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Climate change fueled the Australia fires. Now those fires are fueling climate change.

Australia is in the midst of a devastating wildfire season that is being exacerbated by climate change. But the fires, which have been burning for months and could rage on for months to come, are also impacting the earth’s climate in several ways. Some of those impacts are well understood, while others lie at the frontiers of scientific research.

The most obvious climatic impact of the fires is that they’re spewing millions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to a vicious feedback loop of heat and flame. But the fires are also kicking up lots of soot, creating a smoke plume that’s circling the globe and could hasten the melting of any glaciers it comes in contact with. Preliminary evidence suggests some of that smoke has even made its way into an upper layer of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, buoyed aloft by rare, fire-induced thunderclouds. That, too, could have subtle but far-reaching climate impacts.

The fires, which started burning at the end of Australia’s winter, raged across the eastern half of the country throughout the spring and kicked into high gear in the country’s populous southeast over the last few weeks. They’re a disaster of an unprecedented nature.

Exceptionally hot, dry, gusty weather, brought on by recurring ocean and atmospheric dynamics and amplified by the warming and drying effects of human-caused climate change, has made it all too easy for an errant match or a lightning strike to explode into a raging inferno. Which is exactly what’s been happening. To date, the Guardian estimates that more than 26 million acres of land have burned nationwide — a region larger than Indiana. That includes over 12 million acres in New South Wales alone, a dubious new record for the state.

Much of the land that’s burning is covered in eucalyptus forest, although flames have also razed farmlands, grasslands, heathlands, and even some patches of Queensland’s subtropical rainforests, said Lesley Hughes, an ecologist and climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. Whatever the fuel source, the net effect on the atmosphere is a massive release of ash, dust, and a cocktail of different gases, including carbon dioxide.

From the start of September through early January, the wildfires released around 400 million tons of CO2, which is roughly the same amount the UK emits in an entire year, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. That’s not a record, he said, noting that considerably more carbon was emitted in 2011 and 2012, when very large fires raged across Australia’s northern territory and out west. But in New South Wales, this year’s wildfire emissions are off the charts.

By any measure, 400 million tons is a significant chunk of heat-trapping gases that will get mixed into the atmosphere, fueling more global warming. “It’s a great example of a positive feedback of climate change,” Hughes said. “It all comes together, unfortunately.”

In addition to carbon pollution, the fires are producing, well, regular air pollution. Since early November, vast smoke plumes have been wafting from eastern Australia all the way across the Pacific to the shores of South America. Just this week, Parrington said, forecasts from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service showed carbon monoxide from wildfire smoke creeping into the South Atlantic, a “really clear indicator of just how intense those fires have been.”

As the smoke circumnavigates the globe, some of it is passing over New Zealand’s alpine glaciers, turning them an eerie caramel color. Lauren Vargo, a glaciologist at Victoria University of Wellington who recently traveled through New Zealand’s Southern Alps, said that the soot is “really clear and obvious” and that “most of the ice on the South Island” is likely to have been impacted. Vargo is currently studying aerial photographs of New Zealand’s glaciers going back to the 1970s. In 40 years of records, she hasn’t seen anything comparable.

Soot on glaciers does more than spoil hiking photos. It reduces the reflectivity, or albedo, of ice, allowing it to absorb more sunlight, which can hasten its melt, said Marie Dumont, the deputy scientific director of the French Meteorological Service’s Snow Research Center. Exactly how much extra melt New Zealand’s browning glaciers will experience over the coming weeks and months is unclear, but the fact that the color change is occurring during the summer, when the sunlight is fiercer and there’s less chance of fresh snow falling, isn’t a good sign.

“It’s super likely that it will accelerate the melt” of these glaciers, Dumont said, “at least for this year.” She added that she wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar, albeit smaller effect on some Patagonian glaciers, given that the wildfire smoke is passing over South America.

“With ice, when we are seeing a color change, it means the change in albedo is about 10 percent,” Dumont said. “That’s already huge. Even a 2 to 3 percent change is a lot.”

Not all of the wildfire smoke is settling on the earth’s surface. More of it is lingering 3 to 4 miles up in the troposphere, Parrington said, scattering light and resulting in ominous reddish sunsets. Where the smoke is densest, it’s likely impacting the weather, said Robert Field, a climate and atmospheric scientist at Columbia University. Over hard-hit parts of Australia, Field said he wouldn’t be surprised if temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees F lower on dense smoke days as soot blocks incoming sunlight. He emphasized, however, that any such effects will be very temporary.

Where the smoke might have a more far-reaching impact is in the stratosphere, a very dry, very cold part of the atmosphere that starts around 6 miles up and is home to fast-flowing jet stream winds. Pollution from the earth’s surface doesn’t often reach the stratosphere, but recent satellite data shows that Australia’s wildfire smoke has hit this lofty mark, a fact that speaks to “the power and intensity of the fires,” according to Claire Ryder, a research fellow at Reading University’s meteorology department.

