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Was the fatal thunderstorm in California a climate phenomenon?

Judith Lewis Mernit | Aug 01, 2014 04:15 AM

The weather of Venice Beach, California, where I live, is for the most part stable, and almost always predictable. No sudden squalls appear out of the southwest to chase skateboarders off their concrete ramps; never do we hear the civil-defense sirens warning of an approaching tornado. Living here, swimming and surfing at the beach a few blocks from my house, I have considered many threats: sharks, staph infections, rogue rip tides. Lightning was never on the list.

I didn't go to the beach on Sunday morning, July 27. Crowds generally clog up the swells on weekends, so I escaped to the mountains in Ventura County. When I left, the weather in Venice was gloomy with a mild drizzle — not an unusual syndrome for the Southern California coast — but by the time I hiked and returned to the car at around 3 pm, it had evidently taken a dramatic turn. When I flipped on the radio for the traffic report, I heard that just a half an hour earlier, a bolt of lightning had struck the water near Venice Pier, and 13 people had been injured. Two were found face down in the water.

Frantically, I called home to make sure my husband was not among the victims. He was not; he’d been inside all day. "It was close," he told me, "and loud." On KNX 1070 News Radio, reporters interviewed volleyball players who felt an electrical current through their bodies, who saw other players' hair stand on end. Later we found out that one young man, 20-year-old Nicholas Fagnano, had been killed when he ventured into the water to wash off sand. A 55-year-old man was in the hospital in critical condition; he’d been out on his board riding waves fueled by storms far out at sea — storms he no doubt assumed would remain there, as they almost always do. I arrived home to the repetitive thwump of circling helicopters and the screams of ambulance sirens. There was not a skateboarder nor cyclist, nor beach-going tourist in sight. The surfers who daily walk our streets with their wetsuits stripped to their waists, boards under their arms, were all hunkered down indoors, or on their way back to their inland homes.

Was the bizarre weather that hit Venice Beach a climate-related phenomenon? It's dangerous to pin any one local weather event on climate change; weather, as we know, is global and measured on trend lines, not in isolated cloudbursts. Still, it’s hard not to suspect that something is up with our local weather on the West Coast, an area seized from north to south in an epic and record-breaking drought.

During the months of December and January, the sky stayed relentlessly blue, thanks to a high-pressure ridge parked for months out over the Pacific Ocean. When a storm finally did break through, a half a year's normal rainfall came all in a weekend at the end of February, accompanied by hail and high winds and weak tornadoes. It wasn't different, necessarily, than the weather the region usually gets — long periods of dry weather broken by ferocious rainstorms that flood intersections and send rivers of mud cascading through bedrooms. It was only more extreme.

But the Venice Beach lightning storm was not just a matter of degree. It was fundamentally weird for this microclimate in any time of year, and absolutely unheard of in the summer (even a trace of rain broke records for July in downtown Los Angeles). You have about as much chance as dying by lightning strike in all of California as you have of being killed by a shark anywhere in the world  — one in 7.5 million (in Montana, by contrast, the lightning-strike odds are one in 250,000). Of the seven lightning deaths that occurred in California between 2003 and 2012, according to statistics compiled by the National Lightning Detection Network, none were on the coast.

The remains of a storm at Venice Beach, California. Photograph by flickr user Sean Bonner.

“You don’t have the complex vertical structure and wind shear typically associated with lightning storms," Kevin Trenberth, a climate analyst at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said of Venice-area weather. Trenberth stopped short of making a lightning-climate connection, but a reporter at the news site the Daily Climate inched closer: “A changing climate may alter those weather patterns,” she wrote, “making such ‘freak’ occurrences more common.”

Confused, I called Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Climate change is huge,” he says. “The world is warming. Los Angeles is warming. I tell my colleagues: I was talking about it before they were born.” But when you have a “normal” climate that produces one inch of rain in one year and 38 in the next, as coastal California does, “it’s almost impossible to say anything about climate change.”

What happened in Venice that Sunday was not a global warming phenomenon, Patzert insists. “It was a weather event.” Patzert went on: “Lightning strikes the surface of the earth 33 million times a day. In the United States on average over the last couple of decades, about 45 people a year are killed by lightning strikes.” They just don’t happen where I live.

“People generally have become blasé about lightning strikes in coastal California,” Patzert says. “We’re just not sensitized because they’re so unusual.”

