floods and landslides. Prior to modern fire suppression, the paleoclimatic reconstruction showed no cases of a high-precipitation year coupled with a high-fire year. If warming continues, as is the scientific consensus, then significant wet season rain and snow may not ensure a quiet fire season afterward.

“Recent California fires during wet NPJ extremes may be early evidence of this change,” the paper states.

Besides fire risk and its associated health and economic impacts, such a change could alter species distribution, forest composition, and ecosystems.

Along with NCEI, contributors to the study came from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research in Germany and the Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction (CLiSAP) Cluster of Excellence at the University of Hamburg, The University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, and Penn State University’s Department of Geography and Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.

Reference: Wahl, Eugene R., E. Zorita, V. Trouet, and A. H. Taylor. Jet stream dynamics, hydroclimate, and fire in California from 1600 CE to present. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2019, 201815292; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1815292116

A Long View of California’s Climate


ABSTRACT: Moisture delivery in California is largely regulated by the strength and position of the North Pacific jet stream (NPJ), winter high-altitude winds that influence regional hydroclimate and forest fire during the following warm season. We use climate model simulations and paleoclimate data to reconstruct winter NPJ characteristics back to 1571 CE to identify the influence of NPJ behavior on moisture and forest fire extremes in California before and during the more recent period of fire suppression. Maximum zonal NPJ velocity is lower and northward shifted and has a larger latitudinal spread during presuppression dry and high-fire extremes. Conversely, maximum zonal NPJ is higher and southward shifted, with narrower latitudinal spread during wet and low-fire extremes. These NPJ, precipitation, and fire associations hold across pre–20th-century socioecological fire regimes, including Native American burning, postcontact disruption and native population decline, and intensification of forest use during the later 19th century. Precipitation extremes and NPJ behavior remain linked in the 20th and 21st centuries, but fire extremes become uncoupled due to fire suppression after 1900. Simulated future conditions in California include more wet-season moisture as rain (and less as snow), a longer fire season, and higher temperatures, leading to drier fire-season conditions independent of 21st-century precipitation changes. Assuming continuation of current fire management practices, thermodynamic warming is expected to override the dynamical influence of the NPJ on climate–fire relationships controlling fire extremes in California. Recent widespread fires in California in association with wet extremes may be early evidence of this change.

SIGNIFICANCE: North Pacific jet stream (NPJ) behavior strongly affects cool-season moisture delivery in California and is an important predictor of summer fire conditions. Reconstructions of the NPJ before modern fire suppression began in the early 20th century identify the relationships between NPJ characteristics and precipitation and fire extremes. After fire suppression, the relationship between the NPJ and precipitation extremes is unchanged, but the NPJ–fire extremes relationship breaks down. Simulations with high CO2 forcing show higher temperatures, reduced snowpack, and drier summers by 2070 to 2100 whether overall precipitation is enhanced or reduced, thereby overriding historical dynamic NPJ precursor conditions and increasing fire potential due to thermodynamic warming. Recent California fires during wet extremes may be early evidence of this change.

Jet stream dynamics, hydroclimate, and fire in California from 1600 CE to present