Insectageddon: Farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown

George Monbiot writes: Which of these would you name as the world’s most pressing environmental issue? Climate breakdown, air pollution, water loss, plastic waste or urban expansion? My answer is none of the above. Almost incredibly, I believe that climate breakdown takes third place, behind two issues that receive only a fraction of the attention.

This is not to downgrade the danger presented by global heating – on the contrary, it presents an existential threat. It is simply that I have come to realise that two other issues have such huge and immediate impacts that they push even this great predicament into third place.

One is industrial fishing, which, all over the blue planet, is now causing systemic ecological collapse. The other is the erasure of non-human life from the land by farming.

And perhaps not only non-human life. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, at current rates of soil loss, driven largely by poor farming practice, we have just 60 years of harvests left. And this is before the Global Land Outlook report, published in September, found that productivity is already declining on 20% of the world’s cropland.

The impact on wildlife of changes in farming practice (and the expansion of the farmed area) is so rapid and severe that it is hard to get your head round the scale of what is happening. A study published this week in the journal Plos One reveals that flying insects surveyed on nature reserves in Germany have declined by 76% in 27 years. The most likely cause of this Insectageddon is that the land surrounding those reserves has become hostile to them: the volume of pesticides and the destruction of habitat have turned farmland into a wildlife desert.

It is remarkable that we need to rely on a study in Germany to see what is likely to have been happening worldwide: long-term surveys of this kind simply do not exist elsewhere. This failure reflects distorted priorities in the funding of science. There is no end of grants for research on how to kill insects, but hardly any money for discovering what the impacts of this killing might be. Instead, the work has been left – as in the German case – to recordings by amateur naturalists.

But anyone of my generation (ie in the second bloom of youth) can see and feel the change. We remember the “moth snowstorm” that filled the headlight beams of our parents’ cars on summer nights (memorialised in Michael McCarthy’s lovely book of that name). Every year I collected dozens of species of caterpillars and watched them grow and pupate and hatch. This year I tried to find some caterpillars for my children to raise. I spent the whole summer looking and, aside from the cabbage whites on our broccoli plants, found nothing in the wild but one garden tiger larva. Yes, one caterpillar in one year. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing – or rather, not seeing.

Insects, of course, are critical to the survival of the rest of the living world. Knowing what we now know, there is nothing surprising about the calamitous decline of insect-eating birds. Those flying insects – not just bees and hoverflies but species of many different families – are the pollinators without which a vast tract of the plant kingdom, both wild and cultivated, cannot survive. The wonders of the living planet are vanishing before our eyes. [Continue reading…]

Out of sight, out of mind — the issue here is not just generational in the sense experienced by those of us old enough to remember insects, birds, and other creatures in greater numbers. The issue is above all one that springs from the physical separation between humans and nature in a world where humans experience life predominantly inside cities and predominantly as the seemingly most commonplace species.

I happen to live in a town where squirrels undoubtedly outnumber humans and where bears can show up in the most unexpected places and yet even here, for most people most of the time, nature remains in the background of human affairs.

While the rapid demise of flying insects should provoke alarm in anyone with even just a rudimentary understanding of the interdependence of species, a more commonplace response is likely to be that this loss signifies a welcome reduction in unwanted pests — fewer mosquitoes, fewer flies, and less irritants to complain about.

When it comes to human appreciation for non-human forms of life, insects get short shrift.

Butterflies are admired and yet most people would be hard pressed to name a single species, let alone recognize and appreciate any species in its larval form.

Bees are appreciated as productive, yet potentially dangerous and to most people indistinguishable from wasps.

Ants are lauded in the abstract as exemplars of industry and complex social organization and yet bound to suffer swift extermination when they turn up where they’re unwelcome.

Even so, the objective truth that insects would grasp if they had the cognitive capacities to do so is that the most prolific forms of life that have lived sustainably on this planet for hundreds of millions of years are now at risk from the life-threatening effects of human infestation.

No, this isn’t an argument for the elimination of humans, but as the late-comers on the stage of life, we have to do a hell of a lot better learning how to harmoniously co-exist with the creatures around us. Not only do their lives depend on this, but so do ours.

Facebooktwittermail

Trump pick for top environmental post called belief in global warming a ‘kind of paganism’

CNN reports: President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the White House senior adviser for environmental policy in 2016 described the belief in “global warming” as a “kind of paganism” for “secular elites.”

