November 23, 2019
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    The Amazon Fire Smoke Can Be Seen from Space

    August 23, 2019

    The Amazon has been burning for weeks amid increasing deforestation. The intense smoke was detected by NASA and plunged São Paulo into darkness on Monday.
    By Madeleine Gregory

     

    n the middle of the day on Monday, the sky above São Paulo, Brazil went dark.The city, along with parts of the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Paraná, was blanketed by smoke from wildfires raging in the Amazon, according to local news reports.

    Earlier this month, Amazonas (the largest state in Brazil) declared a state of emergency over the rising number of forest fires, reported Euro News. Fire season in the Amazon is just beginning—it runs from August through October, with its peak coming in mid-September, and the smoke is already so bad that it can be seen from space

    Last week, NASA released satellite images showing the patchwork of fires and smoke in Brazil. Citing the Global Fire Emissions Database, NASA noted that though current fire levels are slightly below average compared to the last 15 years, they are higher in some states, such as Amazonas and Rondônia.

    “The state of Amazonas, in particular, has seen well above average daily fire activity through August so far,” said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist working on wildfire emissions at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

    According to Parrington, fires in the Amazon release an average of 500-600 megatonnes of carbon dioxide over the course of a typical year. In 2019 so far, they’ve already released 200 megatonnes of the greenhouse gas. According to the Global Fire Emissions Database, 8,668 fires have been detected in Amazonas as of Monday. That exceeds the past few years, and falls just short of the 2016 high of 8,836.

    Satellite imagery has tracked the movement of the smoke, which completely filled the air in São Paulo. Gustavo Faleiros, an editor at the environmental news group InfoAmazonia, said in an email that the air quality was even worse in the countryside than in the city.

    “Countryside residents started complaining about the wildfire smoke, because the air used to be clean there and now the city is full of smoke and ashes,” Alberto Shiguematsu, a São Paulo resident who tweeted about the smoke, said.

    According to Shiguematsu, the sky went “really dark” around 3:15 PM yesterday. He said that in his ten years of living in São Paulo, he’s never seen wildfire smoke like that. He’d read that there were fires in the Amazon, but didn’t think he’d be affected.

    “The smoke coming here, in São Paulo, thousands of kilometers away? That hit me by surprise,” he said.

     

    The news of these fires comes amidst reports of increased deforestation under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, which has prompted protests at home and international concern. While the smoke from the fires threatens the health of those living nearby, more fires represent an added stressor for the Amazon rainforest as a whole.

    The humidity of the Amazon has, in the past, protected it against massive fires, but drought, deforestation, and agriculture could make fires so common that they would completely alter the landscape, a 2014 study warned. According to a blog post for InfoAmazonia, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research predicts that rainfall in the central and northern Amazon will be 40 to 50 percent below normal in the next three months.

    “There is a direct relationship between increased burning and the growth of deforestation,” Faleiros wrote in the blog post. “Among the 10 municipalities that recorded the largest burnings in 2019, seven are also on the list of municipalities with the highest number of deforestation warnings.”

    Correction: An earlier version of this article measured the CO2 emissions of Amazon fires in terms of metric tons instead of the correct megatonnes. Motherboard regrets the error.

    TAGGED:AMAZONBRAZILDEFORESTATIONWILDFIRE
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    The Amazon Wildfires Aren't Natural. Blame Humans
    As the Amazon burns, it's important to know that intense wildfires aren't natural to the largest tropical rainforest ecosystem on Earth—people are to blame.
    By Madeleine Gregory
    Aug 22 2019, 8:08pmShareTweet

    LEFT IMAGE: NASA, RIGHT IMAGE: FLICKR/PALÁCIO DO PLANALTO

    The Amazon has been burning for weeks, creating clouds of smoke so intense that they plunged São Paulo, Brazil, into darkness this week. You can see the smoke blanket the country from space.

    Tropical rainforests are some of the wettest ecosystems on earth, so how did the largest one—the Amazon—catch fire? According to experts, the answer lies not in temperatures or wind patterns in the Amazon. Instead, the root cause of the blazes is human activity.

    “Humans are driving these fires, either in a very direct sense or a global sense by changing the ecosystem so much,” Ruth DeFries, an ecology professor at Columbia University, said.

     

    Fire is not a natural part of the Amazonian ecosystem, as it is in places such as the American West. According to DeFries, the Amazon, like all tropical rainforests, is usually too humid to sustain fires for long. However, humans have completely changed that ecosystem through deforestation and deliberately setting fires, which in turn makes the region even more susceptible to fires. It's a vicious cycle.

    Fires are one of the major drivers of deforestation, DeFries said, because they're the cheapest, easiest, and fastest way to clear debris. Many farmers or landowners use fire to clear their land, but those fires can quickly run wild if conditions are dry. Peak fire season in the Amazon runs August through October, as it’s the driest time of year.

    “The important thing to know about the Amazon is that few fires occur there naturally,” said Mikaela Weisse, who tracks deforestation and fires as part of the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch. “Pretty much everything is started by humans.”

    The Global Forest Watch team is seeing fires crop up on indigenous land in the Amazon. According to Weisse, there’s recently been increased deforestation in the Karipuna and Ituna Itata reserves in northern Brazil—the latter of which is home to an uncontacted tribe.

    Last week, indigenous women marched to protest far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s policies supporting deforestation, which threatens their land. Amazon Watch, a non-profit advocating for indigenous rights in the Amazon, said in a press release that, under this presidency, farmers and ranchers feel emboldened to set fires to expand their land in the rainforest.

     

    According to Brazilian newspaper Brasil de Fato, ranchers and farmers in Pará state held a "day of fire" recently in which they coordinated a massive burn-off of trees to show support for the government's position. According to a local publication based in Pará, the burn-off took place on August 10.

    Forest fires and deforestation are twin crises, each worsening the other and both feeding global climate change. “One way that the deforestation and the fires impacts us is the feedback loop that helps drive climate change,” DeFries said.

    Trees hold a lot of water, which is why the Amazon ecosystem is so wet. The more trees you lose, the drier the forest gets, and those dry conditions make way for more fires. That vicious cycle has a broader effect: releasing the carbon that’s stored in those trees.

    “The Amazon is a major bank of carbon, when trees gets burned and carbon is released into the atmosphere, that exacerbates our global warming," DeFries said.

    Climate change makes conditions even drier, leading to yet more fires and deforestation. Some scientists fear that the Amazon is reaching a tipping point, and could become a much drier, more open ecosystem in the future.

    While this loop seems hard to break, Brazil has actually done it before. In the early 2000s, deforestation was rampant in Brazil, and so were intense fires in the Amazon. Then, after 2004, deforestation rates fell rapidly, largely thanks to conservationist policies.

     

    Since Bolsonaro took power, deforestation has surged. Many blame Bolsonaro’s pro-agribusiness policies and failure to stop illegal logging for clearing the way for this extreme forest loss. He also recently fired the head of the agency monitoring deforestation who warned against rapid deforestation for economic gain.

    On Wednesday, Bolsonaro blamed NGOs for starting the forest fires to make his administration look bad. He has no evidence to back these claims up.

    “He can deny all he wants and blame it on NGOs, but that’s not going to stop the smoke going to São Paulo,” DeFries said.

    Organizations are working to track these wildfires, but without curbing deforestation, these fires may do irreversible damage to Brazil’s ecosystem. If we lose the Amazon—and all the biodiversity, oxygen production, and carbon storage that it provides—we have no one to blame but humans.

    TAGGED:AMAZONBRAZILGLOBAL WARMINGFOREST FIREAMAZON RAINFORESTJAIR BOLSONARO
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    The Arctic Is on Fire, and It Might Be Creating a Vicious Climate 'Feedback Loop'
    The worst Arctic wildfire season in recent history is releasing unprecedented emissions that feed into climate change, creating the conditions for more fires.

    SMOKE OVER A SITE OF FOREST FIRE IN RYAZAN REGION, RUSSIA, IN LATE JUNE. IMAGE: GETTY/ALEXANDER RYUMIN/TASS.

    Wildfires have been raging across the Arctic for over a month now, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Now, scientists worry that the fires are contributing to a climate change feedback loop that could make Arctic blazes more common.

     

    In June, unprecedented fires burned across the Arctic, breaking emissions records. The fires have continued to grow, spreading to other parts of Siberia and Alaska, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist working on wildfire emissions at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). As they grow, the fires are dumping so much smoke into the atmosphere that it can be seen from space.

    The smoke has already blanketed some Russian cities, making it hard to breathe. According to the Moscow Times, local residents have started a Change.org petition to pressure authorities to declare a state of emergency. The petition currently has over 400,000 signatures.

     

    The smoke-filled air is only part of the problem. The emissions spewed into the atmosphere by these massive fires contribute to a climate change feedback loop that scientists worry could mean even more Arctic blazes in the future.

    The fires are burning through peatlands, filled with carbon-rich organic matter. Peatlands are usually waterlogged, which serves as natural fire protection. When a warmer climate dries them out, though, peatlands can ignite and burn for months, years, or even decades. They don’t always produce massive flames, but in terms of how much fuel they eat up, peat fires are the biggest fires we know of.

     

    Thomas Smith, professor at geography at the London School of Economics, said "there is an increased confidence" that the Arctic fires are indeed peat fires burning down into the soil, judging by their behavior.

    “Peat fires burn ‘old’ carbon,” Smith said in an email, meaning that the carbon has taken thousands of years to accumulate. “So in a few weeks, a fire can burn through hundreds of years worth of carbon sequestration.”

    In other words, Smith said, these fires are not carbon-neutral. More fires contribute to faster climate change, which in turn creates ideal conditions for more Arctic blazes.

    "These greenhouse gas emissions (which are not offset by future regrowth) will lead to warming, and warming will increase the likelihood of peat soils being drier earlier in the summer and therefore more likely to burn.... In turn leading to more greenhouse gas emissions," Smith said. "It is a classic positive feedback loop."

    Not only are these fires contributing to climate change, they can harm local ecosystems too, exposing vegetation to harsh chemicals and threatening animal populations, according to a 2018 paper by Smith published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

     

    According to a 2013 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more forest fires are burning in the Arctic in recent years than any time in the last 10,000 years.

    According to the ECMWF's Parrington, although nobody can say for sure what will happen in the future, "it is clear that if the environmental conditions stay dry and warm the way they have this summer then we could see similar fires in the Arctic if there is an ignition."

    This year, the fires started earlier than usual and continue to break emissions records. With the positive feedback loop they’re creating, these massive arctic fires are showing worrying signs of becoming a vicious cycle.

