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The climate-inspired detente on the Colorado

For the first time in history, low water levels on the Colorado River have forced Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico to cut back the amount of water they use. It’s the latest example of climate change affecting daily life, but also an encouraging sign that people can handle a world with less: These orderly cutbacks are only happening because seven U.S. states and Mexico had agreed to abide by conservation rules when flows subside, rather than fight for the last drops.

“It is a new era of limits,” said Kevin Moran, who directs the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River efforts.

The Colorado River is a vital source of water for the American West, sustaining some 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. And it’s been under enormous stress. Since 2000, the watershed has been, to put it mildly, dry. The region is suffering the worst 20-year drought in modern times.

A Bureau of Reclamation study of Colorado River levels, released Thursday, triggered the cutbacks. The Rocky Mountains finally turned white with heavy snow last winter, but despite a galloping spring runoff, drought persists and bathtub-ringed reservoirs in the Grand Canyon are low. In its study, the Bureau highlighted the unique circumstances: “This 20-year period is also one of the driest in the 1,200-year paleo record.”

Rising temperatures brought on by rising carbon emissions are partly to blame. “Approximately one‐third of the [Colorado River] flow loss is due to high temperatures now common in the basin, a result of human caused climate change,” wrote scientists Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck in a study published in 2017 that anticipated water will only become scarcer in the future.

But these water-use reductions are also an example of people binding themselves to rules to deal with scarce resources, rather than going to court, or war. The cutbacks come from an agreement hammered out by the Southwestern states and Mexico to impose limits on themselves.

“It’s not necessarily well known or talked about, but this collaboration between the states and Mexico is one of the most successful cross-border water management stories in the world,” Moran said.

Over the long course of history, the various parties have fought each other over water, but found that cooperation simply works better, Moran said. By working together, they’ve already managed to reduce the amount of water drawn for the last five years from the lower Colorado River Basin. In fact, they’ve cut back more in each of those years more than required by their agreement in 2020, said John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, who wrote the book Water is for Fighting Over, on the history of conflicts over the Colorado River.

“It puts the lie to the idea that water use is just going up and up and up: It’s been on a downward trend for a decade and a half at a time when population is increasing and agriculture is as productive as ever,” Fleck said. “We’re beyond the Malthusian math that suggests we’re going to run out of water and die.”

The region will need to go further to keep up with climate change and refill reservoirs, Fleck said. But the progress so far leaves him hopeful that people can resolve conflicts over scarce resources in this new era of limits.

“The key, I think, is for the water users to realize that you can have healthy, successful communities with declining water,” Fleck said. That opens up the space for collaboration, and allow them to get beyond the old myth that water is for fighting over.”

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The climate-inspired detente on the Colorado

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The Arctic Council brought up climate change, and the U.S. couldn’t handle the heat

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sign the consensus-dependent agreement regulating the Arctic. The hiccup, according to sources? Climate change. So this year, for the first time since its founding in 1996, there was no joint declaration at the Meeting of the Arctic Council.

With record-breaking carbon emissions and temperatures, the U.N’s mass extinction prediction, and local governments constantly rolling out carbon reduction plans (like NYC, LA, Washington), it’s no surprise that climate change was one of the big issues at the meeting. The intergovernmental convention brings together leaders from the eight countries neighboring the Arctic every couple years to draft an agreement for the sustainable use of the region’s resources.

“A majority of us regarded climate change as a fundamental challenge facing the Arctic and acknowledged the urgent need to take mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience,” Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini wrote in a 10-page statement. Only when the statement touched on climate issues, like pollution, carbon sinks, and loss of biodiversity, did he use the tell-tale “a majority.”

“I don’t want to name and blame anyone,” Soini said of the agreement’s failure to pass.

Reuters’ sources reported that Pompeo disagreed with phrasing in the document that stated climate change was a serious threat to the Arctic. He didn’t want the most recent information on climate science included in the report, diplomats present at the council told the New York Times.