Trump last week nominated Kathleen Hartnett White, who previously led the Texas Commision on Environmental Quality, to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a post that requires Senate confirmation. Hartnett White, currently a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, has long expressed skepticism about established climate science and once dismissed the idea that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, calling it “the gas of life on this planet.”

As head of the Council on Environmental Quality, Hartnett White would oversee environmental and energy policies across the government. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The struggle to protect a tree at the heart of Hopi culture

By Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa and Chip Colwell

A rumbling, low boom unfurled over the land like a current of thunder. But it was a clear, cloudless day in northern Arizona. We realized the reverberation was the echo of an explosion—dynamite loosening the earth—and that the strip mine was finding its way toward a colossal seam of coal.

It was the fall of 2015, and the Kayenta Mine’s owners, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, had proposed to expand the mine into neighboring areas. If that were to happen, then the place we were standing on would one day be peeled open like a can of sardines to reveal the prize of shiny, midnight-black coal.

The Kayenta Mine has long been a source of controversy. Every year it ships millions of tons of coal by rail to the Navajo Generating Station northeast of the Grand Canyon. The power plant keeps air conditioners humming in Phoenix and Los Angeles, and lights shimmering in Las Vegas and beyond.

We were there as anthropologists with a team of researchers and Hopi elders to study the project’s potential impact on religious sites, archaeological remains, springs, and more. But at every stop, the elders talked about the juniper tree. The trees were so abundant—blanketing every hill that hasn’t been mined—that at first it seemed strange to be concerned about the potential loss of this plant. There were ancient Pueblo villages and graveyards to worry about. There were precious springs and rare songbirds.

But the elders kept returning to their fears for the junipers.

[Read more…]

Facebooktwittermail

Warning of ‘ecological Armageddon’ after dramatic plunge in insect numbers

The Guardian reports: The abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years, according to a new study that has shocked scientists.

Insects are an integral part of life on Earth as both pollinators and prey for other wildlife and it was known that some species such as butterflies were declining. But the newly revealed scale of the losses to all insects has prompted warnings that the world is “on course for ecological Armageddon”, with profound impacts on human society.

The new data was gathered in nature reserves across Germany but has implications for all landscapes dominated by agriculture, the researchers said.

The cause of the huge decline is as yet unclear, although the destruction of wild areas and widespread use of pesticides are the most likely factors and climate change may play a role. The scientists were able to rule out weather and changes to landscape in the reserves as causes, but data on pesticide levels has not been collected.

“The fact that the number of flying insects is decreasing at such a high rate in such a large area is an alarming discovery,” said Hans de Kroon, at Radboud University in the Netherlands and who led the new research.

“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” said Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, UK, and part of the team behind the new study. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.” [Continue reading…]

I often get the impression that many of the people who dismiss dire warnings about environmental collapse and climate change have a fabulously inflated faith in the human capacity to solve problems through technical solutions, combined with an attitude that the natural world is in some fundamental sense superfluous to human needs. Seemingly, nature needs protecting mostly because it provides pleasant locations for vacations.

Nevertheless, experiments in the creation of closed ecological systems should have already shattered any illusions about the capacity for humanity to survive on an ecologically wrecked planet through artificial means.

But maybe the cavalier attitude that many decision-makers display in the exercise of their responsibility to protect the ecosystem on which all of life depends is ultimately a reflection of the cynicism and selfishness of individuals who simply don’t care much about the continuation of life after the end of their own.

Facebooktwittermail

Puerto Rico’s environmental catastrophe

Vann R Newkirk II reports: “There’s no way there were just 45 deaths,” said Myrna Conty, an environmental activist whose work takes her regularly across the most remote parts of the island. She scoffed at the radio reports of the official death toll, a common refrain among Puerto Ricans whose personal stories—a cousin who died needing dialysis here, a neighbor who simply hasn’t been heard from there—when multiplied 3.5 million-fold make the official estimate seem impossible.

We’d followed the path that Hurricane Maria’s eye had taken along the highway to the west of San Juan. Three weeks after the storm, the tropical green was just starting to come back, sprouting over the brown wounds of mud and giant trees pulled up from their roots. Here in Arecibo, a small municipality about 40 minutes from San Juan on a good day, high-water marks from the flood stood out on building walls, seven or eight feet high. Obliterated houses marked the deserted hamlets along the road. Smokestacks had been snapped in half and wires lay slack where giant power pylons had fallen. The Río Grande de Arecibo that cuts through the municipality remained an swollen brown expanse, still threatening to drown bridges and homes. Arecibo was a ghost town.

