Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Questions with No Easy Answers

There was so much news about what is happening to the planet at the moment that it’s hard to keep up. Over the 30 day period ending the first week of September, the US had massive wildfires in California, simultaneous heat waves on the East and West Coasts, Tropical Storm Fred, and Hurricanes Henri and Ida. On top of that, July was Earth's hottest month in 142 years of modern record keeping. I'd run out of room if I listed all the other events worldwide.

Although the fast-moving remnants of hurricanes Henri and Ida blew through Massachusetts quickly, they dumped a lot of rain in a very short period of time. In Central Massachusetts, they were rated as 25-year storms, or storms that have a 1 in 25 chance of occurring in a given year (I know, it’s confusing). These storms occurred less than two weeks apart. There's no statistical reason why that cannot happen . . . but it’s happening more often.

Tropical depression Ida killed 5 times as many people in the Northeastern US, than Category 4 hurricane Ida did in Louisiana. The reason is flooding. 150 mph winds notwithstanding, the city of New Orleans was spared flooding due to its $14 billion Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. Northeastern Cities – not so much.

NY City got 6 to 9 inches of rain at a rate of up to 3 inches an hour. For NY, Ida was a 500-year event. The storm sewer systems, some built a century ago, could not handle anything like it, so flash floods, water fountaining from manholes, people drowning in basements or their cars, and cascades flowing into subways were the result.

NY city wasn’t prepared for Ida. It could be decades before another 500-year event hits the city . . . or not. Research by scientists at Rutgers University estimates that 500-year events may start coming every 24 years. Given that the number of Category 4+ North Atlantic hurricanes per decade have increased 10-fold over the last century, another Ida this year is not out of the question.

The reason we are not prepared for 500-year storms is because it’s a numbers game, a risk assessment. Is it worth spending to prepare for a low probability-high impact event?  Historically, the answer has been no.

Massachusetts requires stormwater systems be built to withstand a 100-year event. Over the last decade, we’ve seen several years where there have been multiple 100-year storms in Massachusetts. Are 100-year storms now 50 or 25-year storms?

Both academic institutions and government agencies have reported the trend toward more frequent and intense storms in the Northeast for over a decade. As the atmosphere gets warmer, the trend is very likely going to get worse because warmer air can hold more water. As an aside – it could also mean more intense snowfall events in winter.

Clearly, we need to recalibrate the definition of a low-probability event.

Because of Ida, state and local governments are now adamantly vowing to strengthen infrastructure and prepare for these more frequent and intense storms. Resilience! Adaptation! Cities big and small will want new protection like the New Orleans system which took years and billions of dollars to complete.

About that New Orleans system . . . outside of it, coastal Louisiana was completely devastated from floods and storm surge. In addition, the system is expected to be obsolete within the next few years, due to subsidence, rising sea levels and stronger storms.

A couple of years back, Boston evaluated building a massive system to keep storm surges and sea level rise out of Boston Harbor. Due to huge cost and quick obsolescence, the city opted out.

Resilience is about springing back to the way things were before, and adaptation is about conforming to new or changed circumstances. We will have to decide where, when and how we choose one over the other.

How large an area can you protect? How high can you build your walls? How big can you make your pumps? How many people and businesses can you protect? How much do you want to spend? When is it time to call it quits and just move out of the way?

None of these questions have easy answers. But these are the questions we as a society need to start asking ourselves.

Published in the Village News (Massachusetts), Friday, October 1, 2021

Saturday, July 31, 2021

You know it’s bad when . . .

You know it’s bad when the AARP Bulletin has an article entitled "What you Need to Know About Climate Change” with a subtitle of “How it’s already affecting your health, home and safety – and what you can do about it.”

You know it’s bad when Consumer Reports has an article entitled “Best Air Purifiers for Wildfire Smoke.”

The articles are not bad in and of themselves. What they reveal is that the impacts of climate change are finally making their way into people’s everyday lives. Of course, the articles don’t say anything about what you can do to slow or stop climate change, just what you can do to deal with it.