His refusal to sign meant that no declaration could be passed. Instead, the council members each signed a statement committing to proceed with Arctic development sustainably, but that didn’t mention climate change.

Pompeo has a different story — he claims that he backed out because of concerns that the unbinding agreement would not hold Russia and China accountable enough moving forward.

On Sunday, the day before his refusal, he made a policy speech where he sang praises for an Arctic less swathed in ice sheets. He lauded the potential oil, gas, and metal extraction in newly uncovered regions, while simultaneously warning of the threat a squabbling Russia and China would pose. Not once did he mention climate change, nor the communities most immediately affected by retreating sea ice and warming seas. Still, acknowledging the economic potential created by the Arctic’s warming seemed at odds with his refusal to sign an agreement that assigned a name to the effect.

Funny, then, that he should tell the council that “collective goals … are rendered meaningless, even counterproductive as soon as one nation fails to comply,” in explaining why the U.S. would not sign the agreement. Exemplary performance, Mr. Pompeo.

You can see his whole speech here:

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The Arctic Council brought up climate change, and the U.S. couldn’t handle the heat

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The vault holding humanity’s precious seeds is on thin ice

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The Crop Trust — the organization tasked by the U.N. with preserving the world’s diversity of crops — has a slippery problem on its hands. Its most important effort, a global seed vault, is buried in an abandoned coal mine in the Svalbard archipelago, a chain of Norweigan islands several hundred miles from the North Pole. Kept at an icy 18 degrees C year-round, and insulated by layers of thick rock and permafrost, the seed tomb holds 968,000 varieties of crops and has the capacity to store 2.5 billion individual seeds.

The Crop Trust says “the Vault is in an ideal location for long-term seed storage,” in part because the surrounding permafrost provides a “cost effective and fail-safe method to conserve seeds.” There’s just one problem: Rising temperatures are melting that critical permafrost, jeopardizing the doomsday vault, the towns in the archipelago, and humanity as a whole.

A researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute recently told CNN that Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, “is probably warming faster than in any other town on Earth.”

A report published earlier this year by the Norwegian Center for Climate Services shows that the climate in Svalbard is going to change drastically by the year 2100. If humanity continues emitting greenhouse gases business-as-usual, Svalbard is looking at an annual air temperature increase of 10 degrees C (18 degrees F). Even under a medium emissions scenario where greenhouse gases are reduced, it could still see 7 degrees C (12.6 degrees F) of warming. Climate change is projected to increase rainfall in the region by as much as 65 percent by the end of the century, in addition to making avalanches and landslides more frequent.

Norway already committed to spending $13 million to upgrade the facility early last year after melted permafrost threatened to leak into the vault. New additions to the structure will include a concrete tunnel, backup power sources, and refrigeration. But after a frighteningly warm Arctic winter season this year, who knows how much more money will need to be spent to safeguard the vault against the myriad threats posed by climate change.

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The vault holding humanity’s precious seeds is on thin ice

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The Arctic’s ticking ‘carbon bomb’ could blow up the Paris Agreement

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Even in a dream-come-true scenario where we manage to stop all the world’s carbon emissions overnight, the Arctic would inevitably get hotter and hotter. That’s according to a new report by U.N. Environment, which says the the region is already “locked in” to wintertime warming of 4 to 5 degrees C (7.2 to 9 degrees F) over temperatures of the late 1900s.

The report, released at the U.N. Environment conference in Kenya on Wednesday, says that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the planetary average, and models show that it’s on track to become ice-free during the summer as soon as 2030.

That’s the bad news. So here’s even worse news. The Arctic contains much of the world’s permafrost, which holds what the report calls a “sleeping giant” made of greenhouse gases. As the ground warms, the microbes in the soil wake up and start belching greenhouse gases. Estimates vary, but the report says 1.5 trillion tons of carbon dioxide lurk beneath the Earth’s permafrost. That’s more than 40 times as much CO2 as humans released into the atmosphere last year, and double the amount of the gas in the atmosphere today.