But Conty’s dismay was also about the destruction that couldn’t be seen. For Conty, an old-guard environmental warrior in the countryside, Arecibo had been one of the key battlegrounds in her groups’ fights to contain poisons that affect much of Puerto Rico. But all of the signs around us showed that the battle had been—at least for now—lost. Across the island, residents already beset by water and food shortages are also facing real threats of contamination that have already spread illness and worse. “All of this is just the beginning,” Conty said. “This is catastrophic.”

Maria blew through the island in a matter of hours, but what was left behind wasn’t just traditional hurricane damage. The storm uncovered and intensified long-term environmental challenges that have long blighted Puerto Rico and now threaten its future. And securing a viable future for the island will mean more than just rebuilding what was lost from the wind and rain—it will require addressing those challenges in sustainable ways. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

EPA announces repeal of major Obama-era carbon emissions rule

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration announced Monday that it would take formal steps to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, setting up a bitter fight over the future of America’s efforts to tackle global warming.

At an event in eastern Kentucky, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said that his predecessors had departed from regulatory norms in crafting the Clean Power Plan, which was finalized in 2015 and would have pushed states to move away from coal in favor of sources of electricity that produce fewer carbon emissions.

“The war on coal is over,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Tomorrow in Washington, D.C., I will be signing a proposed rule to roll back the Clean Power Plan. No better place to make that announcement than Hazard, Kentucky.”

The repeal proposal, which will be filed in the Federal Register on Tuesday, fulfills a promise President Trump made to eradicate his predecessor’s environmental legacy. Eliminating the Clean Power Plan makes it less likely the United States can fulfill its promise as part of the Paris climate agreement to ratchet down emissions that are warming the planet and contributing to heat waves and sea-level rise. Mr. Trump has vowed to abandon that international accord. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How toxic PCBs came to permeate life on Earth

Rebecca Altman writes: Deep in the Mariana Trench, at depths lower than the Rockies are high, rests a tin of reduced-sodium Spam.

NOAA scientists caught sight of it last year near the mouth of the Mariana’s Sirena Deep. It isn’t an isolated incursion, but it was nevertheless startling, the sight of those timeless golden letters bright against the deep ocean bottom.

Shortly after came news from another team of scientists who had found in the Mariana an innovation less familiar than shelf-stable meat, but far more significant. In the bodies of deep-dwelling creatures were found traces of industrial chemicals responsible for the rise of modern America—polychlorinated biphenyls.

PCBs had been detected in Hirondellea gigas, tiny shrimp-like amphipods scooped up by deepwater trawlers. Results from the expedition, led by Newcastle University’s hadal-zone expert Alan Jamieson, were preliminary released last year and then published in February.

PCBs have been found the world over—from the bed of the Hudson River to the fat of polar bears roaming the high Arctic—but never before in the creatures of the extreme deep, a bioregion about which science knows relatively little.

How PCBs reached the Mariana is still under investigation. Jamieson and colleagues speculated on multiple, regional sources. A nearby military base. The industrial corridors along the Asian coastline. And the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where PCBs glom onto plastic particles caught in the current. Over time, the plastic degrades and descends into the depths, ferrying PCBs with them.

But the true origin of PCBs lies in another time and place, in Depression-era Alabama, and before that, 19th-century Germany at the pinnacle of German chemistry. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Courts thwart administration’s effort to rescind Obama-era environmental regulations

The New York Times reports: The rapid-fire push by the Trump administration to wipe out significant chunks of the Obama environmental legacy is running into a not-so-minor complication: Judges keep ruling that the Trump team is violating federal law.

The latest such ruling came late Wednesday, when a federal magistrate judge in Northern California vacated a move by the Department of Interior to delay compliance with rules curbing so-called flaring, a technique oil and gas companies use to burn off leaking methane. Flaring is blamed for contributing to climate change as well as lost tax revenues because the drilling is being done on federal land.

It was the third time since July that the Environmental Protection Agency or the Interior Department has been found to have acted illegally in their rush to roll back environmental rules. And in three other environmental cases, the Trump administration reversed course on its own after lawsuits accusing it of illegal actions were filed by environmental groups and Democratic state attorneys general.

The legal reversals reflect how aggressively Mr. Trump’s critics are challenging the administration’s efforts to rescind regulations enacted during the Obama administration, not only related to the environment, but to immigration, to consumer protection and to other areas. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Alarm as study reveals world’s tropical forests are huge carbon emission source

The Guardian reports: The world’s tropical forests are so degraded they have become a source rather than a sink of carbon emissions, according to a new study that highlights the urgent need to protect and restore the Amazon and similar regions.