In Florida, where lightning strikes every day, they have warning systems. “They see it coming, and they clear the beaches and golf courses, and get the kids off the playground.” Such a system may not be worthwhile in Southern California — “you have to weigh the costs versus the frequency” — but the National Weather Service in Colorado already has one in the works: The Lightning Potential Index, developed by lead forecaster Paul Frisbie. Right now, it only covers western Colorado, but it may be expanded “if it proves valuable,” Frisbie told the Christian Science Monitor.

Patzert does allow that eventually, global warming will begin to influence local weather events in a way we can’t ignore. But at the moment, he says, “I’m getting tired of watching extreme weather and global warming stories,” most of which are really about bad zoning decisions or the lack of storm shelters for Oklahoma school children. “What we should be talking about is population density and zoning and living with risk.”

So when can we talk about global climate and local weather? When do we cross the line into a world where a freak summer storm really can be called a climate phenomenon, and the tragic deaths that come with it are climate-related deaths?

“I’ll let you know,” Patzert assures me. “I’ll give you a call in a few years.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News. She tweets @judlew.

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Colorado water users gird for first statewide plan

Sarah Tory | Jul 31, 2014 10:55 AM

Last year, 14 years into a regional drought, forecasts predicted that as many as 2.5 million Coloradans could be without sufficient water supplies by 2050. And yet the state still had no official plan to deal with its looming water crisis. In response to the troubling situation, Governor Hickenlooper issued an executive order: Colorado needed a plan – urgently.

Now, stakeholders from the state’s eight river basins plus the Denver metro area are tasked with articulating their needs and creating proposals for solutions to future water demand, in order to help create that plan. Today marks the deadline for submitting those local concerns to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the entity in charge of creating the statewide plan. The board will then synthesize the results from the local discussions, write a draft plan due this December, and complete the final version a year later. As each basin’s roundtable crafts their local recommendations, interest groups are jockeying to get fair representation in the final document.

Eighty-four percent of Colorado's freshwater flows west of the Continental Divide Photography by Flickr user Don J. Schulte

The recent roundtables have been piggybacking on nine years’ worth of meetings, mandated under the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, which passed in 2005. With that foundation in place, Hickenlooper’s vision for a statewide plan had a head start in getting differing interests in each basin together. The biggest fights, however, aren’t necessarily within each roundtable, but between the basins themselves, particularly those separated by the Continental Divide.

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Colorado River Basin groundwater levels drop even faster than reservoirs

Sarah Jane Keller | Jul 30, 2014 05:00 AM

When Lake Mead is full it’s the largest reservoir in the U.S., capable of holding two years’ worth of water from the Colorado River. But the Southwest has been trapped in a 14-year drought, and the states Mead feeds – Nevada, Arizona and California – are thirsty. The reservoir is now only about half full (or half empty, depending on your outlook). This month it hit a record low since it was first topped off in 1937.

Now researchers have discovered another water disappearance that’s equally dramatic, but not nearly as visible as the newly exposed sandstone walls of Lake Mead. Over the last nine years the states drawing on the Colorado River Basin groundwater have pumped enough out from underground to fill Lake Mead nearly twice. That means groundwater has been drawn down even faster than Lake Mead or Lake Powell during those years.

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Lake Mead's white bathtub ring symbolizes drought in the West. But there's been an even greater, invisible draw down of groundwater from beneath the Colorado River Basin in the last nine years. (Photo by Kumar Appaiah, Wikimedia Commons)

It’s well known that when surface water is scarce, cities and farms fill the gap by pumping aquifers. But no one knew that Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah have been using that much groundwater until the researchers measured it for the first time, using data from a NASA satellite. “I think the key phrase has been ‘shocking’,” says Stephanie Castle, a water resources researcher at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the study published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. That means a lot coming from a group of scientists studying worldwide groundwater depletion.

So why isn’t more being done to encourage judicious groundwater use? It’s not that managers aren’t interested in it, says Sharon B. Megdal, an expert in groundwater governance and the director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center. Ideas have been thrown around for years, but it’s fundamentally a hard problem to solve and the politics of water don’t make it any easier. This study is also the first to measure groundwater depletion in the Colorado Basin on such a large scale. The good news though is that “right now there’s a lot of pent up demand (within the water-watching community) for developing solutions."