If that permafrost stayed permanently frozen, as the word itself suggests it should, we could continue worrying about other stuff. But researchers expect Arctic permafrost to shrink 45 percent compared to today. Unleashing that stored-up carbon dioxide and methane would obviously “derail efforts” to limit warming to 2 degrees C (3.6CK degrees F) as outlined in the Paris Agreement, the report says. But then again, it would derail pretty much everything.

“New evidence suggests that permafrost is thawing much faster than previously thought, with consequences not just for Arctic peoples and ecosystems, but for the planet as a whole because of feedback loops,” the report states.

This is one of the runaway warming scenarios, often called the “carbon bomb” or “methane bomb.” (Permafrost holds both greenhouse gases.) Unlike a real bomb, however, it wouldn’t explode all at once. And at least one recent study suggests that we still have time to defuse it.

Within the Arctic, the soil formerly known as permafrost — let’s call it “meltafrost” — could pose a danger to 70 percent of current infrastructure by 2050, as well as the region’s 4 million inhabitants, 10 percent of whom are indigenous. Recent studies have shown that permafrost thaw could cause houses to collapse, lead to uneven roads, and threaten important cultural and archaeological sites.

The North Pole runs warmer than the rest of the planet because of a phenomenon called “Arctic amplification” — basically a region-specific term for feedback loops. “[W]hen sea ice melts in the summer, it opens up dark areas of water that absorb more heat from the sun, which in turn melts more ice,” the report explains.

These rapid changes in the Arctic might seem far away, but you will feel them, too. For those of you on the coasts, keep in mind that the melting of Arctic glaciers and Greenland’s ice sheet makes up a third of sea-level rise around the globe. Rising seas will wreak havoc in coastal regions as they deal with flooding, damaged buildings, and the saltwater contamination of drinking water sources.

And for those further inland, there’s the wild weather. The melting of the Arctic causes changes in the jet stream and disrupts weather patterns much further south. It’s been linked to worsening drought across the western United States, stalled hurricanes in the East, and the polar vortex that occasionally dips down over North America to turn us all into popsicles.

As many are fond of saying, “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”

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The Arctic’s ticking ‘carbon bomb’ could blow up the Paris Agreement

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The dirty truth about oat milk

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Move over, almond and soy milk: An oat milk boom, as I argued in a piece last year, could help the Midwest solve some of its most dire agricultural issues. And now there’s new research out this month to help support the case for covering the region with oats.

In states like Iowa, fertilizer runoff from corn and soybean farms pollutes drinking water and feeds algae blooms, fouling water from local lakes and rivers down to the Gulf of Mexico. These farms also lose soil to erosion at an alarming rate, compromising the region’s future as a crucial hub of the U.S. food system.

Back in 2013, I reported on “one weird trick” that could go a long way toward solving these problems: biodiversity. When farmers add more crops to their dominant corn-soybean rotation, it disrupts weed and pest patterns and means they can use fewer pesticides. It also frees up space for planting legumes, which capture nitrogen from the air and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. One great contender for this third crop is oats.

Earlier this month, researchers from Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota came out with a paper that adds more weight to the case for diversification. The paper reports on results from trial plots established in 2002 by Iowa State at a farm outside Ames. In one swath, the ground was planted in a two-year rotation of corn and soybeans, the standard recipe in the Midwest. In another, a three-year rotation held sway: corn, soybeans, and oats inter-planted with red clover, a legume. In the final one, the rotation was extended to four years, adding a round of alfalfa, another legume, and a forage crop for cattle.

