Five days before the rain started in Sacramento on November 28, Marty Ralph knew what was coming: an “atmospheric river” was about to hit the West Coast of the United States. On satellite imagery, “ARs,” which carry warm water vapor up from the tropics on a mile-high current, “have a characteristic long and narrow look to them,” says Ralph, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo. “And what was particularly worrisome about this one,” he adds, “is that it looked like a continuous series that could last as long as two or three days.”
Atmospheric rivers are frequent and mostly welcome; they account for most of the rain that falls in California every year. Only when an AR stalls do you have “the most serious risk,” Ralph says. In the winter of 1862, a stalled AR system pounded the Western U.S. with rain, snow and high winds for 43 days, causing flooding everywhere from Southern California to Utah (see HCN, “The Other Big One,” 2/15/2010). More recently, in early January 2005, 20 inches of rain fell on Southern California, causing a mudslide in Ventura County that killed 10 people and buried 15 homes in the tiny seaside village of La Conchita.
It’s that landslide potential that most concerns one USGS scientist, research geologist Jonathan Stock. In 2010, the USGS began a project called “ARkstorm,” that borrowed from past events to model a particularly devastating weather system. And it was by compiling historical accounts that Stock and Mike Dettinger, a research hydrologist with the USGS and Scripps, determined that fully two-thirds of landslides in California have happened during atmospheric rivers. What’s been missing is a clear understanding of what triggers them. “The Bay Area has had a warning system in the past, but it depended solely on rainfall,” Stock says. “But what we’ve learned is that rain is not enough. We need to know what’s going on in the soil itself.”
So Stock and his team installed sensors on Bay Area hillsides to measure different kinds of water pressure. One set measures “negative” pressure, which Stock describes as the water that soaks into the pores of a sponge. The other set measures “positive” water pressure — the water that drips out after the sponge is full.
“That pressure is really important,” Stock says, “because that’s what reduces the friction that’s holding the soil in the slope.”
When the late-November rains came, sensors were up and running at four initial sites, just enough to “capture a vignette of landslide potential.” The system had not been fully tested; the data was for research, and the scientists had little practice in interpreting it. But at one point during the series of storms, “our instruments started lighting up,” Stock says. “And even though we don’t have enough of a record to know what causes landslides, we were starting to think, ‘Okay, this is big. Maybe it’s time to poke our heads up from our spreadsheets and worry.’”Read More ...
An epic battle over the future of an oyster farm in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore ended last Friday when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rejected a request to extend the oyster company’s lease.
Salazar’s decision effectively evicts the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company, which has operated the farm since 2004, and turns the 2,700-acre Drakes Estero into the first federally designated marine wilderness area on the West Coast. The company, operated by local rancher Kevin Lunny, has 90 days to clear out of the site, and cannot continue to grow oysters after Nov. 30, the day the lease expired.
“It’s disbelief and excruciating sorrow,” Lunny told the San Francisco Chronicle after Salazar called him to tell him of the decision. “There are 30 people, all in tears this morning, who are going to lose their jobs and their homes. They are experts in seafood handling and processing in the last oyster cannery in California, and there is nowhere for them to go.”
The estuary has been home to oyster cultivation since the 1930s and continued even after the National Park Service turned the bay and surrounding headlands into Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 to protect the area from development. Ten years later, the NPS purchased additional land in Drakes Estero from the Johnson Oyster Company and gave it a 40-year lease term. When the lease was up on Nov. 30, 2012, the estuary, which Congress designated as “potential wilderness” in 1976, would become full wilderness.Read More ...
Obama’s second term has not yet begun and already folks are heaping on environmental demands – things that may have been politically untenable for the centrist president to do in the long run-up to a tough election where the economy and energy policy hogged the spotlight.
Last month, the Outdoor Industries Association – a trade group representing a passel of different recreation industries, many of whose products depend on public lands’ good condition – sent a letter endorsed by over 100 businesses asking Obama to invoke the Antiquities Act and designate 1.4 million acres around Utah’s Canyonlands National Park as the Greater Canyonlands National Monument. (Find a copy of the petition at the bottom of this article.)
The move is a direct response to Utah’s determination to wrest control of federal lands from the feds (see HCN’s cover story on the OIA’s and Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf’s conservation efforts for details). It also dovetails with conservationists’ attempt to get around Congressional deadlock on designating any new wilderness (the 112th is on track to be the only Congress since 1966 to not designate a single acre) by calling on the president to protect land with monuments instead.
By the time you read this blog, I will be on my second day of hunting gray wolves in Montana. An old friend of mine in Livingston introduced me to some ranchers in Paradise Valley to write a story of their hunt. We will be trudging through a wilderness of snow on horseback, hoping to “get lucky”, you might say. Luck, I’ve found, is at least 50 percent of hunting anyway -- for wolves, it’s probably closer to 80 percent.
That’s not to say wolf hunters this year have been unsuccessful. Looking through wildlife agency websites for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, hunters have recorded fairly significant kill numbers. All this occurs as wolf reintroduction, “the greatest success of the Endangered Species Act”, enters a new era -- one I'm hoping to explore in my story on the topic. The survival of America’s gray wolves now rests in the hands of state wildlife agencies and sportsmen, who have supplanted environmentalists as their diligent guardians.
Southern Arizona’s national monuments have the uneasy reputation of being good places to smuggle drugs and immigrants. Bureau of Land Management law enforcement rangers routinely find trash bags of marijuana stashed beneath mesquite and paloverde trees, piles of muddy, discarded clothes and Dumpsters-worth of empty water bottles, painted black to make them less visible in the sun. They also apprehend immigrants traveling through the monuments and occasionally find the bodies of those who died in the desert.
