When atmospheric scientist Christine Wiedinmyer first went to Ghana in 2011 to investigate air pollution produced by burning different materials — from crop stubble to coal used in stoves — she noticed an unexpected potential source: burning piles of trash.
Trash burning in Ghana in 2013, during one of atmospheric scientist Christine Wiedinmyer's trips there to study emissions from burning. Click image to enlarge. Credit: Christine Wiedinmyer
Like most residents of developed nations who hadn’t traveled broadly in the developing world, the sight of smoldering rubbish piles, which contain anything from food waste to plastics to electronics, came as a surprise to Wiedinmyer, who works at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
“It’s just not something that I’ve been exposed to,” she told Climate Central. In the U.S., “we have waste management. We have people who pick up trash and take it away.”
Ghana, Nepal, Mexico and other developing countries often lack the tax bases and infrastructure needed to put such systems into place. So residents and governments often burn piles of their trash in the open; removing the garbage from the land but transferring it to the skies. Some 40 percent of the world’s waste may be dealt with in this way.
Wiedinmyer wondered if this burning waste could be an underappreciated source of air pollutants, from greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide to tiny particles and toxic chemicals that can harm human lungs.
“I was curious to see how big that source was,” she said.
Wiedinmyer set out to produce the first global estimates of burn-related pollution. The result, detailed in July in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, suggests that burning trash isn’t just bad for human health -- it could pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than had been realized.
‘First Best Guess’
Wiedinmyer pored through existing data and inventories and consulted one of the few people already investigating the phenomenon, Bob Yokelson, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Montana in Missoula, who had traveled widely to developing areas and was familiar with the trash burning around homes and villages.
“If you do research or travel in developing worlds, you do see garbage burning in a lot of places,” he told Climate Central. Working in Indonesia in the 1990s, he said, there was an old man who would come around and gather everyone’s trash, then burn it at the end of the street.
Yokelson, who is another author of the recent paper, had made some measurements in Mexico of what sort of pollutants were being emitted by trash burning. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has catalogued emissions from trash burning in the rural areas of the U.S. But Wiedinmyer found that, on a global scale, “there wasn’t kind of a consistent story.”
To find that story took a lot of digging around and some educated guesswork. Along with data from the few studies like Yokelman’s, Wiedinmyer used guidelines for calculating trash burning emissions produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to determine how much waste was being generated and burned, what exactly was in that waste, and what types of chemicals were likely generated. What she came up with was, as the study describes it, “the first comprehensive and consistent estimates of the global emissions of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, reactive trace gases, and toxic compounds from open waste burning.”
Or, as Wiedinmyer puts it, “it was my first best guess.”
What’s in the Emissions
What she found was that some 1.1 billion tons of waste, more than 40 percent of the world’s garbage, is burned in open piles, contributing more emissions than is shown in regional and global inventories.
An estimated 40 to 50 percent of the garbage is made up of carbon by mass, which means that carbon dioxide is the major gas emitted by trash burning. Those emissions are dwarfed by others sources on the global scale, such as cars and power plants, amounting to just 5 percent of total global carbon dioxide emissions. But the carbon dioxide that comes from trash burning can be a significant source in some countries and regions, and it is one not reflected in the official greenhouse gas inventories for those places.
The more interesting and concerning story to Wiedinmyer are the other pollutants, which accounted for far bigger percentages of global emissions. For example, as much as 29 percent of global emissions of small particulate matter (tiny solid particles and liquid droplets from dust to metals that can penetrate deep into the lungs) come from trash fires, she estimates. About 10 percent of mercury emissions come from open burning, as well as 40 percent of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Such pollution can cause lung and neurological diseases, and have been linked to heart attacks and some cancers.
“I was really surprised at the magnitude” of some of these pollutants coming from trash burning, Wiedinmyer said.
Just a Starting Point
Of course, the work is just a starting point, Wiedinmyer and Yokelman said. It shows that the problem of pollution from trash burning is big enough that it warrants further study to try and narrow down the large uncertainties inherent in the study’s estimates.
“Can we do better? Can we do more to constrain it?” Wiedinmyer said.
More measurements of the kind Yokelson has made are among the biggest holes needed to be filled to get more fine-tuned numbers.
So, too, is a better understanding of what’s in the trash in different regions, since emissions from organic matter like food are very different than those from plastics. “That’s one of the big unknowns,” Wiedinmyer said. “What’s in the trash?”
Wiedinmyer also wants to put her estimates into models of climate and air movement and see if they match up with current air observations. She wants to figure out which populations the pollution might be affecting, and where it is interacting with other pollution sources.
Overall, it’s an issue “that I think should get more attention,” Wiedinmyer said.
Eri Saikawa, who studies air pollution and its health impacts at Emory University, and wasn’t involved in the new study, plans to use Wiedinmyer’s data in a model to see how it matches observations in China and Southeast Asia, and to see how trash burning might be contributing to the substantial amounts of air pollution there.
“What they’re interested in is where they can reduce emissions,” Saikawa said of policymakers she has met with in China. Currently the focus has been on power plants and cars — trash burning hasn’t been part of the conversation.
Reducing emissions from trash burning isn’t an easy prospect in many areas, though. In Nepal, where Yokelman plans to do further work this year and next, the government is well aware of the problem, but it can’t afford the kind of highly efficient incinerators that would get rid of much of the emissions from trash.
“It’s expensive to get rid of garbage cleanly,” Yokelman said.
And it’s not clear how much of an effect reducing this source of pollution would have in different areas.