The paper found that the longer rotations — the ones with the added crops — bring the following benefits:

Water pollution drops dramatically

Nitrogen fertilizer is a key crop nutrient, and when it’s washed away into the Midwest’s rivers and streams, it also supercharges algae growth, especially in salt water. That’s bad news for the Gulf of Mexico, where these waterways ultimately drain. Since Midwestern agriculture intensified in the 1970s, annual dead zones have been appearing in the Gulf, sucking oxygen out of the water and turning huge swaths of it into fetid dead zones. The annual Gulf dead zone fluctuates in size based on weather patterns. Last year’s turned out to be below average in area covered — but it was still the size of Delaware. In 2017, the dead zone set an all-time record, clocking in at a size four times larger than the federal target for a healthy Gulf ecosystem.

In the Iowa State farm study, the plots managed with three- and four-year rotations lost 39 percent less nitrogen to runoff than the corn-soybean control plots, partially because the presence of more nitrogen-fixing legumes in the mix reduces the need to apply synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

And on these plots, 30 percent less phosphorus leaked away as runoff. Phosphorus is another key crop nutrient applied to farm fields, and it’s the main driver for blue-green algae blooms in freshwater bodies like lakes. These blooms produce toxins called microcystins, which, when ingested, cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, fever, and liver damage. Lakes downstream from farms throughout the Midwest have been increasingly saddled with these “harmful algae blooms” in recent years. Toledo struggles annually to keep microcystins out of its city water, which is drawn from algae-plagued Lake Erie. Freshwater blooms also generate massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas with 30 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.

Soil stays in place

According to Iowa State agronomist Richard Cruse, Iowa farms lose topsoil at an average rate of 5.7 tons per acre annually, versus the natural rate of regeneration of 0.5 acres per year. As soil washes away, farmland doesn’t sponge up or hold water as well, making it more vulnerable to droughts. Erosion is already reducing crop yields in Iowa, Cruse’s research has found — an effect that will accelerate if the trend continues. On the Iowa State plots planted with oats, clover, and alfalfa, erosion rates decreased by 60 percent.

Crop yields improve — and so could the bottom line

The diverse plots in the study delivered higher yields of corn and soybeans (in the years when those crops are grown), and also required drastically lower amounts of off-farm inputs like fertilizers and herbicides. (A 2012 paper on the same group of test plots found that the diverse fields require 88 percent less herbicides because the addition of another crop disrupts weed patterns.) As a result, the authors found that the more diverse plots were slightly more profitable than the control ones.

Natalie Hunt, a University of Minnesota researcher and a co-author on the study, told me that the economic analysis assumed that the oats and alfalfa generated by the biodiverse plots would find a profitable use by being fed to cattle and hogs “on-farm or on neighboring farms.” That setup works best for diversified operations that include crops as well as livestock. A farm that planted alfalfa during its fourth year of rotation, for example, could “harvest” it by simply turning cattle loose on it for munching; and the resulting beef provides an income stream.

But such farms are increasingly rare in states like Iowa, which are made up mainly of huge corn and soybean farms, and separately, an ever-growing number of massive confined hog farms, highly geared toward consuming that corn and soy.

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Another obstacle, Hunt says, are the “heavily taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance programs that keep farmers locked into a corn- and soybean-producing system year after year, even when market prices are poor,” as they have been for the past several years.

She adds, though, that if consumers demanded food from the Midwest that didn’t pollute water and damage soil, the “market would respond pretty quickly” — that is, if farmers could get a premium price for crops, meat, and milk “grown with biodiversity” or some such label, farmers would have incentive to add them to their rotations. And that was precisely the thesis of my oat milk piece. I calculated that turning grain into a beverage doesn’t require nearly enough product to create a demand surge sufficient to bring oats to millions of acres of Midwestern farmland; however, it could be a lever to raise consumer awareness of the ecological damage endemic in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, oat milk does appear to be taking off. When I was researching the topic a year ago, I was able to identify two major brands: Oatly and Pacific. Now, Oatly is constructing a new factory in New Jersey to satisfy surging thirst for its product; Pepsi’s Quaker Oats is peddling a “super smooth” oat beverage; and California’s almond milk titan Califia Farms has announced plans to come out with an oat product, as has soy milk giant Silk.