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‘Lucking out’ for Wyoming’s winter smog

Brian Calvert | Jul 29, 2014 05:00 AM

Northwest Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin has a number of things in abundance. Two of those are wind and sagebrush. Two more are natural gas and ozone pollution. And as Wyoming moves toward new air quality rules, we’re learning more about how those four things are related.

Wyoming regulators and the oil and gas industry have done a “pretty amazing” job of rolling back some major pollution problems, says Russell Schnell, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But ozone pollution is also driven by meteorology, he says, and that’s where the Upper Green holds a few natural aces.

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Smoke from flaring operations at a natural gas well near Pinedale, Wyoming. Photograph by Flickr user William Belveal.

The basin lies between the Wind River Mountains and the Wyoming Range and provides billions of dollars in natural gas each year. Most of that comes from the Jonah Field, which hosts thousands of wells and their attendant pipelines, evaporation ponds, compressor stations and other infrastructural bits and bobs. All of that plumbing can leak natural gas, a which includes methane and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are pollutants that help cause ground-level ozone—better known as smog.

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The work of a Wall Street wrangler

Wyatt Orme | Jul 28, 2014 05:05 AM

Jay Ellis will consider buying scenic ranchland across the West on two conditions. First, the acreage needs to be close enough to towns with “amenities” -- entertainment, places to eat, and an airport or landing strip. The parcel also needs to contain “live water,” or some combination of lakes, rivers and streams. Then, after spending an hour or two on the property, if Ellis thinks that, yes, it’s of such caliber that he’d buy it with his own money, he’ll make an offer.

Once Ellis’s private equity fund, Sporting Ranch Capital, acquires a ranch property, then begins the work of turning it into a trophy. The product (on the market after a year or two) is a “sporting” ranch, from anywhere between 200 to 1,000-acres, and costing somewhere between two and eight million dollars. Ellis’ buyers, not surprisingly, are “high net-worth individuals;” they are among those fortunate few who have, as he put it, “had a significant monetization event” in their lives, maybe more. And they’re emotional buyers—they’ve always wanted a picturesque ranch in the West.

As a first step, the Dallas-based firm arranges to spruce the place up, hauling away old trailers, rusting farm equipment, piles of trash, and “unsightly structures.” It also works to restore the land so that the new owner can enjoy hunting and fishing. Depending on the property, this could involve restructuring a river, previously degraded by cattle, by putting in the verdant banks, deep pools, and slight riffles characteristic of any stellar trout stream. They’ll even add oxbows to a river, if the hydrology allows for it. At a 516-acre property in New Mexico, the firm added four lakes. Remodeling or building ranch houses they leave to the future buyers. By the time the firm is finished, Ellis says, they’ve done everything necessary to “take what God made and make it better.”

After spending years on Wall Street, Ellis relocated to Dallas to run the equity sales desk at Morgan Stanley. He says he’s always loved the mountains, and began looking at ranches online for a hobby. Business and pleasure began to mix a few years after the housing crisis, when the market for ranches began to thaw and prices had dropped significantly from where they’d been pre-2008. With the financial backing of T. Boone Pickens, the famous Texas energy entrepreneur and conservationist, Ellis quit his job at Morgan Stanley and started Sporting Ranch Capital in 2012. The fund has since acquired five properties, three of which are on the market now, or will be soon.

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On the Wilderness Act's 50th, a backpack into the Weminuche

Jonathan Thompson | Jul 24, 2014 06:00 PM

I’d like to say that my friend Gabe and I took a short backpacking trip in late June to celebrate the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday, which is coming up in September, but that would be a lie. We just wanted to go somewhere kind of wild, where we could escape the round-the-clock pressure of our jobs and laptops and cell phones for a couple days, maybe scare the hell out of ourselves on some high ridge line and then drink some whiskey around the camp stove. Our last-minute choice of Colorado’s largest wilderness area as a destination was mostly random.

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A view into the Needle Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness in Southwestern Colorado. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Indeed, if you want to get away from it all, designated wilderness is not always the best choice. Drawing a line around a piece of mostly unnoticed land and make its wildness official is one of the best ways to draw more people to it. Besides, the Wilderness Act is a bit worse for half-a-century’s wear. Our do-nothing Congress is especially useless when it comes to designating new wilderness areas, even if the proposals come from locals, are whittled down by one compromise after another and have deep bipartisan support. The act has become impotent in its haggard middle age, and surely will never again accomplish the great land-preserving feats of its youth.

