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Northwest wildfires: We broke the forests, now we need to fix them

washington-fire
Jason Kriess

The Northwest is ablaze. Both Washington and Oregon are in official states of emergency as dozens of fires burn on forests and rangelands. Rainy weather in some areas has helped firefighters in the past few days, but according to the federal government’s InciWeb website, there are still 22 large fires burning almost a million acres in the two states. The half-contained Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington alone has torched 150 homes and burned more than a quarter million acres, making it the largest in state history.

Welcome to the hot, flammable future, America. We’ve been setting ourselves up for these fires for a long, long time.

David Freedman has a strong piece on the past, present, and future of wildfire in America in the latest issue of Men’s Journal. Here’s a snippet starring Dave Cleaves, an economist and former professor who now advises the chief of the U.S. Forest Service:

In the late 1980s, Cleaves found himself wondering: Why was the U.S. being hit by more and more uncontrollable fires? Up until then, increasing investments in firefighting seemed to have rendered wildfires tamable. But in 1989, 873 structures burned down in California wildfires. In 1990, 641 structures were lost in a single fire. In 1991, more than 3,300 homes were torched in a firestorm near Oakland. Throughout the 1980s, an average of 3 million acres had burned each year in the U.S.; by 1991, the number exceeded 5 million acres. "Large parts of whole counties in the West were going up in single fires," says Cleaves. "We'd never seen fires like that."

Cleaves pored over the data and came to a disturbing conclusion, one that seemed almost preposterous at the time: A slow but accelerating rise in average temperatures in the West was tipping the wildlands into a state of unprecedented vulnerability that would render fires increasingly uncontrollable. Today, we call it climate change.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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hot seat

Sit down, relax, and charge your phone at this cool new solar-powered smartbench

solar bench
Soofa

Welcome, friends, to tomorrow. Thanks to the Soofa electricity-generating park bench, the tyranny of the non-solar seating is at an end! That old dude sitting across the way isn’t just feeding pigeons; he’s recharging his I-Pacemaker! Put a propeller on his fedora and he can also power his jazzy. Actually, metric ton of snark aside, it’s a pretty good idea. With solar panels getting cheaper and easier to install, they’re popping up everywhere, and with our insatiable need for electricity to power every aspect of our once unpowered lives, strapping panels to the thing we were going to sit on …

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American idyll

North Dakota’s ag commissioner race oughta be on Broadway

amazing cowboy man
Tom Kelly

In the struggle over North America's energy boom, some tales are more suitable for Broadway musical treatment than others. But could there be another story more perfect for song and dance than that of the race for North Dakota agricultural commissioner?

The agricultural commissioner does pretty much what you expect -- handle permits for agricultural lands, which, in the case of North Dakota, is mostly ranchland. Since part of permitting grazing territory is making sure that said land remains safe for grazing, the agricultural commissioner also has sway over drilling permits and oversight -- a lot of sway.

Now that North Dakota is producing more oil than some OPEC members, and oil companies are planning to drill 35,000 new wells across North Dakota in the next 15 years, the race for this relatively homespun political office has suddenly become the stuff of political melodrama.

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Drilling in Pennsylvania has damaged the water supply 209 times in last seven years

frackwell_marcellusshale
WCN 24/7

Whether or not you think that's alright depends on your perspective. According to Patrick Creighton, those numbers are pretty good -- so many oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past seven years that 209 problem wells is a mere 1 percent of the total. But Creighton happens to be the spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group composed of natural gas drillers. So there's that.

According to Steve Hvozdovich, 209 is a lot. "You are talking about somebody’s drinking water supply.” But then Hvozdovich works for the environmental group Clean Water Action. He would like clean drinking water.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Halliburton fracking spill mystery: What chemicals polluted an Ohio waterway?

Dead fish near the site of the spill.
Ohio Environmental Council

On the morning of June 28, a fire broke out at a Halliburton fracking site in Monroe County, Ohio. As flames engulfed the area, trucks began exploding and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water for millions of residents. More than 70,000 fish died. Nevertheless, it took five days for the Environmental Protection Agency and its Ohio counterpart to get a full list of the chemicals polluting the waterway. "We knew there was something toxic in the water," says an environmental official who was on the scene. "But we had no way of assessing whether it was a threat to human health or how best to protect the public."