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The dirty truth about oat milk

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Doomsday in Antarctica just got postponed a little

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There are a lot of daunting aspects of climate change, but few are more frightening than what’s happening right now at the bottom of the world. A few large glaciers in Antarctica have already passed over into slow-motion collapse mode. If these “doomsday glaciers” crumble, they would drown every coastal city in the world. A little over a year ago, I wrote about this “Ice Apocalypse” scenario and the scientists who are working diligently to understand how much time we have before this turns into a full-blown catastrophe.

That research got an update last month, which could be perceived as good news: If we steer our emissions away from business as usual, we might be able to reduce the chances of outright collapse during this century to about 10 percent. The worst-case scenario is still on the table and the details are still fuzzy, but this is about as close as it comes to a sigh of relief when you’re talking about trillions of tons of ice hanging by a thread and holding all of coastal human society hostage.

The new research uses a relatively crude model which is being continually refined. In the new study’s summary, the authors warn that there remains “the potential for major ice-sheet retreat if global mean temperature rises more than ~2 degrees C above pre-industrial” — a threshold that could be breached as soon as 30 years from now if the world continues on its current trajectory.

Looking out into the 22nd century and beyond, all bets are still off. Even with rapid reductions, it’s almost assured that the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet will collapse within the next century or two. There’s currently a race to understand exactly what’s happening at the most important glacier in the region. Thwaites glacier, a 100-mile wide stream of ice that draws directly from the center of the frozen continent, alone could raise seas by a few feet, enough to wreck coastal infrastructure worldwide, permanently. The initial results from a just-underway, five-year project are expected later in 2019.

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Doomsday in Antarctica just got postponed a little

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40 million Americans depend on the Colorado River. It’s drying up.

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Prompted by years of drought and mismanagement, a series of urgent multi-state meetings are currently underway in Las Vegas to renegotiate the use of the Colorado River. Seven states and the federal government are close to a deal, with a powerful group of farmers in Arizona being the lone holdouts.

The stakes are almost impossibly high: The Colorado River provides water to 1-in-8 Americans, and irrigates 15 percent of the country’s agricultural products. The nearly 40 million people who depend on it live in cities from Los Angeles to Denver. The river supports native nations and industry across the vast desert Southwest — including 90 percent of U.S.-grown winter vegetables. Simply put: The region could not exist in its current form without it.

Decades of warming temperatures have finally forced a confrontation with an inescapable truth: There’s no longer enough water to go around. This past winter was a preview of what the future will look like: A very low amount of snow fell across the mountains that feed the river, so water levels have plummeted to near-record low levels in vast Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two mega-reservoirs that are used to regulate water resources during hard times.

Since then, the news has only gotten worse.

Water managers project that Lake Powell, which straddles the Arizona-Utah border, is on pace to lose 15 percent of its volume within the next 12 months. Lake Mead, which feeds hydroelectricity turbines at the Hoover Dam and is the region’s most important reservoir, will fare even worse — falling 22 percent in the next two years, below a critical cutoff point to trigger mandatory water rationing.

“Within Arizona, we must agree to share the pain,” Governor Doug Ducey said at a meeting of state water managers in Phoenix this week. For many reasons, Arizona is going to suffer first. The state relies on the river for 40 percent of its water — and some cities, like Tucson, are entirely dependent on it. The prospect of near-term shortfalls, according to Ducey, means there’s “no time to spare.”

In a dystopian twist, Las Vegas has already been planning for the worst-case scenario: Three years ago, the city completed a three-mile long tunnel to suck water from directly below Lake Mead. The tunnel will provide last-resort access to every drop of water — long after the reservoir falls an additional 125 feet, below the point that renders the Hoover Dam obsolete. At the current pace, that could happen within years.

Losing the river’s carbon-free hydropower will create electricity shortages. Unpredictable legal challenges, and perhaps interstate fighting, would escalate to the Supreme Court. Since agriculture currently consumes about 80 percent of the river’s water, it’s the obvious first place that urban areas are going to look to shore up their own supplies.