Researchers found that forest areas in South America, Africa and Asia – which have until recently played a key role in absorbing greenhouse gases – are now releasing 425 teragrams of carbon annually, which is more than all the traffic in the United States.

This is a far greater loss than previously thought and carries extra force because the data emerges from the most detailed examination of the topic ever undertaken. The authors say their findings – published in the journal Science on Thursday – should galvanise policymakers to take remedial action.

“This shows that we can’t just sit back. The forest is not doing what we thought it was doing,” said Alessandro Baccini, who is one of the leader authors of the research team from Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University. “As always, trees are removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the volume of the forest is no longer enough to compensate for the losses. The region is not a sink any more.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Interior Secretary Zinke invokes Teddy Roosevelt as model, but his public land policies don’t

File 20170926 11782 y7c1q
Public lands along the south fork of the Snake River in southeastern Idaho.
BLM, CC BY

By John Freemuth, Boise State University

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendations to shrink four national monuments and allow fossil fuel development activities on others is just the latest sign that this administration sees natural resource use and extraction as the highest priority for public lands.

I direct the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, named for former Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, who died on August 24, 2017 at age 85. One major focus of our research is wise use of public lands and collaborative land use decisions through conversations that give everyone affected a chance to voice their concerns. These values, which Andrus championed, align with mainstream conservation thinking.

Controversies over public lands and natural resources date back more than a century, with policies emphasizing development under some administrations and conservation under others. So the Trump administration’s focus on resource use is not new.

What I see as different this time is rhetoric that diverges completely from reality on the ground. We hear a lot about conservation and the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, but see proposals to cut public land budgets, promote oil and gas development next to protected areas and open more sage grouse habitat to mining. Some observers have labeled Zinke’s conservation pledges “all hat and no cattle,” recalling the old adage for people who pose as cowboys by dressing the part. Put another way, to these folks, Zinke so far is “all Roosevelt hat and no Roosevelt action.”

[Read more…]

Facebooktwittermail

Zinke says 30 percent of Interior ‘crew’ are not ‘loyal to the flag,’ as he promotes oil drilling and logging on public lands

The Associated Press reports: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Monday that nearly one-third of employees at his department are not loyal to him and President Donald Trump, adding that he is working to change the department’s regulatory culture to be more business friendly.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, said he knew when he took over the 70,000-employee department in March that, “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

In a speech to an oil industry group, Zinke compared Interior to a pirate ship that captures “a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over” to finish the mission.

“We do have good people” at Interior, he said, “but the direction has to be clear and you’ve got to hold people accountable.”

Zinke’s comments echo complaints by some White House allies that a permanent, “deep state” in Washington has sabotaged Trump’s efforts to remake the government.

Zinke did not go that far, but he lamented a government culture that prizes analysis over action, saying: “There’s too many ways in the present process for someone who doesn’t want to get (a regulatory action) done to put it a holding pattern.”

To remedy that, Zinke said he is pursuing a major reorganization that would push much of the agency’s decision-making outside Washington and move several agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management, to undetermined Western states.

The moves follow military strategy, Zinke said: “Push your generals where the fight is.”

While details remain largely under wraps, Zinke said he was excited.

“It’s going to be huge,” he said in a speech to the National Petroleum Council, an advisory committee that includes leaders of the oil and gas industry. “I really can’t change the culture without changing the structure.”

Besides moving employees, Zinke said he wants to speed up permits for oil drilling, logging and other energy development that now can take years. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Who’s the world’s leading eco-vandal? It’s Angela Merkel

George Monbiot writes: Which living person has done most to destroy the natural world and the future wellbeing of humanity? Donald Trump will soon be the correct answer, when the full force of his havoc has been felt. But for now I would place another name in the frame: Angela Merkel.

What? Have I lost my mind? Angela Merkel, the “climate chancellor”? The person who, as German environment minister, brokered the first UN climate agreement, through sheer force of will? The chancellor who persuaded the G7 leaders to promise to phase out fossil fuels by the end of this century? The architect of Germany’s Energiewende – its famous energy transition? Yes, the very same.

Unlike Trump, she has no malicious intent. She did not set out to destroy the agreements she helped to create. But the Earth’s systems do not respond to mission statements or speeches or targets. They respond to hard fact. What counts, and should be judged, as she seeks a fourth term as German chancellor in the elections on Sunday, is what is done, not what is said. On this metric, her performance has been a planetary disaster.