This episode highlights a glaring gap in fracking safety standards. In Ohio, as in most other states, fracking companies are allowed to withhold some information about the chemical stew they pump into the ground to break up rocks and release trapped natural gas. The oil and gas industry and its allies at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pro-business outfit that has played a major role in shaping fracking regulation, argue that the formulas are trade secrets that merit protection. But environmental groups say the lack of transparency makes it difficult to track fracking-related drinking water contamination and can hobble the government response to emergencies, such as the Halliburton spill in Ohio.

According to a preliminary EPA inquiry, more than 25,000 gallons of chemicals, diesel fuel, and other compounds were released during the accident, which began with a ruptured hydraulic line spraying flammable liquid on hot equipment. The flames later engulfed 20 trucks, triggering some 30 explosions that rained shrapnel over the site and hampered firefighting efforts.

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Scientists could finally find extraterrestrial life – by spotting its pollution

space_pollution_tentacle
Shutterstock / Nikki Burch

My flying saucer? Yeah, it’s a hemi. Or at least scientists involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (a.k.a. SETI) hope so. Thanks to a wizbang new telescope, researchers will soon be able to detect life on other planets by observing the contents of their far-away atmospheres. In particular, they'll be looking for chlorofluorocarbons, because any old single-celled life form can spew a bit of oxygen and methane -- but pollution? That takes intelligence. Here’s more from today’s Harvard-Smithsonian press release on the search for extra-terrestrial coal-rollers: New research by theorists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) shows that …

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Ask Umbra: How can I get rid of all of this packaging foam?

Polystyrene
iStockphoto

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. I am distressed by the bulky #6 Styrofoam blocks that come in the box on the rare occasion when I buy something new and large. I have not found anywhere that recycles them; they sit around the house for a few months, and if Halloween doesn't arrive, they ultimately go in the trash. (I've already dressed as a salted pretzel, hot cocoa with marshmallows, and coffee with sugar cubes for Halloween.)

I found your post from 2004 that said the market for #6 might improve, but it's been ten years (!) and it doesn't seem like it has. Is there hope for #6? Do you have any other ideas of how to dispose of it?

Emily B.
Hillsborough, N.C.

A. Dearest Emily,

How about bagel with sesame seeds? Christmas tree covered in snow? Starry sky? That should get you through another few years.

But seriously now: I’m afraid those piles of excess foam still represent a recycling hurdle in many parts of the country. And even the most inspired Halloween reuse is merely delaying the disposal issue, leaving us with a big, bulky problem. But the good news is that you can very likely find a place to recycle your blocks, even if it’s not as simple as taking them out to the curb.

Read more: Living

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Kiss from a rose from a seal

Seals discover offshore wind farms are all-you-can-eat seafood buffets

seal_kissfromarose
Nikki Burch / Shutterstock

Looking to catch up with legendary British pop sensation and noted beach ball enthusiast Seal? The "Kiss from a Rose" singer has been soaking in the North Sea sun as he frolics amongst the offshore wind farms. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the four-time Grammy-award-winning, semiterrestrial mammal is drawn by the ample fish provided by these artificial reefs. [Editor’s note: Not Seal, Meyer, seals. Remind me again, how did you get this job?]

Well that makes a great deal more sense. Let’s let Eva Botkin-Kowacki at the Monitor explain:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Norwegian reindeer are enjoying the balmy weather, breeding like bunnies

reindeer herd
Shutterstock

When you’re planning your next incarnation, consider the majestic Norwegian reindeer. Sure you will have to deal with the draconian labor practices of one Mr. S. Clause and his union-busting elf goons, but on the flip side, job security. Also, it looks like Norwegian reindeer are doing OK with climate change. Nature World News has more on the story: [A] study ... conducted by researchers at the University of Manchester and the Norwegian Arctic University in Tromsø [has] found that contrary to popular belief, warm climate hasn't reduced populations of reindeers in the high arctic archipelago of Svalbard. According to researchers, the number of Svalbard reindeers …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The NFL’s newest stadium is also one of the greenest

NRG Solar Terrace (1)
LevisStadium.com

Traditionally, sports fans have not been the most eco-minded lot. One way pro leagues and team owners can help fans jump on the green bandwagon: LEED by example. That's the promise of the San Francisco 49ers' new stadium, which on Monday received LEED Gold certification. Levi's Stadium, set to open next month, is the second NFL arena to earn Gold cred (the Baltimore Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium is the other). Here are more details on the Niners' new digs, from The Sacramento Bee: The 49ers’ stadium achieved the certification through a number of means, including water use. About 85 percent of the water used in the stadium …