Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science

Was Hurricane Harvey Caused by Global Warming? Not Entirely

Was Hurricane Harvey caused by global warming? Not entirely.
Cars submerged by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Photo: michelmond / Shutterstock.com

Climate change is responsible for a lot of things, but it may not be directly responsible for Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey is not the first hurricane to hit the Texas coast.  A deadly hurricane struck Galveston in 1900, and that storm caused thousands to lose their lives, primarily due to the lack of warning. Meteorology was not an advanced science at that time, and there were no satellites to track the storms as they moved across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, climate change is almost certainly responsible for the epic rainfall and catastrophic flooding endured by the cities struck by Hurricane Harvey.

“This is they type of event, in terms of extreme rainfall, that we would expect to see more of in a warming climate,” Dr. Friederike Otto from the University of Oxford told the BBC.

In fact, the rainfall was so extreme that the National Weather Service had to add new colors to its rainfall maps to account for the intensity of Harvey’s rains.

There’s a physical law called the Clausius-Claperyon equation, which says that a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture. For every degree Celsius in warming, the atmosphere can hold 7 percent more water, which makes rainfall events more extreme.

The temperature of the seas also contributes to the strength of hurricanes.

“The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 1.5 degrees warmer than they were from 1980 to 2010,” Sir Brian Hoskins of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change told the BBC. “This is very significant because it means the potential for a stronger storm is there, and the contribution of global warming to the warmer waters in the Gulf, it’s almost inevitable that there was a contribution to that.”

Although there have been slow-moving storms over Texas in the past, some scientists still attribute the intensity of Harvey to climate change.

Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says that a general slowdown in atmospheric circulation in the earth’s middle latitudes could be a result of changing climate in other parts of the world.

“This is a consequence of the disproportionately strong warming in the Arctic,” Rahmstorf said. “It can make weather systems move less and stay longer in a given location—which can significantly enhance the impacts of rainfall extremes.”

Other scientists think it’s a stretch to believe that the slowly moving nature of the storm is caused by climate change. “I don’t think we should speculate on these more difficult and complex links like melting in the Arctic without looking into these effects in a dedicated study,” said Dr. Otto.

In addition to the damage caused by the flooding, pollution is causing the floodwaters to become a toxic stew of sewage, garbage, chemicals from more than 20 Superfund sites in the Houston area, oil and petrochemicals from damaged refineries, and much more, are causing concern.

“There’s no need to test [the water],” Houston Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villareal told the New York Times. “It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants.”

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Eco-friendly, Environmental Hazards, Science

Cigarette Butts Could Soon Be Turned Into Something Useful

A research team in Australia has come up with a way to turn cigarette butts into pavement.
Soon, these nasty things may be IN your asphalt, not ON it. Photo via Pixabay

How do you take the remains of a nasty habit and turn it into something that benefits everyone? Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, may have a solution.

Every year, trillions of cigarette butts are produced worldwide, and most of those are discarded into the environment. Loaded with toxins, they take a very long time to break down, and when they do, all their poisonous chemicals are released into waterways.

But the team at RMIT University, led by Dr. Abbas Mohajerani, has shown that cigarette butts can be mixed with asphalt and lead to a product that not only tolerates wear and tear of daily traffic but also reduces thermal conductivity.

What this means is that the disgusting remains that some inconsiderate smokers leave behind can solve a big waste problem and could help to reduce the urban heat island effect common in large cities.

“I have been trying for many years to find sustainable and practical methods for solving the problem of cigarette butt pollution,” said Mohajerani, a senior lecturer in RMIT’s school of engineering.

“In this research, we encapsulated the cigarette butts with bitumen and paraffin wax to lock in the chemicals and prevent any leaching from the asphalt concrete. The encapsulated cigarette butts were mixed with hot asphalt mix for making samples,” he added.

About 6 trillion cigarettes are produced each year, resulting in more than 1.2 million tons of cigarette butts. As the world’s population—and the number of smokers—continues to grow, these numbers are expected to increase by more than 50 percent by the year 2025.

“Encapsulated cigarette butts developed in this research will be a new construction material which can be used in different applications and lightweight composite products,” Mohajerani said. “The only ways to control [the chemicals in the cigarette waste] are either by effective encapsulation for the production of new lightweight aggregates or by the incorporation in fired clay bricks.”

How’s that for an unlikely solution to a big problem? I think this idea is pretty darn brilliant, and I’ll be curious to see how the research plays out in real-world applications.

Environmental Hazards, Nature

Invasive Carp Jumps Barrier to Great Lakes

A fisherman caught an invasive silver carp nine miles from the Great Lakes. Photo: Shutterstock

A live Asian carp has been caught 9 miles from Lake Michigan.

This is a big deal. These fish “are voracious eaters, able to consume 5 to 20 percent of their body weight each day, leaving far less of the microscopic plant and animal life (phytoplankton and zooplankton) to support native fisheries,” says Fisheries and Oceans Canada. They have been blamed for pushing out native species and lowering water quality.

