November 15 2022

November 15 2022

sea level rise getting real in many places, climate misinformation continues to circulate, drought causes more focus on recycling wastewater, a rare toad slows geothermal development, France requires solar over parking lots

The New York Times reports that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides $2.6 billion in grants over five years for coastal communities to prepare and respond to hazardous climate-related events. While less than 1% of the total funding provided by the IRA, this is the latest sign of a shift by the federal government toward funding nature-based climate solutions. These funds will be enormously valuable as the threats from sea level rise and coastal erosion mount.

The rate that sea level rises in any given community is a function of the vertical movement of both water and land. In places where land is subsiding, the relative rate of sea level rise is faster. Because of this phenomenon, the Humboldt Bay in northern California has the highest relative sea level rise in the state. The San Francisco Chronicle examines how this region is approaching its vulnerability to sea level rise.

The Washington Post visits Socastee, South Carolina, a community that is similar to many on the eastern seaboard impacted by rising sea level and storm surges. In this area of South Carolina, sea level is rising as fast as anywhere in the nation. The article chronicles the agonizing decision facing residents who don’t want to leave, yet are beginning to recognize that their communities will become more and more unlivable. The Washington Post also examines plans to protect Norfolk, VA, another community extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. This article points out that the method used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for assessing benefits and costs of flood-protection projects fails to account for ecological, cultural and historic values. This can lead to controversy about the relative worth of proposed projects. The New York Times reports on the Corps of Engineers’ $52 billion proposal for flood protection in New York harbor.

The AP describes continued efforts to spread misinformation about climate change. This time, the claim is that climate change is not happening because the frequency of hurricane landfall has not changed. Of course, there is no causal connection between hurricane landfall and climate change, so this is a nonsensical argument. Hurricane intensity, rate of intensification and rainfall are all increasing as predicted by climate science. The New York Times examines the lack of climate-science education in middle schools, and the dedicated teachers who are working to change that, noting that their students are demanding it. According to a survey by the National Center for Science Education, about half of middle-school science teachers either don’t cover the subject or spend less than two hours on it during an entire school year. Contributing to this is that the Next Generation Science Standards, introduced a decade ago and currently adopted by 45 states, have only 1 of 60 standards that explicitly mention climate change.

A year after devastating floods, The Guardian reports that British Columbia is experiencing a punishing drought, with salmon dying in dry creeks (Gizmodo has video) and forest fires burning. Victoria has seen only 2mm of rain since July, a period when it normally receives 100mm. Scientists note that the drought has been enhanced by warm winter storms washing away snow earlier than normal (reducing river flow in spring), and by timber practices such as clear cutting that reduce water retention in forests.

Yale e360 notes that low flows along the Rio Grande are causing El Paso, which gets 40% of its water from the river, to look to non-traditional sources of water. Intermittent water shortages over past decades have resulted in El Paso working toward new water sources, including desalination, residential and commercial conservation, recycling wastewater for potable use and importing groundwater from far away. A desalination plant, completed in 2007, is capable of supplying 5% of El Paso’s water by treating brackish groundwater. The city’s existing water-recycling system, which has delivered water for irrigation in the past, is now being upgraded to provide potable water (and is presently the largest such plant in the world). Conservation programs have decreased per-capita water use over the last 30 years from 200 gallons a day to about 139 today. All of these alternatives produce more expensive water, which will be a challenge for many residents.

The New York Times describes how treated wastewater is being used to augment water supplies in many places, mainly by pumping treated wastewater into aquifers for later withdrawal. The article examines a project in Virginia that has been operating for many years and is now going to expand.

In an interview at Vox, the author of a recent book on the Colorado River Compact examines the flaws of the 1922 agreement that allocates Colorado River water among seven states. The key problem is that the agreement assumed higher flows in the river than actually occur, resulting in promises for water that only exists during the highest flow years. This occurred despite evidence from the U.S. Geological Survey that the Colorado is subject to major droughts, just like the one we are currently in. He notes that, despite reductions in water use in urban areas across the Colorado basin, major cuts are still needed, and this is likely to come from agricultural users. Meanwhile, an Estonian oil company wants to use a 3.2 billion-gallon water right from a Colorado tributary to strip-mine oil-containing shale.

The western drought has caused Lake Shasta to fall so low that a World War II-era military landing-craft has been uncovered. The New York Times notes that this vessel was rumored to have sunk in the lake, but how it originally got there is still a mystery. Sounds like the beginning of a Clive Cussler novel. The New York Times notes that, in the Pacific northwest, “lives, businesses, communities and cultures were founded on the premise of deep snow.” The article examines how large and widespread the changes will be as more winter precipitation falls as rain. California faces a similar future as the annual average snowpack declines in the Sierras.

Beyond the West, a drought in the Mississippi Basin is causing major economic problems. Grist reports that “the Mississippi River, which carries 60 percent of the country’s grain exports, has reached historically low water levels.” This is leading not only to supply chain issues and the interruption of agricultural exports, but also to concerns over drinking water contamination as saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico intrudes into the water-starved Mississippi. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constructing an underwater 1,500-foot-wide levee to block saltwater intrusion, but some communities in Louisiana already are already being warned about salts in drinking water.

Grist reports that increased manufacturing of renewable-energy technologies is driving global demand for “critical minerals,” including lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. Demand is projected to increase by 400-600% over the next few decades. The BBC notes that a small firm in Finland has developed the world’s first commercial battery made of low-quality (non-construction grade) sand, which avoids the need for critical minerals. At the present, the battery takes surplus renewable electricity and stores it as heat, which then is delivered to a district heating system. The company plans to develop a version that returns energy as electricity, and notes that instead of sand a variety of materials available locally could be used to deliver heat for municipal and industrial applications.

The Indy Star reports on “agrisolar” research at Purdue University, examining the economic and engineering aspects of co-locating solar panels and farms. With growing resistance to traditional solar installations in the Midwest (which is seen as “farms or solar”), Purdue researchers are demonstrating that certain types of installations can benefit farmers without sacrificing agricultural productivity (at least for some crops). The article also describes efforts to pair solar panels with sheep ranching, as does an article in the Energy News Network that notes that sheep use the shade of solar panels to rest. This article also describes how Maine, with many crops that are low-lying and hand-harvested, could be a good fit for agrisolar.

The Guardian visits Pulaski County, Indiana, where the largest solar project in the United States is being constructed. The article describes a strong ideological opposition to solar being championed by one person, which has slowed the project and caused a rift in the community. The Washington Post visits the site of a new geothermal power plant in Nevada, where concerns about an endangered species of toad and the rights of native peoples are colliding with the need for renewable energy.

Several readers told me that they were moved by Greta Thunberg’s statement that “The fact that 3 billion people use less energy, on an annual per capita basis, than a standard American refrigerator gives you an idea of how far away from global equity and climate justice we currently are.” Articles in Forbes and Vox have more details of the analysis behind these numbers.

Electrek reports that France is requiring existing and new parking lots with spaces for at least 80 vehicles to be covered by solar panels in five years (larger lots have only three years to comply). This one initiative is expected to generate up to 11 gigawatts of electricity.