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Environment

27 Aug 2013
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The Rim Fire started small enough, on Aug. 17—a 200-acre blaze burning toward a place called Jawbone Ridge from a north-facing slope in the rugged Clavey River canyon, west of California’s Yosemite National Park. The area was isolated, and no structures were immediately threatened. By the 19th, local news sites were reporting 2,500 acres burned with evacuations advised for some neighboring communities. By the 22nd, the fire had exploded to more than 53,000 acres, and then it doubled in size the following day as it roared into Yosemite itself, making national headlines. A video shot from a Channel Islands Air National Guard plane on Aug. 22 shows a towering mushroom cloud of smoke leaning all the way to the horizon, lit gold by flame and low-angle sun, and casting a dark shadow across forested hills. The pilots point out El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall off to the right,…
26 Aug 2013
Editor’s Note: On July 26, the Independent published a piece on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip, a project by Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. The goal of their road trip was to examine how people across the country are adapting their lives due to climate change. On July 21 and 22, Howard and Goldstein spent some time at Joshua Tree National Park. Here’s their story on the park. To read about their entire summer-long journey, visit adaptationstories.com. The desert has much to teach us about the marvels of adaptation. Relentless sun, little water, and summer temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit can make a forbidding world for non-desert dwellers. Yet hundreds of species conserve moisture and beat the heat in fascinating ways. —Joshua Tree National Park visitors’ map Sweltering July is the off-season at Joshua Tree…
16 Aug 2013
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Becky Quintana walks along the gravel shoulder of a rural two-lane road through the sprawling orange groves of California’s Central Valley, the snow-white jags of the Sierra Nevada at her back. “On a clear day, it’s like you can almost touch the mountains,” says the 57-year-old school bus driver, who has lived all her life in Seville, 35 miles south of Fresno. The vast majority of the town’s 500 residents are Latinos, and most toil for meager wages in Tulare County’s vast nut, olive and citrus orchards. The nearby Kaweah River, which flows from headwaters in the high peaks of the Sierra, is cool and clean. But most of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and delivered to a faraway mosaic of farms and cities. In spite of Seville’s proximity to the Kaweah, the tiny town’s drinking water doesn’t come from the river, but from wells punched into the…
09 Aug 2013
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Amphibians are vanishing at an alarming rate—even from areas we think of as pristine and protected. California’s Sierra Nevada range is a prime example of this global problem: Five out of seven amphibian species there are threatened. Researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly why ponds that once held mountain yellow-legged frogs or California red-legged frogs are now devoid of amphibians. In a new study, a U.S. Geological Survey group focusing on how pesticides affect amphibians tested common Pacific chorus frogs and their habitats, including Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoia National Monument, for around 100 agricultural chemicals. Even though researchers have looked at pesticides in Sierra Nevada amphibians for years, the new study’s most commonly detected chemicals—two fungicides and one herbicide—have never been found in amphibians until now. “As pesticide use changes, our studies have to evolve as well,” says Kelly Smalling, a USGS hydrology and chemistry researcher, and…
06 Aug 2013
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For nearly six hours last week, members of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee gathered to hear comments about a bill that could overhaul the EPA’s ability to regulate toxic chemicals. Hailed by a panelist from West Virginia as “the best, perhaps last, chance to reform” the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the new Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) is the first such proposal to have won bipartisan support since the original law passed in 1976—and thus has a chance at becoming law. However, critics say that, as currently drafted, the CSIA could actually be detrimental to the cause of regulating toxins. California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined the attorneys general from eight other states to submit a letter on July 31 to the Senate committee, raising concerns that the new bill will make it impossible for states to continue regulating chemicals themselves. They worry that existing regulations…
26 Jul 2013
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There are all sorts of reasons to hit the highway this time of year. You might be trying to escape our recent extremes of desert heat, bound for cooler high country and the freezing plunge of alpine lakes, or bone-chilling swells along the Pacific Coast. Or, perhaps, you’re the sort whose perfect lark includes the world’s largest ball of twine or the International Banana Museum. Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, had something different in mind when they embarked this June on their Great American Adaptation Road Trip. After earning master’s degrees in environmental policy, the young women hoped to see firsthand how people—from city planners to farmers to federal officials to neighbors—are adapting their lives and livelihoods to cope with climate change. “We wanted to focus on what they’re doing to move past the conversation, that…
21 Jul 2013
Minutes before 4 p.m. on a sizzling September day two years ago, right at the time when they were most needed, San Diego’s air conditioners suddenly died. Thousands of television and computer screens also flickered into darkness. Stoplights stopped working; gas stations ceased pumping; and traffic slowed to a snarl. Trains ground to a halt, and planes idled on the runway. Wastewater treatment pumps shut down, spewing some 4 million gallons of raw sewage into the Pacific. Around 2.7 million “customers”—amounting to anywhere from 5 to 7 million people—lost their power, with some remaining in darkness for 12 hours or more. As commuters extricated themselves from highway gridlock, and batteries faded away on millions of electronic devices, folks flocked to the handful of neighborhood bars that—thanks to generators—were able to keep their lights and refrigeration going. There, they could drink away the darkness and speculate as to what had caused…
12 Jul 2013
Peter Stehr is an apple farmer. But when he had a heart attack in 2002, he decided he needed to diversify his income, so he and some associates got a loan and put up a few .6-megawatt wind turbines in his orchard. Today, one of them still spins over a row of apple trees, kicking out some 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, which he sells to the grid for about $120,000. Plenty of Western ranchers and farmers could use that sort of cash, especially in these days of extended drought, when the ditches run dry after the first cutting of hay. But Stehr lives in Germany, outside of Hamburg, and his wind-powered windfall is the offspring of that nation’s Energiewende—inadequately translated as "energy transition"—that encourages renewable energy and is phasing out nuclear power. I joined 17 other European and American journalists to visit Stehr in June as…
11 Jul 2013
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A good friend of mine who is a wildfire medic was at the airport, en route to his next assignment, when I called to ask him, in that helpless way we do, to be safe, and to see how he was handling the tragic news from Arizona, where 19 hotshots lost their lives on June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. He didn't know any of the Granite Mountain Hotshots personally. But on-the-job loss of life hits everyone in the fire community hard. It's a reminder of their own mortality, and of the calculated risks their own fire families take every day. "On my last fire, the whole division had to run to the safety zone," he told me. Safety zones are clearings firefighters can escape to if fire behavior changes and threatens the welfare of those on the fire line. Such escapes happen "more than people think," he told…
05 Jul 2013
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Ah, San Diego: As Coachella Valley residents know, the city to the south features great weather, a zoo with adorable panda bears, sandy beaches, turquoise swimming pools—and very little water. Unlike other arid Southwestern cities, San Diego doesn’t have an aquifer to draw its drinking water from, so it imports about 80 percent of it. For many years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supplied most of that water. But a policy that would allow the Los Angeles-dominated agency to cut San Diego’s supply by 50 percent during drought has always made the city uneasy. For years, San Diego has been looking for ways to wean itself off L.A’s supply, and in the 1990s, the city began eyeing the Colorado River, which is diverted through the desert in a series of huge concrete canals to the Imperial Valley, where about 80 percent of the country’s winter vegetables are grown.…