    TAGGED:SCIENCEARCTICWILDFIRESARCTIC CIRCLEFEEDBACK LOOP
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    Brazil's President Bolsonaro Is Now Spreading Conspiracy Theories About the Amazon Fires
    Jair Bolsonaro, whose support of Amazon deforestation has earned him the nickname "Captain Chainsaw," is blaming the fires on environmental groups.
    By Tim Marcin
    Aug 22 2019, 6:39pmShareTweet

    (NASA VIA AP)

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    The Amazon is on fire, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is stoking a baseless conspiracy theory pinning the blame on non-governmental organizations that protect rainforests. He’s claimed the groups lit the blazes to “call attention against me, against the Brazilian government,” sans any evidence at all.

    The fires drew international attention this week after smoke helped plunge Sao Paulo into a midday darkness. And while fires set by farmers to clear land could be to blame for some blazes in the Amazon, Bolsonaro — whose support for deforestation in the face of environmental protests has earned him the nickname “Captain Chainsaw” — stuck by blaming NGOs.

    “On the question of burning in the Amazon, which in my opinion may have been initiated by NGOs because they lost money, what is the intention? To bring problems to Brazil,” he said.

     

    On a Facebook live broadcast on Wednesday, Bolsonaro was asked if he had any evidence that the NGOs were to blame. He said he had "no written plan" to back up his claim and "that's not how it's done," according to Al Jazeera.

    READ: Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro really wants to be Trump’s super best friend

    NGOs in Brazil were quick to rebuke Bolsonaro’s conspiracy theory. "This is a sick statement, a pitiful statement," said Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil's public policy coordinator, to Al Jazeera. "Increased deforestation and burning are the result of his anti-environmental policy."

    Bolsonaro campaigned on loosening deforestation restrictions to promote commercial interests, and as president, he’s followed through. Since he took office in January, the Amazon has lost about 1,330 square miles of forest, which represents a 39% increase over the same period last year.

    Camila Veiga, of the Brazilian Association of NGOs, told AFP that "the fires are the consequence of a policy of environmental devastation, of support for agribusiness, of increasing pastures.”

     

    Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research said this week that there have been 74,155 fires in the country so far this year, most of which were in the Amazon. That represents an 80% increase over last year.
    READ: Brazil is making homophobia a crime

    It’s tough to pinpoint exactly how each fire started, but most experts agree that humans are to blame for the uptick. Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch, pinned the fires on cattle ranchers and loggers clearing land.

    "The vast majority of these fires are human-lit," Poirier told CNN.

    And while Bolsonaro might blame NGOs with no evidence, there is myriad evidence Bolsonaro has emboldened those who want to deforest the Amazon. The National Institute for Space Research showed a huge increase in deforestation in just the last few months — and Bolsonaro called that data a lie.

    “You have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours,” Bolsonaro told a group of foreign reporters last month. “If all this devastation you accuse us of doing was done in the past the Amazon would have stopped existing, it would be a big desert.”

     

    Cover: This satellite image provided by NASA on Aug. 13, 2019 shows several fires burning in the Brazilian Amazon forest. Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, a federal agency monitoring deforestation and wildfires, said the country has seen a record number of wildfires this year, counting 74,155 as of Tuesday, Aug. 20, an 84 percent increase compared to the same period last year. (NASA via AP)

    TAGGED:BRAZILCLIMATE CHANGEDEFORESTATIONJAIR BOLSONARO
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    How to Plant Trees and Save the World
    A guide to small- and large-scale reforestation efforts to help both humans and the planet.
    By Madeleine Gregory
    Aug 21 2019, 7:39pmShareTweet

    YIYANG CAO | IMAGES VIA SHUTTERSTOCK

    Planting trees has been touted by some scientists as one of the best ways to combat climate change. While it's not a panacea, planting trees is good for everything from providing habitat to mitigating air quality to capturing and storing carbon emissions.

    A growing body of research is showing that trees can positively impact both the climate and human health. As the power of trees becomes more evident, many people are looking to get involved in planting them. Just last month, Ethiopia planted over 350 million trees in one day, smashing previous records.

    But tree planting isn't as easy as just burying some acorns in the ground—where, what, and how you plant matters. Here's everything you need to know about planting a tree.

    Why should I plant trees?

    About a quarter of human emissions come from land-use like agriculture, which clears forests. The good news is that planting more trees can both slow climate change and increase our capacity to adapt to it, a recent report from the United Nations noted.

     

    As more people move to cities, places that used to be rural towns or farmland open up, affording opportunities for more forests to grow; planting trees in areas formerly converted to other land uses is called "reforestation."

    Some of the most important target areas for reforestation are those that have been heavily deforested or damaged by disaster. Climate change is ramping up extreme weather events, such as fires and floods, which can wipe out huge swaths of tree cover. Pests and pathogens, too, move around as weather patterns shift, and can decimate species that haven’t developed immunity.

    The combined effects of this kind of large scale destruction harm ecosystems and throw the carbon cycle further off balance, releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect. Planting new trees can help offset these losses, too.

    On a smaller scale, tree planting can provide habitat for other species and cool concrete-covered cities (pavement makes cities hotter), as well as provide shade or wind-breaks to your home. The task of reforestation may seem daunting, but we’ve got some tips to help.

    Getting started: Where to plant

    A good place to start planting is your own backyard, where trees and shrubbery can benefit you as well as the planet.

    The exact location of your new trees will come down to what you want from them. Planting trees to the north and northwest of your house can provide a windbreak, while planting them to the west can help provide shade, according to the Arbor Day Foundation. Both of these undertakings can reduce your heating and cooling costs.

     

    There are other energy-saving strategies involving greenery to look to as well, including planting a shrub to shade your air conditioning, which cools it and makes it run more efficiently. Just make sure to avoid planting trees under or near utility lines, as that can cause service interruptions or safety hazards.

    All this tree talk may inspire you to start planting wherever there’s open space. However, because private property is a thing under capitalism for now, you can’t just plant trees anywhere you feel like. While the planet may appreciate five extra trees in the driveway next door, your neighbor may not.

    It’s not just private land that’s off-limits to enterprising tree planters, either. Just because land is publicly owned doesn’t mean that you can plant whatever you want on it. Public land is managed by the city, state, or federal governments, and they’re in charge of reforesting.

    The good news is that a lot of these organizations accept volunteers or donations. The Forest Service, for example, has a long-running Plant-a-Tree Program, in which donations go directly to reforestation efforts. You can also call your local parks department and volunteer directly, planting on public land. You could also take on the notoriously grueling (but worth it) Canadian summer job of tree planter in some seriously stunning locales. One summer tree-planter, Sydney Jones, said that she still thinks about the thousands of trees she planted over four seasons in Canada.

    "I think of all the ecosystems that have formed around the trees I planted: the bird that will land on the branch, the worms in the soil," Jones said. "Those trees will survive for years and years, long after I’ve died."

    Picking the right tree species

     

    The first question to ask when planting a tree is: will it survive? Some trees can withstand the cold snaps of a New England winter, for example, and others are more suited to the dry conditions of a Southwest desert.

    The Arbor Day Foundation offers a service called Tree Wizard that recommends trees based on your zip code and preferences. At the end of your search, you can buy the seedlings. The Forest Service’s similar service, i-Tree Species, allows you to input the ecosystem services you want (such as carbon storage or heat reduction).

    The Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich (which produced a viral study this year arguing that planting billions of trees is the most effective climate change solution) also has created an interactive map that recommends specific species to plant.

    After that, it’s important to ensure that the tree will do more good than harm. Planting a tree that’s native to an area can help to provide habitat for other native species. However, planting an invasive species of a non-native tree can result in the trees outcompeting native species for available resources. Many species also carry pests or pathogens that can be fatal to native trees.

    However, there’s a distinction between non-native and invasive. Indeed, changing climate conditions can sometimes mean a tree once common in an area will now struggle. “If a tree species comes into an area introduced by a human, it’s non-native,” Arbor Day Foundation vice president Woodrow Nelson said. “It’s not considered invasive unless a non-native species is displacing one or more of the native organisms.”

    When in doubt, consult your local parks department for advice on what trees are right to plant.

    How to plant a tree, step-by-step

    Now that you’ve picked out your tree and your spot, it's time to actually plant the tree.

    Planting tree seeds Johnny Appleseed-style is unlikely to get you anywhere, as many won’t even sprout. Instead, you want to purchase seedlings, young trees that are already old enough to be stable after planting. Where you plant them is going to depend on their individual needs in addition to their intended function for your home—large trees need to be planted farther apart, for example.

     

    The best time to plant is during the dormant season (after the leaves fall in autumn, or before spring flowers start blooming) according to the International Society of Arboriculture. Here’s how to do it:

    Before you start planting, you should locate all your underground utilities by asking your utilities provider.
    Dig a hole that is no deeper than the root ball, but twice as wide. Don't plant the tree just yet, as the next step is important.
    To test the drainage, fill the hole with water. If it doesn’t drain within 24 hours, pick another site—you don’t want your trees’ roots underwater.
    Orient your tree correctly. Let the trunk flare (the part of the trunk that spreads outwards to the roots) sit just above ground, so as not to suffocate the tree. Handling by the root ball (not the trunk), place the tree in the ground and make sure it’s centered and straight.
    Fill the hole with dirt, without packing it down too firmly.
    Pruning, or removing dead branches, should only be done if really necessary. Staking, too, isn’t required for all trees, and you should consult with a professional before you stake yours.
    According to Nelson, the most common problem is that people plant their trees too deep into the ground and they struggle. The first year of growth is also critical, and Texas A&M Forest Service advises watering slowly and thoroughly with a hose.

    “If you’re going to plant a seedling tree, plan to water it every week that first year,” Nelson said. “You can’t just plant it in a field and expect them to do really well.”

    Support tree-planting organizations

    If you want to move beyond your community and get involved with large-scale reforestation, supporting tree-planting campaigns is a great place to start.

     

    Organizations like the National Forest Foundation plant millions of trees, and accept donations that go directly to tree planting efforts. The Nature Conservancy has a campaign to plant a billion trees in countries worldwide.

    The Crowther Lab created another interactive map, this one highlighting reforestation projects around the world. Supporting the organizations behind such projects, either with time or donations, can help to restore natural ecosystems. The Crowther Lab also provides resources to invest responsibly, ensuring that your money supports ecosystem growth, not fossil fuels.

    Planting billions of trees may not stop climate change, but it’s a good start. Whether you have room in your lawn or a few dollars to spare, you can participate in a worldwide effort to make the planet greener.

    “There’s always room for one more tree,” Nelson said.

