Blue Marble

Is Climate Change Fueling Huge California Fires?

| Wed Oct. 24, 2007 10:37 PM EDT

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If not, they're a not-so-sneak preview. In fact, the catastrophic SoCal fires are consistent with what climate change models have been predicting for years. They may be a prelude to many more such events in the future, as vegetation grows heavier than usual and then ignites during prolonged droughts, says Ronald Neilson, a bioclimatologist at Oregon State University and with the USDA Forest Service, and a contributor to publications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize:

"This is exactly what we've been projecting to happen, both in short-term fire forecasts for this year and the longer term patterns that can be linked to global climate change. You can't look at one event such as this and say with certainty that it was caused by a changing climate. But things just like this are consistent with what the latest modeling shows, and may be another piece of evidence that climate change is a reality, one with serious effects. In the future, catastrophic fires such as those going on now in California may simply be a normal part of the landscape."

Fire forecast models developed by Neilson's research group at OSU and the Forest Service rely on several global climate models. When combined, they accurately predicted both the Southern California fires that are happening and the drought hitting Georgia and Florida, causing crippling water shortages. In studies released five years ago, Neilson and other OSU researchers predicted that the American West could become both warmer and wetter in the coming century, conditions that would lead to repeated, catastrophic fires larger than any in recent history.

Got a fire tent?

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Oh, and northern California might not get off so easy. IDEA forecasts of particulate suggest the smoke could blow ashore in San Francisco in the next 48 hours.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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The Greenest (Richest) Colleges

| Wed Oct. 24, 2007 6:07 PM EDT

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The Sustainable Endowments Institute released its 2008 College Sustainability Report Card this week. Download the full report (including a list of the 200 colleges included and their overall green grades) here.

The grades themselves are not especially interesting—with a few exceptions, giant endowment=giant sustainability program. While no one got an A, Harvard and Dartmouth received an A-, and Yale got a B+. Yawn.

But the report does offer a few more newsworthy nuggets. It's interesting to note, for example, that more than one in three schools included in the list have full-time staff dedicated to sustainability, and three in five schools have green building projects.

Weird Weather Watch: Southern California Fires

| Tue Oct. 23, 2007 3:44 PM EDT

By now, you've probably heard that there's a really big wildfire in the San Diego area, and it's being fueled by the Santa Ana winds. It's the worst fire in four years—which is saying something in Southern California. Fire season is especially bad this year due to the erratic weather that's the hallmark of climate change: First, record rainfall produces lots of brush; then, a record drought turned it into so much kindling. Add the Santa Ana winds, and you've got a conflagration. 170,000 acres, to be exact.

Almost 300,000 people have been asked to evacuate, and about 10,000 of them spent the night in Qualcomm stadium (formerly San Diego Stadium). Seems that as climate change progresses, more and more of us are going to be camping out in behemoth football stadiums. Their corporate sponsors are probably stoked.

Just Say No, Ewan McGregor

| Mon Oct. 22, 2007 9:44 PM EDT

Jeff Stark's short, Desserts, starring Ewan McGregor. Warning: kinda graphic, not for the squeamish or sweet-toothed. Warning for ADD viewers: slow paced, until . . . well, you'll see.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Scared Yet? Atmospheric CO2 Levels Growing - Correction, Exploding - Faster Than Imagined

| Mon Oct. 22, 2007 8:21 PM EDT

53616c7465645f5f20a59e5ebdd0818648f60e9ae43394d487a319f45e9e54bd.jpg Just in case anyone out there is deluded into thinking we're actually making progress on this issue because it's in the occasional headline, or, now and again, mentioned by a jaw-wagging politician. Here's the latest: Atmospheric carbon dioxide growth has increased 35 percent faster than expected since 2000.

The findings by the British Antarctic Survey and others, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that inefficiency in the use of fossil fuels drove up atmospheric CO2 by 17 percent since 2000. At the same time, the declining efficiency of natural land and ocean sinks drove it up another 18 percent.

The research shows that improvements in the carbon intensity of the global economy have stalled since 2000, after improving for 30 years, due to population growth and the growing global wealth. The decline in global sink efficiency, according to author Dr Corinne Le Qéré, "suggests that stabilization of atmospheric CO2 is even more difficult to achieve than previously thought. We found that nearly half of the decline in the efficiency of the ocean CO2 sink is due to the intensification of the winds in the Southern Ocean".

Hold onto your hats, peeps.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

California Fires From Space

| Mon Oct. 22, 2007 6:55 PM EDT

Here a couple of different perspectives on the wildfires in SoCal. One via Space.com from the International Space Station:

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These from NASA's MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center, taken three hours and 15 minutes apart, 21 Oct, show how the Santa Ana winds fanned embers into firestorms:

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Wondering where else is burning just now on our warming planet? Interested in the link between mega-fires and climate change? Take a look at the last 10 days. Yellow areas mark fire clusters:

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Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Factory Conditions Sicken Chinese Workers

| Mon Oct. 22, 2007 1:52 PM EDT

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The fact that lead-laced toys put kids at risk is bad enough, but Chinese factories also cause big problems for another population—workers.

A few of the ways factory employees risk their lives to produce goods bound for the U.S., according to the Salt Lake Tribune's series on the hazards of manufacturing plants in China:

China's CO2 Output Fueled By Us

| Fri Oct. 19, 2007 2:00 PM EDT

5293336_4e517670cf_m.jpg I've wondered about this for a while, as it becomes all too easy to blame China and do nothing ourselves. Now we learn that one quarter of China's greenhouse gas emissions are produced making goods exported to the West. The report by the UK's Tyndall Centre worked with 2004 data, the latest available. The percentage may well be higher now. The authors concluded: "The extent of 'exported carbon' from China should lead to some rethinking by government negotiators as they work towards a new climate change agreement."

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Wildfires Emit Mercury

| Wed Oct. 17, 2007 8:09 PM EDT

31846674_1755653108_m.jpg Forest fires and other blazes in the US release about 30 percent as much mercury as the nation's industrial sources. Initial estimates from the National Center for Atmospheric Research find that fires in Alaska, California, Oregon, Louisiana, and Florida emit particularly large quantities of the toxic metal, and the Southeast emits more than any other region. The mercury released by forest fires originally comes from industrial and natural sources.

The researchers estimate that fires in the continental US and Alaska release about 44 metric tons of mercury into the atmosphere yearly. They caution their estimates are preliminary and subject to a 50 percent or greater margin of error. A next step will be to examine how much mercury is deposited on nearby downwind areas, compared to how much travels around the hemisphere. Most mercury from fire is gaseous, traveling thousands of miles before coming down in rain or snow. About 15 percent is associated with airborne particles, like soot, some of which may fall to Earth near the fire. "We would like to determine the risk of mercury exposure for residents who live downwind of large-scale fires," says author Hans Friedli.

Even more disturbing in light of the fact that the number and extent of wildfires are forecast to increase—and in fact already are—another pesky byproduct of global warming.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Lights Out San Francisco

| Wed Oct. 17, 2007 7:33 PM EDT

logo-dark.png Sydney led the way last March. San Francisco is going dark this Saturday night, October 20, from 8-9pm, to send a message on global warming:

Lights Out San Francisco is a citywide energy conservation event on Oct. 20, 2007. On this night, we invite the entire city of San Francisco to install one compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) and turn off all non-essential lighting for one hour.

Word has it that both bridges and the Transamerica Pyramid are on board, and many restaurants will offer candlelight dining. There's also a great party going on in Dolores Park. Drop by. . .

But why just one CFL? And why wait for your city to catch on? Join in from afar.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.