Smugglers choose the monuments because historically there have been fewer border patrol agents there. Beginning in the 1990s, border patrol began cracking down on illegal immigration in border cities. The result was to push people into remote parts of the desert, often into national monuments, parks and wildlife refuges. According to Krista Schlyer, a photographer and author of “Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall,” arrests of migrants on federal protected lands in Arizona rose astronomically between 1997 and 2000, from 512 to more than 110,000. In the border patrol’s Tucson sector alone in 2009, half of the estimated 270,000 illegal entries occurred on the Tohono O’odham Nation and forest service lands.
If you’ve been feeling the pinch at the gas pumps, and wondering how drivers in other states are faring, you might be interested in a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. It looks at what portion of their wallets drivers across the nation empty at the pumps, as well as how states are working to wean themselves off of oil.
The report uses data from 2011 -- a year that saw drivers in every state spending more on gas than they did in 2010. When it comes to what the report’s authors call “gasoline price vulnerability,” the percentage of personal income the average driver spends on gas, Western drivers don’t do terribly compared to parts of the South.
As the map below shows, drivers in New Mexico, Utah and Idaho were hardest hit, doling out 7 percent or more of their earnings to put in miles. Drivers in Colorado and Washington got off lightest, spending just 4 percent or more of their income on gas.
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Trees, you might say, are nature's ultimate do-gooders. A compound in the bark of Pacific yew trees fights cancer. Dead trees become nurse logs, nurturing forests' next generation of fungi and vegetation. In the ocean, rotting leaves boost the growth of plankton, fortifying the foundation of the sea's food chain. Living leaves scrub the air of the little nasties we humans like to overload it with: throat-irritating particulates and nitrogen oxides; world warming carbon dioxide. They are so skilled at sucking up CO2 that forests generally act as carbon sinks -- absorbing more CO2 than they put out, thereby tempering the effect of the climate changing gases we emit.
In Western North America, though, bark beetles -- which proliferated during a series of warm winters -- have been steadily nibbling away at forests' ability to deliver this service. A few years ago, scientists predicted that by 2020, the beetles' tree killing spree in Canadian forests would have grown so prolific that the forests would become net carbon emitters. (When trees die, they not only stop absorbing CO2, they release what they've sequestered.) In other words, instead of mitigating climate change, they'd begin contributing to it.
"This is the kind of feedback we're all very worried about in the carbon cycle," Andy Jacobson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration carbon cycle expert told the Associated Press in 2008. "A warming planet leading to, in this case, an insect outbreak that increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which can increase warming."
Now, new research out of British Columbia has delved deeper into the climate impact of all those dead trees, finding that summertime temperatures in beetle-killed B.C. forests have risen by about 1 degree Celsius, or about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.Read More ...
Those who are fighting to keep coal in the ground, and the dirty byproducts of burning it out of the air, must at times feel like they’re playing whack-a-mole. Every time they score a victory, the industry finds a way around it. That’s exactly what’s happening in the southwestern corner of Colorado, where a coal mine is trying to expand, even as the industry seems to be in crisis. How? By supplying coal to cement kilns, which are making a comeback now that the housing market is rebounding.
This part of Colorado isn’t typically thought of as coal country, but it should be. The Durango-Pagosa coal field -- a continuation of the New Mexico formation that powers two massive power plants -- stretches across parts of three counties and contains billions of tons of low-sulfur, high energy-content coal. It also contains a lot of coalbed methane, helping make the area one of the top natural gas producers in the state and nation.
This was one of the areas that experienced an uproar in 1906, when, with the West facing a coal famine, President Theodore Roosevelt withdrew 64 million acres of coal-bearing land from homesteading. Even those who had already homesteaded and worked the land couldn’t patent it unless they could prove that the coal underneath wasn’t valuable. Congress was outraged. Finally, in 1909, the government reached a compromise and passed the Coal Lands Act, which allowed the feds to issue patents on land that reserved the coal underneath for the government. The thorny split estate -- in which the surface and minerals underneath are owned by two separate entities -- was born (and, even more thornily, extended to oil and gas in 1914). In this part of Colorado, the act gained greater significance in 1938 when all the coal under the 1880 Ute Reservation was reserved for the Ute tribe.Read More ...
In all the hullabaloo of the Thanksgiving holiday, you might have missed a couple of important developments concerning water use while you were brining a bird or chopping cranberries. Here's a summary, describing a deal on the Colorado River, and a ruling about California's Owens Lake.
In 2006, the seven states that share water from the Colorado River reached an agreement finalizing how states would share water stored in Lakes Mead and Powell during drought and surplus years. Mexico also has rights to Colorado River water but wasn't part of the deal, so this year officials decided to jointly address shortages.Read More ...
Ah, money. During one of the biggest shopping times of the year, after spending Thanksgiving morning rolling stacks of coins with the kids, my thoughts turn to it, naturally. Or maybe unnaturally; what was mostly on my mind was the high cost of doing something to slow climate change. Specifically, I was thinking about carbon capture.
Carbon capture is just what it sounds like: taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It's a great idea, capturing the CO2 from a coal-fired power plant before it gets into the atmosphere. I always imagine a giant sock-like apparatus on top of a smokestack, billowing and bulging up as carbon dioxide fills it. (Disclaimer: That's not actually how it works.)
Of course, like all great ideas, this one comes with a catch. Whether it's a giant sock or a solvent capturing CO2 from a "slipstream of flue gas," as the Department of Energy describes its new test project, capturing carbon is very, very expensive. That's why the DOE project, part of its Post-Combustion Carbon Capture Center (PC4), is testing out new technologies -- so that industry can have some cost-effective options some day in the future.Read More ...