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Ahead of the caucuses, Nevadans say climate change is on their minds

After the disastrous Iowa caucuses and far smoother New Hampshire primary, all eyes now turn to Nevada, which will hold its Democratic primary caucuses on Saturday. On Wednesday night, presidential hopefuls took to the debate stage in Las Vegas to compete for Nevadans’ affections. In between viral verbal smackdowns, the candidates took a full 16 minutes to talk about climate policy.

It was a canny choice by the moderators, which included the very first climate journalist to helm a presidential debate, to spotlight climate. That’s because Democratic caucus-goers in Nevada — and Latino caucus-goers in particular — care deeply about climate policy, according to a recent poll.

The poll, released by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and the Nevada Conservation League, reveals that 86 percent of Nevada Democrats likely to attend the caucuses on Saturday believe that the climate crisis is either “a very important issue” or “the most important issue.” And climate change is the second most important issue to likely Democratic caucus-goers, after universal healthcare, when deciding which candidate to support.

For likely Latino caucus-goers in the state, climate change is a more important issue than health care or immigration. This makes sense because climate change is not a single issue, but one that affects every other issue — and its impacts are felt differently depending on race, income, gender, immigration status, and other factors.

“Latinx communities are hit first and hardest by climate,” Rudy Zamora, program director of Chispa Nevada — an organizing program under LCV — said in a statement. “So it’s not surprising to see that climate change is the most important issue for Nevada Latinx voters in deciding who to support for president.”

A majority of those who participated in the survey said they are much more likely to vote for a candidate with a climate plan that prioritizes communities most affected by pollution, including low-income communities of color. And 43 percent say they “strongly support” a Green New Deal.

These results line up with recent national polls showing that Democratic voters believe climate change is an important issue for presidential candidates to address this election.

But the issue has particularly hit home in Nevada, which has experienced dangerous heat waves in the last few years. Since 1970, Nevada has warmed 2.8 degrees F on average. Last August, the state broke a record for the most consecutive days with temperatures over 105 degrees F. Las Vegas is the fastest-warming city in the country. And the Colorado River has been dwindling due to an increasing loss of snow in the Nevada mountains, forcing Nevadans to cut down their water use.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that climate change will be on Nevadans’ minds when they head to the caucuses this weekend.

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Ahead of the caucuses, Nevadans say climate change is on their minds

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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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Coal ash contamination is widespread, new report finds

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Coal ash pollution has repeatedly coated North Carolina’s rivers bottoms with a plethora of toxic chemicals. The culprit from the state’s biggest spill? Duke Energy, a Charlotte-based energy giant.

But the issue of coal ash is not unique to North Carolina — it’s happening everywhere.

A new report, published jointly by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, found that 242 — the vast majority (91 percent) of the coal-fired power plants examined — had elevated levels of toxic heavy metals and other pollutants in nearby groundwater. Over half of those sites were contaminated with cancer-causing arsenic, and 60 percent were polluted with lithium, which has been linked to neurological damage. That’s…not good.

In 2014, North Carolina experienced the third-worst coal ash spill in recorded history, dumping 39,000 tons of waste product along 70 miles (110 kilometers) of the North Carolina-Virginia border. Residue from the spill coated the floor of the Dan River. This contamination poses many health risks to people living nearby, such as cancer and asthma.

The cleanup, which is still ongoing after five years, could cost Duke Energy to the tune of $5 billion, and according to the Associated Press, the company plans to pass the rather expensive bill along to its consumers.

The issue of coal ash in North Carolina flared up again last year when Hurricane Florence caused flooding at coal ash sites alongside Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton Power Station, which carries coal ash components into a cooling lake and then into the nearby Cape Fear River. Cape Fear River is a water source for Wilmington, a city of 60,000 downstream from the coal ash site.

“Our communities are being harmed both by Duke Energy’s coal ash negligence and by repeated flooding from our changing climate,” said Bobby Jones of the Down East Coal Ash Coalition, speaking at a press conference at the First Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh. “Duke’s influence is a moral decay that erodes our democracy.”

