Briefly

Stuff that matters


gulfing for air

Don’t look now, but the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” is the biggest yet.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration broke news this week that the dead zone — an area of oxygen-deprived water where fish can’t survive — is the largest since it started measuring in 1985.

NOAA

The dead zone results from years of nutrient pollution. Excess fertilizer from farms runs down streams and rivers into the Gulf, prompting algae bloom outbreaks that suck up oxygen in the water. Fish are then forced to flee or perish.

The New Jersey–sized dead patch is renewing discussion over whether state and federal governments should do more to regulate farm pollution. In the Chesapeake Bay, dead zone areas showed steady recovery after limits on nutrient pollution went into effect in 2010. While doing the same thing for the Gulf would cost billions, it’s still possible.

A message from The Wilderness Society:

Senate is voting on a bill this week that would allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Help stop it!


pipe dream

A judge lets pipeline protesters mount an unusual defense.

Last year, protesters were arrested and charged with felonies after turning off valves that control the flow of crude oil from Canada’s tar sands into the U.S. They intended to prevent damage to the climate and show solidarity with Standing Rock.

A Minnesota judge decided that three activists could use the “necessity” of confronting climate change as justification in court. They’ll call on scientists and present evidence of harms from climate change to show they violated the law to protect people and had no legal alternatives.

This is one of very few times where a court has allowed the so-called “necessity defense” — which activists have previously used in cases related to the Vietnam War and abortion — in a case about climate change.

Enbridge, the Canadian company operating the pipelines that were shut down, argues that the protesters took “reckless and dangerous” actions. The court will consider whether the dangers of climate change outweigh the risks of the protesters’ actions.

“The prosecutor will probably put people on the stand who will say, this is dangerous,” Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, told InsideClimate News. So, it’s a long shot.


#UsToo

The National Park Service has both a sexual harassment and a discrimination problem.

A recent internal study reveals that within the past year more than one in six female employees have experienced sexual harassment, and one in three women have experienced some form of gender-based harassment.

The findings come amid reports of sexual harassment and assault allegations involving Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Women around the world are detailing their own experiences on social media using the hashtag #MeToo.

At the National Park Service, the discrimination goes beyond just women. Nearly 40 percent of employees have reported experiencing harassment or assault based on gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. One in 5 employees of color said that they had been harassed based on their racial or ethnic background. Only 35 percent of employees who registered a complaint knew that the person who they told took action.

“The days of watching things, not saying anything, and not taking action are over,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told National Park Service employees in an address last Friday. He added that he has removed several Park Service employees due to improper behavior.

Diversity might lay at the heart of the Park Service’s issues: of its 22,000 employees, less than 40 percent are women and fewer than 20 percent are people of color.


Oh, Ophelia

Ophelia is the strongest storm to hit Ireland in at least 50 years.

With winds approaching 100 mph, storm surge has breached coastal defenses, pushing the Atlantic Ocean inland. The Irish Defense Force is on standby to assist with rescue and recovery.

Hundreds of thousands of people are without electricity, a situation the Irish power network is calling “unprecedented territory.” Officials say it will take weeks to repair the damage.

Meanwhile, Ophelia’s strong winds, as well as lingering dry conditions from a record hot summer heatwave nicknamed “Lucifer,” have worsened hundreds of wildfires that are raging mostly out of control in parts of Portugal and Spain. Dozens of people have died, and thousands of firefighters are working to quash the flames, which have encroached on several urban areas.

Late last week, Ophelia became the first hurricane ever seen of Category 3 strength or greater in the eastern Atlantic. While its wind speed weakened as it approached, it made landfall in Ireland as a superstorm that had grown substantially in size. Recent studies argue that storms like Ophelia will affect Europe much more often as the Atlantic continues to warm and the belt of tropical winds expands. By 2100, the region could see a four-fold increase in frequency of storms of Category 3 or higher.


Sponsored

Congress might allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a 2018 budget resolution this week. The outcome could open the pristine landscape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration and drilling.

At nearly 19.6 million acres, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States. More than 7 million acres of its landscape is federally protected wilderness — but not the “1002 area,” a 1.5-million-acre stretch of coastal plain that sits above an estimated 4 to 12 billion barrels of oil, less than a year’s worth of oil in U.S. markets.

The 2018 budget resolution would require the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to draft legislation to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1 billion over the next decade, a figure that includes projected revenues for Arctic Refuge drilling. If passed, this would provide the first step for greenlighting opening the refuge for drilling.

Environmentalists and opponents say that the risks of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic are too great considering the potential for habitat destruction, pollution, and oil spills. Construction and noise pollution emitted from drilling could also disrupt the migration of birds, the calving of porcupine caribou, and the denning patterns of polar bears, environmentalists say. For thousands of years, native communities like the Gwich’in have depended on the ecological harmony of the region.

Advocates are making sure Congress hears about it.


Sunnyside up

The sun keeps turning an apocalyptic shade of red. Here’s why.

In parts of the United Kingdom Monday morning, people woke up to a blood-red sun — a phenomenon seen around the globe this year.

The color was caused by smoke that blew in from wildfires across Portugal and Spain. Hurricane Ophelia deepened the reddish hue by dragging up dust from the Sahara.

Red skies have haunted the western U.S. recently as wildfires burned in Montana and ash rained down in Seattle. This month in Northern California, 20,000 people evacuated from massive wildfires under a red-orange sky.

Anadolu Agency / Contributor / Getty Images

On the other side of the world, wildfires burned in Siberia all summer long, covering the sun with enormous clouds of smoke and ash.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

To understand why this happens, you need to know a bit of optics. Sun rays contain light from the whole visible spectrum. As the sun’s white light beams into the atmosphere, it collides with molecules that diffuse some of the wavelengths. On a normal day, short wavelength colors, like purple and blue, are filtered out, making the sun look yellow.

But high concentrations of light-scattering molecules in the air (like smoke particles from a wildfire) crowd out more of those short-wavelength colors, leaving behind that hellish red color.

Since climate change makes wildfires worse, we’ll be seeing a lot more of it.


pick of the litter

Trump’s new environmental nominee says carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office in charge of promoting the improvement of the environment.

Like many Trump picks who came before her, Hartnett White is an outspoken climate skeptic. In an interview with the Washington Post last fall, she said, “Carbon dioxide has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that could harm human health.”

That’s not the only bonkers thing Trump’s nominee has said about climate change. Previously chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Hartnett White was a candidate for head of the EPA before the position went to another climate skeptic, Scott Pruitt.

In a column published in Townhall in 2015, Hartnett White wrote that “industrialized nations that utterly depend on the consumption of fossil fuels have not amplified environmental degradation of the natural world.”

And in an op-ed last year, she suggested that CO2 “may not be the cause of warming but instead a symptom of it.”

As for what does impact our climate, Hartnett White has a theory: “What role does our sun play? The sun is the source of over 99 percent of the energy in the earth’s climate.”

Good point?