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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19 Firefighters Die Battling Arizona Wildfire

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 12:38 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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Step Inside the World's Largest Solar Boat

| Fri Jun. 21, 2013 12:13 PM EDT

The solar plane will land in New York City soon, but its water-borne counterpart is already here: Early this week the world's largest solar-powered boat steamed into lower Manhattan and docked in small marina, usually reserved for multimillion dollar yachts, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center tower. The three-year-old ship, dubbed "Turanor" after a term for solar power in The Lord of the Rings, is on a tour of the Atlantic from its home base in southern France, documenting how the warming sea is shifting the Gulf Stream, a powerful cross-ocean current that drives the weather of Europe and West Africa.

CHARTS: You Won't Believe How Much Disasters Cost Last Year

| Thu Jun. 20, 2013 4:14 PM EDT

2012 was the second-worst year on record for extreme weather events, both in number and in cost, according to a tally released this morning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Eleven major events—including tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes—racked up a collective bill of over $110 billion, with cropland damage from drought in the Midwest ($17.36 billion in crop insurance payments alone) and Hurricane Sandy, with a $60 billion price tag, as the most expensive items.

NOAA

As for this summer, the costs are still piling on: Feed and water scarcity have shrunk the nation's cattle supply to its lowest point since 1952, pushing beef prices to an all-time high, and NOAA scientists predict that pasture conditions will likely be worse this summer than last.

According to the latest forecast, although drought conditions have dropped 21 percent from their peak last September, nearly half of the country is still in some kind of drought, with the worst conditions moving west through the summer into California and Oregon.

"The drought has definitely been pushing westward," Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska told reporters, adding that the devastating wildfires that have recently hit states like Colorado and New Mexico are "just the start." 

NOAA

Svoboda added that lightning from the upcoming monsoon season in the Southwest created a particular wildfire risk in this still tinder-dry region, although Arizona and the central plains are expected to see some improvement of drought conditions, the result of a relatively wet spring:

NOAA

Are Fungus-Farming Ants the Key to Better Biofuel?

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 5:30 AM EDT

"If you have ants in your house," the great Harvard ecologist EO Wilson once said, "be kind to them." Keep this in mind the next time you want to flick one off the kitchen table: The tiny critters, which collectively weigh about as much as all of humanity, could wield a big weapon in the fight against climate change.

In the United States, corn-based ethanol is a big business, consuming 40 percent of the domestic corn crop and providing roughly 10 percent of the fuel supply, which would otherwise be dirty fossil fuels. But the practice of topping your tank off with corn is fraught with problems: Some argue that the crop should be used for food; it's sensitive to drought; and the ethanol-making process might be contributing to an E. coli epidemic, to name a few. That's why the Obama administration recently announced a plan to invest $2 billion in organic fuels that rely on things other than corn, including switchgrass and gas from cattle poo.

But this weekend, a group of scientists discovered a chemical key that could revitalize corn-based ethanol by allowing it to be made from stalks, leaves, and other bits beside the cob itself. This won't help much with the drought problem (less corn is still less corn), but it could alleviate the food vs. fuel debate and the E. coli problem when more kernels are saved to go straight to livestock. Turns out, the savior of ethanol could be the South American leafcutter ant.

Leafcutter ants make some of the largest underground colonies in the world, some with as many as 7 million residents. And, as the name suggests, many of them spend their days combing the rainforest for bits of leaves, gathering half the weight of a cow per colony every year. They carry this mass back into their tunnels and use it as fertilizer for a crop of fungus, which they then eat. Ant experts ("myrmecologists," if you care to know) have long believed that the fungus acts as a kind of external stomach for the ants, breaking down sugars in the leaves that the ants aren't equipped to handle themselves. In fact, it's not the fungus itself that breaks down the leaves, but chemical enzymes within it, and Frank Aylward, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says those same enzymes could be used to help break down corn byproducts to make fuel.

In a new study, Aylward sequenced the genome of the leafcutter ant's symbiotic fungus, and identified for the first time the exact enzymes that have evolved over millennia to efficiently break down plant material stored in the ant's underground tunnels.

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