But, “you need to make a small step to make a big step,” Saikawa said. “This kind of study is very important to figure out what needs” to be done.
Hike high enough up California’s Sierra Nevada and the forest morphs around you. At around 6,000 feet, the dazzling diversity of the lower montane forest, replete with California black oak, ponderosa pine, and incense cedars gives way to more monotonous landscapes of red fir and lodgepole pine. Hike further still and trees eventually disappear altogether, replaced with rocky topographies reminiscent of Mars.
The forestry changes underway threaten to slash the amount of water that flows down the mountain’s western rivers by a quarter by the end of this century.
Credit: Steve Dunleavy/flickr
As the globe warms, these landscape transformations are occurring at higher altitudes. Temperature gradients over the sierra are shifting uphill, and they appear to be dragging lush, diverse, thirsty forests with them -- up into lands where temperatures had previously been too cold for them to survive.
These landscape changes in the warming Sierra Nevada could have major repercussions for California’s economy. The thirstiness of the dense forests that flourish in the mountain’s middle reaches, an expanding sweet spot where water is more ample than in the lower ranges, and where temperatures are more amenable to plant life than in the higher stretches, makes them bona fide water hogs.
The forestry changes underway threaten to slash the amount of water that flows down the mountain’s western rivers by a quarter by the end of this century.
“It’s a study that goes in there and says, ‘Could this be a big effect?’” said Michael Goulden, an associate professor at the University of California at Irvine, one of the paper’s coauthors. “Yeah, this could definitely be a big effect.”
The study only took measurements from one water basin in the Sierra Nevada, but the findings could have implications for water runoff at other mountains around the world as the climate continues to change.
Goulden and University of California at Merced professor Roger Bales use devices that measured evapotranspiration — that is, the amount of water sucked up by roots and breathed out by leaves — at four different altitudes in a sierra basin that nourishes Kings River.
“The first thing we saw was that evapotranspiration was highest at mid-elevation, and it was considerably lower at the highest site that we looked at,” Goulden said. Then they subtracted evapotranspiration rates from snowfall and rainfall figures. “That tells you what’s left over for streamflow.”
They concluded that most of the mountain’s runoff is being produced in areas above 7,000 feet. They warn that area could be encroached upon by thirstier forests as the mountain warms.
The research is the first to examine the hazards posed by this leafy uphill march for those other thirsty residents of California.
Credit: George Mejmantowicz/flickr
They extrapolated their findings to other parts of the basin using satellite images, which helped them compare forest cover. They looked at climate projections published in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, attempting to forecast how temperature rise will influence where different types of forests will grow. Then they combined those findings to conclude that westerly river flows originating in the Sierra Nevada could be reduced by 26 percent by 2100 — just because of the effects of vegetation changes.
The study comes with a laundry list of limitations. It didn’t closely examine the effects of expected precipitation changes or carbon dioxide levels on forest cover. And it makes a lot of assumptions about how forests will change as the climate changes — because detailed models simply are not available.
But it nonetheless makes inroads into understanding an influential phenomenon that has long been overlooked.
“Widely cited studies that simulate the effects of climate change on freshwater supply do not incorporate changes in vegetation,” said Wouter Berghuijs, a University of Bristol researcher who was not involved with the study. “This mechanism is conceptually not new, and it makes physical sense. But the authors very clearly, and to my knowledge for the first time, highlight that this can have a significant effect on the mean water supply.”
The new study is the latest bad news for water managers in California, and elsewhere, who are already bracing for a dryer future. Less rain and snow is forecast to fall on the Sierra Nevada as the climate changes, meaning the conditions that have caused California’s current drought are expected to arrive more frequently. And more precipitation is expected to fall as rain instead of snow, stealing away the snowpacks that act as natural reservoirs, slowly releasing moisture into human-made water reservoirs during hot and dry summer months.
And earlier this year, a study led by Berghuijs was published in Nature Climate Change showing that U.S. river flows fed by snow harbor more water than those fed by equivalent amounts of rain. The cause of these counterintuitive results is not known, but Berghuijs speculates it could be caused in part by rainwater leaching into soil, while snow often sits atop frozen ground.
Conducting more studies that improve our understanding of how climate change will reshape river flows in places like the Sierra Nevada could help governments adapt to the changes. In California, for example, that might mean chopping down more mountain trees.
“We need a sizeable investment in better information,” said Bales, who presented the results of his new paper to Californian water officials last month. “We’re operating by the seat of our pants.”
LONDON − Add one more horror to the list of awful threats that climate change poses: it could introduce dengue fever in Europe.
A dengue patient in a clinic in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in March 2012. Diseases like this could wind up in Europe as warming increases.
Credit: Sanofi Pasteur/flickr
Dengue fever is already a hazard for 2.5 billion people in humid tropical regions, and 50-100 million people a year are infected by the mosquito-borne disease. It puts 500,000 of them in hospital each year, and kills around 12,000 − many of them children. And there is still no widely effective vaccine.
Since Europe will get warmer as greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere rise, conditions for the carrier mosquito will become more inviting.
Paul Hunter, clinical professor at the Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia in the UK, reports with colleagues, in the journal BMC Public Health, that in their mathematical model of disease spread, the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts and the Po Valley and surrounding areas in northeast Italy emerged as likely breeding grounds for the carrier mosquito Aedes aegypti and the virus it can transmit.
Their computer simulation already has support from medical records: the mosquito exists in urban Europe, and in 2010 there were isolated cases of dengue fever reported in Croatia and in France.