The most likely explanation, she said, is fire-induced thunderclouds.

Also known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds, these menacing-looking storms, which form when heat from intense wildfires creates a powerful updraft, can blast particles into the stratosphere in a manner similar to a volcanic eruption. Over the past few weeks, the wildfires in southeastern Australia have spawned a series of pyrocumulonimbus events that Neil Lareau, a fire weather researcher at the University of Nevada Reno, called “really superlative.”

The smoke that’s reached the stratosphere may linger there for weeks to months, Ryder said. But exactly what impact it’ll have is an open scientific question.

Volcanic eruptions, she said, shoot tiny sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. These particles reflect sunlight and can trigger temporary cooling at the earth’s surface. By contrast, fire smoke contains carbon-rich organic matter, including particles that are brown, gray, and even black in color. Black carbon, in particular, is a potent absorber of sunlight, and whether its presence in stratospheric soot will ultimately have a warming or cooling effect on the planet is unknown.

It will likely be years before scientists have teased out the full impact of this year’s wildfire season on the climate — first, the fires need to end. But it’s clear the effects have rippled far beyond Australia’s borders. As fire seasons become longer and more intense across the world, understanding this complex web of planetary impacts will only become more urgent.


Climate change fueled the Australia fires. Now those fires are fueling climate change.

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Here’s why Australia is having a cataclysmic wildfire season

California isn’t the only place with wildfire woes this year. Weeks before the start of summer, southern Australia is ablaze with some of the most ferocious early-season wildfires the continent has ever seen. This week, a “catastrophic” fire warning was declared in the greater Sydney and Hunter Valley areas. Almost 4,000 square miles of land has gone up in flames, 150 homes have burned down, and at least three people have died.

On Sunday, the New South Wales Fire Service announced the fire threat on Monday would be “worse than originally forecast” — prompting New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian to declare a state of emergency for the next week.

In mid-October, the New South Wales fire service already saw signs of an unusually intense fire season. “It’s important to remember that this is no ordinary bush fire season and we can’t afford to have anyone think this is just another year,” said the fire service’s commissioner in a press release at the time.

This isn’t the first time the dry state has gone up in flames. In 2013, a similar state of emergency was declared when the Blue Mountains were ablaze. But this year is certainly worse than usual, and the reason has to do with climate change. Rising temperatures don’t create fire out of thin air, but they can make wildfires a whole lot worse.

Since 1910, Australia has warmed by a little more than 1 degree C. And crucially, rainfall between the summer months of April to October has decreased by 11 percent in the southeast portion of Australia since 1970. Between May and July — the winter season — rainfall has decreased by roughly 20 percent. Monday might be the first day in recorded history that nary a drop of rain fell anywhere on the Australian mainland — a development that had the weather nerds at the country’s Bureau of Meteorology scratching their heads, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Australia has had a nasty combination of very, very dry conditions and also very warm conditions across the last several months,” Dr. John Abatzoglou, associate professor of earth systems at the University of Idaho, told Grist. “It’s essentially primed a lot of the fuels there to basically be receptive to carrying fires.”

Though the tree species native to Australia are different from the ones seen in the United States, Abatzoglou said, “The recipe for fires in Australia very much mirrors what we see in some of the forests we have here in the western U.S.” The seasons may be backward in the Land Down Under, but the wildfires act the same.

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Here’s why Australia is having a cataclysmic wildfire season

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Elizabeth Warren’s new climate plan uses wildfire wisdom from tribes

A number of Democratic candidates for president have released ambitious environmental plans that make the environmental platforms of yore look like yesterday’s lunch. And many of them include proposals aimed at correcting environmental injustices — protecting vulnerable communities that are often exposed to pollution or are on the frontline of climate change. Carbon tax, shmarbon tax, bring on the equity officers and resiliency projects.

Elizabeth Warren just became the latest candidate to unveil such a plan. It will direct at least $1 trillion to low-income communities on the frontlines of climate change, and contains similar themes to justice-centered proposals put out by the likes of Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. In at least one respect, however, the plan stands out: It contains a section on how Warren aims to rein in the rampant wildfires burning in the American West.

In addition to investing in wildfire prevention programs and improved mapping of active wildfires, Warren says she will prioritize land management in vulnerable communities by taking demographics into account as well as fire risk. But the most interesting part of Warren’s wildfire risk mitigation proposal is the portion on tribal governments.

As president, the senator says, she will collaborate with tribes in an effort to use traditional knowledge to stop wildfires before they start. She aims to incorporate “traditional ecological practices” and explore “co-management and the return of public resources to indigenous protection wherever possible.” Warren, whose effort to legitimize her Native American ancestry with a DNA test backfired last year, has incorporated tribes into her plans before, including in her public lands plan and, of course, her plan to empower Indian Country. Her latest effort is more than an attempt to atone for a campaign misstep — it’s an opportunity for tribes and government agencies to collaborate on addressing the climate crisis.