The articles suggest ways to adapt. Your air is choked with wildfire soot? Get a better air conditioner filter. Planning to retire in the sunbelt? Maybe Toledo is a safer place. Possibility of power loss is growing? Buy a backup generator. Your bucket list travel destinations are endangered (think Glacier National Park)? Don’t put that trip off. The list goes on.

What these recommendations all have in common is the assumption that you can afford to do any of these things - that you have retirement savings, that you have an air conditioner, that you can move or buy a backup generator. The list goes on.

According to Market Watch, the median American household has $11,700 in savings. The bottom 20% of households have no savings. The Economic Policy Institute states that about 50% of families have no retirement savings. Of course, the numbers skew even lower the less education you have or your race. Picking up and moving, or buying a better air conditioner (let alone having one in the first place) is a luxury for a lot of Americans.

There is no doubt that people lower on the economic rungs of our country are now struggling with the social and economic impacts of the long-predicted increase in extreme weather events. Second and third world countries have been dealing with impacts for a couple of decades now. We just don’t hear about it much.

But the affluent are no longer immune. Take this headline from the July 18th edition of the Boston Globe: “’No one is safe’: Extreme weather batters the wealthy world.” A sentence in the article struck me: “The extreme weather disasters across Europe and North America have driven home two essential facts of science and history: The world as a whole is neither prepared to slow down climate change nor live with it.”

Seattle, home of Amazon, broiled at the end of June, with temperatures exceeding 35 F above normal. Germany, the most affluent and industrialized country in Europe, suffered extreme flooding unlike any in living memory. Both were due to stagnant weather systems which used to be rare but not anymore. Both caused the deaths of hundreds of people.

Most of us living in the fairly affluent suburbs and exurbs of Boston are probably not too concerned about catastrophic floods, raging wildfires or deadly heat waves, but as events of the last few weeks demonstrate, we cannot be complacent.

As I write this, the skies above Westborough are hazy with smoke from wildfires 3,000 miles away in Oregon. Commonwealth officials have issued an air quality alert for Eastern Massachusetts. Clearly we are not immune to far-away events.

Events elsewhere can impact the flow of electricity to our homes, the food delivered to our supermarkets, the fuel for our SUVs, the cost of our insurance, and all the other little things we take for granted in our comfortable lives.

Complacency got us into this mess. It won’t get us out of it. 

Published in the Village News, Westborough, MA, July30th, 2021

Saturday, July 10, 2021

It All Comes Down to Sweat

My cousin Steph and I constantly needle each other on Facebook about the climates where each of us live. She’s in Tucson, AZ. She’ll remark about how the cold water coming out of the tap is the same temperature as the hot or how her backyard weather station said yesterday’s maximum temperature 127 F. I will ask her to tell me again why she lives there. Steph replies that “you can’t shovel sunshine and besides it’s dry heat.” My comeback: “The inside of an oven set to broil is also dry heat.”

In Tucson, summer average high temperatures are in the low 100’s. Residents don’t bat an eyelash because that is the climate in the desert southwest. And it’s dry. If the relative humidity exceeds 50%, that’s sticky. Normal humidity is less than 25%. But as a friend of mine in Las Vegas tells me, “I don’t care if it’s dry heat. When it’s 120 F, it’s just [expletive] hot.” 120 F is definitely heatwave territory out that way, even if it’s dry as dust.

Here in the humid Northeast, it’s a heatwave when the temperature exceeds 90 F for three days. What gives? To paraphrase James Carville – “It’s the humidity, stupid.” 

If it’s 92 F and 10% humidity, the heat index or real feel temperature is 87 F. Change the humidity to 89% and the real feel temperature is 130 F, extreme danger, heat stroke territory. We can get both during a New England heatwave.

Of course, high temperatures with or without humidity will kill you. It’s the combination of both that determines deadly conditions. It all comes down to sweat.

When our distant ancestors lived in Africa 3 million years ago as it became more arid, they evolved to efficiently dissipate heat by losing body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands. As sweat evaporates from our bodies, it cools our skin. Problem is, sweat is mostly water. Since we cannot store water like a camel, when it’s hot, we need to constantly replenish the water we lose to cool ourselves.