Duke may not be the only company to blame (also, they’ve vehemently opposed the report’s findings.) The new report analyzed data from 265 plants–about three-quarters of all coal power plants in the U.S. And the report’s authors say they could be “understating” the extent of contamination since data is available only on coal ash sites actively in use; ponds and landfills that hold coal ash but are not receiving any were not included.

As with many environmental woes, low-income communities and communities of color are the ones likely to suffer the most from this threat as these sites tend to be located near their homes. According to Abel Russ, lead author of the report and an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, as long as EPA Administrator (and former coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler is at the helm of the environmental agency, that threat will not waver.

“At a time when the EPA […] is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction,” Russ said in a statement.

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Coal ash contamination is widespread, new report finds

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European colonization of Americas killed so many it cooled Earth’s climate

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

European colonization of the Americas resulted in the killing of so many native people that it transformed the environment and caused the Earth’s climate to cool down, new research has found.

Settlers killed off huge numbers of people in conflicts and also by spreading disease, which reduced the indigenous population by 90 percent in the century following Christopher Columbus’s initial journey to the Americas and Caribbean in 1492.

This “large-scale depopulation” resulted in vast tracts of agricultural land being left untended, researchers say, allowing the land to become overgrown with trees and other new vegetation.

The regrowth soaked up enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to actually cool the planet, with the average temperature dropping by 0.15 degrees C (0.27 degrees F) in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the study by scientists at University College London found.

“The great dying of the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth system in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution,” wrote the UCL team of Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark Maslin, and Simon Lewis.

The drop in temperature during this period is known as the “Little Ice Age,” a time when the River Thames in London would regularly freeze over, snowstorms were common in Portugal, and disrupted agriculture caused famines in several European countries.

The UCL researchers found that the European colonization of the Americas indirectly contributed to this colder period by causing the deaths of about 56 million people by 1600. The study attributes the deaths to factors including introduced disease, such as smallpox and measles, as well as warfare and societal collapse.

Researchers then calculated how much land indigenous people required and then subsequently fell into disuse, finding that around 55 million hectares, an area roughly equivalent to France, became vacant and was reclaimed by carbon dioxide-absorbing vegetation.

The study sketches out a past where humans were influencing the climate long before the industrial revolution, where the use of fossil fuels for the manufacturing of goods, generation of electricity, and transportation has allowed tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere.

Widespread deforestation for agriculture and urban development has also spurred the release of greenhouse gases, causing the planet to warm by around 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) over the past century. Scientists have warned that the world has little over a decade to drastically reduce emissions or face increasingly severe storms, drought, heatwaves, coastal flooding, and food insecurity.

The revegetation of the Americas after European arrival aided declines of global carbon content in the air, dropping by around 7 to 10 parts of carbon dioxide for every million molecules of air in the atmosphere. This compares to the 3 ppm of carbon dioxide that humanity is currently adding to the atmosphere every year through the burning of fossil fuels.

“There is a lot of talk around ‘negative emissions’ approaching and using tree-planting to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to mitigate climate change,” study coauthor Chris Brierley told the BBC. “And what we see from this study is the scale of what’s required, because the great dying resulted in an area the size of France being reforested and that gave us only a few parts per million.”

“This is useful,” he continued, “it shows us what reforestation can do. But at the same, that kind of reduction is worth perhaps just two years of fossil fuel emissions at the present rate.”

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European colonization of Americas killed so many it cooled Earth’s climate

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Think NYC’s L train fiasco is bad? Just wait until storms swamp JFK Airport

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When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, water rushed into the underground tunnels that are the backbone of the city’s transit system, swamping sensitive electronics and decades-old infrastructure in corrosive saltwater. Nothing like that had ever happened in the 100+ years the subways had been operating. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had no timetable for when the system would reopen.

Fixing the L train tunnel, which connects Brooklyn to 14th Street in Manhattan, has caused a major headache for the city. More than 300,000 New Yorkers rely on the L every day. On Thursday, after years of planning a complete overhaul that would shut down the line for more than a year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did an about-face, throwing fresh uncertainty on the problem.

