Briefly

Stuff that matters


abnormal distribution

America’s nearing a record number of weather disasters, and it’s not even hurricane season yet.

New data out Friday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that there have been nine extreme weather events — each racking up more than $1 billion in losses — during the first half of 2017. An average year between 1980 and 2016 had just 5.5 major events, after adjusting for inflation.

NOAA NCEI

That means we’ve already racked up more than a year’s worth of weather disasters in 2017 — the second-fastest pace in history.

Weather-wise, pretty much the whole country is a hot mess right now. In 20 states, regions experienced their warmest first half of the year on record; as of now, only Washington and Oregon are on pace for relatively normal years. There’s a smoldering drought burning up North Dakota wheat fields, rainfall in parts of Michigan and the South is 300 percent of normal over the past 30 days, and a 131-year-old heat record could fall in Los Angeles this weekend. Oh yeah, there’s also a 25,000 acre wildfire burning just outside Tucson, Arizona.

And with hurricane season running about seven weeks ahead of schedule, it’s possible the worst weather of 2017 is yet to come.


deja vu

It’s 2017 and someone wants to reopen a coal mine 30 miles from Seattle.

King County contains multitudes, including the city of Seattle, the widely despised website Amazon dot com, the widely beloved website Grist dot org, Ben Gibbard, and now, maybe a new coal mine.

In 2011, the Pacific Coast Coal Company first filed a proposal to reopen the John Henry mine, a small, long-dormant coal mine near the town of Black Diamond in southeastern King County. That year, the proposal was placed on administrative delay pending an environmental assessment. In 2014, a number of environmentalists led by Fuse Washington protested the project, and the delay was renewed again in 2016.

But now that environmental assessment is complete, courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Its findings? That the John Henry mine should have no significant impact on the surrounding area. Hmm!

Leaving aside for the moment how likely that is, let’s just note that the Pacific Coast Coal Company has not engaged in any mining activity since 1999, and the state of Washington currently has zero active coal mines.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has not yet issued a permit to reopen the mine, as it still needs to review the public comments, but the entire proposition feels extremely … retro.


this is not normal

This was a bad weekend if you’re worried about the Environmental Protection Agency.

President Donald Trump’s administration is transforming the EPA, from wiping out mentions of climate change to rolling back regulations that protect Americans from pollution.

Four new revelations about the inner workings of the agency came to light this past weekend:

  1. Shameless censorship: Without explanation, the EPA prevented two of its scientists from speaking about their climate change research at a conference about protecting a Rhode Island estuary.
  2. Even more censorship: The EPA removed 15 mentions of climate change from a site meant to help local governments address, well, climate change.
  3. Health risks ignored: The New York Times published internal emails showing that a top Trump appointee, Nancy B. Beck (formerly an executive at a chemical trade association), demanded the agency rewrite a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of a controversial pesticide, chlorpyrifos.
  4. Refusal to speak to the press: The EPA declined the Times’ requests to comment on that investigation, though a spokesperson wrote to the paper, saying:

    No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.


the price is right

The cost of installing solar energy is going to plummet again.

Utility-scale solar power costs could drop 60 percent over the next 10 years, provided the Trump administration refrains from tanking the solar industry.

The already booming renewable energy sector will see a sharp drop in costs thanks to improvements in efficiency and technology, the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) told Reuters on Monday. The agency expects the cost of batteries, an essential and expensive piece of the transition to renewables, to drop by 60 to 70 percent in the next 10 years.

IRENA predicts the world will add 80 to 90 gigawatts of new solar capacity each year for the next five to six years. For reference, one gigawatt can power a medium-sized city.

Renewables now provide a quarter of the world’s power, but not all countries are embracing them with equal enthusiasm. President Donald Trump may impose a tariff on imported solar panels to protect domestic panel makers. If he chooses to limit imports, the price of solar in America could double.


No refuge for the weary

After decades of trying, petro-companies are one step closer to drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

This week, Senate Democrats failed to strip a line from the Republican’s budget that would encourage people to pump up and burn all of the hydrocarbon beneath the refuge.

Never mind that it’s also the largest block of undeveloped wilderness in the United States and an important home for many species, including a major caribou herd. The Gwich’in people, who depend on caribou, have opposed drilling, but the Inupiat on the coast have mostly supported it.

If this feels a bit like Groundhog Day, you’re not wrong. Back in 2005, we wrote, “Haven’t we heard this same alarm sounding before? — this time advocates on both sides of the issue agree: Congress is closer than ever before to green-lighting oil and gas drilling in one of the largest remaining undeveloped wild areas in the United States.”

The Department of Interior recommended opening the area to oil drillers in 1987, and it has been an intermittent battle royale for environmentalists ever since. Consider this the bell for the next round.


Hurricane Maria

One month later, most of Puerto Rico is still utterly destroyed.

Since Hurricane Maria made landfall, the humanitarian crisis has devolved into one of the worst in modern American history. While President Donald Trump rates his own response to the crisis as a “10 out of 10,” the latest numbers show the situation is stark:

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud, who has been in Puerto Rico almost continuously since before Maria struck, called the situation on the ground “an endless emergency.” He told the Lafayette (Louisiana) Daily Advertiser, his hometown newspaper, “It has surpassed anything I’ve reported on before in terms of devastation.”

Citing an “unacceptable” government response, Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization, has mounted a rare effort to assist recovery from a disaster in a developed country. One month in, Oxfam says daily life in Puerto Rico is “untenable.” Furthermore, the organization noted: “The United States has the resources and experience to overcome these obstacles to save lives now and to build the long-term sustainability of Puerto Rico.”

We’re waiting.


"Of his bones are coral made"

Old reefs hold the tale of past sea-level rise, and … it’s dramatic.

Toward the end of the last ice age, about 19,000 years ago, the sea rose in several large spurts, according to a new study of coral reefs that grew during this period.

This contradicts assumptions that sea level rises gradually. Instead, coral fossils show sudden inundations followed by quieter periods. This offers new information that supports the theory that glaciers and ice sheets have “tipping points” that cause their sudden collapse along with a sudden increase in sea level.

Researchers at Rice University surveyed deep-sea coral fossils in the Gulf of Mexico, scanning their 3D structures to analyze them for growth patterns. Coral likes to live close to the surface, so it grows slowly when sea level is constant. But when sea level rises quickly, the coral grows vertically to try to stay near the surface, forming terraces.

“The coral reefs’ evolution and demise have been preserved,” lead author of the study, Pankaj Khanna, said in a press release. “Their history is written in their morphology — the shapes and forms in which they grew.”

Whether the future is written in these forms, too, remains to be seen.