Humans are between 55 and 65 percent water. If you sweat without replenishing water, bad things start to happen pretty quickly. If you exercise vigorously, you can sweat two pounds of water in an hour (a pound is equivalent to about a 16-oz glass of water). This means that dehydration can occur very quickly, especially if sweat rapidly evaporates. The more water you lose, the less you can regulate your body temperature. You lose 10 glasses of water; you’ll damage major organs. 14 glasses and you're dead.

You can also die from heatstroke just by sitting outside doing nothing when the real feel is 130 F. Sweat cannot evaporate, so your body temperature can rise to fatal levels in minutes.

According to an article in the Boston Globe, using data from NOAA, Massachusetts had about 4 days above 90 per year until the year 2000. Now, it’s 10. Projections range to an additional 6 to 22 days by 2050 and an additional 9 to 52 days by 2100. Imagine up to two months per year above 90. This is basically the climate of Atlanta, Georgia now and the future climate of southern New England.

These shifts are not limited to the Northeastern US. We already know what’s going on in the American Southwest. Blistering high temperatures leading to long-term drought and longer and more vicious wildfire seasons are the norm. Siberia is in a heatwave for the second year in a row, with hundreds of wildfires.

Worldwide, the projections get even uglier. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:

“. . . depending on scenarios of population growth and warming, over the coming 50 y, 1 to 3 billion people are projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 y. Absent climate mitigation or migration, a substantial part of humanity will be exposed to mean annual temperatures warmer than nearly anywhere today.”

The increase in land area subject to heat/humidity levels which make it life threatening just to be outdoors will span major portions of southern Asia within the next few decades, where clean water and air conditioning are an extreme luxury. Currently, we see a few days of such conditions in this region, but they are predicted to span weeks in the coming decades. Those billions in less developed countries will simply not be able to adapt. They will move. 

What could possibly go wrong?

Published in the Village News (Massachusetts), July 1, 2021

Friday, June 11, 2021

Wither the Monarch


Photo attribution:  By Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The other night, I watched a short documentary about John J. Audubon, after whom the National Audubon Society is named. His life’s work was to make a complete pictorial record of all species of North American birds. He was a detailed observer of nature, keenly aware of the world around him.

One portion of the film struck me. During his later journeys, Audubon noted how rapidly the American landscape was changing, how clearing and development of former wildlands had led to habitat fragmentation and disappearance of formerly abundant bird species in the space of a few decades during the early 19th century. It was the story then; it is the story now. This is what we do.

Which brings me to the Monarch butterfly. North American Monarchs are famous for their continent-spanning migrations. The eastern population mostly migrates south to Mexico and parts of Florida. The Western population flies to coastal sites in California as well as Mexico. It takes three generations of Monarchs to make the roundtrip journey. Why do North American Monarchs migrate in the first place? Scientists are still not sure. Monarchs elsewhere on the planet don’t migrate.

Monarchs are thought to have evolved in Central America over a million years ago. Their longevity means that the species survived at least eight glacial epochs during their time on Earth AND have been around longer than modern humans.

Sadly, as with many species on the planet, North American Monarchs are now dealing with the same pressures we have subjected to many other lifeforms over the centuries, because … that is what we do.

Their steep decline in North America is alarming. In Mexico, the eastern population’s overwintering number from last winter was about 45 million, compared to 250 million just 25 years ago. The Western population was down to 2,000 from 1.2 million just 24 years earlier.

What are we doing to cause this decline? Lots of things: GMO crops resistant to herbicides used to kill weeds which kill milkweed, the only plant on which Monarchs will lay their eggs; long-term drought along their migratory routes and habitat loss at their overwintering sites in Mexico, the result of illegal logging in sanctuary areas. Our rapidly changing climate also features prominently.

Although Monarchs have been able to weather climate change in the past, the rapidity of change now is another thing entirely. Monarchs are among 450 butterfly species whose Western U.S. populations have been steadily dropping for the last 40 years, according to research recently published in the journal Science. The paper concludes that warmer autumns are a significant contributor to this decline. Furthermore, it’s not enough to preserve open space, create butterfly gardens and in the case of Monarchs, plant milkweed.