The 15-month total shutdown, which went through an extensive public vetting process and wound up depressing home values in Brooklyn, is no longer. The new plan is a 20-month nights-and-weekends shutdown, which will disadvantage New Yorkers who work at odd hours for even longer. Instead of a wholesale overhaul of the tunnel, the new plan is to encase sensitive wires in plastic. It’s a method that’s never been used before in the United States, and never anywhere in the world during a tunnel repair.

The vast majority of NYC’s subway tunnels were built between 1900 and 1936, and since the system runs 24-hours a day, they’ve been patched together for decades. The city pumps millions of gallons of water out of the system each day that pours in from percolating rainwater and countless leaks.

In the past 70 years, there have been a dozen coastal storms where rising waters came within less than two feet of flooding the subways. It actually happened during Sandy, but it almost happened the year before, too, during Hurricane Irene.

Rising sea levels and stronger storms are making coastal flooding much more common. By 2050, at our current near-worst case scenario of rising carbon emissions, floods like Sandy’s could hit an average of once every five years. It’s a question of when, not if the subways will flood again.

If you think the L train fiasco is bad, what will happen when JFK Airport floods? Or when the next catastrophic Midwest flood permanently forces the Mississippi River away from New Orleans? What should we do about the Hoover Dam, once the drought in the Southwest finishes draining its reservoir and renders it obsolete?

Climate change means uncertainty, and uncertainty means more drawn-out decisions to rebuild or replace infrastructure not just in New York City, but in every part of the world. And in that kind of context, we will inevitably get more decisions like Cuomo’s which pit difficult long-term consensus planning against quick-fix changes.

Welcome to infrastructure planning in the era of rapid climate change.


Think NYC’s L train fiasco is bad? Just wait until storms swamp JFK Airport

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President Trump, these are the real reasons California is on fire

President Trump has finally weighed in on the California wildfires that began last month. But it wasn’t to express condolences for the victims or to praise the incredible bravery of firefighters — it was to try to score political points.

And he did so by badly twisting the science of how wildfires work. In a now-deleted tweet from Sunday, Trump blamed “bad environmental laws” for “diverting” water into the Pacific Ocean. On Monday evening, Trump reposted essentially the same tweet:

And he doubled down on this flawed argument.

According to the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik, Trump’s tweets on wildfires and water “deserve some sort of award for most glaring misstatements about those two issues in the smallest number of words.” I’d have to agree.

In Trump’s muddled mind, there’d be “plenty of water” if California rivers were exploited to the point they were completely dry at the end of the line — like the Colorado River now is.

The conservative agriculture community in the state’s Central Valley yields a substantial clue to where this weird idea came from. In the minds of some farmers there, allowing even a drop for endangered fish habitat means the government is stealing their water.

Beyond cutting down forests as a fire management strategy (you can’t have fires if you don’t have trees!), Trump seems to argue for airdropping huge quantities of water from reservoirs onto fires.

Given that Trump drinks bottled water with both hands, he should know this fundamental fact better than most: Water is heavy. And it takes a lot of effort to lift it into the sky and drop it on wildfires.

California’s reservoirs are actually near long-term average levels right now. The state’s firefighting resources are vastly overmatched, and help is pouring in from across the country and around the world. There’s even a newly converted Boeing 747 that’s been airdropping flame suppressant.

And still, a tiny bit of rain would do incredibly more good than any amount of water that could be diverted from the state’s lakes and reservoirs by firefighters. A barely measurable sprinkle over the amount of territory that’s currently on fire in California is about 6,000,000 gallons of water — about what the 747 fire bomber could carry in 300 loads, a month’s worth of round-the-clock operations. It’s not water availability in reservoirs that limits the ability to fight these fires — it’s logistics.

The massive Mendocino Complex, which could soon be the largest wildfire incident in California history, is burning right next to Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in the state. Firefighters are using water from the lake as fast as they can to help fight the fire. The fire is just 33 percent contained. So no, Mr. President, the fact that water exists in the state does not mean that it’s very useful to combat a fire like this.

