Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Fukushima a "Manmade" Nuclear Betrayal: Japan Panel

| Thu Jul. 5, 2012 1:27 PM EDT

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team examines tsunami damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Giovanni Verlini / IAEA via FlickrInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team examines tsunami damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant:Giovanni Verlini | IAEA via Flickr

Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters. But the fustercluck at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was an epic man-made fail arising from a deeply-ingrained mindset among Japanese industry, government, and people, including a cultural reluctance to question authority.

That's the conclusion of a 600-page Japanese parliamentary report that draws on interviews with more than 1,000 people and hearings that lasted 900 hours. From the the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission report (English version here):

"It was a profoundly manmade disaster—that could and should have been foreseen and prevented."

The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation's right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly "manmade." We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.

There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures prior to 11 March 2011. The accident occurred because the plant operator TEPCO didn't take these measures, and because the regulatory bodies NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) went along with that:

They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place, or made decisions based on their organization's self interest, and not in the interest of public safety.

 

Layout of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant: The Fukushima  Nuclear Accident Independent  Investigation CommissionLayout of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant: 

The causes of the accident were all foreseeable prior to 11 March 2011, the report concludes. Yet Fukushima was unprepared and therefore incapable of withstanding the earthquake and tsunami. The people and organizations in control failed to develop the most basic safety requirements, including:

"If Japan had implemented measures in the B.5.b subsection of the US security order that followed the 9/11 terrorist attack, the Fukushima accident may have been preventable."
  • Assessing the probability of damage
  • Preparing for containing collateral damage from such a disaster
  • Developing evacuation plans for the public in the case of a serious radiation release.

The government, regulators, and TEPCO also failed to:

  • Implement structural reinforcements needed to conform to new guidelines
  • Create regulations to minimize the known risk of core damage from large tsunami waves
  • Take any measures to address a known risk of a total electricity outage from large tsunami waves
  • Act in any way on the known risk of a loss of seawater pumps from large tsunami waves, therefore setting the stage for reactor core damage

Timeline of people in nuclear evacuation zone learning about nuclear disaster: The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation CommissionTimeline of people in nuclear evacuation zone learning about the nuclear disaster: The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission

The report also analyzes when and how people in the nuclear evacuation zone learned about the nuclear disaster (image above). It quotes from several residents on the complicating effects of unpreparedness:

"If there had been even a word about a nuclear power plant when the evacuation was ordered, we could have reacted reasonably, taken our valuables with us or locked up the house before we had left. We had to run with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. It is such a disappointment every time we are briefly allowed to return home only to find out that we have been robbed again."

"We wanted to hear clearly that we would not be able to return for awhile. I couldn't bring my valuables with me. In particular, because records of medical treatment were left at home, my parents’ conditions worsened during evacuation."


Damage to Fukushima prefecture: Hajime NAKANO via FlickrDamage to Fukushima prefecture: Hajime NAKANO via FlickrThe tone of the report is simultaneously self-searching and scathing:

The Commission believes the root causes of this accident cannot be resolved and that the people's confidence cannot be recovered as long as this "manmade disaster" is seen as the result of error by a specific individual. The underlying issue is the social structure that results in "regulatory capture," and the organizational, institutional, and legal framework that allows individuals to justify their own actions, hide them when inconvenient, and leave no records in order to avoid responsibility. Across the board, the Commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety. We found a habit of adherence to conditions based on conventional procedures and prior practices, with a priority on avoiding risk to the organization. We found an organization-driven mindset that prioritized benefits to the organization at the expense of the public.

The report casts system-wide blame, reinforcing doubt about the wisdom of Japan's restart of its nuclear reactor in the town of Ohi in Fukui prefecture on Sunday—the first restart since all reactors were shut down post Fukushima.

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Aerial Firefighting Capacity Declines as Wildfires Grow

| Tue Jul. 3, 2012 1:09 PM EDT

C-130 air tanker dropping water: Technical Sergeant Rick Sforza, United States Air Force, via Wikimedia CommonsC-130 air tanker dropping water: Technical Sergeant Rick Sforza, United States Air Force, via Wikimedia CommonsThe US Air Force, which grounded the remaining seven of its eight C-130 air tankers after a crash in South Dakota on Sunday, has cleared the fleet to fly again today.