The good news for Monarchs, such as it is, comes from other newly published research which noted that despite the jaw-dropping decline of Western US Monarchs observed in their historical overwintering sites, “... large populations of monarchs were found breeding in San Francisco and Los Angeles areas ...” Normally, Monarchs don’t breed at that time of year and not in those locations. The author stated that "It seems that Monarchs are evolving or adapting, likely to the changing climate, by changing their breeding patterns."  The author thought that the Monarchs could be adapting and doing it quickly.

The article also stated that Monarchs in Australia saw precipitous population declines in the 1970s. However, the species did not go extinct, it just adapted. Furthermore, this result occurred without any overt attempt at preservation, since Monarchs are not native to Australia. That’s the good news.

The bad news?

According to a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) life on Earth is being challenged in ways not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The authors stated that “Nature is under siege [and that] most biologists agree that the world has entered its sixth mass extinction event.” The paper concluded that “… a biodiversity crisis is accelerating as the planet’s human population grows, increasingly exacerbated by unprecedented recent climate changes and other anthropogenic stressors. Time is not on our side, and urgent action is needed on behalf of nature.”

The beautiful, delicate Monarch may be able to dodge the extinction bullet, but that may end up being cold comfort in the grand scheme of things.

Published in the Village News, June 4th, 2021

Monday, April 26, 2021

Think Circular not Linear

I have some T-shirts that I probably got over 20 years ago. I don’t replace my blue jeans until the knees are worn out (which for some would be a fashion statement) When I was a kid, I used to patch them up with denim from even older jeans. In the 70s, that was an OK thing to do.

I try not to buy clothes unless I really need them, which maybe makes me unusual (or just a typical American male?). Even so, I think I still have more clothes than I need when I look in my closet.

Why am I telling you about my sartorial deficiencies? 

What inspired this column were studies done by Patagonia, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the United Nations and others which estimate that the amount of clothing manufactured worldwide doubled between 2000 and 2015, but the number of times an item was worn has actually decreased by 36%. Clothing is considered disposable. Worldwide, over $500 Billion in perfectly good clothing is thrown away each year, one garbage-truck every second.  73% of clothing ends up landfilled or incinerated. By any measure – this is an insane waste.

$500 Billion is just the retail price. Then you have to consider the factors like raw material to make the fabrics, the dyes, the energy to manufacture the clothing, the transportation costs. Environmental impacts, detailed in a peer-reviewed post in Climate Feedback, include “’ . . . intensive water use, water pollution through dying and textile production, and pesticide and herbicide pollution through the agricultural production of cotton. Microplastics, which are shed primarily from synthetic textiles during washing, are also polluting the oceans, potentially negatively impacting human health and natural ecosystems.”

According to the study, “total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, at 1.2 billion metric tons annually, are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined” which is between 8 and 10% of global annual emissions.

So, what’s the solution? A rethink of the whole textile and fashion industry: “Making Fashion Circular”. The three components of this concept are 1 -design products to be used more, 2 – make them in a way “to be made again” and 3 - make them from safe, recyclable or renewable material.

“Used more” means “manufactured to last”. Garments should be easier to repair and users should have the ability to maintain their purchases.  You can extend this concept to renting instead of owning clothing.

“Made to be made again” means that garments should be made to be easily disassembled, allowing material reuse, remanufacture, recycling and ultimately, composting. The fashion and textile business would need to support the infrastructure to make this process happen.  Governments would also have to support this concept via regulation, policies and promotion of the recycling infrastructure.

“Made from safe, recyclable or renewable material” means textiles do not contain or are made from hazardous materials which can make their way into the environment. The manufacturing process, supply chain and associated technologies would focus on optimizing resources and minimizing waste, including use of recycled material.

This transition would require a partnership of both the fashion business and government, a lot of innovation, “transparency and traceability” and of course, money, also known as “investment”.

But as I think about it - why stop with clothing? The circular model could apply to cars, electronics, appliances and most any other consumer good you can think of.

Our modern material economy is linear. Raw material to product to waste. The manufacturer has no responsibility once the product leaves the factory. That’s up to us consumers. In this linear model, resources to make stuff are considered infinite.  Places to dispose of them as well. The problem is, they aren’t.