Such warnings are not new. Prof. Hunter and his co-authors list reported fears of the spread of West Nile fever, leishmaniasis, Rift Valley fever, malaria, tick-borne encephalitis and other fearful infections as possible threats to Europe.
There were even warnings 25 years ago that climate change could make malaria − another mosquito-borne disease − once again a European scourge.
Malaria takes its name from the Italian, mal aria (bad air), and it was once endemic in Italy. A form of the infection also existed in Victorian England. But public health programs, climate change and changes in land management eliminated the disease from those regions.
Now the risks to public health have begun to grow as international travel continues to increase, and as temperatures rise and the malaria mosquito expands its range in both altitude and latitude.
Mosquito netting is put up to help prevent Dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Credit: ACEI Cheung/flickr
Dengue claims most of its victims in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But in the latest research, the East Anglia team looked at clinical data from Mexico, and climatic factors such as temperature, humidity and rainfall, and socio-economic data, to try to map the possible spread of the disease in the European Union’s 27 member states.
Rate of Infection
Their findings were that the rate of infection by the virus, in the long term, could go from two per 100,000 inhabitants to 10 per 100,000 in some places, with the biggest risks being in the coastal areas of the Mediterranean and Adriatic, and in Italy’s northeast.
The authors acknowledge that their study is incomplete, and at a disadvantage. The temperature variation between winter and summer in Mexico is less dramatic than it is in Europe, and the mosquito is less likely to make it through a north European winter.
This kind of research is precautionary − a preliminary look at what could happen. But it does provide an early warning of potential hazards ahead.
“The exact incidence of dengue fever is dependent on several other factors, some of which we were unable to model at this stage,” Prof. Hunter said.
“Nevertheless, public health agencies in high-risk areas need to plan, implement and evaluate effective reporting of mosquito populations and clinical surveillance by local doctors. Work should be carried out to improve awareness among health practitioners and the general public of the increased risk.”
Tim Radford is a reporter for Climate News Network.Climate News Network is a news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.
LONDON - Coming soon to a farm near you: just about every possible type of pest that could take advantage of the ripening harvest in the nearby fields.
Wherever pests can make a living, they will. None of this bodes well for food security in a world of nine billion people and increasingly rapid climate change
By 2050, according to new research in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, those opportunistic viruses, bacteria, fungi, blights, mildews, rusts, beetles, nematodes, flies, mites, spiders and caterpillars that farmers call pests will have saturated the world.
Wherever they can make a living, they will. None of this bodes well for food security in a world of nine billion people and increasingly rapid climate change.
Dan Bebber of the University of Exeter, UK, and colleagues decided to look at the state of pest populations worldwide. They combed the literature to check the present status of 1,901 pests and pathogens and examined historical records of another 424 species. This research included the records made since 1822 by the agricultural development organization CABI.
Crop pests often emerge in one location, evolve and spread. That notorious potato pest the Colorado beetle, for instance, was first identified in the Rocky Mountains of the US in 1824.
The scientists reasoned that climate change and international traffic made transmission of pests across oceans and other natural barriers increasingly probable, and tried to arrive at a rate of spread.
They found that more than one in 10 of all pest types can already be found in half of the countries that grow the host plants on which these pests depend. Most countries reported around one fifth of the pests that could theoretically make their home there.
Australia, China, France, India, Italy, the UK and the U.S. already had more than half of all the pests that could flourish in those countries. The pests that attack those tropical staples yams and cassava can be found in one third of the countries that grow those crops.
This trend towards saturation has increased steadily since the 1950s. So if the trend continues at the rate it has done during the late 20th century, then by 2050 farmers in western Europe and the U.S., and Japan, India and China will face saturation point.
Root knot nematode (Meloidogyne incognita) on a tomato plant.
They will be confronted with potential attack from just about all the pests that, depending on the local climate and conditions, their maize, rice, bananas, potatoes, soybeans and other crops could support.
“If crop pests continue to spread at current rates, many of the world’s biggest crop-producing nations will be inundated by the middle of the century, posing a grave threat to global food security,” Dr. Bebber said.
Three kinds of tropical root knot nematode produce larvae that infect the roots of thousands of different plant species. A fungus called Blumeria graminis causes powdery mildew on wheat and other grains; and a virus called Citrus tristeza, first identified by growers in Spain and Portugal in the 1930s, had by 2000 reached 105 out of the 145 countries that grow oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit.
Predictions such as these are intended to be self-defeating: they present a warning of what might happen if no steps are taken.
“By unlocking the potential to understand the distribution of crop pests and diseases, we’re moving one step closer to protecting our ability to feed a growing global population,” said Timothy Holmes, of CABI’s Plantwise knowledge bank, one of the authors. “The hope is to turn data into positive action.”
Tim Radford is a reporter for Climate News Network.Climate News Network is a news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.
What if I offered you an investment that would make us all healthier, save thousands of lives, and pay for itself? It would be hard to turn down a deal like that. According to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is such an investment, and it’s called cap and trade—the market-based plan to reduce carbon pollution that is still somehow controversial, despite the benefits it offers to human health, the U.S. economy, and the future of the planet.
Clean air is a positive side effect of cap-and-trade policies, along with their main purpose: reducing the carbon pollution that causes climate change.
Credit: Robert S. Donovan via OnEarth
The theory behind the MIT study is simple. In addition to greenhouse gases, fossil fuel-burning power plants emit a wide variety of other air pollutants that lead to asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Carbon reduction policies like cap and trade reduce all those other forms of pollution, too (including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide, which leads to lung-burning ground-level ozone). In other words, clean air is a positive side effect of cap-and-trade policies, along with their main purpose: reducing the carbon pollution that causes climate change. (Here’s a guide to how cap-and-trade programs work.)