Before Europeans colonized this continent, indigenous Americans used fire in a variety of ways to clear land and keep forests healthy. Those traditions have been largely ignored by the federal government, to the nation’s detriment. And in many cases, prescribed burning — using fire to manage forests in a controlled way — is illegal unless conducted by a government or state agency. That means tribes are often prohibited from using their own traditions to maintain their lands. On top of that, one in five Native Americans in the U.S. lives in an area that’s at high risk for wildfires, but less than 18 percent of tribes have fire departments.

Warren’s plan doesn’t provide specifics on how she aims to implement indigenous knowledge at the federal level or whether her proposal will allow tribes to set prescribed fires without facing legal repercussions (a justice issue in and of itself). However, in an email to Grist, a Warren campaign staffer confirmed that the Massachusetts senator plans to partner with tribes to reduce the risk of wildfires on theirs and surrounding lands, if she’s elected president.

Wildfire prevention in the U.S. is complicated by a number of factors. Nearly 100 years of wildfire suppression has spawned dense, overgrown forests that are ripe for conflagration. Houses built in the middle of the woods, at the mouths of sweeping canyons, and in other fire-prone places prevent prescribed burning. When forests go up in flames, firefighter resources are spent protecting houses that should never have been built in the first place. Climate change is compounding the problem by creating ideal conditions for wildfires. The largest electric utility in the U.S., Pacific Gas & Electric, bankrupt from lawsuits related tp California wildfires, just shut off power to hundreds of thousands of people to avoid sparking a catastrophic fire this season. The move could cost the state’s economy upwards of $2 billion.

The Karuk tribe, located in northwest California, has long been waiting for the federal government to take notice of its wildfire prevention practices. In its climate change adaptation strategy published in July, the tribe says the fire crisis spurred by climate change is a strategic opportunity “for tribes to retain cultural practices and return traditional management practices to the landscape.” It notes that “there has been recent recognition of the validity of traditional ecological knowledge and the use of fire to manage for cultural resources, promote biodiversity, and to mitigate catastrophic wildfires.” That recognition, the tribe says, has created “an exciting political moment in which tribes are uniquely positioned to lead the way.” The Forest Service’s fire management goals, the tribe says, can be “best achieved through restoring Karuk tribal management.”

The moment hasn’t always been ripe for cross-collaboration. “They used to call us the ‘incendiary Indians,’” Lisa Hillman, a Karuk tribal member and environmental educator, told High Country News in March.  But prescribed burning, she said, is “the responsible thing to do.”

But restoring tribal management, something Warren says she will “explore,” not implement for certain, is easier said than done. Each state has its own rules around prescribed burning that need to be complied with, John Giller, fire and aviation director for the Forest Service, told Grist. And the landscape has changed since tribes had free reign over the land, he said. The biggest problem now is that non-indigenous Americans are building houses in the wrong places.

“Native Americans historically didn’t build houses up on hillsides, they didn’t invest in places where they knew it was a bad place to have a home because it will burn down,” Giller said. “It was common sense to them.” Common sense doesn’t seem to be very prevalent nowadays, he added. “The people who love the woods the most, who want to live out there in and amongst the trees are the ones causing the biggest problems.” Restoring prescribed burn rights to tribes would require maneuvering around existing homes near reservations, not to mention imposing restrictions on where new homes can be built.

The Democratic primary has thus far functioned as a big progressive policy brainstorm session. Warren’s plan to tap tribal knowledge to augment federal wildfire risk prevention strategies could pave the way for more candidates to make similar proposals. But if the candidates are serious about righting environmental injustices, one thing they’ll have to do is find ways to remove the legal and financial barriers to prescribed burning on and around reservations and also to disincentivize new construction in wooded areas. Otherwise, tribes won’t be able to actually use their own traditional knowledge.

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Elizabeth Warren’s new climate plan uses wildfire wisdom from tribes

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Why Hurricane Dorian is so unpredictable

Hurricane Dorian has been — quite literally — all over the map. The powerful storm is expected to barrel into Florida and parts of Georgia this weekend, potentially as a Category 4 hurricane. If so, it will be the strongest hurricane to hit the East Coast in nearly 30 years. But the storm has been a tricky forecast from the start, and its final destination remains a mystery.

Back in the good old days when Dorian was still categorized as a tropical storm (i.e., Tuesday), there were a lot of worries that the weather system would directly hit Puerto Rico, where people are still recovering from the destruction wreaked by 2017’s Hurricane Maria. On Wednesday, the National Weather Service upgraded Dorian to a Category 1 hurricane, prompting residents of the U.S. territory to rush grocery stores and gas stations to stock up on supplies. But for all that bracing, the storm ultimately ended up just grazing the island and its neighboring U.S. territory the American Virgin Islands.