There are four types of Asian carp that are considered a threat to the Great Lakes: bighead, silver, black, and grass.

Millions of dollars have been spent to construct an electrified barrier designed to keep the invasive carp from entering the Great Lakes. But this carp, weighing 8 pounds and measuring 28 inches long, got past that barrier. It was caught “with a gill net by a contracted commercial fisher,” the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee said in a statement.

“The news of an Asian carp found within nine miles of the Great Lakes is cause for serious concern,” Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman said in a statement. “The fishing industry in the Great Lakes is a $7 billion a year economic engine and it would be severely threatened if Asian Carp are allowed into the Great Lakes.”

This finding comes as the Trump administration considers cutting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $300 million-per-year program that helps states with environmental projects such as keeping invasive Asian carp out of the lakes.

“Asian carp are a very serious threat to our Great Lakes economy,” Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow tweeted. “The Trump Admin must immediately release the study they have been blocking so we can permanently stop the Asian carp!”

“This is one more reason why we must fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative again. I have fought proposed cuts from both the previous administration and the new one and I will continue to lead efforts in this Congress to ensure this critical initiative is fully funded,” Portman said.

The Illinois department of natural resources and the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee said, “It is important to note that this preliminary finding does not confirm that a reproducing population of Asian carp currently exists above the electric dispersal barriers or within the Great Lakes.”

Nonetheless, the group is launching “two additional weeks of intensive sampling in the area.”

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards

Climate Change Bringing Tropical Diseases to Higher Latitudes

Tropical diseases are spreading farther north as the climate continues to warm.
The Anopheles mosquito is responsible for the spread of malaria. Its range may be increasing due to climate change. Photo via Pixabay

It’s been known for a long time—like, since Roman times—that climate change brings disease. Roman aristocrats would move to summer homes in the mountains in order to avoid malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, for example.

But even the appearance of malaria mosquitoes was simply a summer phenomenon that was a regular part of south European climate. Nowadays, we have more to be worried about, thanks to global climate changes.

Tropical diseases like viral illness Chikungunya, West Nile Virus, and Zika; bacterial infection Vibrio vulnificus; and parasitic infection malaria are finding their way farther and farther north as greenhouse gases boost temperatures around the world.

The Asian tiger mosquito and yellow fever mosquitoes infect humans with Chikungunya. The virus had been limited to tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and South America, but as temperatures have warmed, the geographical distribution of these mosquitoes has grown. If climate change continues unchecked, a team at the University of Bayeruth warns, the virus could even spread to southern Europe and the United States.

“People have already been infected with Chikungunya in Italy, France, and Florida,” said Dr. Stephanie Thomas, a biogeography researcher at the University of Bayeruth. “However, such cases are still too rare to play any significant role in our model. The climactic potential for new diseases in southern Europe and the U.S. is probably being underestimated.”

Vibrio illnesses are caused by bacteria that occur naturally in warm ocean waters. Although Vibrio infections have been seen sporadically in warm seas from Texas to Maryland, Vibrio bacteria are spreading north. Vibrio illnesses have even appeared as far north as the Arctic Circle.

We are seeing lots of new hospitable areas opening up for these bacteria,” said Craig Baker-Austin, a Vibrio expert at the UK’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Sciences laboratory in southern England. “Climate change is essentially driving this process, especially warming.”

In Europe, ticks that carry Lyme disease, that once only appeared in southern Europe, are now appearing as far north as Sweden. A region near Russia’s Ural Mountains has seen a 23-fold increase in tick-borne encephalitis over the past 20 years. The sand flies that host the parasite-borne illness leishmaniasis are showing up in north Texas.

“So often so many of the things we talk about with climate change are ‘this is going to be a problem in 2030 or 2050 or 2100, and it sounds so far away,” said Stanley Maloy, a microbiologist at San Diego State University. “But we’re talking about things where our one-degree centigrade change in temperature is already enough to affect infections. We have clear evidence in many cases things are happening already, and they’re tightly correlated to changes in ambient temperature, extreme weather, or water temperature.”

Regardless of whether people believe climate change is real, it’s inevitable that even the greatest skeptics will soon find themselves being affected by the spread of tropical diseases to higher latitudes.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Green

Judge Says More Environmental Study Needed for DAPL Operation

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to redo some of its environmental studies.
A Portland, Oregon Dakota Access Pipeline protest solidarity rally. Photo: Diego G Diaz / Shutterstock.com

On June 14, a federal judge put a temporary block on the use of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline by stating that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to reconsider some of its environmental impact studies.

U.S. district judge James Boasberg said that the corps had failed to take into account the level to which a spill might affect “fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.”

Boasberg had previously rejected two of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s appeals—one based on the fact that construction threatened sites of historical and cultural significance to the tribe, and the other that oil in the pipeline under Lake Oahe would damage sacred waters.

“Now that the court has rejected these two lines of attack, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River here take their third shot, this time zeroing in on DAPL’s environmental impact,” Boasberg wrote in his decision. “This volley meets with some degree of success.”