Letting rivers run their natural course is not what causes massive wildfires. It’s year after year of hot and dry weather that causes wildfires. And, it just so happens, there’s something we’re doing that’s making weather hotter and drier.

Decades of misguided fire suppression policy and booming urban development in forested areas have contributed to this boom, but the main reason for the surge is climate change. (Even California’s chief firefighter agrees.) For the president to deny the central role of climate change in what’s happening is not only foolish, it’s dangerous.

July was the hottest month in history for many parts of California, and burnable vegetation is off the charts. Longer, hotter dry seasons, combined with timber die-offs due to drought and temperature-related insect infestation, have turned the state into a tinderbox ready to explode.

After the state’s worst drought in millennia, the very wet winter of 2016-17 created loads of grasses and shrub growth — perfect kindling for wildfire now that the drought has returned. Temperatures this week have surged, particularly at nighttime, fanning the flames further and giving firefighters little time to recover. Smoke from the wildfires is detectable across half the United States, creating a public health nightmare that’s trapping people indoors.

This is already one of the worst years for wildfires in U.S. history, in a decades-long streak of increasingly really bad wildfire seasons. Four of the 10 most destructive fires in California history have occurred in the past 10 months. Together, these four megafires have burned nearly 10,000 structures. That’s a mid-sized American city’s worth of homes, gone.

So far this year, about three times more land area has burned than normal. The deserted Yosemite National Park is indefinitely closed due to the Ferguson Fire, the largest wildfire ever recorded in the Sierra National Forest.

And wildfires are going to get much, much worse in the years to come if we don’t radically reduce fossil fuel emissions. Instead, Trump’s anti-environmental policy moves, like stopping California from having stricter standards on automobiles, will worsen climate change. Trump’s proposed 2019 budget eliminates federal funding for wildfire research.

When Trump was elected, I said that the effects of his climate denial would linger for hundreds of years. That fear now seems to be coming true.

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President Trump, these are the real reasons California is on fire

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Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland – Miriam Horn


Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland

Miriam Horn

Genre: Nature

Price: $2.99

Publish Date: September 6, 2016

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Seller: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Now a feature-length documentary on the Discovery channel narrated by Tom Brokaw. “Lush, gorgeously written…A profoundly hopeful book.” —Tina Rosenberg, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award A Kirkus Best Book of 2016 Many of the men and women doing today’s most consequential environmental work—restoring America’s grasslands, wildlife, soil, rivers, wetlands, and oceans—would not call themselves environmentalists; they would be too uneasy with the connotations of that word. What drives them is their deep love of the land: the iconic terrain where explorers and cowboys, pioneers and riverboat captains forged the American identity. They feel a moral responsibility to preserve this heritage and natural wealth, to ensure that their families and communities will continue to thrive. Unfolding as a journey down the Mississippi River, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman tells the stories of five representatives of this stewardship movement: a Montana rancher, a Kansas farmer, a Mississippi riverman, a Louisiana shrimper, and a Gulf fisherman. In exploring their work and family histories and the essential geographies they protect, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman challenges pervasive and powerful myths about American and environmental values.

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Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland – Miriam Horn

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New documentaries bring climate change to the big screen

Grist traveled to the tiny mountain town of Telluride, Colorado, to see some of the most talked-about environmental and climate change-related documentaries on the film-festival circuit. The films take on the challenge of addressing migration — both of humans and animals around the world — as well as the startling realities of communities facing climate change and environmental degradation today.

In all, there were more than 150 movies and shorts featured during the long weekend, but here’s the lowdown on a few noteworthy films.

Anote’s Ark

If you type “Kiribati” into Google Maps, it takes a while and requires multiple zooms to find it. That exercise is somewhat symbolic because the tiny Pacific island is literally trying to keep itself on the map. Rising sea levels are quickly drowning the home to almost 115,000 people.

Anote’s Ark


Courtesy of Mountainfilm

Anote’s Ark follows Kiribati’s former president, Anote Tong, and his frantic attempt to save the land for his people. A perfect example of how poorer nations are more likely to feel the brunt of climate change and extreme weather, the film effectively illustrates the heartbreak of losing one’s home to the ocean — as well as the staggering challenge of relocating an entire country’s population.