Hurricanes are, by nature, unpredictable. But experts say Dorian, which has gathered strength relatively quickly over the past few days, has been especially hard to predict. “The National Hurricane Center still doesn’t have high confidence on the hurricane’s track several days out,” Corene J. Matyas, a professor who studies tropical climatology at the University of Florida, told Grist. “Dorian is not following a typical track of a storm in its location.”

A lot of the uncertainty is because the storm is predicted to make a left turn, but the timing and angle of that shift will be determined by its interaction with a high-pressure ridge forecast to build near the storm, Matyas said. “We have to accurately predict this feature to be able to predict Dorian, and the ridge functions differently than the hurricane.”

According to Brian Tang, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Albany, it’s unlikely weather models will have enough information to predict the storm’s path and strength accurately until Saturday. And even then, Tang emphasized we won’t truly know what’s going to happen: “We do not know where Dorian might make landfall in Florida, and whether Dorian hits the brakes before it gets to Florida, over Florida, or after crossing Florida.”

In the meantime, Florida (and parts of Georgia’s coast) are on high alert. As of Friday afternoon, the whole state remains in the storm’s “cone of uncertainty.” (Though the name sounds delightful, it basically refers to the probable track of the center of a tropical cyclone.) On Thursday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for all of the state’s 67 counties, citing the storm’s “uncertain path.”

If Dorian does indeed make landfall on the East Coast, it would be in rare company: It could become the strongest storm to hit the state’s east coast since Hurricane Andrew (a Category 5) in 1992, as meteorologist Philip Klotzbach noted. Once it hits the mainland, Dorian is expected to slowly move inland, where its pace could prolong communities’ exposure to unrelenting winds and rain.

Tang says that’s one reason Florida residents need to be preparing now, even if they’re not within the storm’s cone of uncertainty: “They should make sure they have a hurricane plan and supplies […] and they should follow the advice of public officials, police, and emergency management, especially if they are told to evacuate.”


Why Hurricane Dorian is so unpredictable

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The Midwest braces for yet another major storm

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It’s been less than a month since a bomb cyclone hovered over parts of the Midwest, dumping a mix of snow, sleet, and rain on the region. The system wreaked havoc on people, animals, infrastructure, and destroyed over $440 million in crops in Nebraska alone. Now, a similar weather event is headed that way again.

Wyoming and Colorado will get a healthy coating of snow in the mountains tonight and tomorrow, but the storm won’t get really worked up until it moves into the central portion of the country midweek.

Forecasters aren’t yet sure if we can call this storm bomb cyclone 2.0, but it will bring snow, high winds, and possibly thunderstorms to the Plains and Upper Midwest starting on Wednesday. Winter storm watches are in effect in six states. Folks in the High Plains, Northern Plains, and upper Midwest are bracing for what could amount to more than 6 inches of snow, though models show the heaviest band of snow potentially delivering upwards of 30 inches in some places.

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While the snowstorm itself is certainly cause for concern, it’s the snowmelt that will occur after the system dissipates that’s truly troubling for a region still struggling to recover from the March deluge.

Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. has experienced twice the usual amount of precipitation. More than 50 flood gages — devices that monitor water levels — across the country are at moderate or major flood stages. Many of those are located in the Midwest. (For reference, moderate flooding as defined by the National Weather Service is when some buildings, roads, and airstrips are flooded or closed.) April temperatures will quickly melt snow brought in by the storm, adding more water to already-saturated areas.

“This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million people at risk for flooding in their communities,” Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, told CBS News.

An April storm on the heels of a March downpour isn’t just a bad coincidence. Research shows that spring flooding is one of climate change’s many disastrous side effects. As warmer springtime temperatures arrive earlier in the year, the risk of damaging floods worsens. Case in point: Over the past 60 years, “the frequency of heavy downpours has increased by 29 percent over the past 60 years” across the Great Plains, my colleague Eric Holthaus writes.


The Midwest braces for yet another major storm

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Nearly all tornadoes are survivable, so why are people still dying?

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On Sunday, Alabama suffered one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in its history. At last count, 23 people are dead, with at least seven more missing. The worst tornado began just a few miles from Tuskegee and tore through the entire length of Lee County, smashing mostly rural homes and businesses, before crossing into Georgia. In total, 39 tornadoes were reported across a four-state region.

This isn’t just a weather disaster; it’s a failure of society. Lee County’s per capita income is $22,794, 19 percent live below the poverty line, and 17 percent of houses are mobile homes, nearly three times the national average. Unsafe shelter makes residents much more vulnerable to tornadoes.

Meteorological science has reached a place where nearly all tornadoes are survivable — for those with the means to take shelter underground. Average warning time has skyrocketed from 3 minutes to 14 minutes over the past 40 years — plenty of time to get the warning on your mobile phone (if you have one) and head to your basement (if you have one).