Meanwhile, the very philosophical underpinnings of the act have been questioned and beaten down: This notion of freezing a landscape, “untrammeled by man,” in its so-called natural state is imperialistic and anthropocentric, not to mention unrealistic, and ignores the fact that humans had been trammeling and working this landscape for centuries before white men arrived and declared it “virgin.” Given the global threats that we and our fellow Earthlings face, it can seem silly or quaint to engage in the long battles to bring new wilderness bills to fruition merely to protect relatively tiny portions of land from a new road or something.

So our last minute decision on a short jaunt into the edge of the Weminuche Wilderness, was in spite of wilderness, not because of it. We were, however, prepared for it, as Gabe had found a copy of the Backpacking Guide to the Weminuche Wilderness, first published almost 40 years ago. Though it did not include our particular trail, it did have some useful gems, e.g. adding non-dairy creamer to powdered milk makes the concoction creamier. Who would have guessed?

During my teens and twenties I went backpacking as often as possible, with Gabe and other friends, into remote canyons or to the base of crumbly, obscure peaks. But kids and jobs and age had put the kibosh on all of that, and so when we shouldered our packs at the trailhead, it broke a long backpacking moratorium. We trudged up the trail, past the little sign marking the wilderness boundary and into a vast, sloping field of tundra and rock, punctuated by cascading, wildflower-adorned streams. And I got to thinking about what it must have been like to be environmentally-minded in this region in the 1960s. By then, huge swaths of the San Juan Mountains, not to mention their waterways, had been forever altered by a century of hardrock mining, and the industry was still going strong, its methods becoming more invasive. Early settlers had clearcut one mountainside after another to build the towns and timber the mines. A spiderweb of roads covered the landscape, going where no road should go. The industrialization of the entire region must have seemed imminent.


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In Southcentral Alaska, salmon declines are pinned on a toothy invader

Ben Goldfarb | Jul 24, 2014 05:10 AM

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Yukon River’s chinook salmon runs, which have lately plummeted for reasons that remain murky. While researchers are years from cracking that mystery, the Yukon isn’t the only Alaskan river losing its salmon. In the state’s Susitna River basin, which courses through Southcentral Alaska near Anchorage, the mighty fish has also crashed. And unlike in the Yukon, scientists may have pinpointed the culprit: Northern pike, a rapacious invader with an appetite for young salmon.

That pike are invasive in the Susitna is a curious artifact of Alaska’s rugged geography. The fish — snaky creatures whose long jaws are spiked with needle-like teeth — are native throughout the American Midwest and Canada, and they also naturally inhabit the entirety of northern Alaska. But the Alaska Range, a 400-mile-long band of mountains that curves from Lake Clark to the Canadian Yukon, historically blocked the pike from the state’s southern reaches.

In Southcentral Alaska, invasive Northern pike can grow to more than 30 pounds. Photo courtesy of the US Geological Survey.

That changed in the 1950’s. Scientists aren’t sure how pike ended up in southern Alaska, but the most likely explanation, says Adam Sepulveda, aquatic biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is that an ice-fishing aficionado airlifted them by floatplane.

Although it took a few decades for the pike population to grow large enough to harm salmon returns, the nosedive, when it came, was swift. In a Susitna tributary called Alexander Creek, for instance, the number of chinook escaping to their spawning grounds plunged from nearly 4,000 fish in 1999 to less than 200 in 2010. Anglers grew despondent; once-vibrant fishing camps were boarded up. "Pike are the only species where fishermen will buy me a beer when they find out I'm working on them,” Sepulveda says.

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Of packrat poop, creosote bush and juniper-fed lamb

Jodi Peterson | Jul 23, 2014 05:00 AM

How can herbivores survive munching on poisonous plants? A new study helps prove something that scientists have long suspected -- that it’s not just enzymes in an animal's liver that break down toxic compounds in plants, but that bacteria in its guts also play a major role.

As an aside, if you’re wondering why an animal would deliberately eat a naturally toxic plant, that happens for several reasons – perhaps the plant contains a lot of nutrients, or it tastes good, or both (for example, larkspur and locoweed, which plague Western cattle growers). Or maybe better-quality forage isn’t available and the animal is desperate.