While the film is a powerful portrayal of how climate change is impacting communities right now, its various storylines don’t quite connect. The documentary also leaves viewers fairly hopeless — which is true of most films dealing with climate change. But for us at Grist, we’re all about holding out hope.

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The Human Element

Tangier Island, off the coast of Virginia, is drowning amid rising sea levels. A school in Denver caters exclusively to students with health issues, specifically asthma caused by air pollution. These are two of the examples of how climate change is already impacting Americans that form the theme of James Balog’s (Chasing Ice) latest work, The Human Element.

Balog uses the four elements — air, earth, fire, and water — to frame how we look at the impact of humans on our climate. In addition to the plight of Tangier and the air pollution in the Mile High city, he follows forest firefighters in California and takes a trip back to the coal mines in Pennsylvania that killed his grandfather.

The dramatic realities of climate change are, well, very scary and honestly depressing. And The Human Element does an excellent job making that abundantly clear. It grounds our understanding of warming in real-world, close-to-home examples that don’t sugarcoat the present or the future. Sure it relies on some heavy-handed scare tactics; but upon reflection, that might be exactly what we need to get our asses into gear.

Brothers of Climbing

“If you don’t see any black people or any people of color climbing, you’re not going to think you can do it,” Brothers of Climbing cofounder Mikhail Martin says in this seven-minute minidoc. The organization seeks to reach underrepresented groups and inspire them to take up outdoor activities, starting with climbing.

The short film, presented by REI Co-op, traces the history of the organization, which started with a group of black friends at a New York City gym — not exactly climbing country. It follows the Brothers of Climbing’s trip to the mountains of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they encounter disbelief from others that they are actually rock climbers.

The film is pretty inspiring, and it’s on YouTube, so you don’t even have to travel all the way to Telluride.


Silas Siakor is one of those people whose accomplishments, numerous accolades, and genuine humanity makes you feel like you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing in your life. An activist first and foremost, Silas fights relentlessly to hold the government of Liberia accountable for decades of corruption and environmental destruction. The West African country was once rich with forests, but international companies have demolished one-third of its timber for palm oil plantations, grabbing land from far-flung communities with the blessings of Liberian officials.

The film offers a genuine tale of human strength and resilience in a country still recovering from a 25-year civil war. Its intimate scenes of vulnerability leave the viewer invested in Silas’ mission, while its clips of international leaders heaping praise on former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf leave the viewer awestruck at the outside world’s relatively rosy picture of a Liberian government stained with corruption.

Blue Heart

Blue Heart


Courtesy of Mountainfilm

Hot dam! That’s the crux of Blue Heart, a film about Balkan battles over hydropower. The story centers around activists in three countries fighting a handful of the roughly 3,000 proposed dams in the region.

Blue Heart, produced by the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, captures the struggle between environmental activists and energy developers in Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In one story, a group of 55 women blocking a construction project on the Kruščica River are violently removed by police — a scene which bears striking resemblance to recent pipeline fights in the United States.

Here’s the thing: If the world wants to transition away from fossil fuels, hydropower will likely play a role. But hydropower’s reliable renewable energy comes at the expense of river ecosystems and the surrounding communities. The film barely scratches the surface of this conflict between fighting climate change and protecting natural world, instead only focusing on the corporate-greed aspect of dam projects. But at its best, Blue Heart tells a classic underdog story of ordinary people fighting back against energy projects that disrupt and endanger communities — a struggle that’s playing out worldwide.

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New documentaries bring climate change to the big screen

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Engineers tried to tame the Mississippi River. They only made flooding worse.

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

Scientists, environmentalists, and anyone who lives within a hundred miles of the winding Mississippi River will tell you — have told you, repeatedly, for 150 years — that efforts to tame the river have only made it more feral. But scientists would like more than intuition, more than a history of 18th-century river level gauges and discharge stations, more than written and folkloric memory. They would like proof.