As side effects go, clean air is extraordinarily valuable. Last year, a study showed that particulate matter in America’s more polluted cities cut life expectancy by a year or more. Another study found that air pollution from power plants causes more than 50,000 premature deaths annually. Breathing easier also comes with big cost savings. In cities with the dirtiest air, pollution costs around $1,600 per person annually, in the form of health care, lost work, and premature death.
Here’s how the MIT study shows the potential value of cap-and-trade policies, which have been debated in Congress but so far failed to pass (though the Northeast and California have created their own regional markets):
First, the authors used an existing economic model to calculate a carbon price that would reduce pollution 10 percent by 2030, relative to a 2006 baseline. (That date and reduction level mirror the reductions called for in the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed standards for power plant emissions, which the Obama administration is pursuing in the absence of Congressional action on climate.) Then, using another existing model, the researchers calculated the health benefits. The final step was to convert those saved lives into dollars. (It might sound grisly to express the value of a life in dollars and cents, but an accepted conversion rate is important to these sorts of studies.)
At the end of all that modeling and number crunching, the authors found that, in the year 2030, these health benefits would pay back the price we put on carbon through a cap-and-trade policy more than ten times over.
In the year 2030, these health benefits would pay back the price we put on carbon through a cap-and-trade policy more than 10 times over.
Credit: Howard Cambridge/Flickr
It’s important to emphasize that the result—a ten-fold payback for carbon reduction—is for air pollution alone. According Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist for NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), dealing with carbon emissions offers countless other health benefits that we could add on. The authors left out reductions in heat-related sickness and death, which currently costs the U.S. economy more than $600 million per year. They didn’t consider hurricane-related injuries and fatalities, which cost $175 million per year. They didn’t include wildfires, which cost $72 million per year in illness and death, or the impact that global warming has on mosquito-borne illness, which costs us $26 million annually.
The study has its limitations, and you’re sure to hear about them from the denier crowd. Studies that are based on economic modeling are often subject to criticism, because economists love to bicker about the quality of their modeling software. It’s also difficult to extrapolate the MIT results beyond 2030. If we converted every coal-fired plant in America to natural gas tomorrow, we would experience a tremendous improvement in air quality—though natural gas is still a carbon-emitting fossil fuel, so it would continue driving climate change. The next move would be to switch from natural gas to renewables. That change, however, would produce a much smaller air quality benefit (since we would now be replacing a cleaner-burning fuel).
Therefore, the enormous economic benefits identified in the MIT study would likely begin to tail off in the future as we edge toward lower levels of carbon emissions. Finally, critics will point out that there are cheaper ways to achieve these health benefits than cap and trade. Directly regulating the emission of air pollutants like nitrous oxide and particulate matter would cost less than going after carbon itself, and could produce similar health results. (Although it wouldn’t address global warming.)
Some of these critiques are valid, to a point. But you also have to consider their motivation. Outright climate denial has become scientifically untenable as more evidence mounts of a warming world and more of the public comes to accept reality. Since they can’t win on the climatology, fossil fuel’s defenders are now making an economic argument: even if climate change is real, they claim, we can’t afford to do anything about it. The MIT study severely undermines this argument.
If cap and trade can pay for itself many times over, we’d be mad to reject it.
This article is provided by NRDC'sOnEarth magazine, a Climate Central content partner, and appears online at onearth.org
Grapevines march across wires strung along rolling hills, their little trunks improbably supporting heavy black fruit. Cindy Steinbeck’s family has been farming this land since 1920. They grow Zinfandel, Viognier, Cabernet, Merlot, and Petite Syrah grapes but are best known in this area of Central California for a blend called The Crash, named after a remarkable incident in 1956, when a B-26 crash-landed 200 yards from the family home. Four of the five Air Force men aboard survived, bailing out in the nearby fields.
California is the only western state that lacks groundwater regulation.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Now a new crash threatens, as groundwater levels beneath the vineyards plummet. California produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. It is in the midst of one of the worst droughts ever recorded, with more than 80 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought. But so far, the Steinbeck Vineyards’ 520 acres of grapes are growing well under the hot August sun, thanks to the family’s access to all the groundwater they need: up to 2 acre-feet per acre per season. (An acre-foot is the amount of water required to flood an acre of land one foot deep — about 326,000 gallons.) The Steinbecks’ sole source of irrigation is groundwater.
However, groundwater and surface water — rivers, lakes, streams — are part of the same hydrological system. Excessive groundwater pumping can overdraft aquifers, emptying them faster than natural systems can replenish them; dry up nearby wells; allow saltwater intrusion; and draw down surface water supplies. Taking so much water out of the soil can cause the dirt to compact and the land to sink, an action called subsidence. Because land can subside as much as a foot a year in the face of aggressive pumping, it can destroy infrastructure such as irrigation canals, building foundations, roads, bridges and pipelines.
The Steinbecks have been able to tap this subterranean resource at will because they own the land above it — and because California is the only western state that lacks groundwater regulation. But that boon to farmers is also a looming disaster, as groundwater levels free fall. Groundwater is a huge piece of California’s water supply, making up approximately 40 percent of the state’s water demands in an average year and up to 60 percent or more during droughts, according to the Department of Water Resources.