The judge wrote that while the Army Corps of Engineers had “substantially complied” with the National Environmental Policy Act, federal permits issued for the pipeline were in violation of the law in certain ways. “To remedy those violations, the Corps will have to reconsider those sections of its environmental analysis upon remand by the Court,” Boasberg wrote.

Later on, the judge will consider whether the pipeline must halt operations while the additional research is being conducted. A status conference is scheduled for the week of June 19.

Whether the pipeline is shut during the review or not depends on whether the omissions in the Corps’ analysis can be addressed quickly, or whether they’re large errors that might require more study.

“We applaud the courts for protecting our laws and regulations from undue political influence, and we will ask the Court to shut down pipeline operations immediately,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement.

Just days after being sworn in, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Corps to do whatever it needed to do to get the pipeline construction underway. In February, the Corps granted the final easement needed to finish the pipeline.

This decision marks “an important turning point,” said Jan Hasselman, attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing the tribes in the lawsuit. “Until now, the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been disregarded by the builders of the Dakota Access pipeline and the Trump administration…prompting a well-deserved global outcry.”

Although the protests by the Standing Rock tribe and its allies were effectively over in February, when the main encampment was cleared and the pipeline completed, this decision by Judge Boasberg shows that the struggle for justice—both for the environment and for the tribe—is not over yet.

Environmental Hazards, Nature

California Sea Lions Dying Due to Poisonous Algae Blooms

California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.
California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.

In the first two weeks of April, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, recorded 14 sea lion deaths due to poisoning by domoic acid. Another nine are in various stages of recovery.

Domoic acid poisoning occurs when animals eat fish that have been feeding on toxic algae.

Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi told the Los Angeles Times that 10 years ago, the last time the problem was this severe in southern California, 79 sea lions died due to domoic acid poisoning.

“Other rescue facilities are also seeing the same animals,” Higuchi said. They’re “all over the place.”

How does domoic acid poisoning happen? Normally, blooms of single-celled algae occur for about a week in the spring. However, the heavy rains California has been receiving have intensified the blooms by flushing nutrients from fertilizers and other sources into the Pacific Ocean, and this has intensified the blooms. Small sea animals like anchovies, clams, and mussels feed on the algae, and the sea lions then feed on those animals.

“When the sea lions eat these toxic anchovies, they have serious neurological problems,” said Kathi Lefebvre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle. “The sea lions will have seizures, in some cases they’ll die, in some cases they’ll recover but have permanent brain damage.” In addition, many pregnant sea lions miscarry. The pups that do survive until birth often suffer from the effects of domoic acid poisoning.

The Marine Mammal Center in the northern California city of Sausalito has also treated two sea lions it suspects were poisoned by domoic acid.

Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Sausalito center, said that it’s possible more sea lions in northern California may be affected as the water temperatures rise in the summer and fall.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns about what triggers these blooms of algae and what triggers them to become toxic, because not all the blooms are toxic,” Johnson told SFgate. “There’s a lot of research going on to better understand [the causes] so we can better predict when these blooms will happen so that fisheries can be monitored, and for us, so we can be prepared for increased stranding [of sea lions].

California officials have warned consumers not to eat mussels, clams, or whole scallops harvested recreationally in Santa Barbara County. Commercially harvested seafood is typically tested for safety before being distributed.

Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Science

National Academy of Sciences Says EPA Pollutant Studies Are Necessary

EPA employees protest job cuts, March 2, 2017
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017. Photo: John Gress Media Inc / Shutterstock.com

The EPA periodically performs controlled human inhalation exposure (CHIE) studies, in which people are exposed to air pollutants in order to study their short-term effects. The concentration and duration of such exposure is minimal, intended to not have any lasting harm on participants, and of 845 such participants in eight studies between 2009 and 2016, only one person had an unexpected complication.

But that does mean that there is some potential risk to participants who, while they are provided with information about the potential risks of such studies, are given that information through highly technical consent forms. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently finished a study that found that the value of the CHIE studies outweighs their risk, with some caveats.

Primarily, they suggest that the EPA develop clearer language for participant consent forms, in order to prevent further dangers. “While communicating with potential participants, it’s particularly important to appropriately characterize the risks,” said Robert Hiatt, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. “EPA needs to make every effort to ensure that these descriptions are accurate, scientifically grounded, and comprehensible to people.”

But overall, the studies have been found to benefit society far more than they endanger participants, which is exactly what one might want from such studies. By looking at how pollutants interact with human biology on their own, we can learn more about those pollutants in particular, which informs laws about air quality. It also helps us to determine what might be to blame when pollutants mix in the atmosphere and cause otherwise unforeseen problems.

The findings by the National Academy come at a time when the EPA is under considerable scrutiny by Congress and the President. Anything that can help the EPA prove that they’re helping the American people will be welcome in keeping that agency funded and active, which is necessary if we’re to do anything about climate change and other human activities which damage the planet.