Luckily, rivers inscribe their history onto the landscape. Which is why Samuel Muñoz, a geoscientist from Northeastern University, found himself balancing on a pontoon boat with a hole in the middle, trying to jam 30 feet of aluminum irrigation pipe into the muddy bottom of a 500-year-old oxbow lake. Muñoz and his team thought that if they could just pull up good cores of that mud, the layers would be a chronology of forgotten floods — a fossil record of the river’s inconstancy made not through petrification but implication.

Basically, the Mississippi meanders. Sometimes the river curves around so tightly that it just pinches off, cutting across the peninsula and leaving the bigger curve high, if not dry. That parenthesis of water alongside the main channel is an oxbow. In a flood, water churns up chunks of sediment and spreads into the oxbow. When the flood waters recede, the layer of coarse sediment sinks to the oxbow’s bottom, where it remains.

So Muñoz’s team humped their pontoon boat all the way from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to three oxbows whose birthdates they knew — one from about 1500, one from 1722, and one from 1776 — and jammed pipe into the lakebed with a concrete mixer. “It vibrates so hard, your hands fall asleep,” Muñoz says. “And then you have 300 or 400 pounds of mud you’re trying to get back up.” But it worked.

The cores were a map of time, with today at the top and the oxbow’s birthday at the bottom. In between: A peak of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 marked 1963, when humans started testing nuclear bombs. Using technique called optically stimulated luminescence to date, roughly, when a layer was last exposed to sunlight, they spotted classic floods, like 2011, which caused $3.2 billion in damages, and 1937, which required the largest rescue deployment the U.S. Coast Guard had ever undertaken.

The important part, though, was that the characteristics of the layers for floods they had numbers on could tell them about the magnitude of floods they didn’t. They got 1851, 1543, and on and on.

Then Muñoz’s team checked their work against another record: tree rings. Inundate an oak tree for a couple weeks and that year’s growth ring will show damage at the cellular level. So they took core samples from trees, living and dead, in the Mississippi flood plain — the oldest going back to the late 1600s. The ring damage matched. Not exactly, maybe, but close enough. They knew they were seeing floods for which no one had numbers. Muñoz’s team had created a record of Mississippi River floods two centuries older than any other. They published that work in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

Here’s where the fun part starts. Muñoz’s team then compared those floods with meteorological data — hunting for some link between flooding and climate. They especially looked at temperature changes on the oceans — El Niño events in the Pacific and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. “There’s this really obvious increase in both how often the river has been flooding over the last century and how big those floods were,” Muñoz says. “The default explanation is that there’s something going on with the climate that would explain that.” There was: More El Niño meant more floods.

So climate change causes floods, right? Hah! Too easy. Muñoz’s group ran a statistical model, based on the climate over the entire period of time they now had flood records for, estimating how much more worse flooding should have gotten based on climate change alone. “It comes up with a little bit of an increase, like a 5 percent increase in how big the biggest floods should be,” Muñoz says. “But not all the increase.”

Overall flood risk has gone up 20 percent, the team says. But 75 percent of that risk comes from human engineering of the Mississippi for navigation and flood control. In other words, it’s our fault.

After a particularly devastating flood in 1927 — 637,000 people lost their homes, perhaps up to 1,000 killed, $14 billion in period-adjusted damage — human beings deployed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to wage all-out war on nature to protect industry, farms, and trade. People tried to warn the government even as construction began on the Mississippi’s infrastructure — channelization, dredging, dams in the upper stretch, and along the middle and lower levees, concrete mats along the banks called revetments, and gates.

“All that increases the amount of water and the speed that water goes during a flood. What we’re saying is, we can’t explain the increase we’re seeing with climate alone,” Muñoz says. “But for the first time, we can go back further, to a state in which the river wasn’t dominated by human activities. We can really show that the way the river behaves today is not natural.”