“In the absence of governance, it’s become a pumping arms race,” says Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “He with the biggest pump or deepest straw wins.”
But now a bill on the floor of the California legislature could turn that around. Although water rights holders in California have been resistant to change, this week the state is considering one big step forward: Senate bill 1168 and Assembly bill 1739, which would provide statewide groundwater regulation for the first time. These bills “embrace the concept that groundwater is best managed locally,” said senate bill author Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, as she brought the vote on the assembly bill August 27. “Manage your groundwater basins, and the state will not have any reason to interfere with your right to have your own governance board and to set your own rules and regulations,” she said.
The Assembly bill passed the Senate and will now return to the assembly for a final “concurrence” vote. The Senate bill must still pass the Assembly and, once again, the Senate, before the session ends Aug. 31. Then Gov. Jerry Brown will have 30 days to sign or veto it. He has been supporting the bill throughout the process.
However, even if the bill becomes law, it’s unclear whether it will help the folks in Paso Robles avoid the current spate of neighbors suing neighbors. Groundwater basins would have two years to form a local management agency, five years to adopt a sustainable management plan, and 20 years to achieve a sustainable supply of groundwater.
Dry weather has led to significantly lower water levels than usual in many lakes such as New Hogan Lake in Valley Springs, Calif.
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Kaitlin Blagg
The Paso Robles groundwater basin has been declining for years, says San Luis Obispo County board of supervisors chair Bruce Gibson, but “the drought has magnified the effect.” When wells began to dry up last summer, the board passed a moratorium on new water use in the basin that prohibits both new buildings outside of city limits and planting new crops without fallowing others.
Historically, landowners in California have considered water beneath their land to be part of their property rights.
That’s how Steinbeck and her neighbors see it. Any limitation to their right to pump and use the water under their land, such as the moratorium, is “taking over our rights,” says Steinbeck.
Gibson says the county is “exercising its land use authority. Property rights are not absolute: One can do a range of activities on their property as long as it doesn’t infringe on others’ similar enjoyment of their property.”
Suing has become standard practice in California when groundwater basins are overdrafted because the state lacks regulation and pumping is largely unmeasured.
The landowners filed suit last fall against San Luis Obispo County and four municipal water companies. This summer, this and a related lawsuit have recently been transferred to San Jose, a city to the north, because everyone agrees that no one local can be impartial.
Suing has become standard practice in California when groundwater basins are overdrafted because the state lacks regulation and pumping is largely unmeasured. In these cases, a court decides who may extract how much and who will manage the basin to ensure everyone is using water according to the court’s decree, a process called adjudication.
There are currently 22 adjudicated groundwater basins in California, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Adjudication can be time-consuming and expensive for all concerned. In San Luis Obispo County, the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin adjudication “is now going on its 12th year and is still in court appeals. Total costs for all parties are over $11 million,” says the San Luis Obispo County website, and could go significantly higher.
The property rights narrative for groundwater rights “is called into question if your neighbor pumps out so much water that your well runs dry,” says California Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, author of the assembly bill. When this happens, farmers begin to recognize that if they don’t act collectively, their personal property rights could become “hollow and without much meaning,” he says.
Groundwater legal reform was on table 40 years ago, during Gov. Brown’s first tenure. But the current drought has heightened water anxiety to the point where the current groundwater free-for-all might be brought under a legal framework at last. If successful, the law could help avoid future conflicts.
“We should never let a good crisis go to waste,” says Dickinson.
California has lagged other states in this area because a strong political lobby of groundwater users resisted state regulation – and many still do, says Brian Gray, a law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law who has argued water resources cases before the California Supreme Court. But now, both the Association of California Water Agencies, a water utilities trade group, and the California Water Foundation, a nonprofit focused on balancing California’s water needs, support the new bill.
Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, says, “The basic model is that we empower local agencies, give them tools and authority, and then set up the state as a backstop” in case local regulation doesn’t happen.
“All the places that have good groundwater management have it because they had problems.” — Ellen Hanak, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California
That approach acknowledges the work already completed in the 22 adjudicated basins and a handful of others that have come to collective management agreements, including Orange County, Santa Clara Valley and Coachella Valley.
“All the places that have good groundwater management have it because they had problems,” says Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
The law also seeks to remedy another big problem: that the state does not currently require groundwater supplies or pumping rates to be measured.
Snow says that the new bill would require each groundwater basin to report everyone’s pumping quantities and depth of groundwater each year as part of their sustainability plans. They would also be required to set specific objectives for stabilizing the water level at a certain elevation.
“We didn’t require meters, but we’re requiring the adequate ability to monitor,” says Marcus. “We’re trying to be as flexible as we can in a way that will allow locals to get us further, faster.”
But in fact, such metrics are key to understanding the problem and crafting the solution, says a Stanford project called Water in the West. It recommends keeping well-drilling logs, measuring aquifer levels over time, metering water pumped from a basin, and measuring changes in temperature, salinity and contaminants, which can be a sign of overpumping. That information will help create groundwater models that can manage supply and demand as the climate changes.
Intriguing technologies are beginning to help us measure groundwater resources more accurately. A NASA project called GRACE uses two satellites to measure subtle shifts in gravity from month to month. The addition or subtraction of water is one factor that changes the gravity field. From 2003 to 2012, GRACE has documented declining groundwater levels around the world, including California’s Central Valley.
The view of the Central Valley from the President’s Marine One en route to Firebaugh, Calif., Feb. 14, 2014.