    TAGGED:CLIMATE CHANGETREE PLANTINGREFORESTATION
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    Wildfires Are Now So Bad That Scientists Are Using Them to Study Nuclear War
    A smoke plume from the 2017 wildfires in the Pacific Northwest mirrored simulations of nuclear winter, and showed that the aftermath of a nuke war may be worse than anticipated.
    By Becky Ferreira
    Aug 9 2019, 12:39amShareTweet

    IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY/SHAWN CAHILL

    Two years ago, British Columbia suffered one of the worst wildfires in the Canadian province’s history, which consumed 1.2 million hectares and displaced 65,000 people. The 2017 blaze was so intense that scientists are using it to model the climate conditions that might be created in the fallout of nuclear war, according to a study published on Thursday in Science.

    The study suggests that the smoky aftermath of a modern nuclear blast will likely persist for longer than current models predict.

    A team led by Pengfei Yu at the Institute for Environment and Climate Research at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China, examined the wildfire using data from ground stations, balloons, and satellites.

    In particular, they focused on the formation of a huge vertical smoke plume, made from pyrocumulonibus clouds, which rose more than 14 miles into the stratosphere and remained active for eight months.

    The plume offered a real-world example of the climate effects expected from a major nuclear conflict, the team said. In that scenario, known as nuclear winter, firestorms lead to a long-term darkening of the skies and global cooling due to the accumulation of aerosols into the atmosphere.

    “One of the important predictions of numerous models of nuclear winter is that smoke injected into the upper troposphere from urban fires will self-loft high into the stratosphere,” the authors wrote in the study. “The 2017 fires studied here represent the first observational evidence that such a rise actually occurs.”

    Because data from the plume had been collected by so many different observation platforms—in space, in the air, and on the ground—Yu and his colleagues were able to probe the dynamics behind the plume in precise detail.

    Black carbon, or soot, was found to be the main driver of its stratospheric ascent. This thick air pollutant only made up about 2% of the 0.3 teragrams of smoke from the wildfire, but it had an outsized effect on the plume because it absorbs so much solar radiation. As a result, the black carbon became heated, which in turn propelled smoke higher into the atmosphere.

    In the event of a nuclear war, cities would likely burn alongside forests, and that could fuel even larger aerosol-rich plumes. The researchers estimated that about 0.05 teragrams of black carbon could be released from an urban area ravaged by a nuclear weapon, leading to sootier plumes and lower concentrations of transparent organic smoke.

    “If there were a lot of organics it would make the nuclear winter last less long,” said study co-author Brian Toon, a physicist at the University of Colorado Boulder, in an email. “However, smoke from cities does not contain as much organics as smoke from a forest. Burning plastic produces smoke that is almost all black carbon, for instance.”

    In other words, nuclear winter simulations may be too optimistic about the rate at which wildfire smoke will dissipate. The fact that the 2017 plume persisted for two-thirds of a year revealed that the smoky aftereffects of a nuclear war would likely last longer than originally projected in models.

    “We are currently working on some new simulations of nuclear conflicts, and we will consider the impacts of the organics in this new work,” Toon said.

    Nuclear warfare could lead to even worse outcomes for humanity than originally expected, and it’s not as if it was looking very positive before this research anyway. Wildfires exacerbated by human-driven climate change are bad enough without our species escalating them with weapons of mass destruction.

    Update: This article has been updated to include comments from co-author Brian Toon.

    TAGGED:BRITISH COLUMBIACANADACLIMATE CHANGEWILDFIRESNUCLEAR WARNUCLEAR WINTER
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    A Veteran Firefighter Explains Why California Wildfires Are Getting Worse
    "You’ve got fuel, you’ve got weather, and you have what’s readily available to burn. You add those together. It’s like the perfect storm."
    By Nicole Clark
    Jul 31 2018, 12:19pmShareTweet

    THE CARR FIRE IN REDDING, CALIFORNIA. PHOTO BY JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY

    Since last week, the Carr Fire has blazed through Northern California—it had burned nearly 100,000 acres by Monday afternoon, according to CNN, and has been menacing the town of Redding for days. Six lives have been lost, entire neighborhoods have been devastated, and the fire is only 20 percent contained.

    Wildfires have always been a part of living in the hotter, dryer parts of California, but the fires have been worse in the past year, with major conflagrations breaking out in the Napa Valley and Anaheim. The Carr Fire has already been declared one of the ten most destructive fires in California history, six of which have struck in the past ten months.

    On Monday, I spoke with a dispatcher working near Redding who has been dealing with fires for more than 20 years. (She did not want me to use her name.) She has been a wildland firefighter in the US Forest Service and has been everything from "helicopter rappeller to hotshot crew to engine." I spoke to her about her years of service, why we're seeing things like "firenadoes," and mushroom clouds, and how we can protect ourselves.

    VICE: First, thank you so much for your work. Obviously, we’re in great need of your service and it’s an incredibly hard job.
    Dispatcher: Yes, it is a very hard job. You don’t go home every night, or even for 14 days at a time. 16, 24, 36 hours on at a time is not unusual. It takes a special kind of person to do the job. But God bless the ones who do. The ones out there on the front lines, putting their lives at risk.

    Have you noticed fires becoming more aggressive, in even the last five years?
    Absolutely. Fires are bigger. Fires are more explosive. And it’s probably due to many factors. A lot of it is the urban sprawl—people tend to move up to the hills because who doesn’t want to live in the mountains? They want to move into the hills and yet they don’t want to do any kind of clearance around their property. When a fire comes through it causes a lot of hazards to firefighters. Not just firefighters but any kind of first responders that come in the area.

    But then again, there’s also drought. We’ve had drought conditions, and you just don’t fix drought conditions with one good water year. It takes many years—it takes five years of no drought to fix several years of drought influence.

     

    What do you mean by explosive?
    When you have [spot fires] that come over the fire lines, and when you have wind—wind will carry embers. Sometimes the fire will spot out over a mile or two miles ahead of itself, and spots in vegetation become explosive. Anything that’s really oily with waxy leaves can be explosive. It will just ignite, almost immediately. It looks like a bomb blew off. Literally. And that’s very destructive.

    And then you’ve got weather that goes along with that. Fire creates its own weather. That’s what we saw appear here in the Carr Fire. We had RHs (relative humidity) in the single digits. So that causes explosive fire behavior, where things will just blow up. I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve experienced. People couldn’t get out fast enough, and the fire just tore through an area at a rapid rate of spread.

    Last year in the Bay Area, we had all those fires in the Napa Valley. And it kind of mimicked the same kind of fire behavior that we’re seeing up here. I hate to say it because it makes me sound like a doomsday kind of a person—but due to all of the pollution, and all of the emissions, and a lot of different factors there, as far as the environment, I think a lot of our trees and brush have taken on these qualities that we haven’t seen before.

    We’ve had drought before, it’s nothing new to California. We’ve been in drought years before, and in '88 and '89 we had horrific fire. But it didn’t do what the fire does these days. You’ve got fuel, you’ve got weather, and you have what’s readily available to burn. You add those together. It’s like the perfect storm.

     

    FIREFIGHTERS BATTLE A BRUSH FIRE NEAR REDDING. PHOTO BY MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY
    I grew up in Los Angeles, so seeing huge fires is part of living in the city. But I’ve never seen fires that practically eat entire subdivisions before.
    Exactly! Exactly. You’ve got houses here that are stucco. A lot of Redding houses—I live in a stucco home. They burn. It’s amazing how, all of a sudden, you’ve got a couple embers under the roofline and it just takes off. California doesn’t feel a whole lot of inclement weather as far as cold, but we do need to build stuff that is more fire-resistant.

    Do you think fires of this scale will continue to be the norm?
    I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The scale is hard for people to comprehend. I was talking with my boyfriend, who's also a veteran firefighter, and who just retired last year. Fire doesn’t scare us the way it used to. People tend to get freaked out by fire. It’s something that is alive; it lives, it breathes, it’s an entity that has its own life once it gets established, and you just have to direct it. And you have to realize that it’s going to do what it’s going to do. But eventually it’s going to die. And if you’re in the path of it you have to make sure you get out with plenty of time. Have good insurance, and hopefully your home with be spared.

    Cal Fire goes around and visits every place in their units, and they give feedback as far as what the homeowner needs to do to get good clearance, and whether their homes are more protectable.

    What kind of safety precautions would you advise?
    Check that vegetation is cleared to 100 feet from your house. It doesn’t have to be total clearance, but it should be anything that would be able to touch your roof. Any kind of shrubbery needs to be low and not real flammable. Trees need to be far away enough from your house so that it doesn’t catch your roof on fire. And you shouldn't have any kind of wood piled up next to your house.

    Sometimes you can do all of that and still get run over by fire. That’s just the nature of fire. It does what it wants. And sometimes you just have to let it go and take its last breath.

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    TAGGED:CLIMATE CHANGEFIRENATURAL DISASTERSCARR FIRE
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    Motherboard
    Planet at Risk of Heading Towards Apocalyptic, Irreversible ‘Hothouse Earth’ State
    We only have 10-20 years to fix this.
    By Stephen Leahy
    Aug 7 2018, 1:00amShareTweet
    IMAGE: SHUTTERSTOCK

    This summer people have been suffering and dying because of heat waves and wildfires in many parts of the world. The past three years were the warmest ever recorded, and 2018 is likely to follow suit. What we do in the next 10-20 years will determine whether our planet remains hospitable to human life or slides down an irreversible path to what scientists in a major new study call “Hothouse Earth” conditions.

    Hothouse Earth is an apocalyptic nightmare where the global average temperatures is 4 to 5 degrees Celsius higher (with regions like the Arctic averaging 10 degrees C higher) than today, according to the study, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sea levels would eventually be 10-60 meters higher as much of the world’s ice melts. In these conditions, large parts of the Earth would be uninhabitable.

    Cutting carbon emissions to limit climate change to 2 degrees C, as proposed in the Paris climate agreement, won’t be enough to avoid a “Hothouse Earth,” said co-author Johan Rockström, executive director of Stockholm Resilience Centre. The reality is that global temperatures aren’t driven by human emissions of carbon alone, says Rockström—natural systems such as forests and oceans also play a major role.

    If global warming reaches 2 degrees C it could trigger a feedback, or “tipping element,” in one or more of our natural systems and drive further warming, Rockström told Motherboard. To put that into perspective, the recent heat waves and wildfires are being linked to climate change that has raised the global average temperature 1 degree C.

    Read More: These 360 Drone Photos of the California Wildfires Are Devastating

    Permafrost thaw is one the 10 feedbacks studied in the paper. Permafrost exists in nearly a quarter of the land area of the northern hemisphere. Should large areas thaw, they would release huge amounts of carbon and methane, increasing warming.

    Other feedbacks include Amazon rainforest and boreal forest dieback (when an entire forest suddenly dies from drought or some other cause), the reduction of northern hemisphere snow cover, Antarctic sea ice and polar ice sheets, and loss of Arctic summer sea ice.