In the plans currently being discussed, within months, Southwestern farmers will have to abandon some of their irrigated cropland. That will kick off an inevitable decline of the region’s economy that could eventually reshape the entire country’s food distribution system.

Under the current rules, federal water managers project a 52 percent chance that an official water shortage will be declared in fall of 2019, with mandatory cutbacks beginning in 2020. A shortage is more than 99 percent certain the following year. The problem is, due to systematic over-use, even those cutbacks won’t be enough to prevent the river from falling still lower, so the multi-month series of meetings this year have centered around agreeing on deep cuts starting right away.

To be clear: There is no remaining scenario that does not include mandatory cutbacks in water usage along the Colorado River within the next few years. The long-awaited judgement day for the Southwest is finally here.

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40 million Americans depend on the Colorado River. It’s drying up.

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The Camp Fire’s flames were deadly. Its smoke could be even more dangerous.

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A year of fire and relentless heat has spilled over into a grimy, smoky, full-blown public health crisis in northern California.

While the epicenter of the Camp Fire’s gruesome tragedy is in the town of Paradise, where 63 people are known to have died and 631 are still missing, many more people in the region are suffering from the life-threatening impact of wildfire smoke.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar officially declared a public health emergency for California on Tuesday, and since then, air quality conditions have only gotten worse.

On Thursday, northern California’s Air Quality Index, a measure of how polluted the air is, was the worst of any region in the world. Chico, Oroville, and Sacramento reported pollution levels in the “hazardous” category — the highest on the scale — topping parts of China and India and breaking records for the worst air quality in the area since record keeping began. It’s the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.

Friday is the eighth consecutive day that millions of people in Northern California are breathing wildfire smoke. Public health officials fear that chronic smoke inhalation could lead to a whole suite of new health problems, like those seen in Asian megacities.

The smoke in the region is so bad, it’s disrupting the regular flow of life. The vast majority of schools are closed across the Bay Area. The cable cars in San Francisco have stopped running. Flights are being delayed due to reduced visibility. Cars are forced to use headlights in the middle of the day.

The current smoke emergency mirrors one earlier this year in the Pacific Northwest, which darkened the skies over Seattle for days.

So far, there hasn’t been a noticeable uptick in emergency room visits across California, but that’s likely to change. Past studies show that particulate pollution, like smoke, aggravates pre-existing conditions, especially in seniors. Young children are particularly at-risk because they are still growing and tend to be more active than adults. Homeless populations, farmworkers, and low-income residents are all especially vulnerable because they are more likely to work and live in places where it’s difficult to avoid exposure to the pollution.

Smoke, not flames, is the deadliest public health risk of wildfires. The fine-grain air pollution it carries (classified as particulate matter fewer than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) is already one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. — an estimated 17,000 people die of wildfire smoke-related causes each year. By the end of the century, it could cause twice as many deaths as it does now — to 44,000 each year.

Each year, wildfire smoke leads to thousands of premature deaths, much more than other types of extreme weather. It often hits with little warning, adversely affecting people who aren’t prepared in places hundreds of miles away from the fires.This summer, when wildfires broke out in British Columbia, public health alerts were issued as far away as Minnesota — roughly 2,000 miles east of the fires.

Across the world, more than 7 million people die each year due to air pollution from smoke and exhaust from fossil fuel burning. A study last month from the World Health Organization found that more than 90 percent of children in the world breathe toxic air every day.

Air pollution caused by wildfires is a problem that’s just going to keep getting worse thanks to climate change. As drier and hotter weather continues to intensify the fire season — creating the conditions for massively destructive wildfires like the Camp Fire — the number of people affected by smoke on the West Coast is expected to increase by 50 percent in just the next two decades.

This week’s smoke outbreak should remind us that, as we talk about preparing for future fire catastrophes, we need to also prepare for their wider public health impacts.