New radar and satellite technology that’s already in place and being developed promises forecasters an even longer heads-up for the strongest and deadliest ones in years to come — potentially doubling lead time to 30 minutes in the near future. Some meteorologists are even working to develop tornado warning systems specifically for mobile home residents. But that extra notice is wasted if you’re unable to do anything about it.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning 23 minutes in advance of the storm that hit Lee County on Sunday, and upgraded it to a tornado emergency 10 minutes before it struck. Yet Sunday’s tornadoes killed more people than every tornado in 2017 and 2018 combined.

The South, the poorest region in the country, is increasingly at risk of tornadoes. Climate change is shifting where tornadoes happen, away from the Plains states toward places like Alabama that are much more densely populated. Evidence also shows that although the overall number of tornadoes isn’t changing much, they’re more likely to come all at once — like on Sunday, precipitating chaotic days in which multiple tornadoes targeted the same towns in the span of just a few hours.

But it’s poverty, not changes in the tornadoes themselves, that often decides whether people survive them.

A recent study showed that Alabama has a 350 percent higher chance of having a mobile home hit by a tornado than Kansas. Yes, there are more houses in Alabama, but the state is also one of the poorest places in the entire developed world.

Lee County is at the outer edge of Alabama’s portion of the “Black Belt” region, the heart of Southern poverty. After more than a century of government neglect and exploitation, its poverty levels and poor infrastructure are more similar to impoverished places in Latin America and the Caribbean than the rest of the United States.

In 2017, a United Nations official conducting a two-week investigation on human rights abuses in the United States was shocked at what he saw in rural Alabama’s Black Belt, including yards filled with open sewage and tropical diseases more common in developing countries.

“The idea of human rights is that people have basic dignity and that it’s the role of the government—yes, the government!—to ensure that no one falls below the decent level,” the U.N.’s Philip Alston said in an interview with Newsweek. “Civilized society doesn’t say for people to go and make it on your own and if you can’t, bad luck.”

Alabama’s section of the Black Belt is where you can clearly see the worst transgressions of slavery and institutionalized racism right now. Lee County’s outsized vulnerability to tornadoes is tied to that history. Adapting to climate change will require tackling poverty and racial injustice — including better health care, housing, schools, and child care — especially for those places like Lee County. And it’s still killing folks during extreme weather — no matter how well we’re able to predict it.

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Nearly all tornadoes are survivable, so why are people still dying?

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Off-roading, chopped Joshua trees, overflowing toilets: Our national parks during a shutdown

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Ever wanted to cut down an iconic Joshua tree in order to create space for some off-roading? No? Well, we thank you. But during the government shutdown, some fine folks did just that.

National parks are filling with garbage, and not just the kind that comes in trash bags. Since the government shut down 20 days ago, Joshua Tree, which is about the size of Delaware and located two hours east of Los Angeles, has been forced to reduce its number of rangers from 100 to only eight. The lack of staff is making it difficult to keep up with the mayhem that is illegal off-roading and road creation, damage of federal property, overflowing garbage and toilets, out-of-bounds camping, and the chopping down of literal Joshua trees.

And it isn’t just Joshua Tree bearing the brute force of the barbaric human. Reports have been surfacing of human waste and trash pile-up in a number of national parks, from Yosemite to Death Valley.

“I think there are a number of things that are not very obvious to the general public, like the trash and toilets [are], that are pretty consequential when you have a shutdown,” National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis told the the National Parks Traveler.

While the sight of overflowing waste and cut Joshua trees is shocking (and quite frankly repulsive), there is also major damage happening out-of-sight. The longest-running research initiative in the Shenandoah National park — 200,000 acres in the mountains of Virginia — has come to a grinding halt during the government shutdown. The study examines the impact of acid rain in the mid-Atlantic forests, and the research has been used to understand the effects of air pollution on natural systems. No big deal, unless you like breathing clean air.

Earlier this month, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt instructed all national parks to use fee revenues in order to keep parks open during the shut down. Parks that require an entrance fee often save 80 percent of that revenue for ongoing projects such as park maintenance, visitor services, wildlife habitat needs, and law enforcement.

But just as we have knuckleheads, we too have good samaritans: Volunteers across the country are showing up to clean toilets and take out the trash, helping to tidy up the government-made mess.


Off-roading, chopped Joshua trees, overflowing toilets: Our national parks during a shutdown

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Groups sue Trump administration for “harassing” whales with seismic blasting

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This story has been updated.

There’s one kind of “gun” control that many south Carolinians seem to agree on — stopping the use of seismic airguns to search for oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic ocean.

OK fine, airguns are actually a kind of horn, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Even before any new offshore drilling can take place in the Atlantic, this type of oil and gas exploration could be devastating to coastal communities and marine life — including endangered right whales.

Seismic airgun blasting works like this: a ship tows an array of airguns, which release powerful bursts of compressed air through the water and into the seabed approximately every 10 seconds. The blasts can continue 24 hours a day for weeks at time. By documenting the reverberations sent back up to the ship, surveyors can figure out what’s beneath the sea floor.