    “These tipping elements can potentially act like a row of dominoes. Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth towards another,” said Rockström. It’s near impossible to stop this once it starts, he said, and the next thing you know we’re on the path to a Hothouse Earth.

    “We need to become responsible planetary stewards in the next ten years. This is the biggest global security issue of all time,” said Rockström.

    It’s not known if a 2.0- or even a 1.5-degree C temperature increase would trigger one or more of these feedbacks, but the warmer global temperatures go, the greater the risk. The good news is we know what to do to avoid a Hothouse Earth future, says co-author Katherine Richardson from the University of Copenhagen. “We have the knowledge and ability to act. This is within our control,” she said.

     

    The scientists outline three main areas of action. The top priority in the coming decade is to aggressively cut carbon emissions and decarbonize our energy systems as quickly as possible. This is starting to happen because alternative energy such as wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil energy in many parts of the world, don’t pollute the air, and create more jobs.

    The second priority is to halt deforestation and conversion of natural areas into agricultural production. Forests and other natural areas currently absorb 25 percent of our carbon emissions and this needs to grow.

    A third priority is to continue to develop technologies to pull carbon from the atmosphere and safely store it for thousands of years. A Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, recently developed a process that takes carbon out of the atmosphere to make a carbon-neutral liquid fuel. However, the costs remain high, as do the costs for other carbon-removal technologies.

    A lot of this is already happening without leadership from national governments. Individuals, communities, and companies understand these are the things we need to do and we are starting to limit our impacts on the Earth, Richardson told Motherboard. For example, a coalition of states, cities, and organizations representing more than half of the US economy are united in meeting the Paris climate goals no matter what the Trump administration does, she said.

    Another big shift towards planetary sustainability is the decline in fertility rates nearly everywhere in the world, says co-author Diana Liverman of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona. As long as women’s choices continue to be supported, global population will soon stabilize reducing need to feed, house, and sustain ever more people, Liverman said in an interview.

    The big challenge now is reducing material and energy consumption in wealthy countries and ensuring poor and middle-income countries are on a low-carbon development path, she said.

    Global surveys show people, and especially young adults, are aware of this, are willing to take action and want their governments to do more.

    “But we can’t be complacent… if we choose not to take the necessary actions we’re going to be in big trouble,” said Liverman.

    Listen to our podcast about the world’s greatest mysteries that were solved by science.

    TAGGED:TECHMOTHERBOARDENVIRONMENTGLOBAL WARMINGCLIMATE CHANGEHOTHOUSE EARTH
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    Travel
    Dystopian Photos of San Francisco Smothered by Smoke
    For days, locals had to stay indoors or don air masks in an effort to avoid the harmful particles in the air.
    By Yalonda James
    Nov 22 2018, 12:25amShareTweet
    Thanks to the wildfires that have devastated California for the better part of two weeks, the state's air has been filled with spectacular amounts of smoke. Particles of what was burned—forests, homes, cars, everything panicked evacuees had to leave behind—floated out many miles away from the sites of the fires, leaving a haze that fell heavily over much of Northern California (near the deadly Camp Fire) in particular. Schools were cancelled. Some people were able to stay home from their jobs, though many others, including farm workers, were forced to labor in the ash-filled air. And seemingly everywhere, people were wearing air masks, a phenomenon the Washington Post called the "latest sign of the apocalypse."

    If this was the apocalypse, it was short-lived: By Wednesday morning, the air was clearing due to wind and incoming rain, good news for those who, like many homeless people, were unable to acquire masks. But with fire season seeming to get longer and more severe each year—an impossible-to-ignore consequence of climate change—the smoke is likely to come back sooner rather than later, meaning people in the Bay Area can't afford to throw out their air masks.

    On Monday and Tuesday, the photographer Yalonda "Yoshi" James went out to document the strange, half-lit reality of San Francisco under the smoke. Her resulting photos capture how quickly a disaster can change the fabric of our lives, and how quickly we adapt.

    1542749423022-sf_smoke_ymj_03
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    All Photographs by Yalonda "Yoshi" James. You can follow her work here.

    TAGGED:SAN FRANCISCOCALIFORNIACLIMATE CHANGEFIRESBAY AREASMOGCOMMUTERS
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    Motherboard
    Stunning Photos Show Canada's Alpine Environments Are Shrinking
    Images of Canada’s changing mountain landscape tell the story of its past and its future.
    By Mirjam Guesgen
    Nov 30 2018, 7:30pmShareTweet

    THE ATHABASCA GLACIER, IN CANADA’S ROCKY MOUNTAINS IN 1917 AND 2011. IMAGE: HISTORICAL IMAGE BY ARTHUR O. WHEELER, 1917, COURTESY OF LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA / BIBLIOTHÈQUE ET ARCHIVES CANADA. MODERN IMAGE COURTESY OF THE MOUNTAIN LEGACY PROJECT

    Striking photographs from the Mountain Legacy Project, an initiative to retake and compare images made by early surveyors, show how Canada’s mountain environments have become less icy and more uniform over time.

    These changes, researchers say, spell trouble for alpine birds and could mean a greater number of severe forest fires in the future.

    The historic images date as far back as 1861, when surveyors clambered up mountains to make maps of the area. Their age makes them valuable to researchers because it allows them to see the kinds of environmental changes, including melting glaciers, that happen over a century. Satellite images would only cover a few decades.

    Historical photo of Canadian mountain
    HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPHS, SUCH AS THIS ONE TAKEN ON TOP OF CASKET MOUNTAIN IN 1924, GIVE ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTISTS A GLIMPSE INTO THE PAST. IMAGE: ARTHUR O. WHEELER, COURTESY OF LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA / BIBLIOTHÈQUE ET ARCHIVES CANADA.
    Environmental scientist Julie Fortin categorized the types of land cover in 46 pairs of historic and modern photographs taken in Alberta’s Willmore Wilderness Park, a rugged landscape only accessible by hiking or horseback trails.

    She painstakingly outlined areas of forest (dark green), alpine meadows (light green and light yellow), ice (light blue), and wetlands (periwinkle) in digital versions of the images to quantify how much of each habitat there was in the early 1900s compared to today.

    Image: Julie Fortin
    IMAGE: JULIE FORTIN
    She saw forests growing bigger, creeping into other habitats like alpine meadows or wetlands—such as this area across the valley from Bury Ridge, where sparsely covered slopes are now obscured with dense green foliage: Because Willmore is so inaccessible and resource extraction is forbidden, any landscape changes are likely due to climate change or wildfire management.

    Historical image by Michael E. Nidd, 1944, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. Modern image courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project.
    IMAGE: HISTORICAL IMAGE BY MICHAEL E. NIDD, 1944, COURTESY OF LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA / BIBLIOTHÈQUE ET ARCHIVES CANADA. MODERN IMAGE COURTESY OF THE MOUNTAIN LEGACY PROJECT.
    Although trees help sequester carbon from the atmosphere, helping lower global temperatures, more trees aren’t necessarily a good thing, Fortin explained to me over the phone.

    “I got out here [from Montreal] and I realized more forest is good for some species but there are some species that rely on other kinds of habitats that are being negatively impacted,” she said.

    Using a computer model that related the type of habitat to the likelihood of particular bird species living there, Fortin showed that birds that breed or live in alpine areas—like the American Pipit—have declined in numbers over the past century.

    Other birds, not investigated by Fortin, could also see a drop in numbers, according to the recent State of the Mountains report by the Alpine Club of Canada. Close to 35 percent of Canada’s birds use high mountains for migration stopovers to fatten up before flying on, the report states, and a quarter of those birds are on national conservation lists. Scientists are unsure how the birds will deal with shrinking alpine areas, or whether they’ll be able to cope at all.

    The way we manage fires is also part of what contributes to the changing alpine landscape, Fortin explained.

    Mountains
    IMAGE: HISTORICAL IMAGE BY WILLIAM H. MILLER, 1928, COURTESY OF LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA / BIBLIOTHÈQUE ET ARCHIVES CANADA. MODERN IMAGE COURTESY OF THE MOUNTAIN LEGACY PROJECT.
    Almost 100 years ago this site—15 kilometers southeast of Mount Persimmon—had more natural breaks in the landscape, seen on the right side of the image above, which served as a roadblock for spreading fires. Partly, those breaks came from sections of the forest that were allowed to burn. As communities moved closer to alpine forest areas and fires were controlled, the breaks have almost completely closed up.

    Vast swaths of forest make the parks more vulnerable to forest fires. “It’s basically just this big tinderbox that when it lights it’s hard to stop,” Fortin said. This means British Columbia may not have seen the last of its record-breaking wildfires, which burned close to 13,000 square kilometres of the province and forced 65,000 people out of their homes over the course of three months.

    “Mountains create their own particular type of fire risk,” added ecologist Eric Higgs, who has taken some of the modern photographs for the Mountain Legacy Project to understand how to restore mountain habitats.

    “They provide you with a visual argument,” said Higgs. “The interplay of our values at present and what we’re seeing from the past shapes where we ought to go.”

    Higgs argued that environmental restoration initiatives must consider controlled burning and include community awareness. Fortin is now using the images from her project to show locals in Grande Cache, a town directly bordering the Willmore Wilderness Park, how their mountain neighbourhood has changed. The photos also help inform controlled-burning projects in the area.

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    TAGGED:TECHMOTHERBOARDCANADAICE SHRINKINGMOUNTAIN LEGACY PROJECTCANADA HISTORY
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    The VICE Guide To Right Now
    You Can See Smoke from the California Wildfires All the Way Over in NYC
    It traveled 3,000 miles and formed a visible haze in parts of New Jersey and New York.
    By River Donaghey
    Nov 21 2018, 12:52amShareTweet

    PHOTO BY DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES

    The wildfires currently ravaging California are some of the largest and most devastating the area has ever seen. The Woolsey Fire has destroyed almost 1,000 homes, and the Camp Fire is even bigger, spanning 150,000 acres and leaving at least 79 people dead with nearly 1,000 others still missing, earning it the awful distinction of being the deadliest fire in the state's history. Even areas well outside the fires' paths are suffering—schools in the state have closed due to the smoke, and the Oakland Raiders canceled practice for the same reason.

    But according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), air quality isn't just an issue for California—apparently, the fires are so bad that the smoke has stretched as far as New York City.

     

    The smoke has drifted nearly 3,000 miles, according to NOAA, and it's responsible for a light haze in parts of New Jersey and New York this week. The smoke has diminished enough over the course of its journey that it's not expected to cause respiratory issues on the East Coast like it has out west, but the fact that it's stretched this far at all speaks to the almost mind-boggling magnitude of the blazes.

    "I knew tonight’s sunset over New York City seemed different, and I should’ve realized," TODAY Show meteorologist Kathryn Prociv tweeted Monday night. "Wildfire smoke is in the air, all the way from California."