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The Camp Fire’s flames were deadly. Its smoke could be even more dangerous.

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Michael could be the worst hurricane to ever hit the Florida Panhandle

With Hurricane Michael bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the state of Florida is just hours away from America’s latest hurricane disaster.

As of Tuesday evening, Michael was a Category 3 hurricane, and was expected to intensify even further before landfall on Wednesday afternoon near Panama City, where mandatory evacuations are underway. On Tuesday, President Trump signed a pre-landfall emergency declaration to help speed the flow of aid to Florida.

With Michael’s impending landfall, America is bracing for its fourth major hurricane in just 15 months. Last year’s trio of Harvey, Irma, and Maria made landfall with sustained winds above 115 mph, the criteria for a “major” hurricane.

In the Panhandle region of Florida, a storm like this is exceedingly rare. There have been only nine major hurricanes to approach the region in all of weather recordkeeping dating back to 1850. If Michael strengthens even a bit more than forecast, it could eclipse them all.

But wind speeds aren’t the only important factor here: 2012’s Sandy, which devastated the New York City region, and last month’s Hurricane Florence, which created all-time record flooding in North Carolina, had winds well below that threshold when they hit land. They still caused massive damage due to their large size.

Michael will be a relatively large hurricane, too, and is hitting a region of the Florida coast that’s particularly vulnerable to storm surge and coastal flooding. A huge swath of the northern Gulf Coast, from near New Orleans to Tampa, is currently under either tropical storm or hurricane warnings. Storm surge could be as high as 13 feet, depending on exactly where Michael makes landfall. Just offshore, waves in the normally docile Gulf of Mexico will be up to 40 feet high. The combination of extremely powerful winds and coastal flooding could prove devastating for the Florida Panhandle’s beach communities, like Fort Walton Beach and Panama City, which are set to take the brunt of Michael’s force.

In the past year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of people have moved to central and northern Florida — and Michael is likely to bring repeat trauma for some. During Irma, half of the region lost power as the storm weakened. Michael is now gearing for a direct hit, while strengthening.

Southwest Florida, which is outside the warning area, is already seeing flooding — in one case, threatening a sea wall that has just been reconstructed after last year’s Irma. Michael is so large, it could even cause coastal flooding on the other side of Florida — in combination with the King Tide, an astronomical oddity that makes October 9 the highest high tide of the year, and the influence of long-term sea-level rise linked to climate change.

It’s impossible to think of record-setting hurricanes like Michael as freak aberrations from “normal” weather. Six of the seven most damaging hurricanes in U.S. history have hit in the past 10 years. In an era of rapid climate change, every weather event — including Michael — is a partial product of current and historical greenhouse gas emissions, and should come as a warning of yet worse hurricanes in the coming decades if we continue on a business as usual path.

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Michael could be the worst hurricane to ever hit the Florida Panhandle

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Shipping giants look lustily at the warming Arctic

When a blue-hulled cargo ship named Venta Maersk became the first container vessel to navigate a major Arctic sea route this month, it offered a glimpse of what the warming region might become: a maritime highway, with vessels lumbering between Asia and Europe through once-frozen seas.

Years of melting ice have made it easier for ships to ply these frigid waters. That’s a boon for the shipping industry but a threat to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Nearly all ships run on fossil fuels, and many use heavy fuel oil, which spews black soot when burned and turns seas into a toxic goopy mess when spilled. Few international rules are in place to protect the Arctic’s environment from these ships, though a proposal to ban heavy fuel oil from the region is gaining support.

“For a long time, we weren’t looking at the Arctic as a viable option for a shortcut for Asia-to-Europe, or Asia-to-North America traffic, but that’s really changed, even over the last couple of years,” says Bryan Comer, a senior researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation’s marine program. “It’s just increasingly concerning.”

