September 15 2021

September 15 2021

western drought continues to worsen, today’s climate is the most benign we will see in our lifetimes, floods force rethinking of land use in German town, small towns not "bouncing back" from extreme events, demand management as an alternative to new power plants

The New York Times examines the future of water in the West as the flow of the Colorado River declines. The article notes that 70% of the river’s flow is used by agriculture, and much of this demand is from farms growing alfalfa to feed cattle (including cattle overseas). An interesting note: "Water usage data suggests that if Americans avoid meat one day each week they could save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado each year, more than enough water to alleviate the region’s shortages." In addition, evaporative losses from the major reservoirs alone — Lakes Mead and Powell — amount to about 10 percent of the river’s recent total flow.

Argentina declared a six-month emergency for the Paraná River region in late July, as South America’s second-largest river is drying up amid the most severe drought in 70 years. In the California WaterBlog, UC Davis professor Jay Lund concludes that California’s economy could generally survive a megadrought (50% of average rainfall for 70 consecutive years), through trading of water allocations among users. However, some ecosystems and communities would suffer severe impacts, particularly in the Central Valley.

An article in Scientific American describes the important connection between carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the soil, and how changing agricultural practices can influence future climate. Large quantities of carbon are being lost from the soil to the atmosphere, and this flow can be reversed with practices such as no-till farming, planting of winter cover crops and altering grazing practices to mimic the herds of herbivores that used to roam our plains. Soils enriched by these practices will also make our agricultural land more resilient to flood and drought and more resistant to erosion. The fact that forests, ranches and farms are integrated into the carbon cycle means that they could play a big role in reducing the atmospheric burden of carbon, if the people who manage those lands have the right incentives. An article at Grist explores the challenges of making this happen.

John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor (and a member of my PhD committee) phrased humanity’s climate challenge succinctly: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. “We’re going to do some of each,” he said. “The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.” An analysis in the New York Times suggests that we are not doing enough adaptation or mitigation at present, and the result will be enormous suffering. It was important to hear President Biden calling climate change a "code red" emergency.

David Wallace-Wells describes in blunt terms the reality we now face as we attempt to adapt to the new climate we’ve created. Looking at recent extreme events around the world, he notes that "even the world’s vanguard infrastructure — the built kind, the natural kind and the human kind — is failing the test of even today’s climate, which is the mildest and most benign we will ever see again" (an article in the New York Times underscores this point). George Monbiot is even more blunt in the Guardian, "the human tragedy is that there is no connection between what we know and what we do." As a reminder of what we know (and have known for a long time), Physics Today reflects on the 50th anniversary of the first official warning about climate change from scientists to a U.S. President.

While many think of climate migration as a phenomenon affecting less developed regions of the world, an article in the Atlantic describes such migration trends in the U.S. A recent study by the real-estate firm Redfin found that about half of Americans who planned to move in the next year said natural disasters were a factor in their decision. "As natural disasters grow more severe and more frequent, they will destroy more property, turning life in the U.S. into a massive game of migratory musical chairs. It will cleave populations along the lines of class and race." I think the musical chairs analogy is apt, and I used it to describe the real-estate market in Florida in my 2018 post, Observations from Another Planet.

A fascinating article in the New York Times explores the impact to residents of the village of Rech from the recent major flooding in Germany. The eldest residents are reminded of the damage at the end of World War II, while others are recognizing that a centuries-long effort to tame the river has come to an end. This deep understanding is leading to a major rethinking of how to build back the village along a much more sustainable configuration. It remains to be seen how communities in Tennessee will respond to the recent major flooding in their region, as a lack of zoning, flood maps and local building codes made residents especially vulnerable. The New York Times describes how the Room for the River program to reestablish natural flood plains helped the Netherlands avoid loss of life and extensive damage during the recent European floods.

The challenge extreme weather poses for small towns cannot be overstated, as many are being pushed to insolvency by repeated events. The New York Times visits Fair Bluff, North Carolina, as an example, noting that communities such as this — hit repeatedly by hurricanes — are not "bouncing back." Instead, they are "unraveling: residents and employers leave, the tax base shrinks and it becomes even harder to fund basic services."

The New York Times reports on the Caldor Fire, focusing on the enormous challenge fire crews faced to keep the fire out of the Lake Tahoe basin. Despite massive deployment of resources, the fire continued to spread, with a key mechanism being how far such large fires spread embers. The embers land in a dry, combustible landscape, causing more spot fires than crews can handle. In essence, firefighting now becomes protecting specific locations while the fire burns on and on until it starts raining in the winter.

An article in the Atlantic examines the reality of meeting President Biden’s goal of reducing U.S. carbon emissions 50% by 2030. While large reductions are possible in the electricity sector by closing coal-fired power plants and expanding solar and wind power (administration officials note "it is affordable to decarbonize the grid"), reductions in the transportation sector are harder as vehicle turnover is slow (an op-ed in The Hill argues that electrifying the school-bus fleet would be a good place to start). And, after transportation, emission reductions are even more difficult to create. While it is possible to achieve the President’s goal, it will not be easy. Of course, dealing with the implications of not achieving this goal would be many times worse. Bill McKibben notes sadly that if we’d listened to President Carter in 1978 we would not be facing such a daunting challenge.

An article in the New York Times describes how demand management can be used to obviate the need for new power plants. Traditionally used by utilities with major power users such as factories, it is now possible to take advantage of the Internet and real-time electricity markets to encourage conservation by individuals during peak power demand. An article in The Hill reviews how demand management fits into a larger need to rethink our electrical grid as we modernize it.

YaleEnvironment360 reviews the status of the technologies that remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. These technologies are still expensive, but many think they will be an essential part of our effort to reduce the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions to the atmosphere.

The Guardian reports on the development of floating wind turbines. These machines will be able to exploit stronger winds at deep-sea locations, including along the U.S. Pacific Coast. The technology is still expensive, there are multiple designs being tested (with some questions about maintenance costs) and fisherman are very wary of potential impacts to their livelihoods. One new technology is an array of smaller turbines, which the designers claim has many advantages when compared to the traditional "windmill" form. The Spanish-German engineering group Siemens Gamesa announced “the world’s first recyclable wind turbine blades ready for commercial use offshore.”

The growth in utility-scale battery installations is remarkable. 10,000 megawatts of storage will be added to the grid between 2021 and 2023 — 10 times the capacity that was online in 2019. InsideClimate News reports on this growing industry, including the largest operating battery system in the U.S. at the site of the old PG&E power plant in Moss Landing, CA.