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Still, “the challenge to metering groundwater is not technological, it’s political,” says Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, an independent research organization focused on water issues. “There are certain people who benefit enormously from a lack of information and inefficiency — and those people have lawyers.”
And that’s likely why this bill isn’t pushing metering — because its sponsors want it to actually pass. Marcus says that local basins don’t need to use such technology in their sustainability plans. “There are proxies for measurement that are pretty accurate, like farmers’ energy bill for pumping, that can get you fairly close,” she says.
Still, despite the flexibility built into the bill, the California Farm Bureau Federation opposes it. Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the federation, says, “Groundwater management must protect the property rights of overlying landowners. Otherwise, there could be huge, long-term economic impacts on farms because of the potential to devalue land.”
He attributed groundwater supply problems not to lack of regulation but to “inflexible, outdated environmental policies” as well as population growth and climate change.
The Farm Bureau is calling for more surface supplies as part of the solution to seeming water scarcity, but in places where pumping is increasing, it could ultimately diminish surface supplies, Snow points out.
This Crisis Averted
While groundwater reform and other efforts may get California out of the current crisis, “in five to 10 years, a new set of problems will emerge,” says Mike Young, who holds a research chair in water and environmental policy at the University of Adelaide in Australia. The state’s existing water laws “were never designed to deal with the challenges California now faces,” he says. “The system is broken.”
Young speaks from experience. He played a key role in developing improved water entitlement, allocation and trading systems in Australia and won a national award for his efforts. He says that ultimately California needs that type of radical reform.
He spent last year at Harvard, where he taught a course on policy reform and developed a framework for water management that he says can work throughout the world. He’s currently advising other states and countries that want to reform, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Texas.
Like many places experiencing water stress around the world, California is exacerbating its water stress by using it inefficiently.
While each place is unique, “there are some very fundamental principles and concepts that are the same throughout the world,” says Young.
Like many places experiencing water stress around the world, California is exacerbating its water stress by using it inefficiently. “We really need to think about the demand side of the equation more than the supply side,” says Gleick. Opacity of water rights, unmeasured usage and laws with perverse incentives enable waste.
California’s water rights laws are based on seniority. Unfortunately, there are more rights to water than actual water in many years. “There are a lot of water claims out there and we don’t have a fully adjudicated system,” says water board chair Marcus. “What people say are water rights, might not be.” In fact, the state has allocated five times more surface water than the state actually has, according to a new report from University of California, Davis, researchers.
It’s also unclear how much water some rights holders can take out, says Gray. The most senior water rights, called riparian, are “not quantified,” he says. “They are a reasonable share of what’s available.”
And no one knows how much water many senior rights holders are actually extracting because, while they are required to file statements quantifying their surface water use, only about half of them do, says Gray.
Colorado spent 20 years adjudicating all its water rights to address these problems, says Marcus. But in California there’s no movement in that direction, she says.
Also, the law has long encouraged waste. It requires water to be put to “reasonable and beneficial use,” which includes supplying cities, industry, irrigation, hydroelectric generation, livestock watering, recreation, and fish and wildlife habitat. “Reasonable use” sounds, well, reasonable, but a “use it or lose it” clause incentivizes profligate use: if you don’t use your historic water allocation in a beneficial way, you forfeit your water rights, says Gray.
To cope with not just current but future demands on water resources, “you have to build a system that’s better than the one they have,” says Young, referring to some of the governments he’s advising, which does not include California. “And that’s actually not hard.” First, courts need to adjudicate the basins and convert all of the water rights into shares, he says, which eliminates the problem of overdrafting a watershed. “You cannot give anybody a guaranteed volume,” says Young.
One way California and other states have tried to introduce flexibility into the existing system is by pushing market solutions by tweaking laws to make selling water more attractive. “The law explicitly says the transfer of water itself is a beneficial use,” says Gray.
In the market, senior rights’ holders, typically farmers, can sell water to other users, often cities. Montecito, an idyll near Santa Barbara, is famous for sweeping ocean vistas and sea cliffs dotted with luxury homes — including one of Oprah’s. The city has taken measures to conserve in recent years, pricing water depending on usage, but in February, the water board declared an emergency and began rationing.
“It is not an option for a water district to run out of water.” — Tom Mosby, general manager, Montecito Water District
It’s also started to look for more supply. “It is not an option for a water district to run out of water,” says Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District. After considering various options, Montecito joined a deal with some of its neighboring towns, including Santa Barbara. The Central Coast Water Authority brokered a deal on their behalf through the State Water Project to buy water from the Biggs West-Gridley Water District north of the Sacramento Delta. While the water ultimately came from rice farmers who agreed to sell their shares of water and fallow their fields, that level of complexity is typical of such deals.
The choice farmers face in California, either watering a crop or fallowing land to sell the water “is all or nothing,” Young says.
That’s true, says Thad Bettner, who facilitates water transfers in his role as general manager of the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District in the northern Sacramento Valley. Governing agencies don’t recognize conservation as an allowable measure to make more water available for sale, he says. Neither can they use water they’ve conserved the following year. “We use what we can use and that’s it,” he says.
Young says that’s ridiculous. “It should be possible to just apply water more efficiently and still grow a crop and, at the same time, sell the savings,” he says.
An optimized water rights system would remove penalties for efficiency. “At the moment, a person who is efficient runs the risk of losing their water right,” Young says. “Changing it around, as Australia did 20 years ago … if you save the water, it’s yours to sell. That inspired lots of innovation.”
Rather than being penalized, efficient water users were rewarded. “The value of the senior rights in Australia increased 20 percent per annum for the first decade because of all the incentives and opportunities for people to make money from saving water,” Young says.