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Venta Maersk departed from South Korea in late August packed with frozen fish, chilled produce, and electronics. Days later, it sailed through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia, before cruising along Russia’s north coast. At one point, a nuclear icebreaker escorted Venta Maersk through a frozen Russian strait, then the container vessel continued to the Norwegian Sea. It’s expected to arrive in Germany and St. Petersburg later this month.

The trial voyage wouldn’t have been possible until recently. The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, with sea ice, snow cover, glaciers, and permafrost all diminishing dramatically over recent decades. In the past, only powerful nuclear-powered icebreakers could forge through Arctic seas; these days, even commercial ships can navigate the region from roughly July to October—albeit sometimes with the help of skilled pilots and icebreaker escorts.

Russian tankers already carry liquefied natural gas to Western Europe and Asia. General cargo vessels move Chinese wind turbine parts and Canadian coal. Cruise liners take tourists to see surreal ice formations and polar bears in the Arctic summer. Around 2,100 cargo ships operated in Arctic waters in 2015, according to Comer’s group.

“Because of climate change, because of the melting of sea ice, these ships can operate for longer periods of time in the Arctic,” says Scott Stephenson, an assistant geography professor at the University of Connecticut, “and the shipping season is already longer than it used to be.” A study he co-authored found that, by 2060, ships with reinforced hulls could operate in the Arctic for nine months in the year.

Stephenson says that the Venta Maersk’s voyage doesn’t mean that an onrush of container ships will soon be clogging the Arctic seas, given the remaining risks and costs needed to operate in the region. “It’s a new, proof-of-concept test case,” he says.

Maersk, based in Copenhagen, says the goal is to collect data and “gain operational experience in a new area and to test vessel systems,” representatives from the company wrote in an email. The ship didn’t burn standard heavy fuel oil, but a type of high-grade, ultra-low-sulfur fuel. “We are taking all measures to ensure that this trial is done with the highest considerations for the sensitive environment in the region.”

Sian Prior, lead advisor to the HFO-Free Arctic Campaign, says that the best way to avoid fouling the Arctic is to ditch fossil fuels entirely and install electric systems with, say, battery storage or hydrogen fuel cells. Since those technologies aren’t yet commercially viable for ocean-going ships, the next option is to run ships on liquefied natural gas. The easiest alternative, however, is to switch to a lighter “marine distillate oil,” which Maersk says is “on par with” the fuel it’s using.

But many ships still run on cheaper heavy fuel oil, made from the residues of petroleum refining. In 2015, the sludgy fuel accounted for 57 percent of total fuel consumption in the Arctic, and was responsible for 68 percent of ships’ black carbon emissions, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Black carbon wreaks havoc on the climate, even though it usually makes up a small share of total emissions. The small dark particles absorb the sun’s heat and directly warm the atmosphere. Within a few days, the particles fall back down to earth, darkening the snow and hindering the snow’s ability to reflect the sun’s radiation—resulting in more warming.

When spilled, heavy fuel oil emulsifies on the water’s surface or sinks to the seafloor, unlike lighter fuels which disperse and evaporate. Clean-up can take decades in remote waters, as was the case when the Exxon Valdez crude oil tanker slammed into an Alaskan reef in 1989.

“It’s dirtier when you burn it, the options to clean it up are limited, and the length it’s likely to persist in the environment is longer,” Prior says.

In April, the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. body that regulates the shipping industry, began laying the groundwork to ban ships from using or carrying heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. Given the lengthy rulemaking process, any policy won’t likely take effect before 2021, Prior says.

One of the biggest hurdles will be securing Russia’s approval. Most ships operating in the Arctic fly Russian flags, and the country’s leaders plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in coming years to beef up polar shipping activity along the Northern Sea Route. China also wants to build a “Polar Silk Road” and redirect its cargo ships along the Russian route.

Such ambitions hinge on a melting Arctic and rising global temperatures. If the warming Arctic eventually does offer a cheaper highway for moving goods around the world, Comer says, “then we need to start making sure that policies are in place.”

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Shipping giants look lustily at the warming Arctic

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