Even that look at the prelapsarian Mississippi may not change much. Warnings that flood control would lead to uncontrolled floods date back to at least 1852, when a famous engineer named Charles Ellet warned in a report to Congress that the whole idea was going to lead to disaster. Yet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River and Tributaries Project remains in full, multi-billion-dollar effect. (Representatives for the Corps of Engineers did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Now, Muñoz’s inferential datasets don’t convince every river researcher. Bob Criss, a hydrogeologist at Washington University at St. Louis, says he doesn’t completely buy Muñoz’s team’s particle-size correlations and tree-ring cell biology. “It’s just a bunch of voodoo and sound bites,” Criss says. “I certainly don’t object to his conclusion. But I don’t think it’s robust.”

Criss definitely does buy the idea that engineering has made flooding worse, though. He says straight-ahead numbers like stage measurement (the height of the river) are enough to tell you that. Levees upriver send more water downriver. Revetments move that water faster. What might have been slow-spreading floodwaters when they were unconstrained turn into neighborhood-destroying mini-tsunamis when they burst all at once from behind failing levees.

“That’s what Charles Ellet was saying 160 years ago. This is the problem with the Army Corps. It’s like a protection racket. They just squeeze the river, make more floods, and then say, ‘Oh, let us help you, you need more help, the floods are worse,’” Criss says.

To be fair to Muñoz’s measurements, paleoflood hydrology on the Mississippi ain’t easy. (Hence the pontoon boats.) Rivers in the American Southwest that run through bedrock and canyons, for example, leave much more evident traces — sediments and other stuff that researchers can more easily excavate. That’s how paleohydrologists like Victor Baker, at the University of Arizona, can produce a 2,000 year record of Colorado River floods and a 5,000-year record of floods on river systems in Arizona. (Perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that attempts to regulate those floods has worsened them, as has climate change.)

And Baker buys what Muñoz has come up with. “Levees protect against little floods. If you have a super big flood that exceeds the capacity of the levee, the levees make that worse,” he says. There have been bigger floods than people remember — but the landscape recorded them. And if humans learn to play those recordings back, maybe we can find a new way to get ready for the waters yet to come.


Engineers tried to tame the Mississippi River. They only made flooding worse.

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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes – Dan Egan


The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Dan Egan

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $14.99

Publish Date: March 7, 2017

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Seller: W. W. Norton

A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist Winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Award A landmark work of science, history and reporting on the past, present and imperiled future of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes—Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior—hold 20 percent of the world’s supply of surface fresh water and provide sustenance, work and recreation for tens of millions of Americans. But they are under threat as never before, and their problems are spreading across the continent. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is prize-winning reporter Dan Egan’s compulsively readable portrait of an ecological catastrophe happening right before our eyes, blending the epic story of the lakes with an examination of the perils they face and the ways we can restore and preserve them for generations to come. For thousands of years the pristine Great Lakes were separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the roaring Niagara Falls and from the Mississippi River basin by a “sub-continental divide.” Beginning in the late 1800s, these barriers were circumvented to attract oceangoing freighters from the Atlantic and to allow Chicago’s sewage to float out to the Mississippi. These were engineering marvels in their time—and the changes in Chicago arrested a deadly cycle of waterborne illnesses—but they have had horrendous unforeseen consequences. Egan provides a chilling account of how sea lamprey, zebra and quagga mussels and other invaders have made their way into the lakes, decimating native species and largely destroying the age-old ecosystem. And because the lakes are no longer isolated, the invaders now threaten water intake pipes, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure across the country. Egan also explores why outbreaks of toxic algae stemming from the overapplication of farm fertilizer have left massive biological “dead zones” that threaten the supply of fresh water. He examines fluctuations in the levels of the lakes caused by manmade climate change and overzealous dredging of shipping channels. And he reports on the chronic threats to siphon off Great Lakes water to slake drier regions of America or to be sold abroad. In an age when dire problems like the Flint water crisis or the California drought bring ever more attention to the indispensability of safe, clean, easily available water, The Death and the Life of the Great Lakes is a powerful paean to what is arguably our most precious resource, an urgent examination of what threatens it and a convincing call to arms about the relatively simple things we need to do to protect it.

Excerpt from – 

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes – Dan Egan

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