Merkel has a fatal weakness: a weakness for the lobbying power of German industry. Whenever a crucial issue needs to be resolved, she weighs her ethics against political advantage, and chooses the advantage. This, in large part, is why Europe now chokes in a fug of diesel fumes.

The EU decision to replace petrol engines with diesel, though driven by German car manufacturers, predates her premiership. It was a classic European fudge, a means of averting systemic change while creating an impression of action, based on the claim (which now turns out to be false) that diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide than petrol. But once she became chancellor, Merkel used every conceivable tactic, fair and foul, to preserve this deadly cop-out. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

In the Caribbean, colonialism and inequality mean hurricanes hit harder

File 20170919 32019 q2k6rl
A satellite image of Hurricane Irma spiraling through the Caribbean.
NOAA/AP

By Levi Gahman, The University of the West Indies: St. Augustine Campus and Gabrielle Thongs, The University of the West Indies: St. Augustine Campus

Hurricane Maria, the 15th tropical depression this season, is now battering the Caribbean, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the region.

The devastation in Dominica is “mind-boggling,” wrote the country’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, on Facebook just after midnight on September 19. The next day, in Puerto Rico, NPR reported via member station WRTU in San Juan that “Most of the island is without power…or water.”

Among the Caribbean islands impacted by both deadly storms are Puerto Rico, St Kitts, Tortola and Barbuda.

In this region, disaster damages are frequently amplified by needlessly protracted and incomplete recoveries. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan rolled roughshod through the Caribbean with wind speeds of 160 mph. The region’s economy took more than three years to recover. Grenada’s surplus of US$17 million became a deficit of $54 million, thanks to decreased revenue and the outlays for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Nor were the effects of a 7 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010 limited to killing some 150,000 people. United Nations peacekeepers sent in to help left the country grappling, to this day, with a fatal cholera outbreak.

A tent city in post-earthquake Haiti.
Fred W. Baker III/Wikimedia Commons

These are not isolated instances of random bad luck. As University of the West Indies geographers who study risk perception and political ecology, we recognize the deep, human-induced roots of climate change, inequality and the underdevelopment of former colonies – all of which increase the Caribbean’s vulnerability to disaster.

[Read more…]

Facebooktwittermail

Tool-wielding macaques are wiping out shellfish populations

Nathaniel Scharping reports: The advent of tools was a big deal for humanity. It made it far easier to manipulate our environment and mold the planet to serve our own interests—from the folsom point to the iPhone X.

Some animals use tools too, like the macaques of Thailand, who have figured out that their favorite shellfish snacks are much easier to eat if they bash them open with rocks first. They’ve become proficient shellfish smashers, so much so that the macaques are actually threatening the existence of oysters and snails an a small island there. It’s a tale of technology gone wrong — only this time, humans aren’t the villains.

Researchers from Thailand, Europe and Australia looked at two groups of long-tailed macaques on separate islands off the Thai coast. The two locations, both alike in shellfish populations, differed only in the number of macaques there. Koram is host to around 80 primates, while NomSao has but nine. Both groups have figured out how to use rocks to break open shellfish armor, behavior that has been observed among other groups of macaques in Thailand.

On Koram, though, the abundance of tool-wielding macaques has led to a crisis of sorts. In a paper published last week in the journal eLife, the researchers estimate that a single individual on the island slurps down 47 shellfish a day, mostly oysters. For the mere 26 macaques that the researchers studied, that works out to 441,000 a year. Looking at periwinkles, a small sea snail, the researchers estimated that the monkeys could eat the entire island’s population in just a year. On NomSao, the much smaller group eats only about an eighth of the available periwinkle population. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Interior Dept report recommends cuts or changes to seven national land monuments

The Wall Street Journal reports: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended cutbacks or other changes to nearly half the geographic national monuments he recently reviewed at the request of President Donald Trump, according to a report sent to the White House and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The report recommends reducing the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante preserves in Utah, and reopening hundreds of thousands of square miles of protected oceans in both the Pacific and Atlantic to commercial fishing—in actions numerous environmental groups would likely fight to block.

Those are the findings in a report the secretary sent to Mr. Trump in August. The details of the report weren’t released at the time.

Officials at the Interior Department referred requests for comment to the White House, which declined to comment.

“The Trump administration does not comment on leaked documents, especially internal drafts which are still under review by the president and relevant agencies,” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said in a statement Sunday.

Besides Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the list of land monuments recommended for downsizing or otherwise made less restrictive—including by allowing traditional activities including ranching and logging—are Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou; Nevada’s Gold Butte; Maine’s Katahdin; and New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte. The ocean preserves Mr. Zinke wants reopened to commercial fishing include Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off the Massachusetts coast and both Rose Atoll and the Pacific Remote Islands.