A circular economy would be material to product to material until the material could no longer be used. Waste would be minimized. Manufacturers would be on the hook to work with government to recycle products, and vice versa. On the flip side, manufacturers would get a head start on the fabrication process because they would not have to start with raw material, they’d just have to reprocess what they’d already made before.

We would no longer be “consumers”, we would be “users”. We would be part of the process, but so would businesses and governments.

A circular economy is an alien concept, but with the world’s population at 7.8 billion today and 10.9 billion by 2100, and everyone wanting the kind of lifestyle we Americans take for granted, a linear economy is no longer an option.  It’s not sustainable. 

Published in the Village News, April 23, 2021

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Freezing in the Dark

 Minot, ND, has brutal winters with temperatures of twenty below for days on end, before adding in the wind chill. Interesting thing about Minot and the rest of North Dakota, it’s rare that they lose power for more than an hour or so when it gets that cold. Strain on the grid can lead to rolling black outs, but total grid failure? No (Full disclosure, my son is stationed at Minot AFB).

The reasons are several: North Dakota power plants and gas pipelines are hardened against cold weather; its electric grid is part of the Eastern Interconnect, which is regulated by the Federal Government; interstate electric grids have to meet certain standards, like being able to operate in cold weather; and the interconnect allows North Dakota to get power from elsewhere in the country if needed.

Texas, as I am sure you have heard by now, doesn’t want to be regulated by the Federal Government, so most of its grid has no connection to the rest of the country. No regulations, no standards. No dependency on anyone else. It’s Texas after all. Had the state been connected, the power outages might have still occurred, but the grid probably would not have almost collapsed.

Also keep in mind that contrary to assertions by Governor Abbot, it wasn’t the Texas wind turbine shut downs which lead to the electric grid collapse, it was frozen gas line valves and infrastructure failures at nuclear power plants.

The disaster Texas experienced last month also happened in 2011, yet Texas did nothing to prepare for this one. To quote Winston Churchill, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Then there were all the burst water pipes, both in homes and below the streets, not only in Texas, but in many locales across the Deep South. It’s routine in the South for residential water pipes to be routed through uninsulated attics and municipal water pipes to be laid above what we hardy New Englanders would consider the frost line.

If the world is warming up, why does the subtropical US need to be prepared for cold snaps as brutal as the one last month?

Relative to the rest of the planet, the Arctic is warming much faster. It still gets extremely cold in the winters, because well, it’s the Arctic after all. With a warming planet, the polar vortex, a 600-mile wide low pressure area that sits above the North Pole, periodically destabilizes. When it does, the jet stream, the high altitude fast moving winds which circle the planet, weaken as well. Loops and waves appear in the jet stream, which allows cold air to “leak” out of the Arctic and spread south. This winter’s vortex breakdown was predicted by a European weather forecast team last October.

An unstable jet stream causes problems in other seasons. A wave or loop in the jet stream can stop moving, causing areas of high and low pressure to stay in place. If a high pressure system doesn’t move in the summer, the stagnant warm air can suck the water out of the soil leading to drought and cause persistent heat waves as well. Large storms systems skirt the edges of a jet stream loop, leading to more frequent torrential rainfalls and consequent flooding.

We are seeing more and more of what researchers call unstable weather. Not all of it can be directly tied to our warming world, according to scientists who are studying the links between extreme weather events and climate change, but a lot of it is.

Last month’s cold disaster provides a few lessons.

First, the Southern US is not prepared for cold spells any more than it is for the increasing frequency of extended droughts, floods, or heat waves.

Second, governments at all levels, national to municipal, need to plan for the kind of weather we have now and not prepare based on weather data from even a 25 years ago. We need to upgrade our infrastructure, which has been sorely neglected for decades.

Third, we need to remember that people AND governments have to depend on each other.

Former Texas Governor (and former Secretary of Energy) Rick Perry said that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Irony is that Texas was glad to have FEMA in “their business” after last month’s disaster. I wonder how many Texans Mr. Perry speaks for these days.

Fourth, the conveniences of our modern world, like reliable electric power when we flick a light switch and clean running water when we open a faucet, should not be taken for granted. Our society depends on these basic services. When they stop and the government cannot effectively step in to fill the gap, people find out that the veneer of civilization can be pretty thin.