Australia’s farmers and urban water users are now using less water than ever before, leaving more for the environment and as a buffer in times of drought. The government also helped eased this transition to using less by putting up billions for farmers to invest in more efficient irrigation technology and to buy water rights for the environment from willing sellers.
It sounds grand. But in California, “there’s no way — without something way more dramatic [than the current drought] — we’re going to see an Australia-like overhaul of our water rights,” says Hanak of the Public Policy Institute of California. “People are pretty invested in the seniority-based system here.” While she acknowledges that “Australia is very interesting,” she says it made some mistakes along the way too. Young admits to trial and error and says that governments changing policies now can learn from Australia’s experience.
“There were a lot of arguments, a lot of fear, a lot of confusion as we went forward,” Young said during a Circle of Blue Web conference in March. But “the final outcome is something I think Australia can be very proud of. It’s a world-leading system.”
Groundwater: Hedge Against Climate Change
For now, Californians are hoping the new groundwater bill will ease supply tensions and conflict. But supporters also hope it will help the state avoid future conflicts as climate change advances.
In California, the Sierra snowpack that has acted as a handy storehouse, holding winter water and releasing it slowly into summer. But as the planet warms and more snow falls as rain, the snowpack could be reduced by 70 to 90 percent.
“We’ll lose one-third to one-half of our current storage capacity, which is snowpack,” says Marcus. While the Farm Bureau advocates more reservoirs, “we’re never going to replace that with large on-stream storage,” she says. “We’ve already dammed most rivers.”
The biggest opportunity for new storage is groundwater basins, she says. The goal of this new bill is not to just stop groundwater depletion, but to create incentives to replenish these underground basins and keep them full as a water management tool.
If we use groundwater basins intelligently, we can make up for snowpack by getting our act together now, she says. “It’s the state’s future at stake.”
If you think the drought in California is bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet. New research indicates that climate change is giving a boost to the odds of long-term drought across the Southwest.
The research, published Thursday in the Journal of Climate, puts the chances of a megadrought lasting 35 years or longer at up to 50 percent in the region. It would be a drought of epic proportions that would wreak havoc on the region’s already tenuous water supply for its growing population.
Low water levels on Lake Mead, a major source of water for western states that's fed by the Colorado River.
Credit: Raquel Baranow/Flickr
“It’s been recognized for awhile now that during climate change, because of rising temperatures, a lot of the Southwest dries out, gets less average precipitation,” said Toby Ault, the study’s lead author and Cornell-based climate researcher. “The novelty of this research was to just try and use those predictions of the future to estimate the risk of prolonged drought, to translate what those predictions of long term drying meant for megadrought.”
The impetus for the study was to assess the odds of consecutive dry years. That’s because even in an overall drier climate, an occasional wet year or two are still expected and could break up or at least temporarily alleviate long-term drought. While that’s still a possibility, what Ault found was that climate change is still likely to increase the odds of long-lasting drought.
If current greenhouse gas emissions trends continue, the odds of a megadrought hitting some parts of the Southwest is a 50-50 proposition. And the odds of a decade-long drought – like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or Southwest drought of the 1950s – are around 90 percent, meaning it’s near certain parts of the Southwest will deal with substantial drought impacts at some point in the next century due to climate change.
There’s also a 5-10 percent chance that parts of the region could see a state of “permanent” megadrought lasting 50 years or longer under the highest-warming scenario, a greenhouse gas emissions path we’re currently on.
“Even without climate change, there would be some risk of megadrought even if we weren’t warming up the planet. But because of climate change and drying predicted from climate change, that weights the dice toward making these things more likely,” Ault said.
The estimates for all three types of drought could be even higher because Ault and his colleagues only considered precipitation and not temperature, which is expected to rise and further dry out the region.
A graphic showing the risk of megadrought in the Southwest as well as the rest of the western U.S. over the 21st Century.
Click the image to enlarge. Credit: Ault et al, 2014
To get the estimates, researchers compared projected shifts in precipitation under different climate change scenarios with past river flow and drought data. That includes data from tree rings, which provide a glimpse of drought going back 1,000 years and includes a megadrought that gripped the region in the 1100s that likely contributed to the downfall of the Anasazi culture in the region.
Kevin Trenberth, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who didn’t contribute to the research, said the study’s use of historical data helped fill in some of the gaps models have in replicating water storage and flow.
“Such hybridizations of model and observational evidence can thus improve future risk assessments, and in this case, the authors estimate that drought projections informed by paleoclimatic and observational evidence significantly increase the estimated risks of prolonged droughts in the future,” Smerdon said.
The past impacts of drought offer a cautionary tale. During the megadrought in the 1100s, the Colorado River’s flow dropped to 85 percent of its 20th Century average. That would be like losing almost the entire allocation of water the Colorado provides for the state of Arizona, one of eight states that rely on the river. Given that the Southwest has 3 of the 10 fastest-growing states in the country, that would be a huge issue for water managers and city planners.
Talking about severe drought in 2014 brings California immediately to mind. Nearly 60 percent of the state is in the worst state of drought listed by the Drought Monitor, leading to water restrictions, wildfires and economic and job losses. There hasn’t been any research concretely linking the drought with climate change, but it does provide some perspective on what future droughts could look like.