Mr. Zinke recommended no changes to 17 other national monuments that the president included in the review, which he ordered after complaining some of his predecessors had locked up too much land and water in the preserves that can be created by presidents or Congress under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Most of the monuments that Mr. Zinke reviewed were created by two of Mr. Trump’s Democratic predecessors, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

This season, Western wildfires are close by and running free

The New York Times reports: Some fires suddenly exploded in size. One in Montana doubled in 24 hours, charring 78 square miles overnight — an area bigger than Brooklyn. Already burning fires started new ones, shooting embers like artillery barrages, including one that apparently jumped several miles across the Columbia River into Washington from Oregon, breaching a natural firebreak that long seemed impregnable.

Extreme fire behavior — difficult to predict and dangerous to fight — has been the watchword of the 2017 season across the West. More large, uncontrolled wildfires were burning in 10 Western states in early September than at any comparable time since 2006.

And those fires have leaned in, menacing more lives and property, by their size and their proximity, than in any recent season. Two firefighters died in Montana, and dozens of buildings and homes have been destroyed in California. About 150 hikers had to be rescued in Oregon when a fire encircled them. Evacuation orders — residents told to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice — reached to within 15 miles of downtown Portland. One of the largest fires ever recorded in Los Angeles County roared down from a canyon near Burbank, leapt a highway and forced hundreds of residents, from Burbank into Los Angeles itself, from their homes. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The stunning underwater picture this photographer wishes ‘didn’t exist’

Lindsey Bever writes: The powerful and poignant image shows a tiny sea horse holding tightly onto a pink, plastic cotton swab in blue-green waters around Indonesia.

California nature photographer Justin Hofman snapped the picture late last year off the coast of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain. The 33-year-old, from Monterey, Calif., said a colleague pointed out the pocket-size sea creature, which he estimated to be about 1.5 inches tall — so small, in fact, that Hofman said he almost didn’t reach for his camera.

“The wind started to pick up and the sea horse started to drift. It first grabbed onto a piece of sea grass,” Hofman said Thursday in a phone interview.

Hofman started shooting.

“Eventually more and more trash and debris started to move through,” he said, adding that the critter lost its grip, then latched onto a white, wispy piece of a plastic bag. “The next thing it grabbed was a Q-Tip.”

Hofman said he wishes the picture “didn’t exist” — but it does; and now, he said, he feels responsible “to make sure it gets to as many eyes as possible.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Will rebuilding after Harvey and Irma make more flooding inevitable?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes: The aim of the National Flood Insurance Program, which was created by Congress, in 1968, in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy, is to provide “affordable insurance to property owners.” The program offers what amounts to subsidized coverage, and according to its critics, and also to some of its supporters, the N.F.I.P. has had the perverse effect of encouraging rebuilding in areas where homes and businesses probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.

Many homes enrolled in the program have been flooded and repaired more than once. These are known as “repetitive-loss properties.” Then there are homes that have been flooded and repaired at least four times. These are known as “severe repetitive-loss properties.” Into this latter category falls a Mississippi house valued at sixty-nine thousand dollars. The house has flooded thirty-four times, resulting in a total of six hundred and sixty-three thousand dollars in claims.

“It’s basically lather, rinse, repeat,” Steve Ellis, the vice-president of the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, recently told Politico. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

A $150 billion misfire: How disaster models got Irma wrong

Bloomberg reports: Twenty miles may have made a $150 billion difference.

Estimates for the damage Hurricane Irma would inflict on Florida kept mounting as it made its devastating sweep across the Caribbean. It was poised to be the costliest U.S. storm on record. Then something called the Bermuda High intervened and tripped it up.

“We got very lucky,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If Irma had passed 20 miles west of Marco Island instead of striking it on Sunday, “the damage would have been astronomical.” A track like that would have placed the powerful, eastern eye wall of Irma on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

By one estimate, the total cost dropped to about $50 billion Monday from $200 billion over the weekend. The state escaped the worst because Irma’s eye shifted away from the biggest population center of Miami-Dade County.

The credit goes to the Bermuda High, which acts like a sort of traffic cop for the tropical North Atlantic Ocean. The circular system hovering over Bermuda jostled Irma onto northern Cuba Saturday, where being over land sapped it of some power, and then around the tip of the Florida peninsula, cutting down on storm surge damage on both coasts of the state. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail