March 31 2022

March 31 2022

megadrought and megafloods challenge farmers and sewers, West Virginia Governor doubts climate science, California regains authority to regulate vehicle emissions, wildfire risk set to climb, trucking water could replace hydroelectric dams

The drought in the west continues. In California, the federal water project announced no deliveries of water this year, and the state water project will only deliver 5% of contracted amounts. This leaves many farmers to depend upon depleted groundwater reservoirs, and the Washington Post describes the impact on communities and agriculture in the state. Nearly 400,000 acres of agricultural land was left unplanted last year due to a lack of water, costing farmers $1.1 billion in lost productivity and costing the region nearly 9,000 agricultural jobs.

The droughts and extreme weather across America are driving up the cost of insuring the country’s farmers. Inside Climate News reports that, from 1995 to 2020, “insurance payments to farmers have risen more than 400 percent for drought-related losses and nearly 300 percent for losses from rains and flooding.” Accelerating climate change will bring more of these challenging growing conditions, making the cost of crop insurance rise even higher. NPR notes that U.S. Taxpayers cover about 60% of the cost of policy premiums and may also be responsible for insurance payouts to farmers in the event of widespread crop damage. A small farmer states that crop insurance discourages adaptation to environmental change, and only insures a small number of commodity crops like corn and soybeans.

“It actually hurts farmers from trying to be proactive and change their farms,” he said. “They can do the same thing that they’ve done for years and they’re going to get paid for it if they have a failure.”

Major flooding hit the eastern Australian coast after an enormous rainstorm, as described by the New York Times. In an area used to significant rain, this was still a massive downpour that flooded communities and caused loss of life and tremendous property damage. The Guardian has more details (and photos) of this “1 in 1,000 year event,” and the New York Times has video as the Prime Minister declared a national emergency. I put the storm designation in quotes because, while it’s true that this event was rare when looking to the past, these type of events will be much more common in the future (the Guardian discusses this terminology in more detail). Brisbane received 75% of its annual rainfall in just four days, and a local perspective is available from the Sydney Morning Herald. Meanwhile, another atmospheric river struck the Pacific Northwest, dropping six inches of rain in two days.

Larger rainfall events are a challenge for many communities that have “combined sewers,” where rainfall and household wastewater flow in the same system to a treatment plant (700 communities in the country have combined sewers, predominantly in the mid-West). Peak flows during major storms can cause overflows into local waterways. Grist looks at Cleveland’s plans to reduce overflows by building underground storage areas. Unfortunately, the city is not taking climate change into account in its project designs, and so is not building enough storage for the storms of the future. The rainfall estimates being used by other cities are similarly out of date (it is important to note that it can take well over a decade to plan, design and build a storage system). According to the University of Michigan, in the last several decades the amount of rainfall in the mid-West from the heaviest storms has grown by 35%. Half of the top ten rainfall days in Cleveland have occurred since 2000. A Congressional proposal to require the EPA to force local governments to conduct climate assessments for such projects was removed from the “Infrastructure Bill” prior to its passage.

An article in The Atlantic follows a TV meteorologist in Texas as he integrates climate information into his nightly weather reports. The article highlights the work of the Climate Matters program at Climate Central, which has been quite successful at supplying relevant local trend information for use by TV meteorologists, who are often the most trusted scientists in their communities (disclosure: I am a supporter of Climate Matters). The article highlights how hard it is to influence some people who simply can’t accept that humans can influence climate. On cue, the Governor of West Virginia, coal-mine owner Jim Justice, said that God will “give us time” to fix climate change — “if” it exists.

The release of methane to the atmosphere is a critical part of our greenhouse-gas emissions problem. Much of this methane is from leaking oil and gas facilities. The Guardian reports on an analysis by the International Energy Agency concluding that, because plugging these leaks provides more gas to sell, this work would be free of cost almost everywhere in the world, and in many cases would produce a significant profit. Using satellite-detection systems, it has been determined that Russia is a major source of leaks, as are Turkmenistan and Texas. Last year, leaks from fossil-fuel operations amounted to as much gas as Europe burns for power in a year.

The New York Times reports that the Biden Administration restored California’s legal authority to set auto-pollution and mileage rules that are tighter than federal standards. This is an important step for emissions reductions, as transportation is the largest single source of emissions. The decision to revoke California’s long-standing ability to set its own limits on tailpipe emissions was one of the Trump Administration’s most destructive environmental policies. This is bigger than California, as the article notes that “seventeen other states and the District of Columbia have adopted the California rules, turning them into de facto national standards. Twelve other states are following California’s mandate to sell only zero-emissions vehicles after 2035.”

NBC News reports on how sea level rise affects groundwater levels, and potentially the foundations of coastal buildings, by examining whether this contributed to the collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, last year. A scientist studying the issue found that, with sea level rise, the number of times groundwater rose above the level of the building’s garage floor increased from an average of 244 times a year from 1994 to 2006 to 636 times a year from 2007 to 2020. With more scientific information, local governments could bring changes to building codes, requiring testing that shows the depth and salinity of the water beneath buildings. New codes could also require that foundations be designed to better protect against corrosion. An op-ed in the Washington Post provides a sobering assessment of the growing impact of sea level rise in Florida.

A recent report from the UN Environment Program concludes that, primarily due to climate change, the risk of major wildfires could increase by up to 57% by the end of the century. Summarized in the New York Times, the study suggests that public spending in developed nations that is still heavily skewed toward firefighting should be redirected to forest management (including proscribed burns). This will help prevent the inevitable fires from becoming uncontrollable conflagrations. Some areas will be more impacted than others, as hot weather and weak rainfall can sometimes decrease the amount of vegetation that is available to burn.

The Guardian summarizes the results of a new study projecting enhanced fire danger in southern California due to climate change. As one might expect, higher temperatures lead to a dryer landscape that will burn very readily if ignited. Reviewing data from the past, the study found that fire risk rose 22% for each 1°C (1.8°F) rise in temperature. Over the next two decades, the region is expecting temperatures to increase by 2°C. One scientist noted that “in extreme conditions like this, whatever is going to burn is going to burn — and you can’t really do much to stop it.” In March, major fires also burned in Florida and Texas. Yale e360 describes how more and more Americans are relocating in an attempt to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — many recognize themselves as climate refugees.

Despite the need to reduce our dependence upon fossil fuels (due to both climate change and geo-politics), Senator Joe Manchin is now suggesting that he does not want the U.S. Government to support the development of EVs. This is despite the fact that the recent “Infrastructure Bill” that Manchin supported contained a major initiative devoted to building an EV-charging infrastructure. An op-ed in the Washington Post explains how Manchin’s positions make no sense at all. Volkswagen unveiled its electric microbus, which will be distributed in Europe (the Verge says this version of the classic Volkswagen bus has “less flower, more power”). Canary Media reviews the growing market for electric delivery vans, which is being pursued by a dozen different manufacturers.

Science News has produced an excellent article describing the history of climate science, the current impacts, projections and how future impacts can be lessened. This is a great summary of the issues for those interested in the big picture.

One renewable-energy technology that can produce electricity 24/7 is geothermal energy. However, just like coal, geothermal is now struggling to compete with cheap solar and wind. Grist examines the development of enhanced geothermal, where hot rock is fractured to allow water to be pumped into a formation and returned to the surface at high temperatures (over 700°F). At these temperatures, you can generate a lot of electricity, but right now technical challenges around drilling hot rock need to be addressed.

A prior In Brief noted that a federal judge in Louisiana issued a decision preventing the Biden Administration from using the social cost of carbon in assessing the cost/benefit of regulations. This decision essentially prevented the federal government from considering the cost of climate change when making regulatory decisions. The Washington Post reports that a federal appeals court has unanimously stayed that ruling.

A short article in Anthropocene Magazine describes a recent proposal for “electric truck hydropower” instead of building new hydroelectric dams at river locations. The idea is to have electric trucks — carrying large containers filled with water — drive down a long hill, charging a battery that would be swapped out at the bottom of the hill and attached to the grid. Unusual, but feasible and cost-effective, say the proponents.

Solar panels have to be cleaned multiple times a month using pressurized water spray to maintain their efficiency, particularly in desert environments where dust can quickly accumulate. Water availability can be a challenge in these sunny environments. An article in Anthropocene Magazine describes a new technique that uses static electricity to quickly clean panels. This novel method could save 10 billion gallons of water annually, enough to supply drinking water for up to 2 million people in developing countries.