The new University of Utah study focused on the woodrat (Neotoma lepida, also called packrat), found in Western deserts. In desert areas where creosote bushes grow, the bushy-tailed rodents eat it and thrive, despite a toxic resin in the leaves that can cause kidney cysts and cancer. Apparently the creatures acquired this talent some 17,000 years ago, according to a press release about the study:

“In a natural climatic event at the end of the last glacial period, the Southwest dried out and our major deserts were formed,” the study’s senior author, Denise Dearing, professor and chair of biology, says. Creosote, which was native to Mexico, moved north into the Mojave Desert and replaced juniper there, but did not go farther north into Great Basin deserts. Desert woodrats in the Mojave started eating creosote bushes, while desert woodrats in the Great Basin kept eating toxic juniper, to which they had adapted earlier."

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Canada’s boreal forests are burning – and releasing loads of carbon

Krista Langlois | Jul 22, 2014 03:05 PM

Rumbling afternoon thundershowers are breaking over the Southwest, bringing gratitude and sweet relief – not that the region needed much relieving this year. Bouts of cool, wet weather throughout early summer helped stave off the conflagrations predicted to erupt after a dry winter, and by mid-July, most areas had already been deluged by a full month’s worth of rainfall. In other words, summer monsoon season has extinguished any lingering fears that 2014 would be a bad fire year.

“In a word, fire season was underwhelming,” says Chuck Maxwell, meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center's Predictive Services Group. “We had near normal to probably below-normal activity.”

But as the Southwest collectively inhales the smell of rain falling on dry land, parts of the Northwest and Western Canada are bathed in acrid smoke. Nearly a million acres are burning in Washington and Oregon alone – more than what typically burns over the course of a whole year. Some 12,000 firefighters have been deployed since the fires began earlier this month.

Yet though the deadly combination of drought and summer lightning strikes have led to a particularly severe fire season in eastern Washington and Oregon, some of the West’s biggest blazes are in Canada's Northwest Territories, where the total acreage burned so far this year is six times the 25-year average. In recent years, twice as much Canadian forest has been burning annually as in the 1970s, says University of Alberta wildland fire professor Mike Flannigan, and the northwestern part of the country is experiencing its hottest, driest summer in half a century. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change,” Flannigan says.

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The Birch Creek fire complex in Canada's Northwest Territories. Courtesy Kelly Pennycook, Environment and Natural Resources, Government of the Northwest Territories, and Dennis Quintill, via NWTFire. Photograph taken July 14,2014.

While fires in sparsely populated northern Canada have less of an impact on human safety and infrastructure than those in the Pacific Northwest, their effect on the environment may be greater. The ancient, stunted boreal forests that ring the Arctic Circle contain 30 percent of the world's land-based carbon, and when they burn, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

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A bison boost for Native economies

Wyatt Orme | Jul 22, 2014 05:00 AM

“Buffalo is better for you than skinless chicken,” Karlene Hunter will tell you. “It has more omega-3s than an avocado.”

Hunter is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and CEO of Native American Natural Foods. The company, which she cofounded in 2007, makes all-natural, low-calorie buffalo snacks (Tanka Bars, Tanka Sticks, Tanka Bites) sold in over 6,000 retail outlets, including Whole Foods, REI and Costco.

Larger than the state of Delaware, the Pine Ridge Reservation is in Shannon County, one of the poorest in the United States. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof dubbed the reservation “poverty’s poster child.” At the time of his reporting, half the adults over forty had diabetes and the unemployment rate hovered around 70 percent.

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Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Photograph from Flickr user, Jerry Burke.

Hunter’s company, which aims to source its food and ingredients from Native American producers, is now beginning a new project: Help native ranchers find economic opportunities and create more Native American sources of buffalo meat for her products.Currently Native American Natural Foods buys the wild rice it uses from Red Lake Nation Foods in Minnesota and its cranberries from processors in Wisconsin who deal directly with native growers. Yet only 17 percent of the company’s buffalo supply comes from Native producers. The new project, called the Tanka Fund, would help finance and support Natives in raising bison on Indian land in Western and Midwestern states. To make this happen, the company recently teamed up with Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a national organization that restores Native control of reservation lands that have fallen out of tribal ownership.

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