     

    CalFire is hoping to have all the wildfires fully contained by the end of November, and a spate of heavy rain headed to the state this week should help to put them out—though it's also threatening to bring on a whole new slew of natural disasters.

    Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

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    TAGGED:NYCSMOKECALIFORNIANEW YORKNOAAFIREWILDFIREHAZEVGTRNAIR QUALITYAIR POLLUTIONWOOLSEY FIRECAMP FIRE
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    Health
    California's Air Is as Bad as Beijing's and It Will Only Get Worse from Here
    Thanks to climate change, massive wildfires and the unhealthy smog they emit aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
    By Cole Kazdin
    Nov 20 2018, 3:10amShareTweet

    PEOPLE WEARING AIR MASKS WATCH DONALD TRUMP'S MOTORCADE AS HE DRIVES TO VIEW DAMAGE FROM WILDFIRES IN PARADISE, CALIFORNIA, ON SATURDAY. PHOTO BY SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY

    The wildfires that have ravaged California over the past week were not only the deadliest in the state’s history, they’ve spewed so much smoke into the air that schools in Sacramento closed and the Oakland Raiders cancelled practice. A haze still hangs ominously over huge swathes of the state, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Over the weekend, air quality in the Bay Area improved a bit, but is still at unhealthy levels. Monday morning, the region's Air Quality Index (AQI) number, a measure of how polluted the air is, was 171. That’s the same as notoriously smoggy Beijing, where it’s common to see citizens walking around everyday wearing air masks. The spate of air mask selfies from people in the Bay Area has been growing on Instagram.

     

    As the state grapples with the fires and their immediate aftermath, experts warn that the smoky air could have severe health consequences, and that people will have to learn to deal with atmosphere made smoggy by fires, because these blazes will be increasingly common thanks to climate change.

    “This should not be something we passively adapt to,” said Kari Nadeau, a physician and director of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University. “This should be something we try to mitigate but unfortunately this has become the new norm.”

    As the Camp Fire in Northern California continues to burn, schools and universities in the Bay Area remain closed, and residents are being advised to avoid going outside at least until Tuesday, when rain is expected.

    In Southern California, where the Woolsey fire is 91 percent contained and evacuation orders are slowly lifting, residents are returning to their homes (if those homes are still there). The air quality in this part of the state, while not as severe as the Bay Area’s, still hovers in the range considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” like older adults and children, according to the AQI.

    Five days of exposure to high levels of air pollution is the equivalent of smoking one cigarette a day for an entire year, Nadeau said, and the adverse health effects can be immediate—coughing, dry or sore throat, watering eyes, headaches, and for some, asthma attacks. All are a result of the body trying to protect itself and expel these particles, creating more mucus. “These are small chemicals and they’re less than the size of 2.5 microns—like 1/30th of a little hair. So tiny,” she said. “You can’t taste them, you can’t smell them. It’s sight unseen.” It’s not so different from everyday pollution like emissions from cars and other particulate matter. “It’s the same,” said Nadeau. The difference is that these fires have caused much higher concentrations than normal.

     

    The particles in the air here now are from everything that’s been burned: thousands of acres of trees, materials from houses, cars, paint thinner, plastics. “And the problem is, there’s no safe location that you can get away from this,” said Nadeau.

    “The only thing that gets the particles out of the sky is rain,” she continued. “But unfortunately, then all those particles get into the water supply. It’s not like they disappear. They’re molecules. So that’s the next thing you need to worry about, but let’s not go there.”

    For children, the health risks can be even more severe. Decades of research show a connection between heavy air pollution and asthma and deficient lung development in children. “We really need to watch now the babies that have been born during this particular time, (and) what happens to them in three years,” said Nadeau. “Will they have a higher rate of asthma? Will they have a higher rate of autoimmune disease? We don’t know. But that’s the type of study we need to do.”

    The growing number of wildfires across the world and their increasing intensity is driven by climate change, experts in the field agree (not, as President Donald Trump recently suggested, failure to rake leaves). The state is facing higher temperatures and drier conditions. The way to turn around what California Governor Jerry Brown recently called “the new abnormal” is to slow climate change down.

    “It’s always the same story: The way to control air pollution is not to emit it,” said
    Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis. “Once it’s in the air, it’s there. And it will hang out without any way for us to control it. We need to do things to put a lid on this.”

    One way to mitigate harm from climate change is climate adaptation, finding creative ways to work within this new climate. “We can harvest all that woody material that’s accumulated in our forests and use it to make electricity,” suggested Wexler. The benefits would be two-fold, he said—thinning the forests, and creating renewable energy. “People have talked about doing this for decades and we don’t do it.”

    If nothing changes, there’s little debate it will only get worse: The state will see more frequent and bigger wildfires, and also dangerously unhealthy air as a result.

    For people currently in the Bay Area, staying indoors helps. Air purifiers do too, though they don’t eliminate the health risks entirely. “Masks can only help so much,” said Wexler, and they don’t offer protection if a person has facial hair. “If the mask is not sealing on your face, then the air’s going to go around it, and you’re not going to get any benefit.” Wearing a mask sealed on the face is uncomfortable, and only something you can do for a short time, he added.

    There are also risks associated with air masks, including increased heart rate and C02 build-up, which may outweigh the benefits. Sacramento County recently issued a warning for the N95 masks, saying that only people near a fire should use them and that they could be dangerous for those with heart and respiratory diseases.

    “I don’t like those solutions,” said Wexler, “because there are people who can’t afford (masks) or people who went to the hardware store too late, and why should they be suffering? We need to deal with the source.”

    All these are short-term fixes, and don’t get to the larger problem, Wexler emphasized.

    “It’s definitely getting worse every year,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to have these annual conflagrations, and not just our state—Washington, Oregon, Arizona—they’re all getting this stuff too. We’ll see more wildfires, we’ll see more houses lost, more people will die. There are certainly people dying from breathing this air pollution.”

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    Motherboard
    Sons of the Pre-Apocalypse
    My son was born last week, right before two historic wildfires hit California—his new home state—and burned whole cities to the ground.
    By Brian Merchant
    Nov 13 2018, 3:01amShareTweet
    IMAGE: WALLY SKALIJ/GETTY IMAGES VIA LA TIMES

    My second son was born last week, right before two historic wildfires hit his new home state and burned whole cities to the ground. One burned about thirty miles west of the hospital he was born in, thickening the air with smoke, turning the sun deep red—we marked his first week anniversary by watching ash fall from the sky into our front yard. The other burned an hour and a half's drive north of where I grew up, of where my parents live, and reduced a town of thirty thousand people to embers so fast that the highway was left littered with abandoned and charred cars attempting escape, and dozens dead.

    Thanks to our justified eschatology fetish, these scenes inevitably get described as "apocalyptic," present or post-. By that count, my son was born into pre-apocalyptic times, but only just. By plenty other counts, too.

    Naturally, my wife and I have been struggling with how to process the highs and lows of a week that began with a beautiful natural childbirth—surrounded by family and friends, elated by the arrival of a pure new human, and wonderful nurses, techs, and doctors, working diligently and thoughtfully to deliver and protect new life—and ended with a total inferno and mass evacuations outside our city, in a place we do afternoon hikes. It was confusing.

    As a new father who is also a Californian and on Twitter too much, how should I reconcile the swirling images that dominate a week like that?

     

    1542056509421-fire-california
    NASA

     

    The questions pretty much ask themselves ('How can we raise kids in a world like this?', mostly), and it's hard not to think about that month-old UN climate report that concluded we basically have a decade to act before all this spirals out of control.

    No one wants to deliver a child into the onset of an apocalypse, but at least it's not certain yet whether these days just feel like the beginning of the end, or are. The end of something, anyway. What *is* certain: The fires burn worse every year. The climate is changing—the science has been crystal for so, so long—but you'd have to be worse than a dope to live in California and not just feel it intuitively now. The droughts are longer, the temperatures higher, the snowmelt lessened, the brush drier, the fires likelier, bigger, and better fueled.

    To me, and I imagine many Californians, the wildfires used to be something that'd seem to hit once or twice a year, in distant wilderness, or occasionally too near a subdivision, where they might claim some unfortunate houses built in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they are an omnipresent existential threat. The two biggest fires in the state's history were both in the last two years. Ultra-wealthy Malibu is burning. Rural, retirement community-laden Paradise is burning. Santa Rosa burned. Ventura burned. It's all burning.

    Meanwhile, my newborn took his first nap on my chest, held his head up improbably, and smiled in his sleep.

    Isn't it a common sign of apocalyptic times that the leaders presiding over them are only interested in themselves, and in consolidating power by fanning fast-sprouting resentments, exploiting tragedy? The US president, a denier of climate change, couldn't bother to even extend his sympathies to our besieged state, babbling some brain leakage about "bad forest management." And the congressman who was just reelected to represent the CA district home to smoldering Paradise "doesn't buy" that climate change is real. It all seems so bad.

    As if it's not enough that we're facing existential threats on multiple fronts, on a nearly incomprehensible scale, it was another reminder that so many of those with the power to address it still don't even believe in the catastrophe that is very clearly unfolding before all our eyes. This was always stupid, but when you're closing the doors to your house so your 5-day-old doesn't breathe in ash and wildfire smoke in the middle of one of the nation's biggest cities, it seems criminal. Through it all, the newborn is peaceful, unfussy, and happy spending hours in his little mechanized swing between nursing.

    Throughout the week, I thought about the night Trump was elected, when my wife and I sat dumbly awake, wracked into the early hours of the morning. The question came up, as I imagine it did for many, like one of those triangular rubbers to the knee: So do we move or something now? Our first son was months old then, and I joked at the time that no, the rebellion against five-term Emperor Trump was going to need good people.

    It wasn't really funny then, but it's probably more true now. Climate change-acknowledging Democrats took back the House, but power is still bent on denial. And so much of the country is waving the flag for the deniers.

    So it is certain that my kids are going to come of age in a world that is rapidly warming and rapidly changing—that is literally more on fire—but also in a country that in a given year may or may not be governed by politicians in stark denial of those changes. When I started covering climate change ten years ago, the GOP candidate for president had a climate plan—now, the notion that that we all, Democrats and Republicans alike, might unite to inadequately address global warming with market-based solutions seems like a hopeless utopian dream.

    But I'm not writing all this because I'm despairing or fuming, though both are part of the mix. I'm writing this for a maybe cheesily optimistic reason, but I will take cheesily optimistic and I will cling to it with a bloody deathgrip right now.

