Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Comments

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

Comments

New rules aim to stop rash of oil train spills and explosions

oil-train.jpg
John Wathen / Public Herald

Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules for improving safety standards around transporting large quantities of flammable materials by rail. The chief concern here is the movement of crude oil and ethanol, which the federal government has been ramping up through recent decisions to expand the exploration and extraction of domestic oil and gas.

The new rules, summarized here, focus on upgrades for train tank cars, new speed limits for trains carrying flammable fuels, improved braking operations, and more rigorous testing for the movement of volatile liquids. A recent rash of train crashes and oil spills, notably in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Lynchburg, Va., prompted the new safety standards.

In a recent review of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Politico found that train wrecks have done more than $10 million in damage as of mid-May this year, which is nearly triple the damage for all of 2013.

In a press statement, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the proposal “our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

Read more: Climate & Energy

Comments

Drone on

Could drones be our secret weapon in the fight against Big Ag?

factory-cows
Shutterstock

If you were privy to everything that went on inside a factory farm, you might never want to eat again. Manure lagoons fester. Animals cram into tiny spaces. Unsanitary conditions abound. Which is exactly why Big Ag would rather you just didn’t know. At least seven states have now made it illegal to use undercover evidence to expose the unsavory practices that take place on factory farms. Award-winning journalist Will Potter thinks drones could be the workaround to these controversial “ag-gag” laws.

NPR reports that Potter raised $75,000 on Kickstarter to buy drones and other equipment in order to investigate animal agriculture in the U.S.

Comments

Listen up, EPA!

Feds move to restrict neonic pesticides — well, one fed at least

Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Byron Chin

So far the EPA has refused to ban use of neonicotinoid insecticides -- despite mounting evidence that they kill bees and other wildlife, despite a ban in the European Union, despite a lawsuit filed by activists and beekeepers.

But if the EPA is somehow still unclear on the dangers posed by neonics, it need only talk to the official who oversees federal wildlife refuges in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Ocean.

Kevin Foerster, a regional boss with the National Wildlife Refuge System, directed his staff this month to investigate where neonics are being used in the refuges they manage -- and to put an end to their use. Foerster’s office is worried that farming contractors that grow grasses and other forage crops for wildlife and corn and other grains for human consumption on refuge lands are using neonic pesticides and neonic-treated seeds. There are also fears that agency staff are inadvertently using plants treated with the poisons in restoration projects.

Comments

Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.

solar panel rainbow
Steve Jurvetson

All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being -- essentially -- appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can't show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.

Comments

hot at the top

Wanna see what climate change looks like? Check out the vicious fires in northwest Canada

canadian-fire.jpg
NWT Fire

Lightning, an intense heat wave, and low rainfall are lighting up northwestern Canada like a bonfire, producing conflagrations that scientists are linking to climate change.

More than 100 forest fires are burning in Canada's lightly populated Northwest Territories, east of Alaska. Some residents are being evacuated from their homes; others are being warned to stay inside to avoid inhaling the choking smoke. Take a look at the latest map produced by the region's fire agency:

canada-fires
NWT Fire

“Some attribute that to climate change, and I’m one of those," Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, told CBC News. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change. Expect more fires, larger fires, more intense fires.”

Here's more from Climate Central:

Read more: Climate & Energy

Comments

crikey

Australia repeals carbon tax, scientists freak out

Australian outback
Shutterstock

The cartoonish stereotype of Australia of yesteryear featured a rough-headed bloke in an Akubra hat wrangling crocodiles. That image has finally been scrubbed from our collective memories -- only to be replaced with something worse. Today, when we read news dispatches from Australia, we're seeing a dunderheaded prime minister cartoonishly wrangling commonsense, becoming the first leader in the warming world to repeal a price on carbon.

It's like George W. Bush, Crocodile Dundee-style.

Conservative prime minister, climate change denier, and accused misogynist Tony Abbott was elected in September. He started working as the nation's leader almost immediately, but he had to wait until this month for newly elected senators to take their seats. Abbott's (conservative) Liberal party still doesn't control the Senate, but it has found Senate allies in a powerful party that was founded just last year by kooky mining magnate Clive Palmer. Palmer held a press conference with Al Gore last month to announce that he opposed some of Abbott's climate-wrecking policies, and that he wanted a carbon-trading program to replace the carbon tax. That now seems to have been smokestacks and mirrors. When it came to repealing Australia's $US23.50 per metric ton carbon tax, the immodestly named Palmer United Party fell into line on Thursday, helping the repeal pass the Senate by a vote of 39 to 32, without demanding the establishment of any alternative.

Comments

what's that smell?

Now Google Street View is mapping gas pipeline leaks

Google Street View car
Emmadukew

Some of those Google cars that drive around photographing streetscapes and embarrassing moments have captured something extra -- something that should embarrass major utilities. The cars were kitted out by University of Colorado scientists with sensors that sniff out natural gas leaking from underground pipelines. These methane-heavy leaks contribute to global warming, waste money, and can fuel explosions.

The sensor-equipped cars cruised the streets of Boston, New York's Staten Island, and Indianapolis. They returned to sites where methane spikes were detected to confirm the presence of a leak. The results were released Wednesday by the Environmental Defense Fund, which coordinated the project, revealing just how leaky old and metallic pipelines can be, such as those used in the East Coast cities studied, particularly when compared with noncorrosive pipes like those beneath Indianapolis.

Read more: Climate & Energy

Comments

looks like rain

Here’s how Obama is preparing the country for climate change

Obama in the rain
White House

The good news is that President Barack Obama wants the nation to do a better job of bracing itself for the wild changes afoot in the weather. The better news it that he realizes that bolstering infrastructure and reimagining how we design our cities and electrical grids are among the best ways of doing that.

"Working together, we can take some common-sense steps to make sure that America’s infrastructure is safer, stronger and more resilient for future generations," Obama said on Wednesday. Here are some of the steps his administration is taking:

Comments

Wasting water in California will now cost you $500

water wasting
Shutterstock

Here's a list of things that could now get you fined up to $500 a day in California, where a multi-year drought is sucking reservoirs and snowpacks dry:

  • Spraying so much water on your lawn or garden that excess water flows onto non-planted areas, walkways, parking lots, or neighboring property.
  • Washing your car with a hose that doesn't have an automatic shut-off device.
  • Spraying water on a driveway, a sidewalk, asphalt, or any other hard surface.
  • Using fresh water in a water fountain -- unless the water recirculates.

Those stern emergency regulations were adopted Tuesday by a unanimous vote of the State Water Resources Control Board -- part of an effort to crack down on the profligate use of water during critically lean times.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) asked the state's residents to voluntarily conserve water in January, but they didn't. Rather, as the San Jose Mercury News reports, "a new state survey released Tuesday showed that water use in May rose by 1 percent this year, compared with a 2011-2013 May average."