In November, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency responsible for conserving resources and preventing lost economic potential associated with unsustainable fishing practices, authorized five geophysical services companies to use sonic blasting off the shores of east coast states stretching from New Jersey to Florida. The permits give the companies permission to “incidentally, but not intentionally harass marine mammals” as they use airguns to search for fossil fuels along the ocean floor.

That harassment has a lot to do with the deafening noise associated with the blasts. “Imagine a hand grenade going off around your house every 10 to 15 seconds,” says Scott Kraus, vice president and chief scientist of marine mammal conservation at the New England Aquarium. The blasts can continue to raise noise levels even miles away, he says.

The North Atlantic right whale could be extinct in as little as two decades. Scientists fear that allowing seismic airgun blasting now — which hasn’t been done in the region for over 30 years — could keep the species from bouncing back. Right whales are already under stress from ship strikes, commercial fishing (they get tangled in fishing lines), and climate change. “We need to minimize all potential stressors for it to recover and noise is a significant stressor,” says Kraus.

There were no calves born during right whales’ last breeding season. Kraus points to recent research from Syracuse University that shows that communication between mother right whales and their calves is extremely quiet, and a change in ambient noise levels could disrupt that communication.

Humans with a close relationship to the sea could also be harmed by the airgun blasts. It could disrupt the fishing industry and reduce catch by up to 80 percent, according to a statement released by the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is also concerned that the blasting could “release toxic chemicals from deteriorating canisters of conventional and chemical munitions and drums of radioactive waste that have been dumped along the Atlantic Coast, including South Carolina’s, for decades.”

In response to the newly issued airgun permits, two lawsuits were filed this month against the National Marine Fisheries Service. One was filed by the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and 16 cities along the state’s coast. Several leading environmental groups also filed suit, including the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council.

The lawsuits allege that the Fisheries Service violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it granted the permits. The Fisheries Service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal government’s scientific agency charged with “conserv[ing] and manag[ing] coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.”

On Thursday, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh announced that he and eight other attorneys general from Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia will file their own complaint against NOAA Fisheries.

“While the administration continues to place the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our precious natural resources, attorneys general up and down the Atlantic coast will fight efforts to open the waters off our shores to #offshoredrilling. #blocktheblast.” Attorney General Frosch tweeted.

NOAA declined to comment on the suits, but said in a press release that its authorizations require “monitoring, reporting, and mitigation measures to reduce the impacts of survey activities on marine mammals.” The plaintiffs, however, say that it’s not enough.

“It’s hard to believe that NOAA, the agency charged with protecting species… would find a way to issue these permits,” says Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “To find a way to authorize these permits against that backdrop is pretty incredible and pretty typical of what seems to go on the environmental world with the Trump administration.”

The seismic airgun survey permits are all part of the president’s larger proposed plan to open up 90 percent of U.S. waters to offshore oil drilling.

“All of this is needless harm. And completely out of step with coastal communities who have the most to lose from dangerous seismic airgun blasting,” says Diane Hoskins, campaign director at the advocacy group Oceana — another plaintiff in one of the suits. She adds that it’s a precursor to a larger threat: “Seismic airgun blasting is the first step to offshore drilling. When they drill they spill. We cannot afford another disaster like BP’s Deepwater Horizon.”

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Groups sue Trump administration for “harassing” whales with seismic blasting

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To clean up space junk, some people grabbed a net and harpoon

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

Clyde Tombaugh spent much of his life peering at telescope data. He discovered Pluto in 1930, and he spent years poking around the outer solar system. But as the scientific community began to dream about launching a vehicle into the great beyond, he focused his gaze much closer to home.

At the time, the smaller stuff in our immediate space environment remained largely a mystery. People like Tombaugh worried whether orbiting gunk would make spaceflight that much harder. If they ever built a spaceship, would space litter pummel it irreparably?

As part of a 1950s Army project, Tombaugh tried to find out. But before he finished, the Soviets sent the world’s first object to orbit. When Sputnik first spun around Earth, in 1957, Tombaugh’s equipment caught it: a shiny sphere, just about two feet across. The fact that he could spot it meant that if dangerous debris had been orbiting, he likely would have found it, too. And he hadn’t. When he published his final report in 1959, Tombaugh concluded that rockets faced little risk of colliding with natural objects.

Humans have since sent thousands of rockets to space. In their cargo holds, they have stored satellites that help humans communicate, wage war, watch TV, and grok planetary processes. Sometimes, as Sputnik did not long after launch, these objects finish their useful lives, slip back into the surly bonds of Earth, and burn up in the atmosphere. There’s the glove that a Gemini astronaut let slip from the first spacewalk, and a spatula from a shuttle mission. Once, a tool bag escaped an ISS astronaut and floated around for eight months. Other times, however, junk remains in orbit long after it’s useful. A Chinese missile, for instance, smashed a Chinese satellite into thousands of pieces, some of which continue to circle and circle.