    Last night, my firstborn son was sitting in his high chair, the little one was swinging quietly in that chair at our feet, and a Daft Punk song came on the stereo. The two-year-old, who was eating pasta noodles, abruptly started dancing in his chair so excitedly he couldn't land his fork on the noodles (he was still trying to eat, of course). He looked at me and my wife, expecting us to dance in our chairs, too, because obviously why would anyone not be dancing when Daft Punk comes on when you are eating spaghetti. We did, because you always do what the two-year-old wants in situations like this. We danced, and the baby swung contentedly in his swing. It was one of those perfect moments they say having a family is all about ('they' being me, a person who has seen the Steve Martin movie Parenthood.)

    I had this feeling, this dumb, perfect feeling, that lasted until later in the night, when it occurred to me that the scene might have helped me locate where hope might spring. Nearly everyone has had that moment, whether we remember it or not, and probably lots of them, when we were nothing but conduits of joy and goodness and also wanted nothing more than to share that with someone else. Who fucking cares if we were two, or three, or five or eight. We were human, and we were capable of that. There is a way, lodged somewhere deep down there, beneath our cantilevered structures of long-encrusted ideologies, to relate a base capacity for joy and goodwill.

    It made me think of that line Anne Frank wrote that still to this day destroys me if I linger on it too long, about how in spite of everything, she still believes people are basically good at heart. I believe that too, even if I also believe a few of them that hold the most power are too far gone. But many who admire them are not.

    My sons are going to live in cities on fire, in nations led by men who don't care, and they are going to have to learn to help tackle the problem, as we are. If I can in any way help them tap into that capacity that I felt last night, if they can help me, and if others can—and if that relation can help topple power in denial—then maybe we can sustain this pre-apocalypse, whether it takes another blue wave or nine, a political revolution, mass psilocybin hallucinations, or something else. If we can relate that goodness where applicable and confront power whenever possible, my sons may not have to live their adult lives in omnipresent fear of fires.

    People are basically good, power corrupts but is not de-corruptible, and there is a lot of work to do.

    At least, that's what gave me hope that week as I watched the world burn, literally and figuratively, but mostly literally, as my beautiful new ward eked out his being amongst the smoke.

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    Thousands of firefighters are battling “unprecedented” fatal wildfires in California
    More than a dozen are burning across the state that have killed 8 people.
    By Kathleen Caulderwood
    Jul 31 2018, 3:27amShareTweet

    Firefighters are finally gaining ground against a massive fire that’s left at least six people dead in northern California.

    The Carr fire — which started last week near Redding, California, last week — has covered more than 98,000 acres and forced 38,000 people from their homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

    Even though the blaze doubled in size over the weekend, 20 percent was contained by Monday morning.

    But it’s just one of more than a dozen active wildfires currently burning across the state, from southern California to the Oregon border, that have killed eight people in total.

    Multiple fires at once aren’t uncommon, but officials said this round is especially difficult to deal with.

    “It’s burning differently. It’s burning more aggressive than it has in years past,” CAL Fire Operations Chief Steve Crawford told reporters on Saturday. “And I know we say that every year, but it’s unprecedented.”

    So far, the state has deployed 12,000 firefighters and 800 troops from the California National Guard.

    Forecasters predict triple-digit temperatures in the region this week, which will “only exacerbate the ongoing wildfire situation,” according to the National Weather Service.

    TAGGED:VICE NEWSWILDFIRESWEATHERTHE CARR FIREFIREFIGHTER EFFORTSCALIFORNIA NATIONAL GUARD
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    Glacier National Park Is on Fire
    The fire was sparked by a lightning storm and spread by strong winds.
    By Kaleigh Rogers
    Aug 13 2018, 9:48pmShareTweet

    IMAGE: TWITTER

    Glacier National Park, once home to 150 glaciers, is on fire. The fire was sparked by lightning storms in the middle of the stunning, 1-million-square-acre preserve near Montana’s border with Canada.

     

    The fire began on Saturday, according to local newspaper the Daily Inter Lake, in an area toward the north of the park called Howe Ridge. On Sunday, Canadian “superscooper” airplanes scooped water from nearby Lake McDonald to dump on the flames for four hours, but it wasn’t enough to stop the fire. Combined with heavy winds, the fire continued to spread and park officials made the decision to evacuate parts of the park, including a popular campground.

    “This evacuation impacts about 50 individuals who own private homes, several National Park Service employees residing at the Lake McDonald Ranger Station, and campers at the 87-site Avalanche Creek Campground,” a press release stated.

    Over the weekend, the park experienced its hottest day on record with a high of 100 F, and the hot, dry weather is expected to continue, making the fires even more difficult to contain. Wildfires have been ravaging American west this summer, largely due to the effects of climate change. In Glacier Park, warming temperatures have also caused the park’s namesake, its vast glaciers, to recede dramatically in recent years. In 1850, more than 150 glaciers existed in the park, but by 2015, only 26 active glaciers remained, according to the US Geological Survey.

    It’s hard to imagine a more on-the-nose metaphor for the devastating impacts of climate change than watching a glacier park burn.

    Listen to our podcast about the world’s greatest mysteries that were solved by science.

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    “Diablo winds” could make California’s massive wildfires even worse
    Unusually hot and dry conditions will almost certainly exacerbate the problem, according to NOAA.
    By Christianna Silva
    Aug 17 2018, 10:21pmShareTweet

    California’s wildfires are likely only going to get worse, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

    Firefighters have already battled over 100 large fires in the American West, and the unusually hot and dry conditions will almost certainly exacerbate the problem, scientists from NOAA said during their monthly report on Thursday. In July, for example, California saw its warmest month ever with average temperatures of almost 80 degrees.

    The increased temperatures and fast gust of extremely hot and dry winds that whip up fire — called “Diablo winds” — could increase and ignite the dry trees, grasses, and shrubs in the area, Tim Brown, the director of the Western Regional Climate Center, explained during a press call on Thursday. Diablo winds stoked the monumental fires last fall in Sonoma and other counties, according to McClatchy.

    But October could bring a “decline in significant fire potential,” Brown said.

    The current conditions have already caused eight major fires burning their way through California, and many of them are expected to continue burning through at least the rest of August, according to NOAA. Many more have been injured and lost their pets and homes. Dozens of other fires are burning in the West, including in Alaska, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington state. In California alone, at least eight people have been killed as a result of wildfires.

    While NOAA scientists didn’t directly blame climate change for the rise of wildfires, Brown said in a press call that the increased trend in the West, combined with firefighters’ difficulty containing them, “has really taken off” during the past few decades.

    But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told KCRA 3 in Sacramento on Sunday that the idea that climate change has affected increased fires is bogus.

    “I've heard the climate change argument back and forth,” Zinke told the news outlet. “This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management.”

    “The argument of climate change to me takes a backseat to 'Let's manage it,’” he added. “Because if it's climate change, you still have to manage the forest.”

     

    Cover image: Hummer Estes watches a helicopter battling the Hat Fire, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Fall River Mills, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher)

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    Rich People Pay for Private Firefighters While the Rest of Us Burn
    Insurance companies offer exclusive firefighting services for high-paying clients that can help them mitigate the worst consequences of wildfire disasters. Most other people aren’t so lucky.
    By Caroline Haskins
    Nov 14 2018, 12:52amShareTweet

    At least 44 people have been killed in California a result of the wildfires that have burned more than 100,000 acres of land in the state. The most vulnerable populations, including the elderly and people with disabilities, are at the highest risk of perishing in the fires, which were made more likely by climate change that exacerbated dryness and tinder availability in fire-prone areas.

    But, of course, some people can afford to opt out of climate chaos. TMZ reported Tuesday that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West paid for private firefighters to protect their $60 million home in Hidden Hills, California, after the couple evacuated the home under mandatory state orders. The firefighters were reportedly successful in saving the home.

     

    The Kardashian-Wests are not the only people who can afford to tap into private wealth to mitigate the most costly damage of climate change-related disasters. Insurance companies such as AIG provide wildfire mitigation services that allow certain clients to reduce risk and save themselves in the event of a worst-case fire scenario.

    AIG’s Private Client Group’s Wildfire Protection Unit, for instance, is made up of AIG employees who are certified through state or local authorities. In addition to protecting homes with flame retardants, these AIG employees respond to fires and map homes in real time as wildfires approach.

    According to NBC, members of AIG’s Risk Management and Loss Prevention policy group, who qualify for Wildfire Protection Unit services, occupy 42 percent of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans.

     

    Wildfire mitigation is largely encouraged by coalitions of insurance companies. PURE, an insurance company that lets high-paying clients tap into the resources of Pure’s Group of Insurance Companies, offers a Wildfire MItigation Program for residents in 11 wildfire-prone states, including California. The service, which is offered as part of a client’s regular insurance payment, includes proactive fire risk consultations and the installation of sprinklers and application fire retardants.

    Similarly, The National Association of Insurance Commissioners created the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which essentially involves assessing different neighborhoods for their risk of wildfires so that insurance companies can act accordingly. The association also outlines possibilities of wildfire insurance arranged in tiers of most coverage to least coverage.

    Just how big is this industry? For perspective, the National Wildfire Suppression Association represents 150 wildfire contract service companies with more than 10,000 employees. It can cost in excess of $100,000 just to enter the field of private firefighting work, meaning individual missions can cost insurance companies tens of thousands of dollars.

    The need for a private firefighting industry is fueled by the growing risk of climate change-related damages, which is exacerbated by defunding and undermining action related to climate change at the federal level.

    Trump notably halted American payment into the Green Climate Fund, a UN-organized fund designed to help economically vulnerable countries that have contributed little to climate change abide by the terms of the Paris Accord. Recently, he expressed doubt about the veracity of a United Nations report, which said that global governments would need to fundamentally restructure their economic systems in to mitigate the worse effects of climate change. This month, the EPA removed its once climate change dedicated page entirely, under the instruction of Trump and his administration.

    This week, Trump blamed the severity of the California wildfires on poor forest management on the state level, a program for which he threatened to pull federal funding.

    Correction: An earlier version of this suggested that AIG was part of Pure insurance. They are two separate companies.

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    Over 15,000 Square Miles of Siberia Are on Fire and It's “a Global Ecological Catastrophe”
    Some 46,000 square miles of Siberia have been destroyed, Arctic ice melt is accelerating, and the smoke is choking Russian cities.
    By David Gilbert
    Aug 1 2019, 5:08pmShareTweet

    Wildfires are raging across over 15,000 square miles of Siberia, an area larger than the size of Massachusetts, and are causing what one environmental expert calls a “global ecological catastrophe.”

    Some 46 thousand square miles have already been destroyed, and with the fires now threatening towns and cities, and large clouds of black smoke engulfing Russia's third-biggest city, Novosibirsk, the Kremlin has come under increasing pressure from the public and from environmentalists to act to tackle the fires.