The downed C-130 was from an Air National Guard wing in Charlotte, North Carolina. Four of six crew members are confirmed killed, reports MSNBC.

The Air Force C-130s are are called upon when US Forest Service can't adequately fight wildfires with private and commercial fleets. This year all eight Air Force tankers were activated simultaneously to fight wildfires in the West. The last time that happened was in 2008.

Current large wildlfires underway in the US: USDACurrent large wildfires underway in the US (click here for larger version): USDA

You can see in the map above the location of large fires in the US as of 03 July 2012. Until the seven remaining USAF C-130s get back online, all 55 of these fires will be sharing 14 civilian air tankers for air support.

That's a sharp decline in aerial firefighting resources since a decade ago when 44 tankers were devoted to firefighting. Today only nine air tankers are flown exclusively on US Forest Service contracts, reports the Guardian:

President Barack Obama signed a bill last month hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation's rundown aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24m, but the first planes won't be available until mid-August.

Further hampering the US fleet, another aerial firefighting plane, a Lockheed P2V, crashed in Utah recently, killing two pilots. Another crash-landed in Nevada with no loss of life.

 

Fire probability maps based on ensemble models of mean change (click for larger version): Max A. Mortiz, et al, EcosphereFire maps showing mean change (A, C) and degree of model agreement (B, D) for the periods 2010-2039 (top) and 2070-2099 (bottom). Click for larger version: Max A. Moritz, et al, Ecosphere Meanwhile a paper published last month in Exosphere, the open-access, peer-reviewed journal of the Ecological Society of America, forecasts big increases in wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere this century as global temperatures continue to rise.

As you can see in the map above (image D), the intermountain West of North America, large portions of Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, northern Scandinavia, plus most of Central Asia and Siberia are predicted to suffer 90 percent more fires between 2077 and 2099. Most of the rest of the Northern hemisphere is forecast to experience 66 percent more wildfires.

High Park Wildfire, Colorado: The National Guard via FlickrHigh Park Wildfire, Colorado: The National Guard via FlickrThe two trends—declining aerial firefighting capacity and increasing wildfires—makes for a highly combustible future.

Toss in the match from a recent paper in PNAS showing how wildfire suppression in the American West beginning in the 20th century created a monster build-up of combustible fuels, combined with a spread of fire-prone species and increased tree mortality from insects and warming temperatures...

Well, it looks like we're in danger of losing control of "the control of fire"—the only thing that truly separated us from other animals in our early evolution.

I wrote more about the PNAS paper here.

72 Percent of the US Is Experiencing Dry or Drought Conditions

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 2:21 PM EDT

High Park Wildfire, Colorado: USDA via FlickrHigh Park Wildfire, Colorado: USDA via Flickr

The extreme weather that began in June (see Deanna Pan's MoJo coverage here) has rolled over into July.

Yesterday—only the first day of the month—was brutal enough to shatter 27 records and tie 24 records for the highest ever July temperatures (map below).

US monthly highest maximum temperature records set on 01 July 2012 NASA | National Climatic Data CenterUS monthly highest-maximum-temperature records set on 01 July 2012: NASA | National Climatic Data Center

More amazingly, the first day of the month also broke 6 and tied 11 records for the highest ever recorded temperatures on any date at sites in Georgia (Rome: 108°F), Kentucky (Barren River Lake: 108°F), North Carolina (Tapoco: 106°F), and South Carolina (Grnvl Spart Intl Ap: 107°F).

Extreme drought conditions fueling heatwave and wildfires: NOAAExtreme drought conditions fueling heat wave and wildfires: NOAAPart of what's fueling the insane heat are the same extreme drought conditions feeding the wildfires out west. (Tim McDonnell's MoJo wildfire explainer here.)

As you can see in the map above, 72 percent of the lower 48 is now classified as experiencing dry or drought conditions. And don't expect things to get better soon. 