“This (current drought) is kind of worse than the things we looked at in terms of intensity, but it’s not nearly as long as multidecadal or megadrought. I think it’s an important window into what we expect from climate change. What’s happening now, whether or not its driven by global warming, is a glimpse of the shape of things to come,” Ault said
The California drought is likely to cost the state $2 billion by the end of the year. The severe drought that overtook the nation in 2012 was also disastrous, causing an estimated $30 billion across 22 states. So preparing for future impacts is of utmost importance, a challenge Ault thinks water managers are up for.
“I do feel a sense of optimism in the sense that this is a natural hazard in the Southwest – and it appears to be a very important one under climate change – but because we know this and because we’re a very adaptive and sophisticated species, I’m confident we can find ways of managing that risk and even thriving,” he said.
The skies were awash in color this week, it seems, with auroras dancing across the night skies in the north, a bright triple rainbow appearing in Alaska and the sunset-hued glow of rain over one of the nation's natural jewels, Yosemite National Park. We've rounded up these riotous displays, along with a few more of our favorite weather and climate photos from the past week.
The night skies over Canada and the upper reaches of the Lower 48 lit up this week with a kaleidoscopic auroral display.
A solar flare unleashed by the sun created the mesmerizing dance of light. Charged particles rocketed toward Earth by the flare are funneled by the planet’s magnetosphere toward the poles. When the solar particles collide with particles in Earth’s atmosphere, light of different colors (or wavelengths) is emitted in the shifting sheets that make up the auroras.
Spectacular auroras graced the skies over Wisconsin on Aug. 28, 2014.
Credit: Justin Phillips
The aurora as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: Reid Wiseman
Clouds and Canyon
The majesty of the Grand Canyon is always a jaw-dropping sight, but the otherworldly beauty of the jagged gash with its rust-colored rocks was set off nicely by the contrastingly soft edges of mammatus clouds lying overhead.
The bulbous lobes that are the defining characteristic of mammatus clouds form on the underside of a thunderstorm’s anvil cloud and can signal that the worst of a storm is over. According to the University of Illinois’ WW2010 site, updrafts in the storm carry air enriched by precipitation, eventually losing steam and spreading out horizontally under the anvil cloud.
The saturated air is heavier than the air around it and so begins to sink back down, its temperature increasing as it does so. The warming causes the precipitation in the air to evaporate. But if the sinking doesn’t produce enough warming to evaporate all the precipitation, the air stays cooler than its surroundings and continues sinking. Eventually the sinking air forms the rounded pouches below the main cloud.
SoCal surfers were stoked this week when Hurricane Marie sent some gnarly waves ashore.
While the strength of the storm dwindled as the week went on, its peak Category 5 strength on Sunday meant it pushed significant swells in front of it. The swells reached the SoCal coast by Tuesday afternoon, sending surf-worthy waves — some of which reached heights of 20 feet — crashing ashore and surfers flocking to them.
But not all was fun and games. The storm also created dangerous rip currents and caused flooding along some parts of the coast. More than 250 people had to be rescued by lifeguards, according to CBS Los Angeles, and one surfer died at the hospital after being rescued.
Move over measly double rainbow, and make room for the even more amazing triple rainbow.
The photo of the multicolored stripes shooting across the sky were captured by Jennifer Dufresne over the Palmer Hay Flats to the north of Anchorage, Alaska.
Triple rainbows are actually formed in the same way as double and single rainbows. Rainbows often form after a storm, when the sun's rays are refracted and reflected by raindrops. If the angles are right, the light can reflect off the back of the raindrop multiple times, forming more than one rainbow, with the secondary and tertiary rainbows showing up more faintly than the main one.
Get ready to retire the white wardrobes, cover the grill and shutter the lake house. Labor Day Weekend marks the psychological – and meteorological – end of summer. While you're enjoying one last cold one this weekend or snapping photos on the beach, take a look at how the summer's average temperatures stacked up for a number of cities across the U.S.
Was it hotter than average? Colder? About in the middle? The answer is . . . yes, depending on where you live. However, even with rounds of record cold air this summer, none of the cities we analyzed is close to setting a record low for the entire season. Meanwhile, there are some cities across the West that are sizzling through one of their hottest summers on record.
Find out where summer in your city stands:
It’s a good reminder that in a world that’s warming overall under a growing blanket of greenhouse-gas pollution, each year won’t necessarily be warmer than the year before in every region. It’s only over time that the warming trend is obvious.
Across the West and Southwest, most cities were baking this summer. As of Aug. 24, the most recent data available, Seattle, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, and Fresno, Calif., are all on track for one of their hottest summers ever recorded. On the whole, California has had the hottest start to the year ever recorded.
In contrast, cooler weather has dominated parts of the Midwest this summer. Moline, Ill., Milwaukee, and Cincinnati are wrapping up unusually cool summers. However, Chicago and Detroit are below average but not by that much and Minneapolis and Duluth, Minn., are above average.
The Southeast also experienced a range of temperature outcomes. This summer has been well below average in Hattiesburg, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., as the weather pattern kept a stream of cool air coming their way. However, Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., were neither especially hot nor cold, while temperatures start jumping up when you get to the other side of the Appalachians. Both Charleston and Columbia, S.C., are at the high end of summer temperature rankings.
There were a lot of people in the Northeast who thought this was such a cool summer. And in Baltimore, temperatures were well below average. But that was the exception for big Northeast cities. Richmond, Va., Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston all came in warmer than average while New York City was close to average. Those areas, as well as the Southeast, are going to get one last blast of heat this weekend.
And if you find yourself missing peak heat, you can always head west. Like way west to coastal areas in California, Oregon and Washington, where the hottest temperatures of the year usually arrive in September.