These pieces of trash could pose a version of the threat that Tombaugh had worried about: that they’ll get in the way of humans’ desire to send stuff to (and keep it in) space. Earth’s front porch is now littered with around 24,000 pieces of debris bigger than a large orange, and millions and millions of bits smaller than that. Meanwhile, the number of new satellites humans want to launch is on the rise. According to consulting company Euroconsult, around 7,000 smallsats may hop to orbit in the next decade. Elon Musk, though famous for missed deadlines, plans to launch the initial satellites in his space-internet megaconstellation in 2019, as does internet provider OneWeb.

Satellites in low Earth orbit are supposed to spiral back down, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere 25 years after they complete their missions. The process can happen naturally as their orbits decay over time. Alternately, these craft can point thrusters into space and willfully plunge into the atmosphere. But sometimes more aggressive measures are needed to clean up the junk circling overhead. Making sure satellites obey the 25-year guideline, and watching them closely in the meantime, has spawned a whole sector of creative solutions. Here are some of the latest experiments in de-junking space:

Grim Reapers

The satellite industry calls it “active debris removal,” but think of it as a space robot that’s out to kill. In June, scientists at Surrey Space Center and their partners dispatched a mission called RemoveDEBRIS from the International Space Station. Soon after, it deployed a net and captured a small CubeSat that the team had previously released. The net wrapped around the satellite, cocooning it and ending its life. RemoveDEBRIS will also test a harpoon on a dead satellite, and use a sail to then drag itself back down.

A company called Astroscale is pursuing a similar approach. “The best way to avoid a bunch of small pieces of debris that could harm large satellites is to remove large satellites that become small pieces of debris,” says Chris Blackerby, the company’s COO. Astroscale’s first mission, called ELSA-d, a cheery acronym that hides the ominous “End-of-Life Service” hidden within it, aims to show that a reaper-style space robot can find lost debris, match a dead satellite’s tumble, and dock.


Traditionally, satellites have thrusters that push them to the orbits they need, keep them there, and then (assuming the gas gauge doesn’t read “empty”) send them shooting down to Earth when the time comes. But conventional chemical engines are way too heavy for small satellites, so lots of the little guys don’t really have propulsion systems — which can pose a space-junk problem if their orbits don’t wind down quickly. They need thrusters that are appropriately sized for smallsats.

“The use of propulsion is the beginning, middle, and end of a mission,” says Beau Jarvis, an exec at a propulsion company called PhaseFour. The PhaseFour system, which you will be able to plunk on your satellite, uses radio waves to turn gas into plasma, which shoots from the spacecraft, pushing it in the opposite direction.

Many similar gas pedals require expensive cathodes and anodes, but ones that don’t are easier to make en masse. Another engine-maker, Accion, also dispenses with the expensive parts: Its engines use a liquid salt that shoots from the craft. Zoom zoom.


Not long ago, a distressed customer approached Roccor, a space manufacturer. “They had a satellite that was basically built and ready for launch,” says CEO Douglas Campbell. They had just one problem: Their de-orbit plan needed some work. So Roccor made them a new one, involving … space feathers.

At the end of a satellite’s life, two thin composite sheets — coiled tight like a tape measure during the rest of the mission — will pop from it, making the satellite resistant enough that it slips down and crosses the Kármán line that delineates Earth and space. The system weighs between around 1 and 4 kilograms (2.2 to 8.8 pounds), and is basically another way of doing a dragsail. “Low Earth orbit is beachfront property,” says Campbell, who plans to sell the “Rocfall” feathers so more satellites don’t become space junk. “Everyone wants to be there. We don’t want to ruin the environment.”


Two government groups in the U.S. keep abreast of what’s what in space, and help orbiters avoid collisions. NASA’s Orbital Debris Office deals with the minute, while the US Strategic Command tracks everything bigger than 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) and issues the “duck!” alerts to satellite operators. Last year, though, the Trump administration said it would turn some responsibility for space traffic management over to the Department of Commerce (although the details of how aren’t yet fully fleshed out). Why? Because satellites are increasingly commercial operations.

“In the past, the U.S. government got into ‘space situational awareness’ because it was primarily a military issue,” says Dan Ceperley, CEO of the private satellite-tracking company LeoLabs. It’s still a military issue — secret communications, spying, navigation — but it’s also morphed into an everyone-else issue. So the Department of Commerce and companies like LeoLabs will help shoulder some of the defense sector’s past burdens. LeoLabs has two radar systems, with plans for more, and they hope to give customers information about satellites’ whereabouts with more regularity than the government.


Federal trackers traditionally find satellites using either radar or optical telescopes. But those devices don’t necessarily tell you whose object you’re pinging, or give you its position every hour of every day. You have to extrapolate an object’s orbit using physics, so there’s some fuzziness in the calculation of its position, and uncertainty in collision red-flags. But a scientist at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, has a reasonable question. Why not put GPS transponders on new craft? Just like if you put one on your enemy’s car, you could know where it was, and what it was, all the time, no home radar required. Similarly, a Los Alamos project called ELROI proposes slapping laser-beaming “license plates” on orbiters so that they’re easier to detect and identify.