    On Wednesday Russian President Vladimir Putin mobilized the military to help fight the blaze, and U.S. President Donald Trump pledged his support.

    But experts say that these moves will do little to bring the fires under control.

    "Unfortunately, with the current size of four million hectares [15,400 square miles] and firefighting efforts limited to 100,000 hectares [386 square miles], additional army forces, which are mostly aircraft, will not make a big difference, especially as the military are not experts in fighting forest fires,” Anton Beneslavsky, Greenpeace Russia fire expert and volunteer firefighter, told VICE News.

    READ: The Arctic is on fire and you can see it from space

    Large wildfires are an annual occurrence in sparsely populated northern Russia, but this year strong winds and dry weather conditions have seen the fires threaten populated areas.

    Putin ordered 10 planes and 10 helicopters with firefighting equipment to help prevent the fires from reaching towns and cities, but smoke from the blaze has already done damage in populated areas.

    "The smoke is horrible," Raisa Brovkina, a pensioner in Novosibirsk, told state television after being hospitalized for smoke inhalation. "I am choking and dizzy.”

     

    Russia typically doesn’t try and fight the fires and has created control zones inside which blazes are allowed to run their course. The Kremlin says that the cost of tackling these fires is much greater than the damage they cause.

    But for weeks, environmental activists have been warning of the size and scale of this year’s blaze, and now some are criticizing the government for not acting sooner this year.

    Scientists and rights groups have launched petitions in recent days to try and persuade the Kremlin to do more.

    A petition by an ecologist from the Siberian city of Tomsk has garnered over 860,000 signatures, while one by the Russian charter of Greenpeace has been signed by 330,000 people as of Thursday morning.

    READ: The Record-setting numbers behind California’s wildfires

    The petitions have pressured the government to declare states of emergency in five regions.

    On Wednesday evening, the Kremlin announced that Putin and Trump had spoken about the wildfires by phone.

    “The U.S. president offered Russia cooperation in fighting forest fires in Siberia,” the Kremlin statement said. “President Putin expressed his sincere gratitude for such an attentive attitude and for the offer of help and support.”

    The White House confirmed the call, saying Trump “expressed concern over the vast wildfires afflicting Siberia” adding that they also discussed “trade between the two countries.”

    However, it’s unclear what the U.S. can do to help stop the fires from burning out of control.

    READ: The Everglades is on fire, but it’s actually fine

    As well as the damage caused to the Siberian landscape and the danger posed to the public's health in Russia, the fires have a global impact, thanks to the increased CO2 and black carbon emissions. The fires also speed up the rate at which ice melts in the Arctic.

    “The catastrophe in Siberia is not a catastrophe in Russia, it is a global ecological catastrophe,” Beneslavsky said.

     

    Cover: This satellite image provided by Roscosmos Space Agency, taken on Sunday, July 21, 2019, shows forest fires in Krasnoyarsk region, Eastern Siberia, Russia. President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia's military to join efforts to fight forest fires that have engulfed nearly 30,000 square kilometers of territory in Siberia and the Russian Far East. (Roscosmos Space Agency via AP)

    TAGGED:VICE NEWSRUSSIACLIMATE CHANGEVLADIMIR PUTINDONALD TRUMPSIBERIA
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    A Border Patrol Agent Started a 47,000-Acre Wildfire with a Gender Reveal Party
    The blaze wound up causing $8 million in damage.
    By Drew Schwartz
    Oct 2 2018, 3:44amShareTweet

    FOREST FIRE IN JUNE 23, 2003 NEAR TUSCON, ARIZONA. PHOTO BY CHRIS FIGENSHAU/GETTY IMAGES.

    Ever since the weird, patently heteronormative wave of gender-reveal videos first hit the internet sometime in the late 2000s, expectant dads have been trying to outdo one another, unveiling the sex of their unborn kids with ever-increasing intensity. Why just bake a cake when you can blast colored dust out of your tailpipes, wrestle alligators, or jump out of airplanes to herald what reproductive organs your children will have?

    But no gender reveal stunt has caused quite so much damage as one failed attempt in Arizona last year. According to the Arizona Daily Star, a local border patrol agent tried to announce his baby's sex, and wound up starting a 47,000-acre wildfire that ripped through the state for a week and caused millions of dollars in damage.

    In April of 2017, Dennis Dickey, who was off-duty at the time, packed a target with colored powder and Tannerite, a high-grade explosive, and set it up on state land in Madera Canyon, Arizona. With his wife alongside him, he shot the thing with his rifle, sending an explosion of colored dust—pink or blue, we still don't know—into the air. The couple immediately went from celebrating to freaking the fuck out when the explosion ignited the dry Arizona desert landscape around it and spiraled into a massive forest fire.

    The blaze quickly tore across the southern region of the state, forcing people to evacuate their homes and ultimately requiring about 80 firefighters to battle it, the Daily Star reports. It only took them a week to put it out, and while it didn't injure anyone, it caused about $8.2 million in the way of damage and the costs to contain it, according to a Department of Justice press release.

    Dickey immediately fessed up to starting the blaze, and got slapped with a misdemeanor charge of starting a fire without a permit. On Friday, he pleaded guilty and agreed to pay all $8,188,069 in restitution, though—just like that teen who caused $36 million in damage after starting a massive wildfire in Oregon—it's not clear if he'll ever end up paying the full amount. According to the Daily Star, he'll serve five years of probation and will have to pay the court $500 a month for the next 20 years after an initial $100,000 payment.

    "It was a complete accident," Dickey said in court on Friday, according to the Daily Star. "I feel absolutely horrible about it. It was probably one of the worst days of my life."

    Let this be a lesson to all the gun-toting, daredevil expectant fathers out there: Just buy some balloons or something and leave the ultra-powerful explosives out of it.

    Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

    Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

    TAGGED:ARIZONACRIMENEWSG.U.N.BORDER PATROLWILDFIREVGTRNRIFLETANNERITEGENDER REVEALGENDER REVEAL VIDEOGENDER REVEAL PARTY
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    Climate Change-Driven Heat Wave Killed a Third of a Bat Population in Two Days
    Almost one third of a bat species population in Australia perished during a heat wave in November 2018.
    By Caroline Haskins
    Jan 16 2019, 11:59pmShareTweet

    Almost one third of a bat population in eastern Australia was killed over the course of just two days of November of 2018, when a heat wave in eastern Australia devastated the Queensland region and temperatures were as high as 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate change makes heat waves like this one disproportionately more likely.

    An estimated 23,000 to 30,000 spectacled flying fox bats perished during the heat wave, which lasted from November 26 to 27, according to the BBC. Some media reports alleged that once the temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit, bats literally started falling out of trees. David White, a wildlife rescuer from Australia, told the BBC that the event was "totally depressing.”

    Justin Welbergen from Australia’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment told Australian outlet ABC.net that the event was likely the second-largest mass die-off for the species, which have been listed as “vulnerable” in the country since 1999. In 2014, as many as 100,000 spectacled flying fox bats died, also during a heat wave.

    The late-November Australian heat wave also caused more than 80 intense brush fires, and coincided with a series of dust storms that swept across the Queensland region. It’s worth noting that desertification—the process of places becoming more dusty, dry, and desert-like over time—is exacerbated by climate change.

    Climate change makes monster heat waves like this one disproportionately more likely. When the air gets hotter, it’s able to hold more water, and humid air makes heat waves more likely. Australia specifically, which is already prone to heat waves, is vulnerable to "more frequent, hotter, and longer" heat waves.

    Heat waves also pose a major threat to human lives.It’s difficult to account for the number of human deaths during a heat wave, since experiencing extreme heat can exacerbate pre-existing medical problems in vulnerable populations and contribute to death. For instance, a study found that many of the human deaths associated with the 2009 Australian heat wave occurred in people with heart disease that also lived alone.

    Australia is currently in the midst of yet another heat wave, and temperatures are expected to reach or exceed 113 degrees Fahrenheit in the most vulnerable areas of the continent.

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    Megadroughts Are Likely Coming to the U.S. Southwest Within Decades, Scientists Say
    Climate change is 'almost assured' to cause decades-long droughts in the American Southwest not seen since medieval times, scientists warn in a new study.
    By Madeleine Gregory
    Jul 24 2019, 11:58pmShareTweet

    IMAGE: FLICKR/TYLER BELL

    In medieval times, the US Southwest was routinely struck by decades-long droughts. Those megadroughts stopped around 1600, but climate change could bring them back.

    In a study published on Wednesday in Science Advances, researchers from Columbia’s Earth Institute used climate models to study what caused the megadroughts. Using historical climate data, they determined that two things were to blame: changing ocean temperatures and excess energy trapped inside the Earth’s atmosphere (called radiative forcing).

     

    Now, with similar trends on the rise again thanks to climate change, the researchers say that the US Southwest (which includes California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and parts of other states) is likely to experience medieval megadroughts again—and soon.

    "Having paleoclimatic evidence shows you what happened in the past,” lead author Nathan Steiger said over the phone. “It helps verify projections that say the American Southwest is almost assured to have a megadrought in the next few decades.”

    According to the study, the biggest driver of these historical megadroughts were La Niña events, which made the Pacific Ocean unseasonably cold, pushing the storm path north towards Washington and British Columbia. A warmer Atlantic played a smaller role, shifting a high pressure system that blocked storms from rolling over the continental US.

    “Both a warm Atlantic and a cold Pacific change where storms go,” Steiger said. “They both result in fewer storms going to the Southwest.”

    Fewer storms mean less rain, which succeeded in drying out the Southwest for decades at a time from the 9th to the 16th century.

    These sea surface temperature changes were coupled with an increase in radiative forcing, which is where climate change comes into play.

    Historically, changes in radiative forcing had a lot to do with volcanic activity or other natural variances. Now, the greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) we’re pumping into the atmosphere are increasing the amount of energy trapped in the atmosphere. That excess energy will continue to heat up the world, drying the Southwest out and making it more vulnerable to medieval-style megadroughts.

    “We have a lot of evidence that the radiative forcing is going to dry out the Southwest,” Steiger said. “If you get a string of several La Niña years in a row, you get a megadrought that will make it dry for decades.”

     

    Climate scientists are still trying to figure out how climate change will impact La Niña events, Steiger said. With what we know now, the paper argues that megadroughts in the US Southwest are “almost assured” within decades.

    Severe droughts in recent years have already worried scientists that we are headed for another megadrought, or may even already be in one. This work reaffirms that climate change is likely to launch the Southwest into a megadrought, as Steiger and his team were able to test these predictions on past data.

    Atmospheric models are notoriously tricky to get right, as there’s a lot of variables to take into account. Showing that these models were successful in nailing down the causes of historical megadroughts further strengthens the conviction that they’re likely to recur thanks to climate change.