That folks, is not a good thing.

Published in the Village News, 03/12/2021

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Where had all the plastic gone?

 Today, I continue to discuss assertions made entitled “Apocalypse Never” by environmental policy commentator Michael Schellenberger, whose main thesis is that our environmental problems are not really that bad.

Another topic he discussed was the impact of plastics in our environment. His main thesis is that plastics degrade quickly in sunlight (a phenomenon called photo-dissociation), because ultraviolet light breaks down the bonds that hold plastic together. 

 I will note that “degrade” is not the same as “disappear”. Plastic stuff becomes microplastic stuff. Plastics never go away, they just break apart and become small - less than 5 mm (1/8 inch), or even less, a few microns, where they become known as nanoplastics.

 Schellenberger cited a scientific study where researchers found 95% less plastic at the ocean’s surface than they expected. Where had all the plastic gone? It was broken down to microplastics onto which small plankton and bacteria attached, making the particles weigh enough to sink to the ocean floor – problem solved. Turtles with straws up their noses, sea birds and whales with stomachs containing plastic junk are an excuse for alarmism, not real problems.

 Not so fast. The amount of plastic on the seafloor is now estimated at almost 200 MILLION tons. The amount of plastic entering the oceans every year is roughly 8 million tons, equivalent to 90 aircraft carriers. Most of it will break down into microplastic or nanoplastic particles. Estimates are that about 5.25 trillion microplastic particles now float in the oceans from the surface to the depths.

 But it is only in the last few years that detailed ecological risk assessments of microplastics in the oceans or coastal areas have been performed. A risk assessment determines at what concentration a substance becomes a risk to human or ecological health. 

 One study I read found no discernible risk to life in the open ocean at current concentrations, with the caveat that the concentrations are increasing and will exceed levels which will cause problems for ocean life by mid-century. In some coastal environments, those levels have already been exceeded.

 Another study stated that microplastics can be small enough to pass into the bloodstream through the intestines, even as larger particles pass through the gut undigested. Microplastics become more and more concentrated in body tissues as they pass up the food chain from plankton to crustaceans to fish to seabirds. Limited evidence suggests that microplastics are a threat to marine animals. “Suggest” is not the same as “unequivocally demonstrate” so therein hangs the problem.

 But what about us? As microplastics are now ubiquitous in the environment, we ingest about one credit card’s worth every week or half a pound every year, the equivalent of about three smartphones. 

 Eating credit cards like Doritos, even with guacamole, goes under the heading of really bad idea, but are microplastic particles actually harmful to us? We don’t know for sure.

 Research into the toxicity of microplastics is just getting started. We do not know the effects of plastics on the human body in detail because we haven’t gone looking for them in detail. 

 Plastics are more than just the polymers. They contain several thousand other chemicals, even flame retardants. In the environment, plastics adsorb toxic man made chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, bisphenol A, and organochlorine pesticides, all of which go under the heading of “really bad for you”. We get exposed to these chemicals every day, but microplastics present a new pathway into the human body.

 Once very small microplastics are ingested, they can pass into the lymph system, and get deposited in the liver, penetrate the placenta and blood-brain barrier and the lungs. Once there, the particles will accumulate. Plastic particles can cause inflammation and inflammation underlies many human ailments. Cause and effect? We don't know.

 Initial studies in labs indicate that microplastics are indeed toxic to lung, liver and brain cells, but that’s a far cry from fully understanding their interactions within the human body. As one article stated, “It could be that, as with many pollutants, there is a threshold beyond which microplastics become toxic to humans or other species.” We just don’t know what it is yet.

 So, what are we to do? Every article and study I read had the same recommendations: First, fully understand what micro and nanoplastics do to wildlife and humans. Second, stop putting plastics into the environment. Third, start using less plastic, much less. I know, easier said than done. 

 We are in a situation where we have absence of evidence. That is not the same as evidence of absence. Ignorance is not an excuse for inaction.

“It is also within our power to change cultures so that litter created on land does not become an environmental hazard in our oceans, both now and for future generations." 

- Jason Hall-Spencer, PhD, Marine Biology

Published in the Westborough Village News, 11/14/2020