The metal bits and spent rocket stages already dirtying Earth orbit are unlikely to get license plates or GPS devices. They’ll continue to circle our planet like overhead reminders that our environmental contamination has expanded, like a growing gray cloud, beyond terra firma. But because there are so many clean-up artists, maybe it won’t be too late.

If we end up with too much trash, we won’t only make our desire to launch lots of little satellites untenably complicated. We could also, someday, make it impossible to send a rocket safely beyond Earth, just like Tombaugh and his cohort feared before anyone had even tried.

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To clean up space junk, some people grabbed a net and harpoon

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Entire cities evacuate as hellish wildfires whip through California

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A trio of rapidly expanding wildfires are burning in California, marking the latest in a string of harrowing climate-related disasters in America.

The Camp Fire has killed at least five people and destroyed 2,000 buildings in the Northern California city of Paradise. The fire is already the fourth most destructive wildfire in state history, but those numbers are almost certain to increase once officials survey the area more completely.

In Southern California, low humidity combined with strong offshore Santa Ana winds prompted the National Weather Service to issue an “extremely critical” fire weather alert, its highest warning for wildfire risk. Two fires there are rapidly expanding towards the coast causing the city of Malibu to evacuate.

These are firestorms — towering, fast-moving walls of flames hundreds of feet high — the kind of fires that are not only uncontrolled by firefighters, but uncontrollable. In Southern California, fire burning through wind-whipped palm trees on Thursday resembled a hurricane.

“This is the new normal,” Los Angeles County Fire Captain Erik Scott told a local television station. “When we have conditions like this, when it’s such incredible wind, that brings us into a different caliber.” Acting California Governor Gavin Newsom has requested an emergency presidential disaster declaration from Trump to speed the flow of federal aid to victims.

Meteorologists marvelled at the “gut-wrenching” rate of spread Thursday’s fires exhibited. At one point, the Camp Fire was consuming 80 football fields worth of land per minute, fueled by winds of up to 50 mph. That fire grew more than 20-fold in about six hours just before it overtook the town of Paradise, home to about 27,000 people. By nightfall, the fire had expanded in size to 70,000 acres, and was just 5 percent contained. A reporter’s video caught a fire tornado on camera, an exclamation mark on a truly hellish scene:

By all accounts, the scrambled evacuation of Paradise was harrowing. There were reports of people abandoning their vehicles trapped in heavy traffic, clutching children and running for safety under blackened skies. At least one cluster of about 70 people were airlifted from a Walgreens. Video from the exodus is nightmare-inducing, and is difficult to watch. During the height of the blaze, firefighters completely surrendered firefighting duties in order to focus on rescuing people.

On Friday morning, gruesomely burned cars littered the side of the road. “The whole town is gone,” Gianna Wallace, a survivor, told Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Sabalow. That assessment was echoed by Scott McLean, a spokesperson for CALFIRE, who told the Los Angeles Times that the Camp Fire “has destroyed the town.”

Smoke from the fire drifted in a huge plume and set off smoke alarms as far away as San Francisco, nearly 150 miles away.

In Southern California, two fires burned near the town of Thousand Oaks with towering smoke clouds visible at the site of a mass shooting where a gunman killed more than a dozen people just hours earlier. The Hill Fire caused an evacuation of Cal State University-Channel Islands and about 1,000 homes. More worrying is the Woolsey Fire, which threatens about 75,000 homes in both Ventura and Los Angeles Counties — including the entire city of Malibu. At least one family was grieving both tragedies, losing a loved one in the shooting and being forced to evacuate because of the fire all within 24 hours, according to the Los Angeles Times.

This week’s fires come just months after July’s Carr Fire destroyed large parts of Redding, California, and a little over a year after the Tubbs Fire devastated Napa and Sonoma Counties — the most damaging wildfire on record in California. Six of California’s 10 worst fires on record have come in just the past three years.

After an exceptionally hot and dry summer, the vegetation in Northern California near one of the fires is the driest ever measured so late in the year.

Rapidly expanding wildfires in California are part of a worrying trend across the West and around the world that is attributable to climate change. Two human-related trends are most responsible: More people are moving to areas prone to fire while hotter, drier weather is making fires blossom and spread more quickly. Wildfire seasons are lengthening as temperatures rise and droughts become more frequent. Over the past 40 years, the area burned by wildfire across the West has doubled. Globally, the surge in burning forests is making warming worse, too, expelling nearly half as much as all industrial sources worldwide in the worst years.

This week’s fires, along with the countless other recent record-breaking weather disasters, send a clear message: The era of climate consequences is here. We should treat this as the emergency it is.

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Entire cities evacuate as hellish wildfires whip through California

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