 

July to September temperature and precipitation predictions (click for larger version): NASA | Climate Prediction CenterJuly to September temperature and precipitation predictions (click for larger version): NASA | Climate Prediction CenterNOAA's Climate Prediction Center's drought monitor (above) shows drought, plus anomalously high temperatures, persisting for the next three months. 

Only the Pacific Northwest is expected to harbor below normal temperatures. Seattle, expect a tourist boom.

500 mb chart for 0700 30 June 2012. As high temperature dome slides into the Southeast another is developing in the Southwest:Note that another dome of high pressure is developing in the southwest again: NOAA500 mb chart for 0700 30 June 2012: NOAA The good news is that the high-pressure ridge that brought so much misery to the eastern US is slowly sliding westward.

The bad news is that another one is building behind it in the Southwest.

Heat index: NOAA via WikipediaHeat index: NOAA via Wikipedia

Making matters worse, the extremely high temperatures in the East are abetted by extremely high humidities. Aberdeen, Mississippi suffered 104°F temperatures yesterday. But its dewpoint of 84° at 3 pm made for a heat index (air temp + relative humidity) of a paralyzing 136.

 Sea surface temperatures anomalies on 02 July 2012 (click for larger version): NOAASea surface temperature anomalies on 02 July 2012 (click for larger version): NOAA

As you can see in this map of global sea surface temperature anomalies, the ocean is considerably warmer than average in most of the Gulf of Mexico, and scarily above average off the Eastern Seaboard. That's like gasoline to the flames of humidity.

(Note also the Mediterranean's crazy hot water temps and correlate with Spain's epic heat and wildfires currently underway.)

Tropical Storm Debby rainfall totals: NOAATropical Storm Debby rainfall totals: NOAAThe only force that's likely to cool off US waters off anytime soon is a tropical cyclone.

The waters around Florida are currently cooler than average (see sea surface temps map, above) thanks to the devastation of Tropical Storm Debby last week.

Fire and brimstone? Or flood and havoc? Doesn't seem to be a whole lot of comfortable middle ground anywhere these days.

Arctic Sea Ice Dips Below Ominous Milestone

| Thu Jun. 14, 2012 1:21 PM EDT

Arctic sea ice: Patrick Kelley | USGSArctic sea ice: Patrick Kelley | USGS

This week the extent of Arctic sea ice dipped below the extent for 2007, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). As you may remember, the 2007 season holds the record for lowest Arctic sea-ice extent in recorded history.

National Snow and Ice Data CenNational Snow and Ice Data Center

Walt Meier at NSIDC tells me the melt is accelerating, notably in the Bering Sea, where higher than normal winter ice hung around two to four weeks longer than average. But it's thawing fast now.

 

Arctic Ocean, 14 June 2012, sea ice opening at Beaufort and Laptev seas: NASA | MODIS | TerraArctic Ocean, 14 June 2012, sea ice opening at Beaufort and Laptev seas: NASA

The Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and Canada and the Laptev Sea north of Siberia are also melting quickly. "We don't normally see ice opening so fast in those areas," says Meier. "This is an indication that the ice there is pretty thin."

As you can see from the satellite mosaic of the Arctic for today, 14 June (above), the rapidly melting Laptev Sea lies at the downstream end of the mighty Lena River in Siberia. The Beaufort Sea lies at the downstream end of Canada's mightiest river, the MacKenzie River (delta not visible)—where May temperatures rose well above the 20th-century average (see last image, below).

Arctic sea ice thickness derived from the 2012 Operation IceBridge “quick-look” data products, spanning 14 March to 02 April 2012: S. Farrell and N. Kurtz, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.Arctic sea ice thickness derived from the 2012 Operation IceBridge “between 14 March and 02 April 2012: S. Farrell and N. Kurtz, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.Ice thickness data (above) show the Beaufort's sea ice to be thin—3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters). That's the signature of first-year ice. Which means it will be prone to melting completely this summer. Sorry, polar bears, bearded seals, ringed seals, and walruses.

 

Global temperature anomalies, May 2012: NOAAGlobal temperature anomalies, May 2012: NOAA

Overlay the current sea ice melt map onto this map of May 2012 temperature anomalies. You can see how warm it was in the Beaufort Sea (upper left). The Laptev Sea / Lena River region is not visible in this view.