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    A Massive Petrochemical Fire In Texas Released Toxic Benzene Into the Air
    A shelter-in-place advisory was issued for thousands of Houston suburb residents after a four-day blaze released chemicals into the air.
    By Caroline Haskins
    Mar 21 2019, 11:56pmShareTweet

    A shelter-in-place advisory was issued on Thursday for thousands of residents living in Houston suburbs after a petrochemical fire at a nearby gasoline-production facility released dangerous levels of the toxic chemical benzene.

    The fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) facility in La Porte was extinguished after blazing for four days, from Sunday to Wednesday. There was a one-day shelter-in-place issued on Sunday, but between then up until Thursday’s advisory, ITC claimed that toxic chemical levels were “below levels that would represent a public health concern.”

    Benzene is a toxic chemical that has been linked to leukemia in humans after long-term exposure to high levels in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Short-term health effects of benzene inhalation include “drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, tremors, confusion, and/or unconsciousness,” according to the CDC. Benzene liquid or vapor exposure can irritate the eyes and throat, and cause redness and blisters on the skin.

    Eight schools and four college campuses in Houston suburbs such as Deer Park, Pasadena, La Porte, as well as a fifteen mile stretch of Texas Highway 225, have also been closed in order to abide by the shelter-in-place advisory.

    It’s unclear how long the ITC and government groups will monitor the region for air quality, or whether the long-term health effects on residents will be measured. Representatives from the Deer Park Police Department, the CDC—who are all responding to the crisis, according to ITC—did not return Motherboard's requests for comment.

    In an email to Motherboard, an ITC representative said that the exact cause of the fire is still under investigation. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality referred Motherboard to a press release that said the Environmental Protection Agency is using specialized trucks and planes to monitor air quality in the area.

    Mary Johnson, a Deer Park resident, told local news outlet K-Houston 11 (K-Hou) on Wednesday hat she had been feeling sick for three days, since the fire started. Johnson lives just a few miles from ITC facilities. Johnson’s husband had to go to the doctor, and Johnson claimed that she suffered from headaches and had trouble breathing.

    "I was nauseated," Johnson said to K-Hou. "My throat was hurting. My ears were hurting. My eyes were running water and my nose was like a faucet."

    Other local residents have also expressed concerns about the air quality on Twitter.

     

     

    A March 18 press release from ITC says that “claims have arisen as a result of the Sunday morning incident,” and instructs anyone who has suffered damage or loss to fill out a form on their website.

    Dirty-fuel facilities are notoriously dangerous for workers, and for residents who live near them.

    In December, an explosion at a Con Edison facility in Astoria, Queens in New York killed power for thousands of residents for hours, and lit up the New York City sky a strange shade of aqua-blue. It’s unclear exactly which combination of chemicals caused the sky to appear aqua-blue.

    Earlier this year, private natural gas and electric utility PG&E—which services the California and Pacifiic northwest region—filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy after being issued $30 billion in liability fees. A state investigation concluded that the company caused at least a dozen wildfires in October 2017. These wildfires, which were caused by downed PG&E power lines, killed at least 46 people and burned over 200,000 acres of land.

    Environmental policy experts have recommended that we make natural gas and electric utilities public, which could give local residents the power to make these utilities switch to safer, more sustainable forms of energy like solar and wind. It would also give people the power to organize the utilities’ management structure, and set the rates they have to pay for gas and power.

    As of December 2018, a majority of registered voters think that the US should do what it has to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But private companies have no incentive to compromise their profit margins for health and safety of citizens. And don’t just look to companies like ITC—look to companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.

    A recent Gizmodo report found that these companies are all lending computing services to oil and gas companies in order to streamline their operations and maximize these companies’ profits.

    Perhaps nationalization of gas and electric utilities could happen in the Green New Deal. But for now, petrochemical facilities continue to be an unsafe way for Americans to get their power. The benzene leak in Texas is a grim example.

    Update: This article has been updated to include comment from ITC.

    TAGGED:TECHMOTHERBOARDCLIMATE CHANGEGASELECTRICPETROCHEMICALDIRTY FUEL
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    Here's what the deadly wildfires raging across California have left behind
    In a neighborhood leveled by a "fire tornado," the chemical cleanup begins.
    By Nigel Duara
    Aug 17 2018, 5:46amShareTweet

    REDDING, California — Three weeks ago, a blazing wildfire cut a twisting path through a subdivision here, destroying some homes completely and leaving others untouched.

    The Strickland family left their home just before a tornado of fire ripped through their neighborhood. But they're one of the lucky few whose house is still standing.

    After traveling through 215,000 acres, the Carr Fire has claimed eight lives and destroyed more than 1,000 houses. The sheer acreage it covered made it one of the largest wildfires in the state’s history.

    Now, the cleanup effort has begun.

    Contractor crews hired by the state are moving through the rubble, looking for items that might leave behind dangerous chemical residue. Some of those toxic remains include the old houses that might contain asbestos, the melted fire detectors that could produce low levels of radioactivity, and any partially burned propane tanks at risk of combusting.

    The cleanup crew’s ultimate goal is to leave the lot of charred home as close to habitable as possible, regardless of if residents choose to rebuild or sell. And as homeowners return to survey the damage, many are confronted with vivid memories of the fire.

    "You're just constantly reminded of all of these families that don't have homes anymore," said Taylor Strickland, 23, whose home was miraculously left intact.

    “It doesn’t burn a certain thing,” Strickland said of the fire. “It takes what it wants, when it wants, how it wants.”

    This segment originally aired August 16, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

    TAGGED:VICE NEWSVICE NEWS TONIGHTCARR WILDFIREMENDOCINO COMPLEXRESTORATION EFFORTS
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    Plants are Losing Their Capacity to Absorb Human CO2 Emissions
    A team of Columbia researchers finds that the climate tipping point may come sooner than we think.
    By Daniel Oberhaus
    Jan 24 2019, 12:59amShareTweet

    A new report published Wednesday in Nature suggests that Earth’s vegetation may not be able to continue to absorb human carbon dioxide emissions at current rates, which could accelerate climate change and exacerbate its effects.

    Humans pump nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year and about 50 percent of these emissions are absorbed by plants in the terrestrial and ocean biospheres. The negative effects of the large amounts of carbon dioxide being absorbed by Earth’s vegetation can be seen in unprecedented coral bleaching events and the acidification of the ocean.

    Although carbon dioxide is necessary for plants to grow, there is a limit to how much CO2 they can absorb. According to the lead authors of the new study, Columbia University environmental engineer Pierre Gentine and his doctoral student Julia Green, the impact of extreme events like droughts and floods on soil are decreasing the amount of CO2 that Earth’s vegetation an absorb.

    Read More: The Seafloor is Dissolving Because of Climate Change

    The rates that plants can absorb greenhouse gasses is largely dictated by how variations in the water cycle—such as droughts and floods—affect the soil. Gentine and Green used four different climate models to analyze net biome productivity (NBP), which is equal to the amount of carbon used by plants and the soil in a given region minus the amount of carbon lost due to things like forest fires or forest harvesting. They were looking specifically at how soil moisture affects the NBP by analyzing long-term drying trends in soil and the impact of extreme, short-term events like floods and droughts on soil.

    “Essentially, if there were no droughts and heat waves, if there were not going to be any long-term drying over the next century, then the continents would be able to store almost twice as much carbon as they do now," Gentine said in a statement.

    According to the study, the variations in soil moisture from droughts and floods are already reducing the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon at current levels.

    Annual CO2 emissions by country from 1960 to 2017. Image: CarbonBrief
    ANNUAL CO2 EMISSIONS BY COUNTRY FROM 1960 TO 2017. IMAGE: CARBONBRIEF
    “This is a big deal,” Gentine said. “If soil moisture continues to reduce the net biome productivity at the current rate, and the rate of carbon uptake by the land starts to decrease by the middle of this century—as we found in the models—we could potentially see a large increase in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 and a corresponding rise in the effects of global warming and climate change.”

    In short, the ability of plants and the soil to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is already being affected by the varying and extreme weather events produced by human-driven climate change. As these effects become more pronounced, they will further limit the Earth from absorbing carbon dioxide, thereby exacerbating the extreme weather creating a vicious cycle.

    Gentine said that the study highlights the need to dedicate more resources to studying the way plants respond to water stress so that these findings can be better incorporated into models.

    In the meantime, Gentine said, “We all really need to act now to avoid greater consequences of climate change.”

    TAGGED:TECHMOTHERBOARDGLOBAL WARMINGCOLUMBIA UNIVERSITYCO2CARBON DIOXIDESOILCYCLEDUBPIERRE GENTINENET BIOME PRODUCTIVITY
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    California Wildfires Have Created Climate Refugees in a Walmart Parking Lot
    California's Camp Fire has destroyed about 9,000 homes, creating climate refugees inside the state.
    By Caroline Haskins
    Nov 15 2018, 11:43pmShareTweet

    At least 59 people have died as a result of the fires in northern and southern California, making it the deadliest wildfire outbreak in the state’s history. The Camp Fire—named after Camp Creek Road, the origin of the fire—was the deadlier of the two fires, which killed 56 people and destroyed over 9,000 homes. The fire has also created what the Sacramento Bee described as a "de facto refugee camp."

    A Walmart parking lot in Chico, CA, has become a city of more than 50 tents and about a dozen cars and RVs, according to the Bee. The Walmart is just outside of Paradise, CA, which was almost completely destroyed by the Camp Fire. Approximately 52,000 people were forced to evacuate from the Paradise, CA and the surrounding towns as a result of the Camp Fire. Almost 230,000 people live in Butte County, which is home to Paradise.

    The tents could be a short or long-term living circumstance for displaced persons. Brock Long, an administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said that towns destroyed by T=the Camp Fire will need to choose which schools, hospitals, and homes should be rebuilt.

    “We’ll be here for several years working this disaster,” said Long. “You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was.”

    Residents of Paradise have a median age of 50 and median income of $48,000, which is 14 years older and $16,000 less than the statewide average, according to the Bee. In essence, these residents may not be able to quickly recover financially.

    The AP reported that evacuees in the camp experienced a norovirus outbreak this week, which also affected makeshift medical clinic in Neighborhood Church in Chico, CA.

    “Climate refugees”—a term which refers to people displaced by extreme weather, wildfires, water scarcity, and other climate change-related catastrophes—exists in the present tense. It applies to people that have been displaced from Hurricane Michael, Hurricane Harvey, and Hurricane Katrina. It affects regions in East Africa that are experiencing increased water scarcity—a condition exacerbated by climate change.

    The World Bank Group has estimated that climate change will force 140 million people to migrate between now and 2050, including 17 million people in Latin America and 4 million people in Mexico and Central America. This migration has already started.

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