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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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.

Business, Eco-friendly, Sustainability

The Future of Farming May Be Sky High

Vertical farming may be the future of urban agriculture.
Vertical farming may be the future of urban agriculture. Photo: Shutterstock

With a lack of horizontal space for farming in urban environments, vertical farming could be the only plausible solution to food scarcity. As Lauren Hepler of GreenBiz notes, “with more reports sounding alarms about looming food scarcity issues, the urban agriculture sector is increasingly melding with the boom in agriculture tech, breeding companies offering everything from unorthodox growing setups to soil sensors, hydroponics and all manner of crop data analytics.”

The question of “how do we feed a growing global population?” has billion-dollar potential.

Unlike the dot-com boom, “the problem is so huge and broken in so many places that there are many billion-dollar markets you could just jump into,” Brad McNamara, co-founder of Boston container farming startup Freight Farms, told GreenBiz. “There are connections being formed and local food systems and food markets that people are hungry for.”

On a small scale, technology like hydroponic grocery stores can be seen as an opportunity for local retailers to grow indoors, on site, more efficiently. This could allow business owners to tap directly into local consumer demands, customize their shopping experiences, dramatically reduce the cost of shipping, and capitalize on buzz about food miles.

On a large scale, vertical farmscapers could profit from the consumer demand for multifunctional urban space. Some believe farmscapers might be able to produce enough food to feed greater and greater future populations.

Modular technology, built for moving the farms, is a consistent theme in both approaches. Not only can the farms be relocated easily, but also modular technology allows the farms to scale up or scale down efficiently to meet specific needs. Modular design can be seen throughout the commercial real estate, residential properties, and, most recently, tiny home designs. Modular designs in factories have allowed owners with unlimited flexibility to respond quickly and cost-effectively to changing business needs. It’s possible that this same flexibility could provide much needed adaptability to the farming industry.

Conservation, Nature, Science

River Dolphins and Amazonian Manatees Get New Protection

The pink river dolphin, gray river dolphin, and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law.
The pink river dolphin is one of the species, along with the gray river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to a newly developed plan, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees in Peru will finally receive protection.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England worked with Peruvian officials for more than two years to develop that law.

“These species are only found in the Amazon,” said Dr. Joanna Alfaro, formerly of the University of Exeter. “Neighboring countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador already had legislation to protect them, but Peru did not. To bring about this legislation, we worked in lose collaboration with the Peruvian government, with support from [World Wildlife Fund] Peru, and held five workshops with local authorities.

Like other species of dolphins and manatees, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees face threats from climate change, fishing, and loss of habitat, not to mention pollution, noise, and boat traffic.

The new law, the National Action Plan for the Conservation of River Dolphins and the Amazonian Manatee, was approved by Peru’s Ministry of Production. It requires conservation and monitoring of habitats. It is also designed to bring about better management of the species’ habitats.

“We are delighted to have been a part in the development of this law, and we are excited to see the plan in full implementation,” said researcher Elizabeth Campbell. “It was a long process, but it showed how government agencies can work with non-governmental academics, private companies, and others.”

Professor Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, who supervised the research, said, “We believe this action plan will aid conservation and reduce the threats that dolphins and manatees face in the Amazon today. It is a great example where research was used as a baseline for the legal framework to protect biodiversity.”

The University of Exeter project was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a UK-based grant program that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. It provides funding to countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives in preserving that biodiversity.

Conservation, Nature, Science

Logging Threatens Leatherback Turtles

Leatherback turtles are under threat from fishing nets, marine debris like plastic, and now it seems that even distant logging activities are threatening the species.
Baby leatherback turtles like this one can become the victims of predators if their way from nest to ocean is impeded by logging debris. Photo: Shutterstock

Leatherback turtles face a number of difficulties, all of which threaten the species as a whole. They are often caught in fishing nets or eat marine debris like plastic. Many of their nesting sites are under pressure from tourism and other human activities. And now it turns out that even logging is a danger to them, despite the fact that it rarely happens near beaches.

The problem is that logging creates quite a lot of debris, which ends up washing ashore on the beaches where leatherback turtles make nests and lay eggs. These turtles have to lay their eggs far enough up the shore that they won’t be flooded by high tide. But that debris can get in the way of mothers building nests, who have to spend more time on that process and have to build their nests closer to the tideline.

Once they hatch, baby leatherback turtles make their way across the sand and down to the water, but that is becoming increasingly difficult in areas subjected to logging debris. The turtles have to navigate around the debris, which requires them to use up more energy and puts them at increased risk of predation. While not every turtle makes it to the water—where they can start eating to replenish the energy spent getting there—with increased obstacles, even fewer are doing so. Over time, this could result in an overall decrease in the leatherback turtle population, which is already struggling.

“Leatherback turtles are already under immense pressure, from fisheries bycatch, and are also one of the species prone to ingesting marine plastic litter,” said Prof. Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter. “Our research clearly indicates that logging presents another threat. It is now paramount that beach cleanup operations are built into logging activities to prevent further damage to the species.”

Luckily, leatherback turtles are a favorite of environmentalists, tourists, and other people with the social clout or budget to try and affect change on their behalf, so the odds are good that they will at least be supported with beach cleanup activities.

“Simple measures could make a real difference, such as repositioning organic waste areas, or salvaging the wood debris as an energy source,” said Dr. Adolfo Marco Llorente of the Doñana Biological Station. “It is also essential that logging practices [which] reduce the impact on the marine environment are implemented.”

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.

Nature, Science

Researchers Test Climate Model Against Data From Holocene Period

Scientists have recently compared data from a climate model with evidence from the Holocene Period and found some interesting differences.

When it comes to studying climate change, researchers can only go back about 150 years before they run out of temperature and meteorological recordings to explore. For any time before that, they need to use a number of techniques to figure out what the climate was like in a given area for a given time period.

One such way of doing this is to study trees that were alive at the time, and see how their rings grew. Another is to study pollen embedded at the bottom of lakes, which can imply what plants were in an area and can help up understand what the climate was like.

Still another form is a climate model, which is based on simulating important climate drivers and how they interact. Recently, researchers applied such a model to the northern Mediterranean in the mid-Holocene period (between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago). The climate model found that the period was warmer than expected, especially because pollen-based studies had determined that the period was colder there than it has been since.

The difference between the climate model and the paleoecological evidence is due in part the pollen used for the measurements. The previous measurements were based on the existence of silver fir pollen, which would imply colder temperatures. However, other could be other factors at work there, which can be take into account by the climate model method.

At first, the model was rejected because it seemed too contradictory, but interdisciplinary research bore out that the model is right and the pollen is wrong, or at least incomplete.

“It is only discussions between researchers from differing disciplines which enabled the new hypothesis to be developed and examined in detail,” said study co-author Oliver Heiri of the University of Bern.

What all of this does say, though, is that researchers need to keep working to improve our methods for studying the history of the Earth’s climate. While it may seem more pressing to study the current changing climate of the planet, it’s hard to track change when you have nothing with which to compare it. Furthermore, looking at climate changes in the past can provide insight into how the world can adapt to current changes, and might even help scientists to find ways to reduce the effects of climate change.