Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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Map: Oysters, Reefs, and Swamps Protect Billions' Worth of Real Estate—for Free

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 10:00 AM EDT
Natural reefs like this one in Florida protect billions of dollars in real estate, the study shows.

Among the hundreds of recommendations listed in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $20 billion plan to protect New York from climate change is a call to stock up on oysters. Not the kind you'd want to knock back with a nice pilsner on a Friday afternoon: The idea is to build large underwater oyster reefs around the harbor that could prevent coastal erosion and absorb storm surges. "Soft" infrastructure like this—reefs, wetlands, dunes, and other "natural" systems—is gaining in popularity over "hard" levees and sea walls as an effective way to insulate cities from sea level rise.

Turns out, some of the best of these defenses might already be in place: Yesterday the journal Nature published the first-ever nationwide maps that reveal just how much existing coastal habitats are going to save our butts from rising seas and wild storms. Remove reefs, coastal forests, marshes, kelp beds, and other coastal habitats, the study finds, and twice as much coastline and 1.4 million more people will be highly exposed to climate risks.

Stanford marine ecologist Katie Arkema and her colleagues pulled a vast trove of data—Census Bureau population stats; property values from real estate site Zillow; wave and wind exposure data from NOAA; published climate models; and maps of coastal ecosystems from the scientific literature—and mixed them together to visualize where these natural systems offer the most, or least, protection.

The map below shows where the greatest risk from sea level rise and storm surge will be in 2100, based on models from the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Red areas represent not just places where sea levels are projected to rise the most, but also factor in the presence of protective offshore habitats; the type of shoreline (beach, cliff, etc.); and the spot's exposure to wind, waves, and other weather. Coastal southern Florida, for example, which is generally expected to get inundated by sea level rise, actually appears yellow, because of its abundant ocean-absorbing wetlands. Except Miami, that is: That city, the little red dot at the bottom right corner of the state, is still screwed. But things could be worse. The inset bar graph shows how many more people would be in high-risk red areas if those natural barriers were removed; in Florida, roughly an additional 300,000 people would be exposed, in New York another 300,000. 

Courtesy Nature

19 Firefighters Die Battling Arizona Wildfire

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 1:38 PM EDT
The Yarnell Hill fire rages north of Phoenix.

UPDATE, Monday, July 1, 5:00 p.m. EDT: The emergency shelters used by wildland firefighters have a good track record for preventing deaths, but are rendered useless if put in direct contact with fire, a firefighting equipment specialist for the US Forest Service said.

Tony Petrilli said the most up-to-date version of the shelter, in use since 2003, has been deployed 116 times with only two fatalities. Essentially an aluminum sleeping bag coated with silica, the shelter is designed to capture breathable air and keep out heat. But if a fire burns directly over the bag, it can fall apart, Petrilli said; firefighters are trained to look for a spot to roll the bag out that will be away from direct flames, but in the type of drastic situation where the bag is needed there is no guarantee such a spot will be available, and emergency shelter sites are not predetermined, he said.

The standard-issue emergency fire shelter, from a Forest Service handbook on their use. Courtesy US Forest Service

"The best instructions we can give is that it's up to you to find the best deployment site," he said.

Petrilli declined to comment on the effectiveness of these shelters in yesterday's deaths, citing the ongoing investigation. It's unclear at this stage whether all the firefighters who lost their lives were able to make it into their shelters in time, or whether the shelters could have failed.

Heat will eventually seep into the bag if left near a fire for more than a few minutes, Petrilli said. The human body can withstand temperatures of up to 300 degrees F for a short period of time, but temperatures within wildfires can easily exceed 1,000 degrees.

"Anything wrapped in foil that gets exposed to heat, is going to heat up," he said. "It's only a matter of time."


19 wildland firefighters were killed in Arizona yesterday fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, a forested town in the mountains north of Phoenix.

The group, part of the City of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, was trying to escape from the worsening blaze to a predesignated safety zone when the fire, driven by high winds, suddenly changed direction and overwhelmed the team, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department, Wade Ward, told Mother Jones.

"It happened too fast," Ward said. "It's nothing you can outrun."

Ward said at the time of the deaths, the massive fire was speeding through the forest at up to a mile a minute, with flames up to 100 feet high. One member of the crew survived, who had gone to relocate the group's vehicle when the flames swept in.

The incident took the lives of the most firefighters since 9/11, when 341 firefighters were killed, according to the National Fire Protection Association, and the most wildfire fighter deaths since the 1933 Griffith Park fire in California, which killed 86. Until Sunday, Arizona had lost only 22 firefighters to wildfires since 1955, far fewer than Colorado or California, according to federal data. Arizona, like much of the Southwest, is in the midst of an ongoing drought, one of the affects of climate change scientists believe is likely to worsen wildfires into the future.

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