To put things in a bigger perspective, the global temperature average in May 2012 was the second warmest in history. Records date back to 1880.

May 2012 also marks the 36th consecutive May and the 327th consecutive month—that's more than 27 years—with a global temperature above the 20th century average, reports NOAA's Environmental Visualization Laboratory.

2012 Wildfire Forecast

| Wed Jun. 13, 2012 2:42 PM EDT

Whitewater-Baldy Complex wildfire, Gila National Forest, New Mexico: Kari Greer | USFS Gila National ForestWhitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, New Mexico: Kari Greer | USFS Gila National Forest

Wildfire season is well underway. Based on the number of acres burned in 2012 to date, this year is running below the 10-year average (1,012,419 acres compared to 1,546,333 acres). What's notable though is that although there have been fewer fires (24,062 this year-to-date versus 33,755 for the 10-year average), a few are giant beasts:

  • Honey Prairie Complex Fire in the Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia, began burning in 2011 and was only officially declared extinguished a year later in April 2012 after burning 309,200 acres (483 square miles)
  • Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire (more below), largest in New Mexico history, currently burning 280,075 acres
  • High Park Fire in Colorado (great MoJo piece by Tim McDonnell and James West here) now burning 46,600 acres
  • Little Bear fire in New Mexico currently burning 37,520 acres
  • Easter Complex in Virginia (now inactive) burned 35,821 acres
  • County Line Fire in Florida now burning 34,936 acres
  • Duck Lake Fire in Michigan now burning 21,069 acres
  • Sunflower in Arizona now burning 17,618 acres
  • Gladiator in Arizona now burning 16,240 acres

All numbers courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center's (NIFC) latest incident management report. You can see the full list, updated frequently, here.

Whitewater-Baldy Complex burn severity map as of 9 June 2012 (click for larger version): Brian Park | USFSWhitewater-Baldy Complex burn severity map as of 9 June 2012 (click for larger version): Brian Park / USFS

The enormous and aggressive Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila National Forest began as two fires—the Baldy Fire ignited 9 May and the Whitewater Fire detected 16 May—both ignited by lightning. They merged on 24 May and are now burning in terrain the US Forest Service lists as extreme: so remote, steep, and rugged as to severely hamper firefighting efforts.

The good news on this fire is that a different kind of management may lessen its impacts compared to a similar megafire last year, the Las Conchas, also in New Mexico. That 2011 conflagration burned so hot in such dense vegetation that all life burned to the ground. Later, seasonal thunderstorms flooded the denuded slopes and clogged waterways with silt and ash. But things may be better for the Gila. Since the 1970s, Gila National Forest managers have let wildfires burn during favorable conditions in order to knock back the vegetation that fuels fire. Consequently, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire has burned with low-to-moderate intensity. Hopefully much will survive it.

High Park Fire, Colorado, burn map as of 6 June 2012 (click for larger version): USFSHigh Park Fire, Colorado, burn map as of 12 June 2012 (click for larger version): USFS

As for the rapidly growing High Park Fire, now the third largest in Colorado history, Jeff Masters at Wunderblog points out how it's abetted by a warming climate that fuels the spread of pine-killing beetles: 

According to the Denver Post, the High Park Fire is burning in an area where 70% of the trees that have been killed by mountain pine beetles; the insects have devastated forests in western North America in recent years. As our climate change blogger, Dr. Ricky Rood explains, the pine beetle is killed (controlled) by temperatures less than -40°F. This is at the edge of the coldest temperatures normally seen in the U.S., and these cold extremes have largely disappeared since 1990. In Colorado, the lack of -40°F temperatures in winter has allowed the beetles to produce two broods of young per year, instead of one. The beetles are also attacking the pine trees up to a month earlier than the historic norm.

National Interagency Fire CenterNational Interagency Fire CenterNational Interagency Fire Center

The maps above show the potential for significant fire for the month of June (top) and for the July-to-September season (bottom). "Potential" is defined as the likelihood that a wildland fire event will require mobilization of firefighting resources from outside the area where the fire originates. As you can see, things may get worse in the West, but better in the Upper Midwest. The full NIFC report is here.

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